From Boy to Man: Hope for the Future

resized imageSo, for those of you who’ve been following my blog, CallHimHunter, you know that I have a transgender child. To be specific, my son, assigned female at birth, told me that “she was a he” about three and a half years ago. Since then, we’ve actively been supporting Hunter to enable him to successfully transition and live as male.

When he first came out to me I knew that I would support him and help him in any way that I could so he could be a happy, healthy, productive member of society. I wanted him to be his authentic self and to live in a way that would accomplish that. What I didn’t immediately embrace was the idea of medical intervention. I didn’t know anything about being transgender so the idea of hormone therapy was frightening, to say the least. The “surgery” conversation was not yet on the table but I knew that Hunter was not willing to live with his “girl” parts indefinitely.

I haven’t been one of those parents who spent any time grieving for a daughter who is gone or for what could have been. Sure, there are moments of feeling wistful; perhaps the sight of a photo from years back or the memory of my two girls playing together bring up feelings that I can’t do anything with. If anything, I feel so grateful that I have a teenager who is loving, confident, and outspoken and not ashamed to be who he is at the core of his being. It doesn’t get much better than that.

We’ve worked hard to get to this place. We’ve had a lot of support and cheer-leading from all over including some unexpected places. And, Hunter and I have somewhat of an unspoken agreement; we each do our part to help his transition along. For more than a year he has talked about “top” surgery*.

*This is the removal of breast tissue and the masculinization of his chest. It’s a necessary surgery for most trans-masculine people. And, it means no more binding. The long term effects of binding aren’t good and often leave trans guys with bruised ribs, inability to take deep breaths or exercise properly.

There were a lot of considerations. This was a big step in Hunter’s transition and deep down, I knew that if I dragged my feet at this point that I was just delaying the inevitable.  However, we needed to figure out how to pay for this (insurance was not going to cover any of it) and which top doc was the most affordable and closest geographically which would minimize travel expenses. Also, in terms of timing, this summer was ideal. He was too old to be a camper and having spent the last eight summers away at camp, he needed a distraction. Next summer he will be eligible to be a counselor and any school break didn’t seem long enough for a full recovery.

THE BIG DECISION

So, after going for a consultation back in February with Dr. Daniel Medalie (Cleveland Plastic Surgery), we committed to helping Hunter achieve his goal – finally having a male contoured chest that would allow him to go shirtless at the beach and really start to feel like a young man. When the surgeon’s summer schedule opened up we grabbed July 21 as The Day. The countdown began.

For Hunter, it seemed as if the day would never come. For me, it was coming too quickly. Then, one day in mid-June I received a call from the doctor’s office. It seemed we had overlooked a very important detail when we booked the surgery date. The Republican National Convention was scheduled to take place in Cleveland the week we were to be there. As an aside, the irony was not lost on me. Dr. Medalie’s secretary called letting us know that due to the RNC, there wasn’t a hotel room in sight. We could come and go on the same day and keep the surgery date or, we could reschedule for four days later.

Well, I don’t know about you, but driving back and forth (nearly eight hours in the car) in one day seemed exhausting and not practical. Not to mention the fact that on the way home we’d have a kid who just had major surgery. We could not predict how he would be feeling and it felt like a risky choice. Naturally, Hunter didn’t want to push the date off but we overruled the decision. We booked a new date and immediately checked hotels to be sure that we had overnight accommodations.

A FEW DAYS BEFORE SURGERY

I was a nervous wreck. All I could think about was “what if something goes horribly wrong?” I have spent the last 40+ months helping my child transition; supporting evolution from the daughter I thought I had to the son he was meant to be. I was terrified that I would lose him. There, I said it. I did not grieve the loss of a daughter; I celebrated this human being who was so brave and unique and complex. The thought of getting to this point and losing (my child) was more than I could bear. I played mind games. I pushed down hidden meaning and foreshadowing in every conversation, TV show and article. I was on the verge of falling apart.

JULY 25

Fast forward to the morning of the surgery. I am sitting in the hotel lobby waiting to head to the surgery center; I’m finishing my coffee and texting my friend (who became my lifeline at the very beginning of this journey and is one of the most level headed people I know) – I tell her how worried I am. I reveal to her that the idea of anesthesia is so frightening that I’m a basket case. She calmly tells me in her kind, ER doc voice via text, that I have nothing to worry about. That they “will watch him like a hawk.” This is what I needed; my emotions were spiraling out of control. I couldn’t let my neurosis get in the way of this momentous event for Hunter; he deserved this day and was entitled to my full support and as much positivity as I could muster.

ONE DAY POST-OP

I’m not sure where to begin. The mash-up of emotions is both overwhelming and affirming. Two days prior I couldn’t imagine this day; couldn’t let myself overcome the complexity of fear and apprehension. On this long awaited day, we revel in relief and I, once again, take on caregiver-in-chief. Hunter slept through the night which was a blessing for him and for me. Neither one of us had slept much the night before and we both needed some rest.

Because Hunter’s chest was covered with bandages and a compression vest we couldn’t see the surgical results. We just had to trust that the team performed their magic as anticipated; we would have to wait a few days to actually see the results.

THE BIG REVEAL

After being home for just a few days, we headed out early to make it back to Cleveland for a late morning post-op appointment. I am beyond excited for this. Hunter is tired, irritable and complaining of boredom from the backseat. One would think he would be jumping out of his skin with anticipation. Until now, all my energy has gone into getting Hunter to this point. The advocacy, the unconditional love, the blogging, the creation of Ally Moms, and the formation of Stand with Trans – it’s all been for him…and for all the Hunters out there in this world who need to know that they are who they are and that they matter.

Without fanfare, we are shown to the exam room by Mary, Dr. Medalie’s nurse. Almost immediately she begins to undo Hunter’s compression vest (worn to hold bandages in place and protect the stitches and delicately placed nipple grafts). Once the vest was open she gently removed each drainage tube. One big hurdle down. Then, ever so gently, Mary peeled back the surgical foam that was adhered to his chest guarding Dr. Medalie’s skilled craftsmanship. Finally, the sterile pads are lifted. And, just like that we are treated to the most beautiful sight; Hunter’s man-chest is revealed. I could feel the warmth of raw emotion envelope me as I blinked back tears of joy, love and relief for my son.  This marked a new beginning for my brave, powerful child who, under no uncertain circumstances, knows who he is.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Hunter is starting to talk about life after high school (senior year is coming up). He can now see himself having a future. He can see himself as an adult male making choices about family, career and life. Take a moment to think about this. Envisioning a future is a concept that most of us take for granted. For trans teens like Hunter, their dreams about a future are pretty laser focused on being able to live as their true selves. Until that can happen, any other conversation about life beyond the present, is nearly impossible.

For more resources and a list of surgeons, check out Stand with Trans.

The Burden of Being (Trans)

backpackingSome days I feel as if I’m carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. Between running my own business, the needs of my husband and children, community commitments, trans-advocacy and personal well-being, there are times when I just don’t know how I’ll get it all done.

I worry about doing the right thing, meeting deadlines and living up to expectations. I lay awake concerned that I didn’t return a phone call or check on a sick friend. Some nights the weight of all the worrying knocks me out cold, some nights there’s too much neuro-interference to sleep at all.

Admittedly, some days the burden of trying to please everyone is just too much. There’s guilt in wanting to just please myself.

Hunter returned home from camp a month ago.  He spent 40 days just being himself in the purest of environments, completely unplugged and unburdened except for the responsibility he shouldered as part of the camp community. He wasn’t a “trans” kid at camp. He was just himself.

The weight he carried was his contribution to the group. His back hunched under the complexity of his pack but it was a privilege not a burden to traverse the trails with his belongings so thoughtfully assembled.

If you have a transgender family member, friend or acquaintance, you need to know they bear the burden of just being. There is always something to worry about. If they are FtM (female to male), you can be sure that they obsess over clothes that give them a more masculine looking chest. If they are pre-op/pre top surgery, then the goal is to have the perfect binder/chest compression garment to insure that they are completely flat.

For the MtF (male to female) individual, there are other concerns. A post-pubertal trans woman will often worry about her voice. Is it too deep? Does it sound masculine? Is the adam’s apple pronounced? Most of us never gave this a second thought, but guys and girls speak differently. The cadence of our words are different. The amount of words that females use in conversation differ significantly than the number of words uttered by males.

Then, there’s the walk. For a trans* person who wants to express themselves as a gender other than the one assigned at birth, they often find it necessary to relearn how to walk and talk. Guys take longer strides, they don’t sway at the hips, their stance is wider, they stuff their hands in their pockets, and so on. Trans* individuals work hard to alter their gender expression and overall presentation so the public’s perception of who their are begins to match up with their own identity.

So, the burden of being, when someone is transgender, is immense. Add that on top of all of the other everyday stuff that we stress over and that pack is almost impossible to lift, let alone carry.

For additional resources, visit Stand with Trans or the Ally Moms web page.

 

Becoming Male (part 1)

Hunter campFor FtM trans guys, one of the things that is high up on the list of wishes is to have a masculine chest. This means a “boob-free” upper anatomy. Guys who are born anatomically male get to swim without a shirt on. They get to shower without having to hide their chest. They get to see a body that matches their identity.

Trans guys who are pre-op not only have to swim with their shirt on but with a chest/compression binder as well. Not only do these guys have to endure the binder to hide their breasts, but now they are wearing two layers of wet stuff clinging to their upper half.

As a parent of a trans teen we are facing the reality of our son undergoing surgery. No parent wants their child to have major surgery — for any reason. In this situation, however, surgery will make a difference in the way Hunter is viewed, the way he views himself and how he feels as a human being.

Hunter recently turned 16 and is dreaming of a time when he can swim without a shirt or be a camp counselor  and not worry about showering or having to cover up his upper half. Top surgery for Hunter will be life changing. Planning for college and what kind of housing he will have access to will be made simpler if his body is beginning to match up to his gender identity.

When Hunter first came out to us he was in a hurry to get started with hormone therapy. This, in his mind, was what he needed to begin his journey to manhood. We understood that he had been researching for quite some time and trying to find just the right time to come out to us. And, even though our goal from the beginning was to support his transition, we needed time to process, research and understand before we could give the green light to any eventual steps.

Planning for top surgery is one of those steps. As a woman, it is difficult for me to understand. As a parent, I can barely stand to think about it. However, for Hunter, having breasts is an undesirable by-product of being born with female parts while identifying as male. Having “boobs and a vagina” (as he puts it) causes a significant amount of body dysphoria. He has good days and bad days. I am thankful for the good days and concerned for the bad.

While we are not rushing this process, we are starting to talk about it. Michigan is not one of the states that covers this surgery. Some private insurance plans offer coverage for transgender services. We are not so fortunate. It is costly and definitely not something we planned for.

For those who are unfamiliar with FtM “top surgery,” the procedure not only removes the breasts but shapes the chest to look masculine. This man-sculpting is an art-form that trans guys can only achieve through an expert surgical procedure. Trans guys are willing to have difficult, often painful surgeries so they can emotionally feel more like the gender in which they identify.

Hunter recently said that “looking in the mirror is always a surprise.” In his mind, he is male and is often shocked by the image looking back.