The importance of being Nyla
Late in life, a Sacramento man begins womanhood
“You’re doing awesome, Nyla,” says the nurse in the bright-red scrubs reassuringly.
Squeezing her eyelids together beneath oversized red safety goggles, Nyla grimaces at the painful sensations in her underarm—pain that she compares to the repeated slap of a rubber band.
“I’m trying to take deep breaths,” she replies with a hint of uneasiness in her voice.
The fluorescent lights shine above them, and a mild burning smell lingers as the nurse maneuvers around her, slowly running a mechanism that looks a lot like a price scanner over each of Nyla’s underarms. It beeps every few seconds.
No, Nyla is not in a clothing store, and she’s not being scanned for a bar code.
Actually, each beep of the device indicates the emission of a laser beam, first absorbed by the dark pigment granules (melanin) in Nyla’s underarm hair and then converted into heat, singeing each hair down to the follicle.
This is Nyla’s second treatment of six for laser-hair removal on her underarms—and just the beginning of her transformation from a man to a woman.
It was a decades-long and grueling struggle with guilt and shame before Nyla realized that she was happiest living as a female. “I wish I wasn’t an old lady now. I wish I was younger,” she says.
She sits now with her ankles femininely crossed, wearing a plaid, red cap-sleeved blouse tucked into a ruffled denim skirt, with earrings and a red, curly-haired wig.
A Sacramentan for more than 10 years, notoriously known for her bold—often pink—fashion statements, ever-changing wigs, shopping bags and bubbly personality, 57-year-old Nyla used to be Neil.
“Like it or not, I’m still a pretty boy,” she confesses jokingly, although she still prefers being referred to as a “she.”
The Jewish Italian was born an only child on October 20, 1948, as Neil Bruce Angelin in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Nyla spent her early childhood growing up in Manhattan with her mother, who divorced her father when Nyla was only 7.
Because of the divorce and other complications, Nyla’s mother was constantly switching her in and out of both private and boarding schools away from home by the age of 12. It was around this time that Nyla began feeling differently about herself.
“I wanted to dress up and be a girl,” she remembers.
Throughout high school, she began to secretly buy women’s clothing, making up stories that they were her girlfriend’s or the maid’s when discovered and questioned by her mother.
She struggled with the secret. “I would throw out clothes out of tremendous guilt,” Nyla explains, adding that such “purging” is common among cross-dressers and transvestites.
After high school, she says, she earned a degree in commercial and portrait photography from the New York Institute of Photography. She says she then became an apprentice for a prestigious photographer in New York.
“I was everywhere,” she says with a grin.
She remembers photographing Audrey Hepburn, Twiggy, Cary Grant, Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin and others at press conferences, movie openings and lavish parties.
But being surrounded by gorgeous women only fed Nyla’s desire to become a woman herself.
“I’d think, ‘God, they’re so beautiful.’ And I’d so want to be them,” she says.
Despite these feelings, Nyla continued dating women and had a few serious relationships, although she never married. Still, she would dress up in secret, sometimes wearing her girlfriends’ clothing when they weren’t home.
One relationship after another, Nyla never seemed to be what women wanted. She wasn’t masculine enough, and eventually she even began going on dates in leather pants and blouses.
It was not until around the age of 47, after moving to San Francisco, that she finally went out in public dressed completely as a woman, with the help of a female friend.
“I was a little nervous, but I felt so good to be in a dress,” she remembers.
Shortly afterward, she started going out dressed as a woman by herself, and for the first time she began dating men. At first she was revisited by guilt.
But eventually, she started to think, “It’s OK to want to be with guys. The more feminine I get, the more I want to be with guys.”
It was also around this time that Nyla’s mother first saw her dressed as a woman.
“She started to cry. Not extreme, not loud. But I could see her, looking at me in horror and looking at me with disgust. It hurt. It hurt a lot,” she remembers.
Seeing her mother’s reaction, Nyla knew she couldn’t tell her father.
Before, just knowing that Nyla was moving to San Francisco, she remembers him asking, “Why do you want to move to San Francisco? You know what’s there, don’t you? The homos.”
“So I just said, ‘I don’t have the kind of parents that are cool with me.’” To this day, her father does not know about her female lifestyle.
Perhaps it’s Nyla’s unique sense of style—bright pinks and reds, miniskirts, big hoop earrings and a different wig for each day—but it’s been 10 years now since Nyla moved to Sacramento from San Francisco, and she has become one of Midtown’s more popular inhabitants.
“People are always telling me how they’ve seen me around for years,” she says.
She’s also been a loyal customer to a number of local boutiques around town.
“Oh, gosh, I’ve known Nyla for at least 10 years,” says Prevues worker May Ayres.
“She’s very pleasant, very enjoyable. [She] keeps us all going.”
Unfortunately, she’s also had occasional encounters with bigotry. She recalls an incident in which a little girl was staring at her in a restaurant, and the girl’s father exclaimed, “Jenny, get away from that man. Don’t you know it’s a man in a dress?!”
But Nyla has more pressing issues on her mind. Since she’s moved here, with the help of her therapist, Nyla has decided to become a woman not only mentally, but also physically.
About five years ago, she paid to get permanent eye and lip liner and shaded eyebrows, forcing herself to realize that “now there’s no going back.”
Nyla’s female name was conceived at a salon in San Francisco, suggested by a worker, since it begins with “N” like her real name, Neil.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s interesting.’ And then I realized that New York [and] L.A. [spells] N-Y-L-A. I never thought of that. Because I’m from New York, I’m coast to coast,” she explains proudly.
Once she completes the laser-hair removal on her underarms, she hopes to treat her face, legs and back, each requiring $900 for six treatments. She also is waiting for open enrollment at Kaiser Permanente, which will allow her therapist to recommend that as a Medi-Cal patient, she receive female hormones (progesterone and estrogen) that she will take for the rest of her life.
And someday, when she has saved enough money, she wants breast implants and a sex-change surgery, which could cost around $16,000 total.
In the past, Nyla volunteered for Sacramento nonprofit WEAVE (Women Escaping A Violent Environment) for about two years, hoping to get a paying position. But finding jobs that accept her is difficult. Her other concern is finding “the right guy.”
“I’ve tried to go to some of the gay bars. … But I noticed most of the gay bars are hard-core. You’ve gotta be a guy, or you’ve gotta be a lesbian. But if you’re a transsexual, who are you with?” she explains.
Meanwhile, she spends her days house-hunting, grocery shopping, clothes shopping, visiting with friends and, most importantly, living a feminine lifestyle.
Every morning, she changes out of her nightgown; showers; puts on baby powder, moisturizers and sunscreens; and shaves her face. Not a big fan of makeup, she claims, “It’s the clothes that are everything.”
“If I were to be like one rock singer, it would be Cyndi Lauper. … She’s got this very trashy look about her. It’s very sexy and appealing,” she says.
Maybe with the right wig.