“Many times I felt happy and sad at the same time. I was not a man, not a woman, I was something in between.” Leonora Kurzeja

“My mother told me later, that when I was little she already found me quite ‘a funny boy’.” Leonora Kurzeja

The first time Leonora realized you can change your sex was during her teenage years: “I was sitting at the dinner table when I overheard my father saying: ‘but this can’t be a woman, it’s a man!’ As I looked over my shoulder I saw the transsexual actress Amanda Lear on the television screen”. Although it was a revelation to Leonora, who was a boy at the time, she didn’t do too much with it: “It was something on television, in a world far away and so different from mine.”

Wild West Berlin
The world Leonora Kurzeja (52) grew up in was indeed very different from the Hollywood shows that were broadcasted into her living room. “I was born in Tempelhof – West Berlin – in the 1960’s. In a divided city. I was just a baby when the Wall was built. Unlike many people, my parents decided to stay in Berlin after 1945, war or no war, wall or no wall.” It was a turbulent time, with many protest movements, violent outbursts and anarchism.

‘Wild West Berlin’ Leonora calls it. “We were convinced the generation of our parents messed up and that we were smarter. We would change things for the better!” Leonora started playing the guitar and formed a band with high school friends. “Music gave us the opportunity to escape this world. A world where every person seemed to be against the other.”

But it was not only the city that was divided. Leonora, who grew up in a fairly conservative family in a time with little knowledge about transsexuality, was confused. “One time, in school, I looked up the word ‘transvestite’ (of the word transsexual she hadn’t heard by then), and it said: ‘someone who likes to wear clothes of the other sex.’ That was not was I was feeling, I just wanted to be me, a woman, not to dress up like one.”

By then Leonora had never shared her deepest secret. “It was a time where everyone wore unisex clothes. There was an atmosphere of free sexual ethics. That I had long hair and different clothes didn’t necessarily show I actually felt like a woman.”

Something in between
During the seventies and eighties West Berlin had become the center of big squatters movements that occupied many buildings in Berlin. Leonora was disappointed. “We were supposed to be different from our parents, use no violence, be smart and better, but it turned out we were none of all that.” Leonora decided to pack her bags and escape the city for a while.

But it was not just Berlin Leonora was running away from. Leaving Berlin was also a journey to find out who she really was. “Many times I felt happy and sad at the same time. I was not a man, not a woman, I was something in between.”

At end of the 1990’s Leonora made the decision to get a gender reassignment surgery. She was in her late forties, had broken up with the woman she had a son with and struggled with alcohol abuse. “I felt worthless, a failure.” Two years of counseling helped Leonora get rid of this negative self-image. She chose to get an operation. The decision came as relieve. “I could finally become who I really was.”

Tolerant and multicultural
Of course Leonora was scared of the reactions she would get. She knew her family wouldn’t approve, even though her mother was not surprised when she told her: “My mother told me later that when I was little, she already found me quite ‘a funny boy’. Sensitive and gentle. One time she even caught me dressing up in her clothes. My father got so angry then that he made me cut  my long hair.”

But out on the streets Leonora never felt unaccepted. Already 27 years she lives in Rixdorf, part of todays Neukölln – a district known for its many immigrants. “One time I was walking down Sonnenallee, wearing a mini skirt, on my way to a party. As I passed a water pipe cafe, about thirty Arabic men looked up – a bit surprised. They mumbled.. Then one shouted amused, ‘hey tuttie fruttie!’ It was amusing. We all let each other be in this neighborhood.”

To the question if she is happy today, Leonora answers: “In one way or another I’m happy, yes. I’m very thankful to all the people that supported me along the way, my friends, the doctors. I’m proud off all the things I’ve experienced, the journey’s I’ve made, the things I’ve seen. And I’m thankful for the city I live in, the freedom it offers and the possibilities it gives to discover yourself.” And then, in the words of J.F. Kennedy, she concludes: “Ich bin ein Berliner!” Quickly Leonora corrects herself; “Berlinerin. Ich bin eine Berlinerin”.

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