As I See It: A Second Life
February 28, 2022 Victor Rozek
These days it’s not unusual for high school students to be computer savvy to a degree their parents could only dream of. But that wasn’t the case in 1972 when Jay Brandt attended high school.
Oregon-based Benson Polytechnic High was conceived as a trade school, but over time adopted a pre-engineering curriculum. There, students could build a rudimentary foundation in a technology that would shortly transform the world. Jay quickly mastered the Four Horsemen of ancient IT: Basic, Fortran, COBOL, and Assembler; and when school broke for the summer, he had a novel idea.
Although the high school had a dialup connection to its computer system, it could only be used for educational, not commercial purposes. So, Jay approached a time-sharing company with a proposal: He and 11 of his cash poor fellow students would do whatever overflow work the company assigned them, as a means to pay for an account. The company decided to test their skills and gave them a problem to solve: Determine the dimensions, filtration system requirements, pump size, heating specifications, and user limits for a proposed swimming pool. Two days later they came back with a program that not only provided the answers, but actually ran without crashing the very first time.
Which is how – while still in high school – Jay acquired a commercial time-sharing account, and started his own business, the Computa-link Company, which ran out of a diminutive 10’x10’ office in Portland.
Toward the end of summer, a new company was moving into the empty offices across the way. Jay noticed they were setting up computer equipment and asked what they were doing? The company was called Willamette Week, and they were launching an alternative weekly newspaper. Sensing an opportunity, Jay asked: “Who is going to do your classifieds, your subscriptions, your billing?” Turns out he was. He got the account and managed it for the next two years.
In 1975, Jay joined the Navy. As was the custom, recruits were asked to take an entrance exam to determine their interests and aptitudes. He was given a 500-question test and two hours to complete it. He finished in a half-hour and handed it back to a skeptical monitor. Annoyed, the monitor placed the grading key over Jay’s answer sheet to discover he had only missed five questions. It was the highest score ever recorded up to that point.
“Well, you can have any job you want,” said the monitor. And with that declaration, Jay entered the Navy as a Data Systems Technician. In 1975 and 1976, he worked on the precursor to modern GPS, the Naval Tactical Data System. It combined satellite data with computer technology, and was sophisticated enough to determine which side of a pier a ship was docked.
Jay was wicked smart, self-motivated, and successful, but he had an undisclosed concern that had burdened him since he was 12: Confusion about his sexuality. He was uncomfortable living in close quarters with other men. He had dated girls in school, but his dating pattern was one-and-done. He felt attraction to both sexes.
After four years in the military, he had served well, and even had a letter of commendation for his work. But his discomfort over living conditions became acute. He explained his situation and requested an honorable discharge, which he received, provided he was willing to accept a reason for his discharge. that essentially said: “Whatever is wrong with you, it’s not something we broke.”
In 1979 he enrolled in a Computer Systems Engineering Technology program at the Oregon Institute of Technology. He studied everything from hardware maintenance to programming; technical writing to management. He also met the woman he would marry.
After a three-year courtship, they wed. He was honest about being, at the very least, bi-sexual. “When we’re watching Dancing with Wolves,” he told her, “We’re probably both checking out Kevin Costner’s ass.” But he pledged his fidelity, they had a daughter, and stayed married for 30 years.
He worked at several colleges and universities in Oregon, until he got an offer he couldn’t refuse from Motorola—double the salary, the company would pay for his move, and provide him with a down payment for a house. The catch was, the job was in Austin, Texas.
He worked there for 10 years when, without preamble, Motorola decided to outsource its IT operations to an outfit called Computer Sciences Corporation. The incentives were generous and he ended up working there another twelve years. For a variety of reasons, the couple had decided to stay in Texas until their daughter graduated high school. His work grew in scope and complexity: he managed over 100 servers in five data centers on three continents, all from his house.
At some point, he recalled meeting a Transgender man at work who had started wearing women’s clothes to the office. One day he simply came in with a name tag that said Samantha. At the time, Jay never dreamed of traveling a similar path.
Before his daughter could graduate, however, he lost his wife to a heart attack in 2014, after losing both parents a few years earlier. No longer answerable to his wife or his parents, he wanted to explore his sexuality. He recalled in the 1970s playing Dungeons and Dragons as a female character. For the first time he didn’t have to pretend to be a girl, he just engaged that part of his mind. He experimented with cross-dressing, exploring the female part of himself. Was he a transvestite? Was he Gay? Transexual? Why was he attracted to wearing women’s clothing? He wasn’t sure, but increasingly he identified as a woman. His daughter had Trans and Gay friends in school, so she was understanding and supportive of her father’s journey. The first time she saw him in women’s garb she said: “Oh my, Mrs. Doubtfire!” Over time, he said, the look improved.
Shortly after Motorola sold off its IT operations, Jay got involved with a virtual world called Second Life. There he created an avatar he named Ceera Murakami. Since Second Life was essentially a blank slate with its own internal economy, he became expert at creating all of the virtual accoutrements – housing, landscaping, furniture, etc. – that people wanted in their private domains. And they paid for his services. In typical fashion, he started a business called Fox and Ground, and set up a DBA as Ceera Murakami.
By 2015, when they moved to Eugene, Oregon, he was ready to be out. Three years later he legally changed his first name to Ceera. After a long, often difficult journey, Ceera arrived at her truth: She was Transgender. Ceera had her top surgery in 2020. After 3.5 years of hormone therapy, plus a year of painful electrolysis just to get rid of unwanted hair, the last step is her ‘lower surgery’ scheduled in 2022 or 2023, followed by 3- to 4 months of recovery. She is almost there. Nonetheless she says: “I don’t have gender dysphoria; I have gender euphoria.”
So, why did I choose to document her story? I did it because there are many more people out there grappling with difficult, confusing, and painful choices, who are often met with judgment, condemnation, and hostility. I did it because such a person may be in your workplace, wondering who they can turn to for support. I did it because I found her story to be a courageous act of personal integrity. Because there’s nothing “wrong” with her. She’s smarter and more accomplished than many of us. She fashioned an exceptional 40-year career in IT, and is now choosing to live a second life.
The one that’s right for her.