The recent death of Sandy Dee, co-owner of Pet’s Express in Cutchogue, was a terrible loss not only for her friends, but our whole community.
Six years ago Sandy and I taped and put together her oral history. I had thought it was going to be a story of a woman who felt she had been born in the wrong body, and yes, that was part of it, but it turned out to be an incredible tale of survival and success.
Sandy had spent her early years in an impoverished family ruled by her mother and “enforced” by her uncle. Her father she described as ‘simple’. Sandy was the third of ten children. Sandy said the second child “was born with Downs syndrome – they called it mongoloid then … (the eighth), a surviving twin, had too much oxygen and became braindamaged.”
“My mother’s brother and his family lived with us. He was ten months younger than her and she was incredibly close to him – yet he was everything she hated in life. He was gay and she thought all gays should be burned at the stake. He had been arrested for soliciting, but she just blocked it out of her head, and wouldn’t face it. The love between my mother and her brother was beyond anything I’ve ever seen. His parents had set up a marriage for him but the wife was semi-retarded, couldn’t read or write, and four of their six children were retarded.”
When Sandy was very young her parents were working, but by 1950 this had changed. Sandy’s mother was ill, both families moved to Brooklyn and lived together in a two bedroom apartment. Sandy said, “It was in a ghetto above a grocery store, roaches running allover -.oh please! For 19 people! And we ate out of tin plates, had no beds, slept on cardboard and lived in poverty and filth.” At twelve, Sandy spent most of her time in the park and became a member of a girl gang called “The Satans”. Life was not safe and Sandy was sometimes beaten up on the street.
When Sandy was fourteen, and no adult of either family working, her mother took her out of school to sell greeting cards on the streets with two of her “retarded” cousins to support the families. She did this for three years, in rain or snow, six days a week. At seventeen Sandy finally quit to get a job in an all-male factory in Merrick, and her aunt was put out to sell the greeting cards.
Three years later, Sandy fell in love with a neighbor, a woman who was pregnant and physically abused by her “schizophenic” husband. Sandy took her to Riverhead and for nine years they lived together and brought up the child. Years later this woman, then on her fifth husband, said to Sandy, “The thing I regret was the close bond we had, the sharing we had together. I can find sex, I can find a husband, but I can’t find that.”
When Sandy was thirty, her mother died a terrible death of cancer (untreated because she wouldn’t have a doctor) and the remaining children, now aged 18 to 34, were in despair. They had been kept at home and not allowed to have jobs. Sandy rescued them, moved them in with her then found jobs, an apartment and lives for them.
Two years later, Sandy was working in a factory in Riverhead when she met Doris. They became partners, lived and worked together. A little later Sandy met her life-partner, Ellen. They have been together for 25 years.
From a very early age Sandy knew she was born into the wrong body. “Always, always from the time I can first remember, I felt myself to be a guy. I think I first felt I was born into the wrong body was maybe twelve. I felt like God made a mistake here, because I didn’t have the feelings I’m supposed to have. I had my first love affair, and people would be pointing at me and saying ‘you’re a lesbian, you should have your head cut off and stuff like that.”
At one point Sandy thought it would be better to be dead; to end it by jumping over the railing onto the Exresssway because her mother hated “gays” and was abusive to Sandy about her looks and life. Later, when Sandy came to visit and bring money for the family, her mother would not let the other children see Sandy. Sandy had many sad and funny stories about people, even policemen, thinking she was a man. “1 should have been a male. I would have jumped at the chance to to live in that role. But Ellen likes me the way I am and that’s what matters.”
Sandy was an incredibly generous, special person who had the courage to make a wonderful life by loving and caring for others. She is missed by everyone who knew her. Her interview by Anne MacKay in pdf format can be found at the Digital Transgender Archive by clicking here.
A remembrance written by Anne MacKay