Vicki Gray

In a home that reflects her world travels, Vicki Gray has many photos of Mimi. Married for 33 years, they supported each other through crises of health and identity. (Sun photo by Chiaki Kawajiri / June 22, 2003)

There is something a little unsettling about laying eyes on Vicki Gray for the first time. Her shoulders look too broad, her hands too thick. When she walks, her lanky arms move in prim arcs, as though limbs that swung loosely for a lifetime had been tamed.

But at 64, Vicki Gray is finally comfortable in her skin.

At times, she can seem like a kid parading around with a new toy, or a freed prisoner inhaling fresh mountain air, or a desert-island castaway devouring a cheeseburger that by some miracle washed ashore.

After a Sunday Episcopal service at her church in Northern California, a parishoner tells her, "I saw your picture in the paper." He is alluding to her public role in a fight over a power plant in her hometown of Vallejo. "You're famous."

Vicki laughs. "Some would say infamous," she says.

But back at the house she shared with her spouse of 30 years, her confidence falters. She trembles as she points to the photo of Mimi by the couch - dear Mimi, with those dimples, that smile.

"I'm sorry," Vicki says, pressing a tissue to her eyes. "People say it gets better. It doesn't."

They married in 1967, when Vicki was Lt. Victor Stephen Gray, Jr., a strapping Naval Academy graduate and decorated Vietnam veteran, a charmer who rose out of Bronx poverty to become a diplomat.

They traveled the globe together as Victor moved from embassy to embassy, in Poland, Germany, the Bahamas. They also navigated an inner world few would dare to imagine.

"It became more and more like play-acting to be Victor," Vicki says of those not-so-distant days. "I felt dishonest and deceitful not telling our friends, our relatives, the people we loved, who I really was."

Victor Gray knew he wanted a different future, but not if it meant sacrificing his past.

On June 21, 1958, a Navy telegram arrived at a crowded tenement in the Bronx. The family's oldest boy, 19-year-old Victor Gray, saw at once the new direction his life was about to take.

He had been accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy, plucked at the last minute from the waiting list. His parents had wanted him to go to Fordham University, close to home. Too close, Victor thought, to their world of dead-end factory jobs and small ambitions.

The Naval Academy was his ticket out. It would put him in a uniform, on ships that roamed the seas. With its macho sink-or-swim culture, it also offered something else: the chance to prove he was a man.

He was 4 when he first sneaked into his mother's bureau. He would take her underwear, slide under his bedcovers and try them on.

For this boy from blue-collar New York, women's undergarments became a refuge from the awkward trappings of manhood. Even then, he hated men's tweedy clothes, the tight collars, the ties. He hated the roughness he felt he had to project to play his role, to protect himself.

So he lost himself in fantasy. Hospitalized with rheumatic fever, Victor looked out of his window and day-dreamed as merchant ships massed on the East River. Some day, I'm going to get on a ship like that, he thought, and set out over the horizon.

Then, at age 13, at the corner newspaper stand, Victor understood something about himself for the first time.

"EX-G.I. BECOMES BLOND BOMBSHELL"