Living with Purpose

Felicia Melton-Smyth talks candidly to Our Lives about transitioning, her AIDS philanthropic work and the most important thing she’s ever done.

Joseph Campbell used the expression, “Follow your bliss,” to encourage people to embrace who they are, to follow what they feel, and above all to quite simply just live. As children, we all did this.  Even as a boy, Felicia Melton-Smyth could never think of living any other way than what felt completely honest and natural to her. That meant, of course, playing pattycake and catching butterflies with other girls, instead of trying out for sports with the other boys.

Being born a boy in Blue Mounds, and raised on her grandparents’ farm by her father and stepmother, helped prepare Felicia for some of the challenges she was going to face later in life. In her first grade play, she was forced into playing Prince Charming but got in trouble for refusing to kiss the girl. She jumped at playing a female part in fourth grade because it provided her the opportunity to wear her first dress. Felicia’s always had the strength to be herself.

In her youth, Felicia had the word ‘sample’ tattooed on her hip because it echoed a nick-name that her best friends had given her. Even back then they considered her the sample of a woman. “I already had long nails and long hair,” she says. “I wasn’t fitting into society because I was too feminine. I almost looked like a girl, but didn’t wear any makeup, and I was still wearing men’s clothes… I was starting to change over.”

Felicia’s never considered the decision to switch genders a choice. For her, becoming a transsexual was just natural evolution. So, when the time came to go through the surgical transition, she had no hesitation about becoming who she already knew she was. After all, this was the place she had spent years trying to reach.

At about the same time that she started her coming out process though, the AIDS epidemic broke. Felicia, like many, now had to face something that would send her life in a different direction. For the first time she began to feel scared of how she was living.

“AIDS struck fear in me and I did not have sex with anyone for three or four years… I was so scared of it. Nobody knew what it was. It wasn’t called AIDS yet. They gave it a name though… It was the ‘Gay Disease’.”

Felicia’s voice became emotional after what she revealed next. “My two best friends when I came out in high school, the two people who took me in their arms, loved me and protected me, the two who showed me the gay ways, those were the first two I knew who were infected with this disease.”

“Back then you didn’t want to be gay. You didn’t want to know anyone who was gay. You didn’t want to touch anyone who’s gay because you were afraid you were going to get it. You would look around the room and wonder who has it. Some people didn’t care. I remember people not caring if they were going to get it or not. They didn’t see what I saw.”

Her emotions quickly turned to anger when asked, “Why?” Felicia sharply replied, “Because it’s personal. I had personal relationships with them.  These were my two best friends. I kept crying because I was going to lose them. They were going to die.”

The pain she was feeling lead Felicia to a new role.  She took on the position of caregiver to her two best friends.

“I stuck there with them through it. I watched over them. I nursed them as their bodies would just stop working. I stayed by their side to a point when they were moved to the hospital and then that was… goodbye.”

After that, in her own words, “People started dying left and right around me.”

Felicia points out how back then there were no drugs available to fight it. She talks about how the feces in kitty litter caused one of her infected friends to get sick. “That killed him,” she says, followed by a dead silence.

“You watched them lose weight to where they would have dementia. You watch them as they don’t even know what they’re doing.” She says as her voice reveals a kind of helplessness, “You wake up one morning and learn they have to wear diapers now. You try to talk to them like nothing has changed, but then they can’t walk anymore. Three months… I lost one of them in three months after he found out he had it. It scared me, and no one even knew what it was.”

Felicia continued caretaking after her two best friends’ deaths. She cared for two more who died, followed by one last friend, before she had to stop.

“I couldn’t do it anymore.
I was losing everyone I knew. I think I lost almost everyone… and to be able…”  After a pause, she continues with tears in her eyes, “I’d just go home so I could cry alone.”

If strength comes from pain, then the amount of loss Felicia endured is what prompted another positive transition in her life. She became an activist. The fear of AIDS that initially scared her, is now what she uses to improve the lives of anyone affected by the disease. Each year, Felicia has a tradition of spending her holidays with AIDS patients. Last year she even pushed herself through the 300 mile ACT ride. Almost all of her charity work is designed around fundraising for the AIDS Network. Just recently, she’s set her sights on educating our youth.

“I’ve noticed that the younger generation doesn’t think that they’re ever going to get AIDS. They don’t seem scared of it… They don’t know anybody that has it… They think it is this thing that happened years ago.” Not long after she says this, Felicia mentions how a very young man recently came up to her and confided that he was HIV positive. “He was devastated,” she says. “God, he was just a child!”

Years later, how does she continue to handle hearing these kinds of emotionally draining stories? Felicia states, “Every time you hear my name, every time I write it on
a check… I think of… them.”

Them, of course, were her two best friends. Gary Melton and Lyon Smith. She says of adopting their names, “it’s the most important thing I could have ever done.”