In September 2005, Madison County attorney Robert Zenker was unraveling. He drank himself to sleep most nights, couldn't bring himself to eat and was contemplating suicide. At 5 feet 8 inches tall, he weighed 136 pounds. His coworkers wondered if he was ill.
When Zenker was home, alone, he wore high heels and a skirt, perfume and makeup. Those moments brought him peace, Zenker says, but only briefly. They didn't erase a sense of impending doom that had followed him through life.
Zenker, now 54, grappled with his sexual identity for more than three decades, hiding his secret from his wife and children for fear he'd be called a pervert.
In 2007, he had sex reassignment surgery.
In January, Roberta Zenker published her memoir TransMontana, detailing her evolution from what she calls a "right wing, Republican-voting, queer bashing conservative" to the woman who has become an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. She recounts a painful childhood in Columbus, Ohio, as a skinny boy fascinated by women's clothes, long hair, soft voices and graceful movement. He was an altar boy who played basketball, baseball and football but hated the locker rooms, hated his body and prayed for relief.
At 13, he started drinking and doing drugs. That took care of his embarrassment and fear, Zenker says. By the time he started law school, in 1989, at the University of Montana, he'd become good at hiding his femininity.
"I think you hear about it all the time," she says, "about closeted queer people who... as part of their inability to be honest even with themselves, become this opposing force. I certainly lived that life and believed it, too."
Zenker was appointed Madison County Attorney in 1997. Around that time, he also discovered the internet. In transgender chat rooms, he found a community of people like him. For the first time in his life, he didn't feel so alone.
He kept his secret from his family until 2006, when his wife, Peggy, came home from work early one day, Zenker says, and found him furiously scrubbing off his makeup while four boxes of another woman's clothes lay on their bed. He confessed, in tears, and knew there was no going back.
In 2006, Robert became Roberta and resigned as Madison County attorney. In 2007, he underwent the surgery. The first words Roberta heard when she awoke as a biological woman, Zenker says, were, "There she is."
"To have my mother recognize me as a female was amazing," she says.
It took 22 months after the surgery to find a job, Zenker says. She applied to Montana agencies and nonprofits, but, she says, it seemed they were worried about a backlash if they hired Montana's first transgender attorney.
Zenker is now a staff attorney for Disability Rights Montana, in Helena. She also takes every opportunity to advocate for LGBT rights. She volunteers for the Pride Foundation and testified before the Missoula City Council in 2010 in favor of the city's LGBT antidiscrimination ordinance. Last year, she testified before the Montana Legislature against efforts to nullify that ordinance. She's done hiding, she says.
In fact, she's on a first-name basis now with figures such as Montana's fire-and-brimstone pastor and social conservative Harris Himes. "It's sort of funny how he'll shake my hand in one moment," she says, "and in the next...say publicly that I'm an abomination and should be put to deathwhile I'm standing there."
Rather than argue with people like Himes, Zenker says, she prefers a subtler approach. "I don't see anything much to be gained in head-to-head confrontation. I'm not out there to fight or argue as much as I am to invite and try to persuade people."
Missoula activist Bree Sutherland, herself a trans woman, puts Zenker at the fore of an increasingly successful battle to gain equal rights in Montana, adding, "There's a lot more acceptance for trans people now than there was 10 years ago."
Coming out still can be dangerous, though. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, an LGBT advocacy group, transgender Americans in 2010 were twice as likely to be assaulted as non-trans people. Zenker's not deterred by that. She says she made a choice to come forward with her story in TransMontana so that other trans people don't feel like they have to hide.
"Nothing changes in a vacuum," she says. "It's one thing to decry the plight of LGBT people. But it's another thing to say, 'Hey, here I am.'"