Colleen sits across from me in a vinyl booth in a funky burrito restaurant. She is a self proclaimed hippy chick, with red hair and a multitude of freckles. She confesses that she put on makeup special for today and I’m amused because I did too. We’re also both vegetarians, both tattooed, both love sex, and both deeply spiritual. More than that, we each have 5 children. What’s different? Well, Colleen is currently a college student and I am not. Oh, and Colleen was born into a male body.
When I asked her about her gender, Colleen said, “I’m just a girl… I’m female.” While she says that binary gender (boy OR girl) is “bullshit,” she also tells me that she knew at 3 years old that she was a girl. Unfortunately, Colleen “come(s) from a place where they will beat you and hang you on the fence to die if you’re different.” So Colleen set out to do all of the really masculine things to disguise herself. She got married right out of high school, rode bulls, had guns, went big game hunting, fishing, had children, and was in the Army for 20 years.
Then a few years ago, after struggles with alcoholism and some gender experimentation and cross-dressing, Colleen realized that she couldn’t pretend to be a boy anymore. Her girlfriend at that time decided she couldn’t deal with losing her boyfriend like that, so they split. Colleen points out, “gender and sexuality are so not the same thing.” Because Colleen was attracted to women before her transition, she still is (although there’s that one boy). She’s a lesbian into natural hippy chicks. I flashed her my armpits.
But what does a gender transition look like, I want to know. Colleen introduced me to the “Standards of Care” – the directives that most of the medical community follow for transition from one gender to the other. Here is how Colleen explained it to me:
- A diagnosis of “Gender Dysphoria,” meaning that the birth gender doesn’t fit the person’s feeling of gender
- Intensive therapy with someone who specializes in gender issues
- Spend at least 1 year living as the gender you are becoming (RLE, or real life experience)
- Get a letter from your therapist recommending medical treatment
- Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
- Gender reassignment surgery
Colleen has progressed through the first 5 steps. Surgery is problematic for a few reasons, but mostly it’s extremely expensive and not widely available. This does mean that Colleen still has a penis and as she says, “I use my cock cuz I have one.” I was kind of surprised to discover that most trans folk still have original plumbing because I would not have guessed from outward appearances. Gender really is about what’s inside and how you present to the world.
For Colleen, taking hormone has been a blessing. She finds herself in better health than she has ever been in before, as though the her body now has the right chemical balance for the first time. Hormones have also started her breasts growing. She jokes that looking at them will make them grow. Later, I had her flash me in the restroom. The rest of the effects of hormones are similar to going through puberty. Colleen says, “I love what is happening to my body now.” She even likes the monthly hormonal cycles and bemoans not cramping or bleeding. (But she hates that she still has to shave facial hair – sometimes twice a day. Removing facial hair is a cosmetic change.)
Hormones have even changed Colleen’s sexual turn ons, although she says it’s, “not just the hormones, it’s the headspace. Sex depends on what’s going on emotionally.” and “sex is very emotional for me.” She’s experimenting with what is successful sexually now. She reports that it works about 90% of the time. I’m still kind of hung up on the chicks with dicks phenomenon, but then Colleen says, “I have never been really genitally focused sexually. I mean obviously, that’s where a lot happens (but) my whole body is an erogenous zone.” Oh yeah, that’s how I feel too.
So I want to know how Colleen’s family is responding to her transition. She has two small daughters who are 4 and 6 years old. How do you tell small children that Daddy is now Mommy? Well, in typical small child fashion, they work it out for themselves. Colleen is open to her children’s preferences as far as a title, but admits that it’s awkward to be called Daddy in the Ladies Room. The girls have taken to calling her DaddyMommy and more and more often just Mommy as they perceive that it makes her happy. They are dealing with the changes with great equanimity.
Not so Colleen’s father. She says, “My dad is John Wayne.” He believes that men don’t express emotion. He’s deeply in denial and has gone to great lengths to avoid talking about Colleen’s transition. About a year and a half ago, Colleen sent her dad a letter explaining what was going on. After 2 months without a response, she started to fear that she was losing her dad. She had a bit of a breakdown, but finally called her father. They spoke for 45 minutes about cheerful things they had in common, but nothing real. Finally Colleen asked about the letter, which he admitted he had read but believed Colleen had “crawled back into the bottle or was on something.” At this point Colleen had been sober for about about a year and was really angered by his response. She said, “Fuck you! I was sober then and I’m sober now. And this isn’t changing. This is for real.” He got off the phone pretty quick, but they can still talk as long as Colleen doesn’t mention anything about the sex-change. It’s a tricky situation to be in.
The only other discrimination Colleen has run into was getting beaten up during Gay Pride, after leaving a gay bar. As she points out, someone was going to get beaten, it might as well have been her. Still, it’s a shitty situation that would leave anyone feeling bad and she speaks of it with more calm than I could muster.
She tells me that it’s important to “be proud of your true self” and explains that she just has a birth defect – she should have been born female and wasn’t. I think she’s very brave and amazing. She has a charming way of maintaining a steely spine while looking at the positives in life. I want to help other people like her. I ask what she would tell people who are considering a transition. She says, “Fucking go for it because you have a chance to be happy for the first time. But! Get a hold of your issues and work on them. A sad boy will be a sad woman.”