Young Transman

Friday, July 15, 2005

Question

I am an 18-year-old, gay, pre-treatment FTM. I've been aware of my identity for about five years now. I've read much of your work and I've been very impressed, so I suppose that is why I am asking you this.

What am I supposed to do when it feels hopeless? I have nightmares almost every night about being trapped like this forever, about never finding peace within myself. I'm so sure of what I want to be, but it often seems like nobody is on my side. I've gone to therapy and, due to a huge fiasco, my treatment has ended. I can't seem to get medical advice from my healthcare providers. I haven't had anybody to talk to about it in months. It's taking so much out of me, and it just hurts so much. I sometimes feel like I can't even get out of bed in the morning, because what's the point?

My existence is constantly invalidated by unsupportive family, my straight and gay friends alike, some of whom I've been attracted to. But I'm nonexistent on their romantic radar. And a slew of people inside and out of the GLBT community who deny the existence of gay FTMs. I'm confused, they say. FTMs shouldn't like other boys. if I do, I must be a straight young woman.

I was hoping maybe you could just give me some advice about how to keep my hope up. Five years later, and I feel even worse than ever. Does it get better after hormones? Does the emptiness one day simply disappear? Will I ever feel whole?

Answer

Thank you for your compliments about my work. I'm really glad to hear that it has made a difference in your life. For non-transgendered readers, let me explain that an FTM is a female-to-male transsexual or transman, a person who was assigned a female gender at birth who is extremely uncomfortable with feminine secondary sex characteristics and societal expectations of women. (Of course, there are also MTFs, male-to-female transsexuals or transwomen.) Psychotherapy does not cure gender dysphoria, the psychiatric term for this discomfort with one's assigned sex at birth. Most people who have intense gender dysphoria will choose to use medical technology to modify their bodies so that they fit their self-image. They will dress, speak, move, and relate to others from a male role. The process of gender reassignment can include taking testosterone, getting chest surgery to reshape the torso into a male form, or genital surgery. Many transmen do not have the genital surgery because it is expensive, and the capacity for sexual gratification may not be present afterward. If you'd like to learn more about FTMs, you might want to read my book, Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism; Jamison Green's book, Becoming a Visible Man; Jason Cromwell's Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities; and Loren Cameron's Body Alchemy (portraits of transmen, including some photographs of genitalia).

It seems to me that your quality of life depends on addressing two problems: your gender identity and your depression. Don't wait to be given hormones before you get help for the second problem. Becoming less depressed will help you to figure out how to get medical help to transition. Canada's national health service is notorious for making transsexual people wait a long time before being given hormones, much less surgery. I believe you are not being taken seriously because you are so young, but specialists in human development state that children's gender identities are formed by age two or three. I am not surprised to hear that you were aware of being an FTM five years ago.

See if you can find a therapist in your area who will work with you on the issue of depression. It may be appropriate for you to get evaluated for medication. If your relationship with one psychiatrist has been cut off, that doesn't mean you can't start over again with somebody else. There are many mental health workers who can give you good therapy who aren't necessarily doctors. One of them may be able to refer you to a better psychiatrist. Keep on trying until you find somebody who is kind, open, and validating.

Taking testosterone will probably make some of your distress abate. Being able to develop male secondary sex characteristics like facial hair, a high libido, a deep voice, and increased muscle mass in your upper body will help you to feel more at home in your body. But I won't lie to you and tell you that it's a perfect fix. Testosterone is a potent chemical that can harm your liver, raise your bad cholesterol, or cause your body to make too many red blood cells. You need to be monitored by a doctor while you are taking it and get regular blood tests to make sure your body is tolerating the drug.

In order to pass as male, most FTMs have to get chest surgery. The more male your face and body become, the more you will want to pass completely. So you need to start figuring out how to get chest surgery as soon as you begin hormones. Being in an in-between place, looking like both a woman and a man, is a dangerous situation in our society. It makes it very hard to find a job, get an apartment, or meet people. You are also at an increased risk of being harassed on the street or assaulted. You need to network with other FTMs in your area to find out how they navigated the public health system. It's not impossible to transition in Canada, after all. There are some countries in eastern Europe and elsewhere that make it illegal to transition, or simply don't provide any assistance to their transsexual citizens.

I started taking testosterone about six years ago. I had chest surgery two years into that process. I pass completely as a guy, and most of the time I forget that I have any kind of unusual history. I feel very lucky to have good friends, some family members who are accepting, and a boyfriend. For many FTMs, this is enough. They want to stop here. I am grateful that my clit was enlarged by testosterone, but it isn't big enough for me to see it as a penis. Men have male genitals, and I would prefer to have that body configuration as well. But genital surgery is out of my reach financially. So I feel that I am only halfway to where I want to be. It is sometimes a struggle for me to allow other people to touch me or give me sexual pleasure. But I tell myself that everybody has an imperfect body, and I am not the only man who sometimes feels inadequate size-wise. I know I am a good lover. My partners don't lack for any sensation that they desire. And with that, I am usually content.

The people who don't register you on their erotic radar are being rather stupid. Since we have been through so much, transpeople are often compassionate listeners and excellent friends. We are also original and inventive in bed. And I have rarely met an FTM who wasn't terminally cute, cute, cute. Since we struggle so hard to keep our sexuality alive despite our discomfort in our bodies, we understand other people's issues and can give them comfort as well as sexual gratification. The testosterone that drives our libidos is a big help in that department!

Like you, I struggle with depression. I was abused as a child. A lot of differently-gendered people were singled out for emotional torment, neglect, battery, or rape during their youths. Many of us have problems with addiction to alcohol, drugs, or food. So I take anti-depressants and I see my therapist regularly. I figure that this is a small price to pay for mental stability. I'm lucky to have survived and escaped from a fundamentalist Mormon family to the relative freedom of the San Francisco Bay Area. Transpeople are obtaining more rights and visibility all the time, and this gives me hope. By being an activist and educator, I am helping to make these social changes, and I think that political work is a really good cure for depression.

The people who tell you that FTMs can't be gay are ignorant and homophobic. Gender identity and sexual orientation are two separate issues. This is like telling bio men that they can't be gay, or telling gay men that they should be women. There is a big difference between wanting to have sex with a man as a straight woman and wanting a man-to-man interaction. I know dozens if not hundreds of gay or bisexual FTMs. It's a huge community! Some of us have relationships with bio guys, some of us seek out each other, and some of us are open to sex or intimacy with men of all backgrounds. You can talk to other gay FTMs by joining a mailing list at queernet.org called trannyfags.

I'm sorry to hear that your family and friends are not supporting you. They need to be educated. Maybe some of the books above will help. There are two books by Arlene Istar Lev that might help them to update their thinking, Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working with Gender-Variant People and Their Families, and The Complete Lesbian and Gay Parenting Guide. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays has produced some really good literature for families with transgendered children. Three copies of Our Trans Children are $3 from Mary Boenke, 180 Bailey Blvd., Hardy, West Virginia 24101-3528, USA. If You Are Concerned About Your Child's Gender Behaviors can be downloaded at www.dcchildrens.com/gendervariance. Both include many more resources for parents and friends who love a transperson.

Please don't give up. You are an important person. Every one of us is precious. Don't throw away your life because things seem hopeless right now. Try to do something nice for yourself every day, and reach out to find community. There are many transgendered youth on livejournal.com, for example, and some of the people there will validate your experience. You really are not alone.