Saturday, August 13, 2011

Photos of My Gender Transition

I'm making this post to provide some photodocumentation of my gender transition. That's what you see here: a tic-tac-toe of headshots of me over the course of the past 5 years. You can click on it to see it larger.

I feel some reluctance about posting these photos. I know many trans people fear to post transition photos under their real names for fear of losing their jobs or risking their safety in a transphobic world, but having postponed my transition until my career and family life were pretty secure, it's safer for me than for most to be open about my trans status. I'm white, I'm male, and I have a professional position—privileges enough to make me feel a duty to be open.

People are curious about the process of gender transition, and I do want to participate in demystifying it. I know that before I decided to transition physically, I looked at as many photos of trans people and their transition experiences as I could find, and I believe I should pay that forward, as it were, for other people who are considering gender transitioning. I also want to help cis people who are trying to educate themselves about trans experiences.

Still, I'm reluctant, because I'm unhappy with the way trans people are usually portrayed in transition photos: with the “before-and-after picture.” This started with the very first person reported to medically transition—Lili Elbe, who received an orchiectomy and vaginoplasty in 1930 in Germany. They spread around the popular media during the publicity over the transition of Christine Jorgensen in 1952. I've posted these classic images here. These photo diptychs misrepresent gender transitions in important ways.

A central problem is that the “before-and-after” photo trope presents gender transition as a purely physical process, one in which a doctor waves a magic wand and changes one thing into its “opposite”: EX GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY. It hypes a dyadic, polarized vision of gender, where three piece suits and uniforms switch to glamorous pearls and bonnets, perpetuating the idea that trans people are walking stereotypes, invested in binary ideas of gender. Many of us have much more flexible ideas of gender, and much less binary identities, but you don't see that in the before-and-after trope.

Note that the “before-and-after” presentation frames doctors as the real actors in gender transition. It's physical changes wrought by hormones and surgeries that are the focus. All of the difficult and spiritually transformative work that we who gender transition do—coming out to ourselves, our friends and families, our employers; negotiating the legal hurdles to transition; deciding which if any medical interventions to seek and trying to access them, often at great financial cost—is rendered invisible. One minute we're one thing, and in the next frame we're another. The challenging journey is missing.

This is why I put together nine headshots in picturing my transition thus far. I wanted to present snapshots of my journey, awkward and transformational at points that aren't pictured in the before-and-after dyads.

Here's a narrative to go with the photos: the first headshot shows me in early 2006 in standard “girl” presentation. That's the supposed “before” photo, but what does “before” mean? As an intersex person, I was never of the female sex. And I had, in fact, taken tentative steps toward transitioning back in 1991, but that was before accommodating gender transition was on the radar for most any business, and the “liberal” firm I was working for instituted a dress code just to stop me from wearing men's suits and ties. (Well, the code applied to everyone, but the lead partner of my law firm sat me down and explained that the partnership had drawn it up with me in mind. It required “women” to wear “professional feminine dress” including pantyhose and “light makeup.”) I abandoned the idea of social transition and turned my energies toward reproductive pursuits instead. I went with the flow, lived in my assigned sex, and did the best I could to present in a gender I didn't identify with.

Looking at the second photo of me in the blue shirt, you might see little difference, as I was still presenting as a woman, but major changes had happened. One was physical: I'd had my atypical set of internal reproductive organs removed, as they were causing problems for me. But while this physical change might be framed as an important medical transition step (as in addition to my three gonads I'd had my bicornate uterus removed), it wasn't the important thing that had happened in terms of my transition process. What was truly important was that I'd made new gendertransgressive friends, most importantly the woman whom I would later marry—an intersex person who had gender transitioned--and they were inspiring me. I was rethinking my life. I was dressing more androgynously, though that may not be visible to you. It felt real and important to me, though.

The third photo is the happiest one. This was the centerpiece of my gender transition. Again, you may see little difference. I was still wearing clothing from the women's side of the rack, though I'd cut my hair and stopped wearing much makeup. What was important wasn't something visible though: it was something internal. I'd made the decision to gender transition, and had started the social process. My close friends were all calling me “he” or “ze.” Making the decision and taking these first social steps felt profoundly liberating and spiritual to me, and I was transfigured. I think you can see it in my face. This is my key transition photo, and it's not one that would ordinarily be included in a before-and-after pair.

In the fourth photo, where I'm wearing stripes, my expression is very different. I think I look pinched and tired. This was a very trying period in my transition—the one in which I was pursuing legal and medical transition without yet having much luck. I hadn't yet found a way to get the therapists' letter I'd need to change my gender marker on my license or to access hormone replacement therapy with testosterone. I was worried about the timing of so many things—how to make my transition work with getting married to my partner, with coming out at work. And I was living a sort of double life, trying to present as male at home while having to live with being treated as a woman everywhere else.

The central fifth photo is the first one you see of me as an "official" male, at the end of August 2009. I'd been on testosterone, T, for only eight weeks and my name change was still in progress, but the school year was about to start, and I'd decided to come out to the world with the start of the semester to make things more manageable at work. What's interesting to me about this photo was that really, there had been little change in my body after just two months on T, but I look different anyway. That's the power of social transition. Coming out to the world and asserting my male status changed something subtle but important about how I lived in my body.

The rest of the photos are rather less interesting to me, which is ironic, since they're what tend to interest people unfamiliar with gender transition. These four photos document the changes in my face over the two years I've been on T, two from the first year and two from the second. Initially, to give clear signals to others that I was presenting as male despite my scanty facial hair, I got a pair of very classically male glasses and kept my hair very short. I'm not really a crew cut sort of person, though, so after the first year as my facial hair grew in more robustly, I started to let my hair grow out. In the first year I looked boyish and many years younger than I had the previous year. I was constantly being mistaken for a college student. Now I look like an adult again, though I know from surveying my students that people still underestimate my age by fifteen years. Transitioning to male is amusing that way.

And so we come to the last “after” photo, but hardly to the end of my journey. Again, the reason others tend to focus on for my not being “done” is physical: I've not had the top surgery I very much want. (It's not covered by my insurance and I can't afford it while supporting a family of three that includes two people with substantial disabilities and two gender transitioners.) But for me, the more important thing is that I'm not at all done with my evolution in my presentation as male. My masculine presentation has been quite conventional thus far, as I've felt it necessary as I try to address the percentage of the time I'm misgendered by others and called “she,” especially at work. But after two years of being officially a male professor, I feel I've done my part to give physical reminders to people. If others keep misgendering me, that's their problem and not mine, and I want to be more free in my selfexpression, and not have to be the most conservatively dressed man in the room at work. So I'm sure how I look will continue to evolve over time.

Having displayed my transition in photographs, I feel another spasm of anxiety. I feel hesitant to post images of my earlier life because I've had experience in how they are received by a good number of people--and it's because I looked fairly cute during the many years I passed as a woman. We have a sort of cultural narrative in the U.S. in which gender transition is sometimes tolerated, so long as it fits within a particular framework, and that framework focuses a lot on appearance. If you now look indistinguishable from a cis person, and you strike people as looking depressed and unconvincing in the gender you were assigned at birth, then people are more likely to accept you. And I strike people as having looked perfectly fine living as a woman. For this reason I've found that if I show people photos of my prior incarnation, they are suddenly less likely to see me as "really" a man, and to slip and call me "she," beard and all.

This is a sad and unfair state of affairs for most trans people. The entire basis of trans experience is that bodies do not determine gender identity. And while some trans men were gifted by birth with tall, uncurvy bodies, and some trans women by the luck of the draw found themselves with bodies that developed short and slight and hairless, that is not the majority experience. I'm more than a foot shorter than the trans woman to whom I'm married. I've had people shake their heads ruefully and tell me, "That's too bad," since it makes it unlikely we can "pass" together as cis people. And I find that just bizarre: you're sorry for me because I met the love of my life? That's not how love works ("Sorry, I can't date you because we might fall in love and you're not under 5' tall").

If someone meets the love of their life, and that person is the "wrong" color or gender, they may face serious pressure from family and community to give up on their love. But I would hope they would by willing to face discrimination and disapproval for the sake of love, rather than let some arbitrary aspect of the body in which their beloved was born weigh more than love's joy. And gender identity works just like love: it is based on valuing the self and soul over social understandings of bodies, because the flesh we're born in is arbitrary.

So: I know that some people will look at these photos and see my masculine identity as somehow falsified by how "normal" I appeared presenting as female. They expect to see that prior to transition a "real" trans man would have looked like a linebacker forced to dress in drag.

But in fact, when I look at my former self, drag is exactly what I see. It's just that as in everything I do, I tried to do it well. If you were forced to live years of your life as a gender you don't identify with, what would you do? I treated it as a show I had to perform, and I did my best to do so with campy panache. I wore leopard prints and rhinestones and ruby lipstick, and people were entertained. If you're going to do drag, it should be fun.

The thing is, what really makes drag fun is that at the end of the day you get to take off the costume and relax and live your normal life. And for decades, I couldn't do that. I was trapped, and it was exhausting. What I feel when I look at these photos is the great relief of finally getting to wash off the mask of makeup and relax as myself.

I hope you can appreciate my relief as well, and wish me well on my ongoing journey.


[Note: I retain the copyright on my selfportraits, but make them available under a Creative Commons license to those who wish to use then for noncommercial purposes, with appropriate attribution. They may not be published in any book, article, or other commercial medium or setting without my prior permission.]