A black sheep leads the quest to make sure everyone is all right.

Joyce Bergshoeff is a fast talker. Open and warm, the 48-year-old nurse and mother of three gushes the way proud mothers often do when describing their children. Growing up, her eldest child was “brilliant, very outgoing, a concert cellist.”

It is the present tense that is trickier.

Sometimes Bergshoeff forgets and uses “she” when talking about Elizabeth, who is transgender and prefers the pronoun “they.”

Now, she worries about how much stress her child is under. “She looks good on paper, but she feels like crap,” says Bergshoeff.

Elizabeth’s transition has been difficult for the entire family. Bergshoeff, who peppers her language with “dang” and “my goodness,” describes herself and her husband as “very conservative people.”

Before Elizabeth came out, Bergshoeff was often confused when she saw members of the transgender community depicted on television. “You’re like, ‘What is going on?’” she says.

She felt just as lost when Elizabeth came out three years ago. At first, when they joined the rainbow dorm at the University of California, Davis, Bergshoeff thought maybe they were gay.

“I don’t know,” she says, adding almost apologetically, “I didn’t know.”

Then she found out “it was a little more than that.”

She speaks rapidly, as if trying to hurry over the more painful parts. “So, they came out to us as transgender. Which was a huge surprise,” says Bergshoeff.

The scare

The way Elizabeth came out was with a suicide attempt.

At the time, Bergshoeff says she had no idea why Elizabeth had tried to harm themself. All she was thinking about was trying to rescue her child, who was in a hospital in Davis, 230 miles north of Visalia, where Bergshoeff lives, in California’s very conservative Central Valley.

Later, she learned that Elizabeth attempted suicide because they were scared their parents wouldn’t want them.

Panicked and lost, Bergshoeff reached out to her best friend, Shelley Reese. It was Reese who introduced Bergshoeff to the Visalia Pride Lions Club. Reese’s aunt, Diana Compo, and her aunt’s wife, Cheri Provancha are both club members. The couple told Bergshoeff about The Source LGBT+ Center, a Visalia non-profit serving the LGBTQ community.

But after one visit, Elizabeth didn’t feel like they fit in there.

Bobbie Mendez (right), President of Visalia Pride Lions Club, helped Joyce Bergshoeff (left) as her daughter, Elizabeth, transitioned to a new life in their hometown and with Lions. PHOTO BY IVAN DITSCHEINER

A second adolescence

Roberta “Bobbie” Jo Mendez is a 63-year-old woman who lived the majority of her life as a man. She is now the president of the Visalia Pride Lions Club.

She’s not exactly the type of person Bergshoeff expected to find in a Lions club.

“I thought it was just a bunch of old dudes getting together,” says Bergshoeff. “But it’s not. In this club anyway.”

Mendez adds with a laugh, “We’re still old.” She punctuates most of her statements with laughter, especially those about herself. Bergshoeff calls her a kindred spirit. The two share the same open and warm attitude. They also both switch effortlessly between humor and pain. There is an understanding between them that comes from a shared experience. That experience is the transition. While it wasn’t Bergshoeff herself who is transgender, when someone transitions, their family transitions as well, says Mendez.

Before coming out seven years ago and transitioning three years ago, Mendez was a husband and father. Her wife, Yolanda Lee Mendez, not only stayed with Mendez – they have been married 33 years – she also became a Lion two years ago. It’s hard to tell which accomplishment Mendez is more proud of.

While things are easier now, Mendez says transitioning was incredibly difficult, like a second adolescence.

“It’s very raw,” says Mendez. “You become 12 years old again because all your social norms just dropped, and you have to reevaluate everything that you do. How you are perceived. How you feel that you should be perceived.”

It is this phase that Elizabeth is still trying to work their way out of. Bergshoeff refers to all the back and forth – the trying out of different names, the constant questioning and uncertainty – as rubber banding. She talks about watching her eldest child, a former concert cellist who took calculus and linear algebra while still in high school, struggle to find a sense of belonging. The process has turned Bergshoeff upside down, she says, forcing her to undergo a “cultural shift” – a kind of transition of her own.

“I just ended up coming back.”

Mendez understands Bergshoeff ’s struggle well. They both once belonged to the same Mormon religion, which considers acting on homosexual urges a sin (having them is not) and elective sex re-assignment surgery possible cause for discipline. Bergshoeff still belongs to the church. Mendez does not. Mendez grew up in the nearby town of Hanford and still lives there. Over the years she tried leaving the Central Valley on several occasions. She joined the Army; she moved to Florida to start a restaurant.

“Every opportunity, I tried to get away,” she says. “But I just ended up coming back.”

One of the reasons she came back was family. It’s the same reason fellow Lion Diana Compo returned, despite having left at the first chance she could at 18, when she joined the Army. Compo knew that she was a lesbian, and she also knew that wasn’t something you wanted to be in the 1970s in Visalia.

“It was a very rigid community,” says Compo, who is 64, short, athletic, and a straight talker. “There was nothing here. Not only nothing here, nobody here that I could relate to.”

In her 20 years in the Army, working in communications, Compo lived in a number of different states and three foreign countries. But after she retired in 2011, she returned to Visalia with her wife, Cheri Provancha, for the same reason Mendez did – family.

A retired Army Colonel, Provancha was worried about moving to the Central Valley. “If you’re not into farming and that type of stuff, you are an outsider,” says Provancha, now 57. “They really don’t support diversity in this area; they haven’t.”

"I didn’t want to come anywhere where I had to live in silence... and I haven’t had to. And I think it’s because of being a Lion."

And yet it is here, in this city of 130,000, that the second Lions pride club was founded a decade ago. Compo and Provancha joined soon after moving to town.

“I didn’t want to come anywhere where I had to live in silence,” Provancha says. “And I haven’t had to. And I think it’s because of being a Lion.”

A bumpy path

Mendez’s path to the club and her own identity was a little bumpier. Over the years, Mendez worked different jobs – mainly in food service – raised two sons, and got into some trouble as a “very outward, boisterous, loud, obnoxious male.” She is still loud, she says, but a lot nicer. The change came after she transitioned and no longer had to hide who she really is by being hyper masculine.

“Just like Diana (Compo) I came from a very steadfast Hispanic family,” she says.

In the world Mendez grew up in, men ran the house-hold and had certain standards and duties they had to keep.

“It just seemed like no matter how I tried, I never was good enough,” says Mendez. “So, I said, ‘OK I’ll be over the top with it.’”

When she began to transition, she was full of self-doubt, questioning everything she did. Is this the way a woman stands? Is this how a woman walks? She felt like she was constantly being measured. Was she trans enough? Was she woman enough?

It was after she came out and before she transitioned that she started searching for the LGBTQ community. The Visalia Pride Lions Club was one of the first organizations she found. For years Mendez and her wife had volunteered with an organization that serves those infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS. Through the Visalia Lions Pride Club, Mendez felt she could continue serving the community while also learning more about the LGBTQ community and figuring out where she fit into it. In June 2018, she took over as president of the club.

“I’m not the first [transgender president],” she explains. That distinction belongs to the Fresno Pride Club’s inaugural president. “I think I’m just the loudest one.”

While her close friends advocate for the transgender community by traveling the national and international speaking circuit, Mendez has never wanted to join them on stage.

“That’s just not me. That’s not my style. I can’t do that,” she says. “So, I’ve been trying to figure out a way I can be a voice, yet not stand up and have to be a voice.”

After leaving college, Elizabeth found a place where they belonged with Lions. PHOTO BY IVAN DITSCHEINER

The answer is in Lions

By being a Lion and helping out on projects with Lions from other clubs, Mendez is able to educate people simply by being herself. As they accept her as a Lion, she says, “All those misconceptions and stereotypes, all the bad things that people make up or try to conjure to put us down, make us hide, they find the fallacy in those.” And that, she adds, “is better than any soapbox.”

She may do the most service, though, not by educating those unfamiliar with LGBTQ issues, but by helping those like Elizabeth who are struggling to find their place.

Where Mendez and Bergshoeff’s words tumble out, Elizabeth weighs their words carefully, speaking with an almost academic distance.

Before coming out, Elizabeth had worried how people would react. They had heard about people who had come out to their families and had “less than positive reactions.” The response from Elizabeth’s parents was not rejection, but to Elizabeth it still felt inadequate. “I think they thought I was amusing. They didn’t really take me seriously,” says Elizabeth. “I just didn’t feel like I was really heard.”

Before the suicide attempt, Elizabeth had been studying molecular biology and taking a number of music classes at UC Davis. After stays in several hospitals to recover, Elizabeth tried to stay in Davis, but things became too difficult. Elizabeth decided to leave school and move back home to Visalia.

They tried to reach out to friends from the area, but it was difficult. “A lot of my friends have moved away,” they say, “And the friends that are remaining have been difficult to connect with.”

There is a long silence before Elizabeth adds, “I’m not really sure what I do wrong, but I tend to get excluded.” Though they have friends online who they play action games with, it isn’t the same as face-to-face interactions.

Desperate to help her child, shortly after returning to Visalia, Bergshoeff accompanied Elizabeth to their first Lions meeting. Elizabeth still remembers the location – a Marie Callender’s restaurant.

“It was just like ‘boom!’ We meet Bobbie Jo and Elizabeth doesn’t feel alone,” says Bergshoeff.

“She’s just been really something,” says Elizabeth. “Just greeting someone with a smile. Letting them know about different events that are occurring in the community. Letting them know they’re always welcome. That makes a huge difference.”

The kid will be all right

After meeting Elizabeth, Mendez took them under her wing. She drove Elizabeth to a monthly dinner held by members of the transgender community in nearby Fresno, and invited her to participate in Equinox, an annual event that Mendez created for transgender individuals to practice hairstyles, names, and new identities in a safe environment. The event, now in its third year, is continually evolving. The equinox Elizabeth took part in included a fashion show, for which Elizabeth served as a model.

“I can’t remember exactly what I wore, but it was a lot of fun,” says Elizabeth. “I strutted out there, did a twirl.” As if for emphasis, Elizabeth adds once again, “It was a lot of fun.”


"With great people like this supporting her, Elizabeth will do fine."

Mendez is able to mentor Elizabeth partly because she understands the particular pain of becoming a new person in a place that is so steeped in traditional norms. Although Mendez laughs more easily and often than Elizabeth, her pain still surfaces now and then. She drives a black Pontiac with a personalized license plate starting with “bahbah” to remind her of how she has always been the black sheep of her family and of her continued estrangement from them.

“It’s like Elizabeth went through her crisis and I went through one as well,” says Mendez.

She punctuates her words this time not with a laugh, but with tears. “Some of us pull through,” she says. “And with great people like this supporting her, Elizabeth will do fine."