Transsexual Plays Watchdog Role in San Bruno PoliticsBy Bill Workman
Alice Barnes of San Bruno has been spit on, chased out of a coin laundry by a teenager wielding a broken bottle, pulled off her bicycle, and had rocks tossed at her while she waited for a bus.
All because she's a transsexual.
But Barnes, 51, has not let those incidents, while dismaying and bordering on hate crimes, deter her from her self-appointed role as a watchdog of San Bruno civic affairs and booster of improvements for her Belle Air neighborhood, one of the blue-collar city's oldest.
Unlike many transsexuals who prefer not to draw attention to themselves, Barnes is determined to live her life to the fullest as an outspoken female who reconciled her long struggle with a male body by having sex-change surgery.
That life includes, she says, keeping San Bruno City Hall and other Peninsula government agencies on their toes.
Four years ago, after the former "Andrew X" had legally changed his name to Alice Barnes and had begun taking female hormones to prepare for a sex-change operation, she ran for the San Bruno City Council.
She made a surprisingly good showing, finishing sixth in a field of 10 candidates, with 984 votes. "I had always wanted to run for public office, and I finally did, but fortunately for everyone, I didn't win," Barnes said.
Nonetheless, Barnes said the votes she got had a special meaning for her. Two weeks after the election, when she flew to Thailand for her gender-change operation, "I wasn't alone. I had nearly one thousand people who thought enough about me to put an X next to my name for councilwoman."
Since then, she has become a fixture at City Hall meetings. Among other things, she has successfully campaigned to make sidewalks in her neighborhood user-friendly for people who use wheelchairs and to install stop signs at Tanforan Shopping Center exits for pedestrian safety.
In recent months, Barnes has taken on the San Mateo County Convention and Visitors Bureau, which she says does not do enough to boost tourism in San Bruno to warrant the city's annual membership fee.
Coincidentally, her complaints about the convention bureau have put her at odds with another transsexual, Marcia Chapdelaine, the bureau's president and chief executive officer, who underwent her sex- change operation two years ago.
Barnes makes no secret that she and Chapdelaine are not on good terms. But, she says, their disagreement has to do with taxes, not transsexuality. "It doesn't make any difference who or what is in charge in this case; the convention bureau just doesn't pay back San Bruno what it's giving," she said.
Meanwhile, San Bruno officials who don't want to be caught unawares when she shows up for a council meeting have made a habit of reading her Web page for San Bruno B.A.R.T. (Belle Air Residents for Truth), a group she organized to monitor the effect of the Bay Area Rapid Transit extension to San Francisco International Airport.
The acronym is her joke on the transit agency, long a Barnes target. Transit issues, including Caltrain and the cost of the planned BART station behind Tanforan, are one of her big preoccupations.
"I take Alice very seriously," says City Manager Frank Hedley. "She's someone who wants to contribute to the community, and she makes an effort to do the right thing." Hedley says he doesn't always agree with the civic gadfly's conclusions on issues, "but she has her ear to the pavement and is out there doing her research."
She also has her eyes on the pavement, it seems. Out for a walk at Tanforan last month, Barnes and her 15-year-old son noticed cracks in the ground floor of a multistory parking garage behind the shopping center. Suspecting that it might have something to do with vibrations from nearby BART excavation, Barnes alerted City Hall.
A former newspaper reporter in Florida in the 1960s, Barnes also let the media know of her discovery.
The media calls didn't ingratiate her with BART officials, who said they were already aware of the cracks at the time and had temporarily halted work on nearby trench work while measures were taken to prevent further settlement of the garage.
"When you don't please her, she tends to attribute your motives to conspiracy theories," said BART spokesman Dave Madden. "But she is genuinely interested in the BART project and wants it to be the best system she can have."
When Barnes talks of construction projects, she comes at them with the knowledge of a former contracting officer at the U.S. Navy's San Bruno facility, a civilian post she held as a male at the time she finally decided to live as a woman.
Her decision was not welcomed by her bosses or by many co-workers, says Barnes. She said her transition after surgery was made so difficult by disputes over whether she should be allowed to use the ladies' rest room and other gender-related issues that she became clinically depressed and underwent psychiatric treatment.
She is now retired on a disability pension and continues to require anti-depressant medication. The stresses of her transformation to a female have been a lot more than she bargained for. This included a break with the Catholic Church over whether she should be allowed to continue to teach catechism classes, something she had done for years as a male.
"I never expected it to be as difficult as it became," says Barnes, who began cross-dressing when she was about 7 years old and secretly continued to do so until 1969, when her mother died, shortly before "Andrew" was married.
"I swore off doing it because I thought God was punishing me with my mother's death," Barnes says. "But I soon realized that it takes more than a mother dying to fix somebody like I was." She is still married to the mother of her three children, although the couple have been separated for more than a decade.
Barnes, who is writing a family history and has filled more than a dozen binders with research and jottings, grew up in Lewiston, Maine, one of 16 children of a French Canadian immigrant couple who ran a popular diner.
"There were nine boys and seven girls," she said. "I like to tell people now that I made it an even eight and eight."
Copyright ©1999 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 08/19/1999.