The Mysterious Rose of Freedom
A talk with Joe Miller
By Kate Hassett
Joe Miller lives on the streets of Portland. He has been without housing since 2007 and largely confined to a wheelchair since a year or two before that. Miller had been sleeping outside, in a bus shelter, until this past December, when he was approached by the director of a local emergency shelter and told he could stay there for the winter. He plans to live outdoors again come spring.
Though born a male, Miller, 55, feels more like a woman. When time, energy and circumstances allow, he dresses in women’s clothing. Some days he’s a combination of a long-haired lady and a rough-bearded man, all in one wheelchair-bound body. And though Joseph L. Miller is his legal name, he likes to be called Mysti, short for Mysterious Adelina Delarosa. His dream is to someday surgically become a woman to match the femininity he feels as a person.
Miller was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his youth, and still struggles with it today. Though medical care is important to him — he keeps weekly chiropractic appointments, paid for by MaineCare, and regularly sees doctors — he finds it difficult to get psychiatric treatment while living on the street. He tries to ignore the voices in his head that call his name in gruff whispers. He passes the time wheeling from place to place in Portland with all his worldly possessions, crocheting bikinis, drinking coffee, drawing portraits, and trying to make all his medical appointments.
Miller said he is harassed almost daily because of the way he dresses and because his name is on Portland’s sex-offender registry. According to him, most of the assaults are verbal, though there were several physical attacks last fall, including one that landed him in the hospital. Miller is on the registry due to a 1987 conviction for gross sexual misconduct and unlawful sexual contact with an underage female. He was incarcerated for 10 years in the Maine prison system.
I interviewed Miller at the Preble Street Resource Center on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-February.
The Bollard: So, Mysti, why don’t you tell me a bit about the clothes you wear?
Miller: I actually started dressing as a woman out of necessity, back in the ’50s, because I was the only boy in a family of girls back in the recession, and the only clothes that were given to the family were girls’ clothes, and it was all I could wear. So, from day one, all the way up to present time, I’ve been wearing girls’ clothes.
It’s out of preference now?
Well, it’s out of comfort. Now it’s just sheer comfort. Men’s clothes are itchy and nasty and rough and horrible. And they fall off of me. They don’t fit. See, a woman’s pants taper in at the waist so my hips’ll hold ’em up. A pair of men’s pants is straight up and down and you have to wear a belt, and then even a belt doesn’t do the job. And with me, everything’s got to have pink. Or gold.
What’s your third favorite color?
I don’t have a third. Either pink or gold. Or both. I like what I like!
Are these new pants you’re wearing now, these tight jeans?
No, I’ve had these. They were just in my backpack. This is a pair that, uh, makes it hard to, uh, go to the bathroom. Especially when I’m on the streets.
Is that why you don’t wear them that often?
Yeah. So I have to wear the undergarment. And then when they [the shelter staff] weren’t getting me into a shower, that wasn’t helping matters. End up having to sit in it, and sit in it, and sit in it. Day after day after day. Because of the fact that I can’t really get up and change. And I’m not going to change clothes if I can’t get into a shower, because there’s no sense in putting clean clothes on a dirty body.
But I’ve also done female impersonating. I’ve impersonated Cher, uh, Donna Fargo, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, and I’ve also done Olivia Newton John and Crystal Gayle, because at that time my hair was long — all the way down to my ankles — so I impersonated her. I actually dyed my hair black.
I did it on special occasions, for money. Going to parties. It’s like, this guy would have been getting married and he’d have a bachelor party, and he’d want, say, Crystal Gayle or whoever, because that was his favorite singer, and I used to go in dressed as that particular singer. Four thousand dollars a night!
And would you sing, as well?
No. I didn’t sing. But I would dance with the guy and everything. Make it look good, you know. The only one that I actually did sing was as Olivia Newton John out at Austin Boot and Buckle on a Halloween party. There was a girl that was dressed as John Travolta and I was dressed as Olivia Newton John, and they had that carnival thing at the bar and we actually did that song. It was fun. And it was unique. We also won first prize.
Eventually I’d like to go out [to Beverly Hills, California], at least visit my daughter’s and my fiancé’s graves. And I’d still like to have a sex change. I’d like to find out how much it would cost to get my breasts enlarged, because MaineCare won’t pay for it. And they won’t pay for the hormones, which is just birth control…. They won’t pay for a lot of stuff…. I’d like to go through the entire surgery. But being on disability, you just can’t do it, because it costs quite a bit. I’d like to get it done. Then I can literally go by my female name, Mysterious Adelina Delarosa, the Mysterious Rose of Freedom.
All the mystery that surrounds me, huh? All the mystery that surrounds me, you can never tell how in the heck I can be so happy and be in such a position. Being in a position that I don’t want — being a man — and being in a homeless position where I have absolutely no place to go.
After they showed [a documentary I made about Miller] up at Salt, the following day the administrator [of the emergency shelter] came down here to Preble Street looking for me. Told me I better get up to the emergency shelter, otherwise she’s going to come down here and drag me up by my ear! Ha-ha! I go, ‘Why’s that?’ She goes, ‘Because I can’t grab you by the hair. It’ll come off!’ So we were laughing at that. I just can’t go up there dressed as a woman.
No. I’m not supposed to. But like I told her yesterday morning when she tried to help me get into the shower, I told her that I wear a dress under my jacket, that my dress is tucked into my pants, using it as a blouse. And she goes, ‘That’s no problem.’
What is the issue?
The issue with that is that there’s, like, 39 men, drunk. And, uh, if I’m dressed down there as a female, they’ll try taking advantage, is what they’re saying. Which is understandable. They go, ‘We can’t tell you what you can wear under your clothes.’ You know, wearing the bras, panties and nylons. They can’t tell me I can’t wear that. They’re not saying anything about my fingernail polish. It’s just my wearing dangling earrings or makeup and my wigs, the dresses.
That’s kind of dictating your style right now.
Right. Putting it on a chopping block, so to speak. Kind of discriminating against my preference. But I’ve got to take and do something to stay out of the cold.
Another reason to look forward to summer.
Yeah! Because then I’ll go up to the Eastern Prom and lay out in my bikini. One of my homemade bikinis.
The one thing I’d like to do, though, is get my sex change, clear my name, and go out to California, because I keep having this one dream that when I go out to California they’re going to end up putting me into a movie, based on this [Salt] documentary. Because of this documentary, I should say, and because of the book that I write and everything they want to take and do from the book. Do one of the stories….
What I really want to write is Tortured in America. Tortured in America is based on my life, everything that I had to go through as a child with, uh, the psychiatric portions, you know, because of my temper, having to take large quantities of psychotropic drugs, which didn’t do any good to calm my temper. So they started using electric-shock therapy.
How old were you then?
I was about … nine when that started. And different things’ve happened. [I] really caught up. And in-between, I did landscaping, construction, everything else. All that electric-shock therapy did was make a genius out of me! Because when I went into the army, I was highly qualified under six different fields of work, and that didn’t even include four: nuclear, biological, chemical and communications.
I like the title ‘Tortured in America.’
A lot of people don’t stop to realize that you can be tortured in America without even realizing you’re being tortured.