TAMPA — Some of Bobby Smith's friends and cousins didn't even know.
He was male, through and through — clothes, hair, mannerisms. He worked hard and paid the bills. He went to church each week. The love of his life, Kay, cooked dinner and cleaned their South Tampa home.
He lived confidently and no one questioned — for a while, not even his co-workers.
Then one day, he needed a hysterectomy.
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Smith's family and friends say "he."
It's not that the word "she" offended Smith. He didn't hide the truth if someone asked. He was physically always a woman.
But he was never really a girl.
"It's amazing, even in his baby pictures, he looks like a boy," said Smith's friend, Derald Gingerich. "I think if there was ever a case for a man inside a woman's body, it was Bobby."
He was born in Georgia. His father taught him to box. Smith begrudgingly wore dresses to school, then changed into overalls first thing after.
"I've always liked boy's clothes," Smith told the St. Petersburg Times in 1992. "I didn't go to college because I would have had to wear a dress. But I took a look in the mirror and said, 'You can go and make it big in the world, or you can be at peace with yourself and eat beans.'"
At 15, Smith kissed a girl for the first time. His mother hauled him to the doctor, called him crazy and forced him to take "female hog hormones" to make him right.
He wore men's briefs and cut his hair. He read The Well of Loneliness, by lesbian author Radclyffe Hall.
Smith was openly gay during a polarizing era. He endured humiliation and belittlement. In the late 1940s, police in the midst of a gay witch hunt picked him up and forced him to strip.
On Thanksgiving in 1959, he met a woman named Kay Thompson at a bar. Thompson wasn't sure if this skinny dance partner in slacks was a man or a woman. But she didn't care.
"I met Bobby and we just got along," said Thompson, 84.
They had a commitment ceremony in 1960 at the home of Smith's mother, who stayed in her room. Smith wore a suit and Thompson wore a gown. They had cake.
Smith worked as a dark room technician and photographer. They settled into Thompson's South Tampa home. They baked cakes at Christmas. Smith always turned out the lights in the kitchen to save money.
The couple positioned his and hers recliners in front of the television. They sat this way, always.
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They inspired many people in Tampa's gay community.
They marched on Washington and lobbied local council leaders. They mortgaged their house to help build Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa, a Christian church that welcomes gay people.
"We would not be where we are today... without Bobby's passion and dedication to his principles and his faith and his belief that everybody ought to be respected," said Phyllis Hunt, pastor of MCC Tampa.
Eventually, Thompson broke her hip and needed full care. Smith became exhausted and had some falls of his own. He had a strong heart but may have suffered ministrokes. He lost the will to live.
One night, Thompson said, Smith looked limp. She was in pain, but she got out of her chair. She stood next to him for the longest time, holding his hand.
On May 2, he died. He was 84.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8857.