RAPID CITY, S.D. -- After getting involved in a fight in the Legislature over a bill to ban civil unions, Tom Murphy decided to reveal a secret he had kept for four decades, through school, an Air Force career and then as a member of the City Council:
He feels more like a woman than a man.
In fact, he plans to undergo a sex-change operation. Tom will become Marla.
"I hope to be happy," the never-married, 48-year-old retired master sergeant said in an interview. He said he feels as if he has deprived himself for a long time.
Murphy thought he might have to leave town after going public. But to his surprise, he said, the reaction around this Black Hills city of about 60,000 has been largely supportive. Outside of one neighbor and a casual acquaintance, no one has criticized him to his face, he said.
The transition from man to woman will not happen until after he completes his term on the council. He has decided not to run for another term next year.
He will continue to attend City Council meetings dressed as usual in a shirt and pants, but plans to start dressing as a woman increasingly in his private life. He is taking hormones that are making his body softer, more female, and he is growing his hair longer.
Jean French, a conservative fellow member of the City Council, said Rapid City residents and council members seem to support Murphy's decision.
"I guess I just really hope and pray that this is what it will take for him to be happy with himself. I think he as a person has so many wonderful qualities," French said. "I think we all want Tom comfortable. I don't know anybody who is out to headhunt Tom."
Sid Goss, a professor of sociology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, said he is pleased and a little surprised at the community's response.
"South Dakota may be as open to personal preferences as the rest of the country," he said.
"It may have to do with the openness and honesty that Tom has shown, that he's been up front about the situation and said, 'Here's the way it is,' and the community is dealing with it," Goss added. "It shows a great strength in him, and that's probably being respected."
Murphy said he has known since he was 18 that he wanted what is called gender reassignment surgery. But he feared that if people found out, they might try to blackmail him or discriminate against him. He said when people talked about male and female issues, he would run away because he was afraid he might say the wrong thing.
He revealed his secret after getting involved in a fight in the 2004 Legislature against a proposed state law that would have banned civil unions and domestic partnerships.
Murphy testified in February at a hearing on the bill and wrote a series of letters that appeared in the Rapid City Journal. He eventually disclosed his secret in a letter to the editor and an interview with a local paper.
He said he made his decision after someone expressed hatred of gays in a letter to the editor. "I said it's time for me to make him quiet, just put him to rest and let him know I'm around and where I stand," he said.
Murphy was born in Arkansas and served 22 years in the Air Force - much of that at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City - before retiring in 2000. He was appointed to fill a vacancy on the City Council in 2000 and then won elections in 2001 and 2003.
"It goes back 40-plus years that I've had this in me, that I've had the wants to be a female," he said. "It just got stronger and stronger as time progressed."
He said he will probably not be ready for surgery for at least three years. To qualify, he must live as a woman for a year and get the approval of a psychiatrist.
Murphy, who holds a bachelor's degree in industrial technology and a master's in counseling and human development from the University of South Dakota, is now working on an accounting degree and said he will stay in the Black Hills if he can find a job as a woman.
As Murphy sat in a downtown restaurant recently, a woman walked over to his booth and told him: "I think what you're doing is great, and I hope it works out." She left without giving her name.