It's an unusually bustling Monday morning at the cozy Tarpon Diner, and Julie Yoo is busy behind the grill. When she gets a moment between scrambling eggs or flipping hotcakes, she peers out of the kitchen with a weary, sweaty stare.
"Tough day?" someone asks her.
"Tough life," she mumbles, returning to the grill.
The last two months have been especially hard for Julie, the Tarpon Diner's owner and cook. The workaholic hasn't had a day off since March, even though business has been slowing down; the snowbirds have left, and construction has been blocking access to the diner's entrance on Pinellas Avenue in Tarpon Springs. And then there are the challenges of trying to present yourself as a sophisticated lady while running a greasy spoon.
She's had to learn to wear less makeup so it doesn't run (the kitchen gets hot). She's forgone high heels for more utilitarian sneakers. Julie's ad hoc fashion consultant (a waitress at the diner) advised her to save the cocktail dresses for nights out on the town. Recently, she ditched the blonde wig and let her own tresses show, receding hairline and all.
You'll have to forgive Julie — she is new to this whole woman thing. Because for the last 48 years of her life, Julie has been Jim — a sloppily dressed, quick-tempered guy from Allendale, Pa.
Going through gender transition in the workplace isn't easy; just ask former Largo city manager Susan Stanton, with whom Julie shares an electrolysist. And this is Tarpon Springs, home of Epiphany Days and a conservative population of Europeans and elderly folks. A town where rumors get around quickly, often circulated inside gathering spots like the Tarpon Diner.
"It's not the ideal place to try and do something like this," says Julie. "You'd have to be nuts to try to do it like this."
Still, despite the day-to-day struggles — sarcastic comments from customers, snickers from the school kids — Julie is finally beginning to reclaim her true self. Earrings and all.
"People think you just made this decision two weeks ago," Julie says, her large fingers (nails painted pink) delicately grasping a cigarette. "Some people think it's a decision you make on a vacation."
But like so many transgender folks, Julie has long struggled with the knowledge she was different. As a boy growing up with a stoic Hungarian father and three brothers, Jim knew to keep his true thoughts secret. He snuck away to wear his mother's clothes. He never pierced his ears, even when it was popular for men. When his father found a dress in his room and showed it to his friends, Jim laughed along with them. Nobody suspected anything awry with the brawny 6-footer, not even himself.
"I never admitted what was truly going on in my brain," Julie says.
There was a fiancée six years ago. Julie even revealed herself, and they desperately tried to make it work. But their engagement, like all the relationships with women before it, failed.
"That's when I started working towards being Julie," she says.
But acceptance never came easy. Her best friend quit speaking to her after she found out. Her brothers avoided her, except for the one who suggested she move back to Pennsylvania so a doctor could "fix" her.
"It seems the people closest to me have given me the most problem," she says, smiling but holding back tears. "You would think they would have a clue, but they don't understand."
Those she counted on the most failed her. But as Julie transitioned, a funny thing happened: Those she least expected to understand become her biggest cheerleaders.
Jim knew there was no way he could fully become Julie without including the diner; she'd been spending most of her time there since the former owners hired her in 2000 (three years later, she bought the establishment). As hormone treatments and electrolysis began to change Julie's physical characteristics, her therapist — Dr. Kathleen Farrell, a gender therapist who has worked with the transgender community since 1985 — suggested Julie introduce herself to the diner. But each time the date pushed closer, Julie backed down. Then, last spring, Susan Stanton came out to Largo and the world.
"She opened a lot of people's eyes to something that they never did understand," Julie says.
Sufficiently inspired, Julie told her staff what was going on and decided on a date: July 4. Independence Day.
She woke up an hour early to dress, picking out a pink shirt, black pants and dangly gold earrings. She took a deep breath and headed straight for the diner, which had been decorated with signs welcoming "Julie."
As customers strolled in, Julie ignored them, trying to hide in the open-air kitchen.
Some customers thought Jim was pulling a prank. Regulars whispered to waitresses, who explained Julie's new "life choice." But others didn't even notice. ("One of the ladies told a waitress, 'That girl you have back there does a better job than Jim did,'" Julie shares.)
Not all of Tarpon Diner's customers could accept Julie's transformation. A handful never returned after that first day. One customer attempted a short-lived campaign to convince other regulars to eat at another local diner.
But most stayed. After all, the food never changed.
In the back of the diner, three regulars sit drinking coffee, their finished breakfast plates stacked in front of them. Woody Daniels and Betty and Nel Jensen have been coming to the diner in its various incarnations since the '60s. They've become friends with all the owners including Jim and now Julie.
"As far as we're concerned, we adore Julie," Nel says. "We support her 100 percent."
That's the sentiment most regular customers share, even if they forget to use her proper pronoun.
"That's his business," says George Vinton, who has made the drive from New Port Richey to the diner every week for 10 years. "It doesn't change his ability to cook."
Vinton catches himself, "Her ability to cook."
Even Julie's employees say they prefer her to the quick-tempered Jim.
"Jim and I never got along — ever," waitress Cristy Strobele says. "When [Julie] told me, she was ready for a reaction of laughter or shock, but I was more relieved. It made me understand why she's been so miserable."
"I'm a lot calmer," Julie admits. "I'm not ranting and raving. ... I'm an emotional person now. The only emotion that ever came out of me [before] was anger."
Road construction, intolerant customers and the hot weather may have siphoned some business away, but on this Monday inside the Tarpon Diner, the slowdown is hardly noticeable. Most of the booths are full and the tables surrounded by jovial patrons. Julie isn't looking to attract the attention of national transgender advocates or CNN; running the Tarpon Diner and cooking a mean omelet is enough for her.
"Everything is just one day at a time," she says, adjusting her pink bandanna. "Sure, I have doubts: Is anybody ever going to accept me? Am I able to really pull this off? Am I ever going to blend in? I just got to build the self-confidence."
There is still a lot more Julie needs to resolve before her transformation is complete. She's not sure of her sexual orientation or how far she'll go with surgery. And she's still trying to develop some "style."
"I don't have the experience of a 40-year-old woman," she says. "I'm still learning."