'Oh, I just had to look," chortles Beverly Glenn-Copeland as he watches a beautiful young woman go by on the sidewalk outside a Yonge Street café where we are talking. Glenn-Copeland perches on a stool by a window, his legs splayed slightly, his thumb hitched inside the waistband of his pants.
I wouldn't be writing this, this description of his masculine behaviour, and his apparent exuberance about being male, if it weren't for one thing.
Until about three years ago, Glenn-Copeland was a woman.
She had a career in children's entertainment, writing music for shows such as Mr. Dressup, Sesame Street and Shining Time Station. She was also a regular guest on Mr. Dressup for 20 years and often performed as the voice of a puppet on Shining Time Station. Through the latter half of the nineties, in partnership with ParticipACTION as well as other educational organizations, she developed a children's interactive show called Energy Kids.
But that's all behind her now. She is he and calls himself, for artistic purposes, Phynix. (He still answers to Beverly, since it's considered a gender-neutral name; some find it easier to call him Glenn.)
He has a new CD, Primal Prayer, a collection of soulful songs that combine numerous musical influences, from Asian and African tribal to jazz and blues, with his rich three-octave voice. Throughout his long career, Glenn-Copeland has produced adult music -- in addition to seven CDs of his own music, he was a featured vocalist on albums by Bruce Cockburn and Cat Stevens -- and while his music had some critical acclaim, it never had significant commercial success. "I would put it out there in order to see what would happen, and not much would happen," he says, shrugging his shoulders.
The question then, clanging around in the back of the head, is simple. Did he go through the surgeries and hormone therapy to become male, then re-invent himself as Phynix, the artist, in order to get the media attention he was never able to get before? This is the age of extreme makeovers, after all, and especially in the music business, artists mould and remould themselves in numerous, often frightening ways, to stay in the limelight. If you're not the artist formerly-known-as, you're the artist formerly-seen-as.
Image manipulation is a necessary skill.
But it's not the sort of question you pop easily over a latte, believe me.
And I didn't, not immediately and not directly. I didn't really need to, as it turns out. Glenn-Copeland is easy to talk to and willing to discuss his decisions. He knows that a large part of the attention he is currently enjoying is due to his " gender realignment," as the prim parlance goes. So, does it bother Glenn-Copeland that the story of his sexuality will always be tied to his music?
"It was attached to me anyway," he says calmly. "It has been attached to me since I was born. For many years, I was erroneously perceived as being homosexual, and I had to deal with that."
Glenn-Copeland was born an only child in Philadelphia. At 3, he told his mother he was a boy. As a young teenager, he declared that he loved girls. "I never identified as female. I hated dressing up," he says, adding that he used to pull muscleman poses in the mirror as a child. He started training as a singer at 17 and soon after, won a scholarship to study classical music at McGill University. Following graduation, he went to New York to train under Metropolitan Opera soloist Eleanor Steber. "She used to look at me at the piano and I could see her thinking, 'This is a strange person,' " Glenn-Copeland explains, tilting back on the stool with raucous laughter. "She loved my voice and I think she could see into my personality, and she could see that I wasn't suited to it, you know, flouncing around in the opera world, where it's all over-the-top arch femininity."
Glenn-Copeland didn't feel as though he fit anywhere. "My parents were just frantic, because my mother was a typical upwardly mobile black middle-class person. There was pressure for me, not just in terms of music, but with social expectations. They would often wonder what they had done wrong. They only thought I was gay."
Homosexuality is not at all what he, or at least she, at the time, was. She was always attracted to other women, but those women were heterosexual.
A homosexual "is someone who identifies as the sex that they are and prefers the sex that they are as sexual partners; I was actually in a heterosexual relationship while in the wrong body."
In fact, at one point, Glenn-Copeland, who is 61, married a woman in a wedding ceremony, but later lost his wife to a man when she decided that she wanted to have children. "It was very painful," he says. (He is now married to another woman, Nancy Luik, and is the stepfather to her two teenaged boys.) By the time Glenn-Copeland decided to go through with the sex change, his mother, who is now 91, was completely supportive. (Glenn-Copeland's father died at 51 of lung cancer.) "She had come to a very supportive you-must-be-yourself courageous parental stance around it," he says.
For years, working in children's entertainment, he was able to have an "amorphous" sexuality, he says. "There are characters who, when you see them, you don't see male or female, or you don't see sexual maturity. It's not part of their character.
"I think when you are on the edges of things, you spend a lot of time trying not to offend. So instead of saying 'Oh, she was so gorgeous' in a song, I'd say, 'You were so gorgeous' in the lyrics. There was always a kind of effort to stay somewhere in-between so that nothing was too defined."
He didn't consider a sex change during that period, partly because, "It was just a far-out concept that wasn't mainstream." His successful career in children's shows also prevented him. "I thought, 'How would you do that?' Walk in one day as Beverly Glenn-Copeland and come back two weeks later as a changed being? I just couldn't figure out how to do it."
But then his life took a turn that made change imperative. "I came to a point where my life burned up. I turned to ashes. Between 1998 and 2000, my life destabilized. I lost my wife. She suddenly took off. I lost my apartment. ParticipACTION suddenly decided it was no longer in business and that had been a big part of my focus. I seriously wondered what my life was.
"I went through a whole deconstruction, right down to the basics of myself."
He moved to Phoenix, Ariz., for a year, taking his mother, so he could care for her. He delivered pizzas and contemplated life. Then, he suffered a twisted bowel, which can be fatal. For two days, while doctors were unsure of the problem, Glenn-Copeland was in excruciating pain. A member of a chanting Buddhist sect, he was supported by friends who came to his bedside to pray and chant. At one point, he told a nurse that if the doctors didn't do exploratory surgery that afternoon, he would be dead the next morning. They operated and found a foot and a half of dead intestine.
"When I woke up, I knew I was going to come back to Toronto and that I would stand on a street corner to do my adult music, that I would not take any other type of jobs, that I wouldn't drive taxis, I wouldn't work for the government. I had to do my music. I had come to complete peace about who I am.
"That is why I called myself Phynix. It was coming from a spiritual and emotional reality. I certainly wasn't thinking that I was going to be having interviews. I just thought Beverly Glenn-Copeland has died. She died on the operating table. That entity was no longer in existence."
That may be so, but Glenn-Copeland, who now lives in the Muskoka, Ont., area, still acts like a woman in the way he is so open about his feelings. I ask what he loves about being male. Was it a relief to be able to wear a good suit, for example? "I was ecstatic!" And to lop off the breasts? "I didn't have much to begin with," he confides easily. Before the sex change, some people would think he was female, others would think he was male, and "60 per cent would be trying to see if I had boobs so they'd know what to say." During hormone treatment, he and his doctor were cautious so as not to affect his vocal cords. "My voice is low to begin with. There's been no change."
His exuberance comes from not having to hide any more, he says, even though he has to muster up the courage each time he is asked to talk about his sexuality. "Being a chicken, I would prefer not to. I would prefer to be sitting here and talking about musical phrases. . . . But where does any inspiration come from? Well, it comes from my life. I might as well carry what's real.
"And what I was carrying before wasn't real.
"Now I feel that I've taken off pounds and pounds of shackles."