Monday, January 23, 2017

Chapter 24 of Peeling The Onion - time to say this again

Gender dysphoria, trans gendered, transsexual, transvestite, cross dresser. These are just some of the terms used to refer to an extremely diverse variety of conditions and dispositions. It is probably true to say that every person who belongs to one of these groups, also belongs to some, or all, of the others. Many people are not really aware of the differences between these groups.

The following definitions were taken from The Merriman Webster’s Dictionary online.

Main Entry: trans·sex·u·al
: a person with a psychological urge to belong to the opposite sex that may be carried to the point of undergoing surgery to modify the sex organs to mimic the opposite sex

Main Entry: trans·ves·tite
: a person and especially a male who adopts the dress and often the behavior typical of the opposite sex especially for purposes of emotional or sexual gratification

Main Entry: cross-dress·ing
: the wearing of clothes designed for the opposite sex

Main Entry: trans·gen·der
: exhibiting the appearance and behavioral characteristics of the opposite sex

Main Entry: dys·pho·ria
: a state of feeling unwell or unhappy

My experience has been with transsexuals. When I discovered that the man I was living with had every intention of doing all in his power to become the woman he believed himself to be, I gained considerable insight into this very unhappy condition. Most transsexuals are bisexual, and John fully expected me to accept his transformation to Jane without consideration for the fact that I was, and am, heterosexual. I was prepared to give emotional support, and a certain amount of financial support, but as far as I was concerned, our relationship was over.

It is probably superfluous to mention that it came as quite a shock to discover that my tough, motorcycle racing, boyfriend was not exactly what I believed. John was not very articulate, and he didn't come right out and say he was transsexual, it was a while before I really understood the implications of what he was trying to say.

At first I thought he was telling me he was bi-sexual, then I started to suspect that he was trying to tell me that he was a cross-dresser. In my extreme innocence—or should I say ignorance? I thought "that will go away with the love of a good woman“. It didn’t. No matter how hard I tried to believe that I could convince him that a man was all I wanted him to be, he was not happy. I had to accept that I could never supply what it was he believed he wanted most.

It was not just luck that had John and I were living in San Francisco at the time. We were both living in Austin when we met, he deliberately made the choice to move there because he knew that it was one of the better areas to find the support and medical assistance he required.

Over a period of about 6 months, we found, through newsgroups on the Internet, support groups for transsexuals. We got names of psychologists, endocrinologists, and surgeons specializing in gender dysphoria. We also gathered information on hair removal and cover up make up—this was the make up used to cover scars and birthmarks but also worked relatively well disguising facial hair growth. We balanced the cost and effectiveness of electrolysis versus laser hair removal and started the long process to get John to Jane.

Transsexuals believe themselves to be trapped inside the body of the opposite gender. Try for one moment to picture how that must feel? As a woman, I tried to imagine what it would be like to stumble into the bathroom when the alarm invades my sleep, to be greeted by my reflection in the mirror—24 hours of stubble on my chin, heavy eyebrows, hairy chest - and all the other male parts. What a way for a woman to start the day! Small wonder there is a very high incidence of suicide among the transsexual population.

The transformation process is controlled by law. The first step is to find a sympathetic psychotherapist. The law requires that the transsexual under go therapy for a specified period of time, in John’s case, 3 months. At the end of this time, the therapist will, if all goes according to plan, issue a letter, which states that the patient is a suitable case for Sexual Reassignment Surgery (SRS). With this letter, John was able to obtain hormones on prescription, from the endocrinologist (who happened to be a transsexual herself). Hormone treatment is the first big step.  Large doses of female hormones, together with testosterone blocker, will have immediate effect. Breasts start to grow, the growth of body hair is inhibited, skin softens and aggressive tendencies more usual in the male are replaced by the irrational tendencies more usual in females.

Another reason that the psychologist’s letter was so very important is that it enabled John to get a certificate from the endocrinologist, stating that John was undergoing treatment to prepare for SRS. This document allowed him to change his driver's license - (s)he became Jane, and the M on her license was changed to F.

One of the major controls put on transsexuals (they refer to themselves as TS’s) is that they must live for one full year as the gender they are planning to switch to.  In John’s case, he must live as Jane—in every possible sense. Dress as a woman, take hormones regularly, present herself to the outside world as Jane, at work and at play. This is very much more difficult that anyone can imagine. John was almost 6 foot tall, weighed at least 200 pounds and had black hair.  It is not easy to hide a 5 o’clock shadow when the hair coming through is thick and black. Electrolysis is painful, and the amount of hair that we are talking about is horrific. It will grow back. It takes approximately 4 years of monthly 4 hour sessions of electrolysis to effectively remove facial hair. One of the really difficult side effects is swelling and discoloration, albeit temporary. John was so desperate to make the transition, he once underwent 7 solid hours of electrolysis. This cost approximately $350. His face was so swollen and painful, he was unable to go to work for 2 days—he said that he had severe reaction to some dental surgery, this allowed him to appear on the third day with a still swollen face.

Other precarious issues include public toilets.  As a transsexual man, living as a woman, visits to the public toilet can be a humiliating, and often very dangerous experience. They are frequently identified by the other women using these facilities, fear and ignorance drives these women to assume something perverted and call for help. Many transsexual men I have known have been badly beaten—because they were using a public ladies toilet and, in the jargon of the TS—they didn’t ‘pass’.

The TS support group that we found was a great source of interesting information and most fascinating people. The people I will introduce you to later in this article.  The information included one very useful, if bizarre, piece of information. The Veterans Association (VA) is an association that handles the care of all those who served in the American military. John had gone directly from school, into the Army, where he served for 2 years. I later discovered that a large number of male to female transsexuals joined the military. I suspect this was a way to attempt to disguise their gender dysphoria, immersing themselves in the life of the typical male. As a result of having served in the military, John was entitled to claim any and all of the perks that the VA had available. Cheap mortgages and free medical care being the main ones.

What he didn’t know, but discovered at the support group meetings, is that the VA had a clinic in San Francisco, dedicated entirely to the care of ex-military transsexuals. This clinic supplied free hormones, psychological and medical attention, even plastic surgery. The only thing it did not supply was the final SRS surgery.  John signed up at the VA clinic and started to get his medication and therapy there. He also got a nose job, and a chin job, to refine his features.

At this point I was no longer living with John, who had metamorphosed into Jane. The violence continued and I am not sure how much longer I would have tolerated it, but that, coupled with the prospect of being forced to live with a violent woman pushed me to get some common sense and find the strength to get out.  I was lucky enough to have two very good friends, a gay couple, who took me in and cared for me while I recovered from a particularly ugly incident, which included a loaded, pump action, shot gun.  After 6 weeks with them, I started to put my life back together, convinced that I would never again allow myself to be treated that way. And I really do believe that, should another man lift a hand to me, I will be gone.

John and I kept in touch, once I left, she no longer attempted to use violence to try to control me, but it was clear that she thought she could get me back by behaving in a more civil manner and (s)he frequently called on me for help in explained how a woman might feel about various things she was experiencing.

Her next stage was going to be the final SRS operation. She had to decide where this would be done. There are a number of very good surgeons in the US who specialize in SRS, but the cost was prohibitive. $10,000 was not unusual. The alternative was to travel out to Thailand. where there was a surgeon who had made this his specialty. The cost of the travel and the surgery was still very much less than the closest price available in the US and the waiting lists were not as long. In the US Jane could expect to wait up to 8 months for an appointment, let alone the surgery. Despite the idea of such major, painful, surgery so far from home and support of family and friends, Jane opted for Thailand. When her year of living as a woman was up, she headed to The International Hospital in Phuket Island, Thailand and there she finally became Jane.

The preparations for this trip were understandably complicated. While she had a driver’s license that stated she was ‘F’, her passport was still in her male name, and declared her to be male. This had to be changed before she could travel and the process was torturous. She had to present herself at the passport office, with all the documentation from therapists and endocrinologists, stating that she was a male to female SRS candidate. This meant that she had to stand in a room full of people, as we all know passport offices are never empty, and explain to the confused, and possibly deeply prejudiced, person behind the desk, why she needed to change the gender on her passport. Mortification and humiliation are an understatement of the way she felt.

No one can convince me that a transsexual is looking for attention, or has any trivial reason for going through what they have to go through to achieve their dream. The sad thing is that dreams, once achieved, are so very often not all they are cracked up to be. Many TS’s find that life does not suddenly become transformed because they do. Life frequently becomes much more difficult. They must continue to take female hormones for the rest of their lives. Electrolysis continues for years, and the growth is still difficult to hide towards the end of the day. Finding work, and supplying references for past employment is a major hurdle.

Many TS’s are ostracized by family and friends and prejudice is a constant problem. Many are attacked and beaten and/or raped. However, at the support group, I did meet many who were fully supported by family.

The first, and only, support meeting I attended was a fascinating and educational experience. It was a Saturday afternoon, we arrived—John still in male character, as the pot luck lunch was being served. We were welcomed with the utmost hospitality and warm welcome. I looked around in amazement at the people, wondering who was transsexual and who was support. The group was for TS’s and their support people.

Once the food was served we all sat at trestle tables and the active conversation around me indicated a group of people who knew each other well. Everyone was very careful to draw John and myself into the group, they probably also wondered which of us was the TS … or were we both? I sat opposite a woman close to my own age, with curly red hair and a beautifully complementing green print dress. After introductions we discovered that we both worked in the same area of the software industry, quality assurance.  On my left was another woman, also close to my own age, big boned and somewhat butch in appearance, and on her other side a young teenage girl, clearly her daughter, who reminded me so much of my own daughter at that age, about 16. I was curious to know who they were supporting.

Across the room there was a strikingly beautiful black woman, beautiful as only black women can be, with those exotic features and coffee colored skin. She was accompanied by a slight, but muscular black man - dark velvet black. Beside them was the minister, in who’s church hall this group met - he was about 70 years old and a kindly, gentle old man with grey hair and a wispy beard. Next to him was a couple who were hard to identify - in any other setting I would have said a very butch woman and her brother. If it were not for the beard on the ‘brother’ I would have guessed two butch lesbians. Next to them was a slim, sultry blond, Jayne Mansfield lookalike—for those of you who are of my generation. She was alone.

At this point, I only identified one TS for sure (apart from John). The lady who greeted us on our arrival, I was sure was male to female. Her support person was a little soft and sweet elderly lady, everyone’s grandmother. I spoke to her later and she told me that she had always wanted a daughter to share ‘female’ things with. When her son, a very successful lawyer, decided to follow his heart and become her daughter, she never waivered in her support. I admired that woman tremendously, though I couldn't help wondering if there was a clue somewhere in that story to the eventual outcome—be careful what you wish for?

After the meal, it was time for the support people to move into another room. The normal process was that the TS’s stayed and discussed their issues, while the support people did the same in the next room. Each group having to deal with such different and varied problems.

As I got up from the table to depart with the other support people, it was so astonishing to see who stayed and who left. Little Brianna, the 16 year old, long blond hair-swinging teenager, remained seated while her 5 foot 10 inch heavy built mother stood up. My red haired software friend remained seated. Of the black couple, the obvious, velvet-black, male stood up; the Whitney Houston beauty remained seated. The blond bombshell I was so envious of, she remained seated. The butch couple, the bearded ‘brother’ remained and the butch sister left. I later learned that she was a lesbian and he was a female to male TS, and they were planning to marry. The minister remained. He was also female to male. All of the others were male to female.

In the support room I got a more detailed background on the group.  Brianna had worried her mother, a single parent, since she was a small boy. She would hide in the closet and hated to go to school. Becky, the mother, had two boys, Brianna and her older brother. She became aware that there was something seriously wrong and, with the help of a very perceptive psychologist, realized that Brianna was not happy as a boy. The amazing thing is that Brianna’s older brother as equally supportive. Later I had to listen to Jane complain at length about how she never got such an opportunity before it was too late and testosterone had done the damage.

We never returned to the support group. I am still not sure why, but I know that whenever the subject came up, Jane got very agitated. We did meet many of the people from there under other circumstances. And through them, many other TS’s.

There was Bronwyn, the six foot 250 pound, silk clad, loud mouthed lady, who frequently forgot she was a lady and coughed with determination, spitting on the sidewalk. Her story was particularly sad. She told me that she had married as a young man, to Helen, a lesbian childhood friend. Both were in the military. They had a complete life plan drawn up. They would have children, then Helen would support the family while he went through his transition. Then they would live as a lesbian couple, together with the two daughters they did have. The tragedy was that Helen was on a military mission when the troop transporter she was on, crashed into the side of a mountain with no survivors. Bronwyn had to make the choice—she gave up all plans to follow her dream to become a woman, remained in the military and brought up her daughters alone. Once the girls were old enough, she retired from the military and pursued her plans to become a woman.  Incidentally, her daughters supported her totally—one of them heterosexual and married and one a lesbian.

Then there was Margaret—who was later to become Jane’s domestic partner. When I first met Margaret I didn’t realize she was a TS. She was very tall, but slim and willowy. She was not very bright, but very sweet. Jane was totally enamored with her. Her story was also very sad, but in a different way to Bronwyn’s. She had been sexually abused by her step father, as a young boy.  Her first major relationship was with another male to female TS, who was extremely physically violent and used to knock her about regularly. He finally committed suicide. After that, she got involved with a family—a couple with an 8 year old son. They moved into her home, restricting her to one room, she worked long, hard hours, to support them. She finally managed to remove them from her home when she met Jane. Then Jane moved in and life continued pretty much as before for poor Margaret.

I will never be able to decide if transsexuals are born, or created by abuse, neglect and their environment. But one thing I do know is that the path they choose is neither easy nor rewarding. Apart from the long process of electrolysis, the SRS which has got to be a hideous and painful process, most TS’s will also subject themselves to trachea shaving—the Adam’s apple is one of the main reasons that a TS is identified. They will also spend time, effort and yet more money on voice therapy, which will go a long way to produce the feminine tones that will help them to ‘pass’, but no amount of voice therapy will alter a cough, or a spontaneous laugh. There is as high an incidence of suicide among transsexuals after SRS as there is before.

I have met a few TS’s who have managed to create the life of their dreams, or at least come close enough to the dream to make the process worthwhile. These have all been misfits as males. Short and slight, it was not a big effort for them to pass as females, even at the early stages. Laura worked in the University in San Francisco as an Information Technologist. She was one of those energetic, contained women that we all admire and envy. Long, dark brown hair, fine featured, with a figure she did not have to make an effort to maintain. She transitioned on the job—something that all TS’s want to be able to do. Sadly, this is very rare. Few employers are understanding enough to tolerate it.

When I first met Laura she had just transitioned and had 8 months to go before she could have SRS. A year later I heard that she had sailed through her surgery and was engaged to be married. She was one of the very few who had managed to find a relationship with a man who accepted her transformation.

If I had one wish for those human beings so afflicted, it would be tolerance from their fellow human beings.