Category Archives: Trans*missions

(Trans)gender explorations

Leelah Alcorn and transgender suicide

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 11.34.27 PMI want to scream at them.  I want them to feel the full guilt of losing their child, of killing that child. And yet, I want to give them space to mourn the child I believe they loved, even if their love was fundamentally, devastatingly flawed. I want the pain to stop – not just Leelah’s but all trans children who find themselves desperate and despairing. Because Leelah’s story isn’t new. It isn’t even that original. And that’s what makes it so hard. How many more Leelah’s are out there, waiting to end their lives? How many Leelah’s does it take for change to happen?

In the early morning hours of December 28th, Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of a semi-truck on an Ohio Interstate and died by apparent suicide. Her suicide note was posted to her Tumblr account for the world to read (it has since been removed but you can read the gist of it here). It described her struggle to find acceptance for being transgender in her conservative Christian family. She was 17 years old. She claimed to have understood she was trans when she was 14. Her parents sent her to therapists in the hopes of “curing” her. They sent her to a psychiatrist who fed her Prozac to treat her depression. They removed her from school and cut her off from social media in an attempt to limit her exposure to “bad” influences.

What none of these adults could bring themselves to do,  was to love this child for the girl she wanted to be, openly and publicly. Instead her parents loved her for the boy they believed they were entitled to.

The Christian community she belonged to called Leelah “selfish and wrong” and told her to turn to God for answers. In her words:

Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning.

What we have here is failure of love on so many levels. Caretakers who should have been there to help her develop her own identity, let her down. Instead they suffocated the life out of her until death seemed more meaningful than life itself.

Leelah’s suicide hits a nerve.

Like 41% of trans people, I am myself a suicide attempt survivor. Unlike Leelah I was assigned female at birth and later transitioned to male. But like her my family held conservative Christian values. I grew up listening to my father call AIDS God’s way of punishing homosexuality. My mother policed who I played with at school; lesbians were out of bounds. By the age of 12 I was thoroughly depressed and contemplating suicide. By 16, my father – a psychiatrist himself – placed me on Paxil, an SSRI similar to Prozac. By the age of 21 I was consuming an even heavier concoction of psychiatric medications including Zyprexa, Wellbutrin, Effexor, and Lorazepam. I attempted to kill myself. I was briefly hospitalized.

By 24 I had come to the following conclusion: either I live my life alone and miserable, as the woman my family wanted me to be but that I felt wasn’t me, or I needed to transition to male and let the chips fall where they may. The thought of transitioning all on my own was terrifying – but marginally less terrifying than losing consciousness and dying. So I was assessed for hormone treatment and began testosterone injections. I cannot describe the relief that I felt once the transition was set in motion.

Transition doesn’t solve all your problems. Whatever traumas we carry with us do not suddenly evaporate when we begin to live as our authentic selves. And once we give ourselves permission to be as we are, we must still deal with the bigots and hate mongers who feel entitled to define us. But my burgeoning identity gave me enough hope, enough faith in my own validity, in my own value as a human being, that I started to want to live again. I imagine it would have done the same for Leelah, had she gotten that far. Had she not lost hope too early. Had she had the right supports in place.

Leelah complained that the “It Gets Better” movement, popularized by sex columnist Dan Savage, didn’t apply to her. For her, things just seemed to get worse. How much worse must things get before we stop torturing our children for being different from the norm?

I don’t believe Leelah’s parents purposefully tried to hurt their child. But they clearly didn’t know how to help her and turned to a flawed dogma to guide them. The people they reached out to for help, failed them. And while I sympathize with their grief, my sympathy is muted.

Because there is work to do, for the hidden Leelah’s scattered all over the globe – past and present. Some getting beaten to death because of who they are. Some beating themselves up night after night as they try to make sense of who they are. I feel a primal cry rise up in me like a volcano and I just want to scream and scream.

Too many trans children are forced to fight invisible wars within themselves because they lack the support they need to realize that their lives are meaningful and valuable. No one should have to die for being trans. Parents, lawmakers, doctors, therapists and the public need to shake off their collective apathy. We need our children to learn the true meaning of love.

And they need to learn it now.

Background reading:

Trans Teen Dies by Suicide, Leaves Tumblr Note: ‘There’s No Way Out’ 
http://jezebel.com/trans-teen-dies-by-suicide-leaves-tumblr-note-theres-1676351625

Transgender teen who died of an apparent suicide: ‘Fix society. Please.’
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/12/31/transgender-teen-who-died-of-an-apparent-suicide-fix-society-please/?tid=pm_pop

High Suicide Risk, Prejudice Plague Transgender People
http://www.livescience.com/11208-high-suicide-risk-prejudice-plague-transgender-people.html

Canadian crisis hotline set up to help shunned transgender youth
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/crisis-hotline-for-transgender-youth-set-up-in-canada/article22279927/

It Gets Better project
http://www.itgetsbetter.org/

Advertisements

More than a victim: letting go of blame and learning to embrace accountability

104HTen years ago my family discovered that I was in the process of transitioning from female to male. No one in my family was happy about it. My father felt that he couldn’t accept it. My mother announced that unless I changed my mind, I was no longer her child. When my father eventually died from cancer, my mother wrote me to say that she wished it was me who had died, instead of my father.

My gender transition was a shock to my family and they responded accordingly. It may not have been such a shock to them had I felt safe to speak up earlier. But I remained silent about my gender dysphoria precisely because I feared the reaction I eventually got – one of rejection and condemnation.

Ironically, my inability to speak openly about what was going on for me inside partially contributed to my worst fears coming true.

The lesson I took from all this was that to reveal who I am, who I REALLY am, is dangerous and will cause only pain to me and those around me. But I could equally have taken a different lesson from the experience – that to conceal who I am, who I REALLY am, means alienating those who could possibly learn to accept (or even love) me for who I am.

My birth family and I have minimal contact today. I haven’t spoken to my birth mother in eight years. I occasionally communicate with my sisters via email maybe 1 or 2 times a year – to wish them happy birthday and happy holidays. The damage done to our relationship was severe, traumatic and, likely, irreparable. I don’t foresee our relationship improving in the foreseeable future. They have shown little indication of wanting to know me as I live my life today. No phone calls, no visits. No acknowledgement of the sacrifices I have made to live my life authentically.

I still carry with me the hurt, and yes, that anger that comes with feeling like I have been wronged. And with that hurt comes rage that my birth family turned their back on me, or at least did nothing to help me, despite my pain starting at a young age, when what I needed most was compassion and some place safe. I never felt safe with any of them.

But being a victim isn’t a place that leaves you feeling empowered. And when everyone involved in a conflict sees themselves as the victim, the conflict can’t resolve itself.

My family would probably claim that they were victims of my self-destructive behaviour and of my refusal to reach out to them for help. And I do feel responsible for the pain I caused them. Especially for the pain and stress I caused my father so short before his death.

For a long time, I have blamed myself for having let my family down. For having these cross-gender feelings in the first place, or for struggling with suicidal depression as early as age 12. The depression waylaid me for most of my childhood and rendered me incapable of functioning for most of my 20s. I exhausted my family’s goodwill in the process.

I blame myself because if I don’t, it doesn’t make sense why my life has gone so drastically awry. It has to be someone’s fault, because then at least there’s a narrative, a coherence to the chaos.

I blame my parents for their emotional neglect and their lack of empathy for when I struggled as a child with what was even then a serious case of clinical depression.

I blame my sisters for deserting me in that house, with parents who didn’t know how to love or care for me. And later, when I spoke my truth, for distancing themselves from me. Like I was some kind of pariah.

I blame God for making me a freak, for giving me feelings as a child that I couldn’t control or comprehend or safely share with anyone.

But blame has a funny way of killing you from the inside. It becomes an avoidance strategy that covers up another emotion – deep sadness and grief. A bottomless pit of it. And I’m afraid of letting myself feel that grief. Afraid that if I do, I will disintegrate and lose what little self-control I still have.

But there has to be an alternative to the rage or blame. There has to be a way to forgive myself for my perceived sins. After all, I was a child when this all began. How was I to know how to process these complex emotions? I had no one to show me how, and nowhere I felt safe to explore what was going on for me.

Oddly, when I let myself feel compassion for the child I once was, the anger towards my family lessens too. Because I realize that they, too, acted mainly out of fear, and out of not understanding. I can have compassion for that even if the consequences of their actions continue to hurt. I can’t say I forgive them fully, but maybe that’s because I don’t forgive myself fully either. Having your pain denied or invalidated leaves you feeling weak and unable to move on. And letting go of the need to have others validate your pain, well, that’s not easy.

I haven’t quite figured out how to hold them – and myself – accountable in a non-blaming, non-judgmental way. Maybe sharing these thoughts is my way of trying to start that process. I’m taking it one step, one day at a time.

*Photo by Ryan McGuire (http://www.gratisography.com/)

My wasted life?

There are times where I seriously question whether it’s all been worth it. The years of self-torture, the decision to transition, the rejection from family that followed, the alienation, ultimate rebirth, the surgeries, hormone injections, therapy sessions and hate.

Unlike some trans children I did not announce to my parents when I was four that I was a boy. I knew better than that. I knew that whatever I thought didn’t matter; what mattered was what the world around me thought, what my family thought. And the world around me was telling me that I was a little girl. My family reinforced this notion. It wasn’t a comfortable label to carry, the one of girl, but what alternative was there, really? In my eyes I had only two choices, learn to live with being a girl or die. For a while there, I seriously considered dying. Sometimes I still do. Old habits die hard.

When I finally came out, my mother accused me of having nothing better to do with my time than to come up with this ridiculous idea that I was a man. She guilted me by telling me how, when she grew up, she didn’t have time to contemplate such absurdities as being uncomfortable in her body, because she had REAL problems to worry about, like my father’s sickness, like raising three children, like being a good wife. Those are grownup problems. She made it seem like my struggles with gender were somehow an indulgence that I engaged in because I was lazy or had too much time to be idle.

Maybe it is a first-world problem. Had I been born into a third world reality, maybe I would have spent my time consumed with thinking about where to get my next meal, or where to scrounge a few coins together to buy the basics of living. I would not have been able to afford hormone treatments or surgeries. But the fact that third genders exist in developing countries counters this theory. In India, hijras form a recognized third class. Neither man nor woman, they nevertheless are recognized in the law as a distinct category. They do not come from rich middle-class families. I’d wager, in fact, that most of them do not.

But that feeling, that my transition was an indulgence, persists. Never mind that the time I spent coming to terms with my gender, robbed me of what should have been the best years of my life: my childhood, my teenage years, my early adulthood. I sank into an early, deep depression. I self-harmed. I tried to kill myself. And when I really could not see any other option, and when it occurred to me that it didn’t really matter what happened next once I transitioned, because living the way I was living was already a kind of death, I made the decision to see a specialist. I was diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder and in quick succession was approved for hormone therapy.

All of that time and energy spent wasted on something that, to some, seems so inconsequential. Who cares if you are a man or a woman? Why spend so much time hung up about it? Why not just move on, live your life, with your god-given body? Make peace with yourself.

But there was no peace to be had, not for me. Not until the hormone treatments started. That, really, for me, was the turning point. More so even than the subsequent surgeries. Because that first injection was about more than just changing the chemical makeup of my body. It was the first time that I truly acknowledged to myself that all of this was not just in my head. That this was real and that I was really doing something about it. Hormone therapy changed my life.

But was it worth it? Ten years later, I have no real contact with my birth family. That in itself might seem like a tragedy if it were not for the fact that even before my transition we had our share of problems. I don’t miss them much. I miss having a family of my own, but I do not miss the family I had. There are too many painful memories there. I’m sure they would say the same. I was the black sheep that ruined their world. We are better without each other.

Ten years later, I am also without a partner of my own. I was engaged, once. Until fairly recently actually. It’s still too raw for me to write about. Considering I’ve not had great role models in what loving relationships look like, I suppose it’s not surprising that I’ve failed in this domain so far. Especially considering how few trans people I know who have succeeded in finding loving partners in it for the long run. I’ve not entirely given up yet. But I’m wise enough now to know not to rush into anything. There are worse things than being alone. An unhappy marriage is one of them.

Ten years later, I have no real career. This one hurts the most, I think. If one does not have family, one should at least have a career. But to fail here, well, that truly is to be a failure. My career failings have largely been a result of my inability to hold down a job for more than a few years at a time. Hurdles include crippling social anxiety, and recurring clinical depression. Add to that my need to pay for surgery. I pursued a job that had benefits, and that allowed me to go through six surgeries in 3 years to finalize my gender confirmation process. Had I not had these practical needs, I am sure I would have chosen a different career path entirely — as I most recently have.

I left a fairly lucrative career last year, a career that offered me little enjoyment except for a comfortable pay-cheque. Instead, I pursued work that was more in line with my values, working with others who deal with mental health and social challenges. The work is rewarding, the pay not. But at least I wake up and feel like what I do has value, unlike before.

But to be 35 and just starting out is a challenge. I am ashamed of how little I have truly accomplished. I am embarrassed that I let so many years slip by without tackling the issues that were holding me back. I grieve for the child I once was, the child who had hopes of great achievements, and ambition to match. The child who, to my parents, could have been a diplomat, scientist or great artist. Instead, in their eyes, I threw it all away. All because I simply couldn’t come to terms with my gender. How silly is that?

And yes, sometimes I wonder if it has been worth it.

*Photo by Todd Quackenbush (unsplash.com)

 

Why being a transman isn’t the same as being a masculine woman

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I came out to my mother, she asked me: “why can’t you just be a lesbian”? Ignoring for a moment the irony of that statement, considering my mother’s low opinion of lesbians, she hits on a valid point. Being a lesbian doesn’t require the level of medical, surgical and hormonal intervention that being transgender potentially does. It makes sense that it would be a preferable choice. If it fit. And it doesn’t.

Her views are not unusual among those who would argue that our world has evolved such that a woman can do everything a man can. This view implies that a transman’s main motivation for transition is politically motivated, stemming from a desire to engage in traditional masculine activities, such as playing sports, studying engineering or hanging out with the boys on a Friday night.

I can’t speak for other transmen but this outdated view of masculinity is not what inspired me to become a man.

Growing up I had two sisters and no brothers. My father, a man who struggled with health problems for as long as I can remember, didn’t teach me how to play rugby or cricket or how to fix the family car. My mother, on the other hand, tried desperately to awaken in me a love of cooking, an interest in feminine pursuits like plucking my eyebrows and in boys.

And yet, as I looked around me, I felt myself at odds with the role I was assigned. I found make-up boring, shaving my legs pointless, and the idea of pregnancy off-putting. It felt like I was constantly out of step with everyone around me. And I didn’t understand why.

Sexual Awakenings
For a time, I did toy with the idea that I was simply a lesbian. But with puberty came the awareness that my sexual attractions were not limited to girls. Males too, awoke within me sexual stirrings. So what did that make me, exactly? Bi?

I did not really understand how to tease apart the concepts of birth sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. Surely women were meant to be attracted to men and were born female? How else to define them? But where did that leave me? I knew I was bisexual long before I knew how to articulate what gender I identified with. But slowly, over time, I realized that just because I was assigned female at birth didn’t make me a woman. And just because most of the women who were held up to me as examples of achievement were assigned female at birth and were attracted to men, didn’t mean I was destined to be one of them.

Identity politics
My desire to dress androgynously and my rough and tumble boyishness drew little comment when I had yet to hit puberty. But once that threshold was reached, it was clear I was at odds with the development of my peers. Most women, I discovered, did not question their own femininity. And while many of those I watched growing up seemed quite at ease with the roles they were assigned, even those who showed more independence of spirit seemed quite satisfied with their bodies. At least insofar as their desire to remain firmly in them.

Sorting out my feelings took some time. I knew what was expected of me and that my body was female. And no matter how I felt on the inside, I didn’t think it was possible to prevent what I’d been taught was inevitable – breast development, and monthly menses that marked my entry into womanhood.

Body dysphoria
If I’d been satisfied with the body I’d had, would I have found my identity in the “lesbian” community? I can’t honestly answer that. Because the truth is that for as long as I could remember I was at war with my own body. In PE class, I felt embarrassed about my naked body and hid behind bathroom stalls when changing into my sports gear. While self-confident in one on one situations, agoraphobia (a fear of crowds) would grip me when I found myself surrounded by boys and girls – I had no sense of where I belonged. This disorientation deepened dramatically when my first period arrived. I simply could not accept the bodily changes and did everything I could to prevent them. I starved myself in an attempt to delay my period, and for a time it worked. But I knew it was a temporary solution to a permanent problem.

Surrender to the inevitable
As I entered my twenties I was severely depressed. I could see no future for myself in which I could possibly be happy. I told myself to get with the program as best I could. I attempted to be more feminine, using makeup, shaving my legs, even wearing the occasional dress. I attempted to find some sense of attachment to the blobs of flesh others called breasts. At 21 I even got a boyfriend. But I found little enjoyment in being touched. I disconnected from my body as much as possible. It was the only way I knew to survive. I trusted no one, spoke to no one about any of this.

Hope reborn
By 21 I was cutting my wrists for pain relief and seeing a therapist for suicidal depression. I was convinced I would be dead by the time I was 30. I simply couldn’t imagine living my life like this. Faced with the choice to end it all or take a giant leap into the unknown, I chose the latter. I started the slow process of aligning my inner sense of myself with the outside, visible version of myself that others saw. I began hormone injections and was assessed for surgery. I had my breasts removed and later my uterus. I legally changed my name and my gender.

Slowly, gradually, hope crept back into my heart. I learned a future where I get to live as a man, was possible for me. It was the most frightening journey I’d ever undertaken. But it beat suicide, so I did it anyway.

Almost ten years since my first hormone injection and I feel lucky to be alive. When I look in the mirror I recognize the man staring back at me as me. And it only cost me my birth family and years of depression. I don’t see my identity as a political statement; it’s simply who I am. I may not know why this condition chose me, but it’s the hand I drew in the great game of life.

It’s the hand I’ll play as best I can.

photo credit: Kaptain Kobold via photopin cc

Whose gender are you?

Who owns gender? Is it the doctors who, when they deliver a baby, determine based on the appearance of genitalia whether a baby is a boy or a girl? Is it the scientists who determine that your chromosomes are XY, XX, or some other, rarer configuration? Is it the parents who, as they raise their child, see their child gravitate towards traditionally boyish or girlish toys and interests? Is it the child him or herself as they enter into puberty and beyond?

Or is gender a commonly recognized good; something that belongs to society at large? Is it something that those around us have a right to impose on us depending on the mores of the era?

When I was a child I did not think of myself in terms of boy or girl. I gravitated naturally towards activities that interested me, regardless of whether they were associated with masculinity or femininity. As it happened, I enjoyed being outdoors. I enjoyed playing soccer, floor hockey, hiking and exploring the city in the snow. I played with Hot Wheel cars, He-Man and Mr T. action figures, and GI Joe figurines. My friends were almost equally male and female and I had crushes on both sexes. This caused me no real conflict.

Feeling socially awkward when I entered into crowds of people, I preferred one on one interactions. They proved less complicated. I knew what the expectations of me were. I knew that the boys were becoming bigger and I wasn’t. And that, as I became older, did cause me growing discomfort. I knew that I was expected to sprout breasts not muscle. That I couldn’t run around shirtless forever. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

As for the traditionally feminine trajectory of dating, getting married and having children, it held absolutely no appeal for me. The possibility of pregnancy terrified me long before I fully understood how babies were formed.

I thought the conversations that women had were boring, based on what I witnessed among my mother’s friends. Discussing recipes, soap operas and hairstyles held no interest. When my parents had friends over, I found myself gravitating to my father’s friendship circle. I would sit on the floor and listen in on their conversations as they discussed the latest news, scientific discoveries, politics or history.

I had no words for what I was experiencing. I thought I was simply a tomboy. I thought maybe certain women felt this way and that I would grow out of it and feel more comfortable in my skin one day. But that never happened. I felt awkward at school in the PE class when we had to change. I didn’t want to strip down in front of the other girls so I would hide in a bathroom cubicle. I stopped eating in the hopes that would delay the sprouting of breasts and the onslaught of menstruation. It worked in terms of the latter. But it only delayed the inevitable.

I was at war with my body. I didn’t understand why. I felt shame and embarrassment and I didn’t trust that I had anyone to talk to about it. I was crazy, I thought. Or maybe even evil. I withdrew from the world around me, spending most of my time alone. I became depressed, even suicidal. Until I made the decision to live my life authentically, to take the taboo step of changing my gender. I have never regretted my decision, despite the high price I have paid (loss of family, friends and opportunity).

Who gets to define my gender? And why does it matter? There used to be a time when people believed that kings were gods and that slaves were meant to be slaves by birth. We used to believe women were inferior to men (some still do), that it was simply the way the world was ordered. Most of us don’t subscribe to those notions anymore – we’ve seen that the way things used to be doesn’t necessarily translate into the way things are. Is gender the next frontier, less a life sentence than a mutable fact, a choice we have to be our authentic selves? What difference does it make to anyone else whether I live my life as a man or a woman? And yet, to me, it makes all the difference in the world.

What right does anyone else have to deny me that? My gender is my own.

The Equifax chronicles – or how being trans is sometimes confused with fraud

dreamstimefree_21343Today I went to the bank to open an account for my freelance business. Easy peasy, right? You’d think so but you’d be wrong.

I thought it was just me, but when I met my financial advisor he seemed kind of short with me. He peppered me with pretty specific questions about the nature of my business and treated me like I was hiding something. WTF? I didn’t know why until he asked me if I’d ever had another name. I told him yes and he asked me what it was. Sigh.

Now, I’m not the kind of person that hides that I’m trans. But sometimes it gets tiresome to have to explain myself. So, I tried to steer the conversation away from talking about my past. It didn’t work. Turns out when the bank ran a credit check on me, I got flagged. My ID number, he explained, was not associated with my name. WTF!

We cleared up the confusion when I told him about my gender change. Somewhere someone had neglected to inform me that Equifax needs a copy of my name change paperwork. I hadn’t thought of that way back when and no one’s ever given me grief over it before. I am happy to report that my financial advisor’s demeanour finally relaxed and the snarkiness evaporated. He realized I wasn’t a fraudster, and I realized he thought being trans was no big deal. Yay.

He’d initially thought that maybe I wasn’t who I said I was — that’s what it usually means when the ID number and name don’t match. Fraud.

Glad we sorted THAT out.

It’s been years since I’ve had any problems with my paperwork being in the wrong name and it reminded me of the early days of my transition. Damn, those were not fun times.

Next step: fax my name change to Equifax. Clear up confusion. Get my credit score. Make sure everything is in order.

Breathe. Move on with my life.

Sex, Lies and Suicide

If I had to choose only three events in my life that have shaped who I am today, they would be:

1 – My decision to transition (Jan 2004)

2 – My friend A—‘s suicide (Apr 2005)

3 – My father’s death (Sep 2005)

I’ve had other key events in my life, like the move from Prince George, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa when I was 11 years old. Or the trip my father and I made to the Yukon the year before that. Or in 2001, when I ended up in the psych ward on suicide watch. Or 1999, when I won a scholarship to study French in Quebec City.

But the impact those events had pale in comparison with the three events above.

My decision to transition

In 2004, when I decided to start hormone treatments, I had very little reason to live. I had been severely, suicidally depressed since my late teens and simply could not shake it, despite heavy doses of medication and regular counselling appointments. Transition was a last kick at the can before calling it a day and ending it. I mustered the last of my energy and dove into a new existence, a more authentic one. I had never been so terrified in my life. But the transition itself went smoothly. I got a job as a man just 4 months after starting hormone treatments. People called me “he” and “sir”, with a few exceptions, basically from Day 1. My height helped, as did the hair that sprouted all over my legs and arms, thick and dark. Later it sprouted on my face too, and I welcomed it with open arms. The physical act of transitioning seemed fairly painless. Emotionally, though, it wasn’t so easy.

The Suckiness of Suicide

As I recently learned at the Gender Odyssey Conference, the trans community’s suicide rate is astronomically, disproportionately, unacceptably high. While the general public has an attempt rate of 1.6%, 41% of trans people have attempted suicide. Think about that. That’s almost half of the trans community. That’s crazy.

When A— died, I wasn’t ready. Not that anyone can ever be ready for something that cuts so close to the bone. It broke something open inside me and left me bleeding in ways I didn’t know was possible. Part of me felt jealous that she got there first. Why couldn’t it have been me? I wondered. I was the one who was always on the brink of slitting my wrists. I was the one who talked about overdosing, hurling myself in front of oncoming traffic (something I’d never do, btw – as it’s a terrible thing to do to the person behind the steering wheel), or jumping off a bridge. Yet here I was, still alive. And the one person to whom I had always been able to reach out, had beat me to it.

But the real emotion it awoke, the one I still wrestle with on a daily basis, is the guilt of knowing I did not try hard enough to stop her. It’s quite common for suicide survivors to feel guilt; I’ve read the literature. But in my case I know it’s warranted. The day she died, she left me a voicemail, telling me she was going on a long journey. I could read between the lines. Her partner had contacted me a few days earlier to let me know that she was worried about A—. I had brushed her off. And when the message came in, I listened to it, dialed *69 to find out where she was calling from, and promptly let it go when the number was revealed as blocked. I went to see a movie with a friend knowing full well what A— was up to. That is, my head knew that her call was a suicide note. My heart, on the other hand, was completely dead. I simply shut down. A day later I called her partner to find out if she was OK. K— informed me that she had died. I felt like I was acting in play, or that any minute someone would shake me awake. But nobody did. It was all real. There was no going back.

I’m told I need to forgive myself; we all make mistakes. Besides, it’s very likely I couldn’t have done anything to stop her. Even if I’d been there to get her call. Or if I’d contacted her partner when I received that voicemail and we’d been able to track her down, she may well have killed herself another day. You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. I get all of that. But the guilt stems from knowing that I didn’t even try. I had given up on having a positive impact on her, or anyone else’s, life. I’d given up on my agency. I was simply an observer, separate from the world. What I did didn’t matter at all. Life just happened. That’s how I felt at the time. And it meant that I didn’t reach out when maybe I could have made a difference.

I wish I could’ve at least tried.

The Death of a Father-Figure

When my father passed away five months later, in September, it seemed like more proof that I had absolutely no effing control over the world. The timing couldn’t have been worse. He had found out only months earlier that I had started my transition (I had kept it a secret for fear of upsetting him and my mother). A co-worker had accidentally outed me when she referred to me by my male name in talking to my father (she didn’t know I was trans). My mother disowned me. My sisters refused to get pulled into the drama and simply stayed on the periphery, where they remain. It felt like Karma. Like what my mother had told me, and a few of my teachers too — that I was bad. That I was the architect of my own misery. I deserved to die, my mother wrote in her email messages; she wished I would’ve died instead of my father. Part of me agreed with her. My entire existence seemed like a waste of oxygen. Worse still, part of me felt like who I was, was somehow contributing to all the misery around me. Maybe my act of disobedience, my decision to transition, had unleashed the wrath of God. My father used to believe that AIDS was God’s way of punishing the gay community for their sinful acts. Maybe A—‘s and my father’s death was God’s way of condemning me too, for going against nature. For thinking I could defy God. My mother would certainly agree.

Moving on has proven challenging. Eight years later and I have a good job, a strong partnership, a home, a dog , friends. The suicidal feelings have faded, mostly. But the guilt, for the pain I caused my father and my family, for the lack of empathy that led me to dismiss A—‘s pain, or at least not reach out to her more, those feelings are still pretty raw beneath the surface.

Honestly, I don’t know how one moves on from that.

Learning to Lead

Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green

Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green

At the 2103 Gender Odyssey Conference in Seattle, I had the privilege of attending a workshop on leadership, with Jamison Green as the facilitator.

Green is a veteran activist, acclaimed author and the president-elect of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), an international multidisciplinary professional organization committed to promoting evidence based care, education, research, advocacy, public policy and respect in transgender health. Healthcare professionals across the globe look to WPATH’s guidelines to inform the way they treat their transgender clients.

The conference workshop was an open format discussion, with an audience of trans leaders of varying capacities. Many of those present talked about the difficulty of raising funds for anything related to trans issues. First of all, only not-for-profits are eligible for grants and funders want data to inform their decision. But you can only collect data on a population if you already have funding in place.

The only way we’re going to make headway as a community, Green explained, is to institutionalize the various spaces that impact us. E.g. insurance, healthcare, HR policies, government, education, to name only a few key ones. We need to do the research, get the data, and use the data to get the funding we need to provide better services for our community. No use waiting for others to do it for us.

He called upon each of us to lead by influencing and to not underestimate the power of disseminating information to those who don’t have it. One of the workshop participants talked about speaking with authority, even when you feel like you don’t really know what you’re talking about. That’s what he had to do when he became a de facto expert on all things trans after starting an online resource hub that drew questions from parents and trans people far and wide. Find the resources you need, suggested Jamison, and claim your space. With the internet, resources are more accessible than ever before.

I especially liked when Green said leadership is about empowering others. You lead by sharing your skills and knowledge with other people; but leadership is not about making yourself indispensable. Many would-be leaders make the mistake of wanting to do too much themselves or don’t know how to ask for help. Ultimately, though, we are only as strong as the people who support us. And that means allowing others to step up to the plate; trying to do everything yourself is a recipe for burnout.

Green acknowledged that it is tough to lead, that it is easy to get worn down, and that there really isn’t any money in it. But he does it because he doesn’t want to see people suffer anymore. That struck a nerve for me.

If I can do something, no matter how small, to make transitioning a little less painful for the next person, then I want to do it. No better time to start than now.

Gender Odyssey Conference 2013

If I have been quiet over the past few weeks it’s because I’ve been busy gearing up for my first attendance at the Gender Odyssey Conference in Seattle. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend this four day event for the first time since it was started back in the Spring of 2001.

With about 500 attendees, the conference is an opportunity for transfolk across the US and Canada (with some attendees from other countries) to mingle, connect and share experiences. The conference was a good mix of keynote speakers, workshops and discussion groups. In parallel with the general conference was a family conference for parents dealing with gender-non-conforming children. It was inspiring to see parents in attendance who were truly interested in doing the right thing for their children.

The first session of the conference I attended was Ryan Sallans’ overview of his experience getting the metoidioplasty done in Belgrade, Serbia. Sallans is an author and sex educator; he recently published his memoir Second Son.

In 2008, he flew to Belgrade to have the procedure done as the costs were significantly lower than they would have been in the States. He stressed the importance of doing the emotional work of preparing for surgery, as the procedure itself was extremely painful and the recovery period long and drawn out. Be prepared for the worst, he said, so there’s no surprises.

The procedure he underwent included the meta, a urethral lengthening, a scrotoplasty and a vaginectomy and altogether worked out to just under $27,000 for 4 round trip tickets and all the supplies he needed afterwards. He highly recommended taking someone with you as after the procedure you are not able to move around much at all and you are responsible for feeding yourself and buying groceries at one of the apartments where the doctors put you up for your 14-21 day recovery period.

The doctors themselves were extremely helpful and supportive. They make a point of taking out their patients for dinner and hand you a cell phone once you arrive so you can call them whenever you need them. He noted that it was worth going early if you could, as the culture is quite different and going early is an opportunity to explore your surroundings prior to the surgery.

As far as complications went, he had a few of them. He acquired Strep B during his stay there but it was successfully treated with a round of penicillin. He also had a few bouts of urinary tract infections (UTIs) and two stitches pulled loose during the flight back home. The pain, especially those first few days after the surgery was excruciating and he advised learning the word for pain (Boli in Serbian), as this guaranteed you a shot of painkillers in the butt – much welcomed. He said that the entire procedure was the most painful thing he’s ever gone through in his entire life.

Aspects that caused particular pain and discomfort were the stint that jutted out from the superpubic catheter that exited the body about 3 inches below the belly button. Walking around with a catheter bag for 30 days was no fun. Sallans described experiencing some leaking when he finally tried to pee through his urethra – an apparently common occurrence but one that resolves itself on its own in most cases.

The procedure itself was fascinating to hear him describe: the doctors used the inside of his cheek to form the urethral extension (presumably because it is self-cleaning tissue?) and then used the inner labia (labia minora) to create the penis shaft. Turns out female labia minora are made out of the same tissue that men’s penis shafts are made of. We are all born with the same toolbox; but the chromosomes make them develop differently. The doctors used the labia majora to fashion two scrotal sacs for his new testicle implants (18cc). The implants come with a lifetime guarantee. While Ryan decided against it, some folks go back for revisions to have the two scrotal sacks united into one for a more natural look.

In December 2010, two years after his original surgery, Ryan returned to Belgrade to get a mons resection (where they moved the penis and testicles up and outward). He is happy with the final result.

His main reason for getting the surgery was because of severe body dysphoria. He wanted to be able to stand and pee. The surgery has given him a lot of confidence and it has changed the way he walks and moves. While he decided against pursuing the phalloplasty, he was told that it is very easy for someone who has already had a meta to later get a phallo. In terms of the size of his penis, he said it was comparable to the size of his thumb. While he is unable to deeply penetrate his partner, what he now has is enough for him to psychologically feel like he is penetrating his partner.

What I got from this session was that you really need to be committed to getting this procedure if you’re going to make it through it. For me, I do experience body dysphoria but so far I am able to overcome it: my non-traditional genitalia work just fine in the bedroom. And I really do not want to risk losing any sensation down there.

Stay tuned for more feedback on the conference in my upcoming posts.

On Coming Out As Trans: The Early Days

On the few occasions that I have spoken openly about being trans, the rewards have been well worth it.

I don’t tell everyone I meet that I am trans. Why should I? For all intents and purposes I’m just another guy, slightly awkward, somewhat shy. Attention-grabbing isn’t my thing; I’d much rather work away in the background and let someone else claim the glory. But I also know that part of my healing process involves sharing who I am with the people who matter to me. And I’m learning, slowly, to be comfortable with who I am even if other people aren’t.

My First Post-Transition Employer

When I first transitioned I also happened to be unemployed. Having just finished a semester of university, and still in the early stages of hormone treatments, I hit the pavement in search of a job. Through a friend I landed an interview with a self-publishing company who was seeking the services of a prepress technician. That is, someone to receive manuscripts from would-be authors, lay out their book and design or assemble a cover. I had limited InDesign skills and even less graphic design skills (I had briefly volunteered at the university newspaper) but these were all things I could learn – and I did.

It so happened that I had interviewed with this particular employer 3 times before – as a woman. The fourth time was my lucky break – and it happened to coincide with my transition to manhood. I mentioned this in my interview – that if they called any of my references, they would refer to me by my female name and female pronouns. My interviewers seemed unphased by this piece of information. It helped that they had previously hired a trans person; they were not completely oblivious to the particular challenges I faced.

I worked there for a year and a half before I decided to move on. My father had died, my family had rejected me, and I was still wrestling with guilt over a close friend’s suicide. The work was no longer satisfying, the company was struggling financially, and I couldn’t function anymore. So I decided to go on EI. I asked my employer to lay me off and they obliged. I remain grateful for that.

The Government Funded Self-Employment Program

The thing about EI is that it doesn’t last forever. I was assigned a employment counsellor through one of the many government-sponsored employment agencies. My case worker was an eccentric man with a baritone voice who liked to cradle his junk with one hand as he explained to me the next steps of my process. I told him everything: about the years I’d struggled with depression, my mother’s reaction when I came out to her (she’d said it would’ve been better if I’d just died), my father’s passing and my feelings of unemployability.

He suggested that I might be eligible for government-funded re-training and we started the paperwork. Interestingly, he thought my trans status would cause less problems than my diagnosis of clinical depression. We would have to prove that I was too sick to work in a regular employment environment but healthy enough to attend school and work for myself. Not so easy.

All I’d ever wanted to be was a writer, but I had no faith in my abilities and didn’t see how I could make it work financially. I figured, if I was going to study something, I wanted to study something I’d actually enjoy. So I settled on attending the Vancouver Film School. They had a 12-month screenwriting program that also included learning how to write journalism, TV specs, children’s shows, documentaries and other types of creative writing.

As part of my application process I needed to speak with people in the industry and get them to say that they would hire me on their projects once I graduated. I looked up everyone and anyone I could find. I volunteered with an organization that screened documentaries in a restaurant setting. I befriended two documentary filmmakers who’d been in the filmmaking biz for more than 30 years. They said that if I got everything together for a project they’d consider coming on as a producer. I was elated. The way I saw it, even if I didn’t learn a thing from film school, I’d get a chance to network. And everybody knows that networking makes the world go round.

I completed the paperwork, put in the application to the school, including a writing sample about my life as a trans person. It worked; the school said yes. Now all I had to do was make sure that the government was on board. With my case worker’s support, I completed form after form, outlining my career plan and arguing that because of my challenging life experiences, I had plenty of material to draw on to succeed in the film business. I was approved; I was given a living allowance of $12,000 for the year and my tuition and text books were covered. A good thing, too, as the tuition wasn’t cheap: $20,000 for the entire program. There was no way I could’ve gone without the government support. I packed my bags and got ready to move to Vancouver.

I was eager for the next chapter of my life to begin.