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let-it-go-1432080-mThe Toast’s previous coverage of trans* issues can be found here.

“Life’s not worth a damn ‘til you say hey, world I am what I am!”– I Am What I Am from the musical “La Cage Aux Folles”

I was twenty-six when I realized I was a woman. I was deemed male at birth and raised as such in a devout Southern Baptist family. In family, sex and gender was never discussed other than that the gender roles my parents were taught were supposed to be kept. Homosexuality was deemed an abomination and everything I learned about sex was either from school or reading about it. Transsexuality was never even mentioned.

I will never forget the year I learned about it. It was 2002 and HBO showed a documentary called Southern Comfort. It’s the story of Robert Eads, a trans man dying from ovarian cancer because no doctor would treat him. The story was compelling and sad and it stirred feelings in me that I had never experienced. I could not pinpoint why, but I felt a kinship to them. I wasn’t comfortable talking to my parents about it, so I repressed it.

In 2003, I moved from home in the Atlanta area to a tiny town in Montana. Early that year, HBO released a film titled Normal with Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson. It is the story of a couple with two children married twenty-five years. In one of the early scenes, the husband comes out as a transsexual. The rest of the film concerns the gender transition and the family’s adjustment to it. That summer a book titled She’s Not There: A Life In Two Genders by Jennifer Finney Boylan was issued. Around the same time, I happened to watch a movie titled The Christine Jorgensen Story. It was odd that these three events would occur within three or four months of each other. Even odder was that I again felt about these the same way I felt about seeing Southern Comfort, but I never made the connection despite struggling with my identity. In November of that same year, I moved back to Oklahoma, where I’m originally from. In 2004, I foolishly got married and subsequently got divorced and moved in with my grandparents.

In 2005 my world was rocked. That year, the film Transamerica was issued. It is the story of a trans woman, played by Felicity Huffman, who discovers she has a son, goes to New York to get him, and then travels across the country to California for her surgery. I remember while watching the film that I finally knew who I was. After such a long struggle, I finally had an answer. It was like a giant puzzle that had finally been put together. It all made sense: secretly trying on my mother’s clothes, really liking dressing in drag on Halloween, wanting to switch bodies with my female classmates in high school.

So, one night, I told my grandparents while sobbing. My grandmother looked at me and said, “Well, that makes sense.”

“What do you mean?” I asked

“Well, you walk like a girl and you act like your mother.” I was shocked. I thought that the reaction would be quite negative. I came out to my other grandmother and her reaction was similar. Unfortunately, that changed. I changed with it and repressed my feelings so much that I didn’t even feel any gender dysphoria for a long time.

In the summer of 2006, I moved out of my grandparents’ house and moved into my own apartment. Slowly over time, I began feeling dysphoric again. I struggled and kept trying to convince myself that I was just a feminine man, not a transsexual woman. It didn’t work.

In the summer of 2008, I could deny my true self no longer. The stress of repressing it all brought me to planning to commit suicide by hanging myself at work. While planning this, the voice of God suddenly broke in and told me to stop. I was better alive as who I was meant to be rather than dead.

I began therapy shortly after and in October, I started taking hormones. I was amazed at the changes the higher levels of estrogen brought. My skin began softening, I cried easily, my breasts began growing, and the second best part was the crippling of my sex drive which drove me crazy. The best part was the sense of well-being it brought to me. I was becoming at home in my own body.

Me and DadFor a time, I dressed as Violet part-time; only on Wednesday nights when my transgender support group met. January 4, 2009, I went full-time, living my life as the woman I am now. I had a huge learning curve; I had to learn how to dress appropriately for the situation I was in, I had to learn how to dress for my age (I was dressing like an older woman), learn how to get out of a car properly. I managed to do it, though and began to pass six months into living full-time. In July, I legally changed my name, a very easy process. I simply had to pay a fee at the county courthouse, get a notice published in the legal newspaper, and go before a judge. That was the second highlight of that year.

As I began emotionally growing and physically changing into the person I was meant to be, life was good. I was happier than I had been in years and I began making friends. Unfortunately, I also lost some.

Labor Day weekend of that year, I went to Estes Park, Colorado for the convocation of Reconciling Ministries Network, a United Methodist affiliated organization working for LGBT equality in the church. There, I told my story of my transition and being asked to leave the Sunday school class at the Methodist church I had attended due to other members being uncomfortable with my transition. I also met two people who are wonderful people, a trans man and his wife, David and Deborah. David, and ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, had come out to his congregation after being in the closet for over thirty years. He is one of heroes and I consider David and Deborah to be my surrogate parents.

The next year, 2010, I went through the next major step in my transition. I knew I wanted the surgery to get a vagina, but I didn’t know when it would happen. I learned of a doctor in Portland, Oregon that performed transgender related surgeries. Since I didn’t know when I would have the big surgery, I decided to have an orchiectomy, the removal of the testes. Trans women who still have male anatomy must take a drug called spirolactone in addition to estrogen. Testosterone is stronger than estrogen and spirolactone blocks its production. Since the testicles make mostly testosterone, an orchiectomy means no more having to take spirolactone. The surgery was inexpensive. I paid for it with my tax refund that year. Coincidentally, David and Deborah lived in Portland then, so I stayed with them for a week while recovering.

When having surgery, it helps if the surgeon has a good bedside manner. Dr. N had a wonderful disposition. He helped make the surgery easy. Thank God, because the surgery was outpatient with local anesthetic. I was awake the whole time. I had a wonderful vacation afterwards and I really bonded with David and Deborah.

So, for the time being, I was happy with my transition, up to a point. I still wanted a vagina.

100068180248966245221I’m taking liberty in saying that for some trans women, getting a vagina is like climbing Mt. Everest. It can be a long, grueling, and expensive climb to the top, but in the end you feel like you can conquer the world. Others know they can climb if they want, but choose not to. Still others unfortunately can’t for various reasons, whether it’s due to health reasons, finances, or insurance companies not covering the surgery.

My climb began in May of 2011. Initially, I had no idea when my surgery would happen as I was in my first year of graduate school and working in retail. But that changed when someone choosing to remain anonymous paid for the surgery. I chose Thailand because the cost for surgery is much less than in the US. On average, it costs $20,000 or so in the US. My trip including surgery, food, lodging, and plane fare was around $10,000.  When the time came to go on my trip, I was ready. I was also nervous. Neither family nor the friends I had could go with me. So, on a Sunday morning, I flew from Tulsa to Chicago to Tokyo to Bangkok. This was my second trip to a foreign country (if Mexico counts), and the first international flight I had ever taken. The trip over was long, but surprisingly pleasant. I read and knit and watched The Hangover several times. When I finally got to Bangkok, the city greeted me with a hot, steamy embrace.

The morning after my arrival, the doctor’s driver picked me up from my hotel and drove me to the clinic. Bangkok traffic was like New York traffic on speed: everyone drove fast and crazy, even the ones on motorcycles. It was a relief to finally get to the clinic.

For this essay, I’ll call the surgeon in Thailand Dr. P. Dr. P was experienced, I knew that from my research, but his manner seemed brusque. I also would soon learn from experience that he was a sexist, body-shaming asshole. I found this to be ironic since he sought to help trans women become complete when he made shamed me for the body I had, I body I was born with and could change only so much. I was originally scheduled to have surgery that day, but forgot my bank card back in the States, so I had a few days to wait until it arrived via FedEx. The next days were spent in the hotel.

This hotel was recommended by Dr. P. One day, I was sitting in the dining room and was facing the front desk. At one point, I noticed an older Thai man with a much younger-looking, beautiful woman go to the desk, get a keycard from the desk clerk, and go upstairs. They had no luggage. This was suspicious to me and I found out later the hotel also doubled as a brothel. Between that and the dinginess of the place, I decided to go to a different hotel after I got out of the hospital. I wanted a better place to spend the two-and-a-half weeks after surgery.

One day while in the first hotel, I decided to take a trip to a yarn store. I love to knit. The store was beautiful and a few ladies all speaking Thai were busy working on scarves and shawls. The familiar air of camaraderie between knitters was most welcome.

The day before I had surgery, I was checked into Dr. P’s clinic and subjected to the second-most humiliating thing done to me while I was there (the first being when one of Dr. P’s nurses took a picture of my groin for medical purposes), an enema. I sobbed hard. That night, I hardly slept; whether it was from the excitement or adjusting to the twelve hour time difference, I didn’t know. The next morning, Dr. P came in and scolded me for hardly sleeping, despite the fact that I’d be sleeping for most of the day from anesthetic.

Dr. P prepped my left hand for the IV, but could not get the IV in. It hurt like hell because he was putting it in a different spot than I had had one put in before. I told him to try again at a different site and the second time was the charm. Rather than admitting his mistake, he looked at me and said, “I couldn’t get it in the first time because you’re too fat.” I was shocked and royally pissed off. At that point, I was fervently hoping he was good in the operating room, because I didn’t trust him as a person.

Finally, it was time to go into the operating room. With the help of one of the nurses, I padded down the hall, walked in, and got up on the table. At that moment, the weight of what was happening hit me and the tears came again. I was instructed to turn on my left side so the needle for the spinal block could be put in my back. I reached out and squeezed a nurse’s hand. Then I was off to dream land. When I woke up, I was in on my back semi spread-eagled, my crotch bandaged. For the next few days, I ate, slept, surfed the internet, and watched television that way.

Finally, the day came when I could finally see what I had yearned for for so long. Dr. P came into my room and pulled off the bandages. Next, he pulled out the packing from my vagina, the strangest feeling I have ever had. I asked the nurse for a mirror.

What the mirror revealed to me was amazing. Yes, the labia were black and blue, but it didn’t matter. I finally had what I had dreamed about for a long time. My vagina. My vagina. I had conquered Everest and was on top of the world. The view was incredible.

Since I had been at the top, the only thing to do next was to make the long trip back down to the next chapter of my life. As recovery began, I didn’t expect my surgery to fix all of my problems, it just fixed the biggest. Now I could simply live my life.

Now, almost three years later, I am still in graduate school studying personality, religion, and culture. Since my transition, I have also made another huge transition; after twenty-two years of being a Christian, I became a Jew in August of 2012. That’s a story in of itself. Despite the bumps and potholes in the road I’ve been on, life is great. Thinking about what I would have missed out had I succeeded in killing myself nearly six years ago, I’m in utter amazement.

Violet Fenn is a grad student, knitter, and feminist living in Chicagoland. She lives with yarn, books, and two cats.

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