Transitioning early in life: Jenny's advice

(ed. note: I've changed her name to protect her privacy-- A)

Jenny transitioned in her mid-twenties "more or less all alone, and in the deep South no less." In a letter she sent me in August 2001, she described her transition as "Lots of bumps in the road, but it has a happy ending -- I'm getting a Ph.D. this fall, will be starting a tenure-track teaching job in August, and am engaged to be married post-SRS. I had to do this financially (and more or less emotionally) alone, but managed to overcome in the end."

Below is her story and her advice for other young women.


Background

Although I knew all my life what was wrong, I resisted for a long time, believing that changing my sex would be a sin. By the time I was 18, I decided to transition, even though my education on transsexualism had pretty much come from the National Enquirer. I had been overweight for a long time, and began an intensive weight-loss regimen. I also began growing my hair long and sometimes shaved my legs. This first attempt at transition went nowhere, though -- in the mistaken belief that all I needed to get my mind right was the right girl, I had two relationships during my undergraduate years. These inevitably went bust because my good-soldier attempt at being a man clashed with my intense desire to be a woman. One girlfriend complained that I seemed like a monster, so it wasn't just myself I was making miserable.

When I finished college I was 22 and hopeless -- my long hair had been shorn and my relationships had tanked. I felt that being so tall and strongly-built, I could be spotted a mile away if I transitioned. In my native South, transsexuals are seen as the freaks on "Jerry Springer," spoken of only as objects of ridicule and seldom as human beings. I spent most of that summer battling depression. I had no mental health professionals handy, and figured even if I did that I'd be laughed out of the office. I never considered suicide, but there were days when I literally felt dead inside. I couldn't even talk to my parents about it; they not only enjoyed having a son, but I believe they were petrified of what everyone else in town would think. (They still don't use the correct pronouns for me, even though I told both of them more than three years ago.) I felt absolutely alone. But, stubbornly, I began the long, lonely process of thrashing out my demons and fixing the problem. (Highly important note to those of you at home: If you're dealing with depression, get professional help -- don't try to be brave/stupid as I did and work through it alone. Depression is dangerous stuff, and it's only your life you're trying to save, ya know.)

What helped me bring my plans to life was a friend in another state who confided his bisexuality to me during a phone call. I felt safe confiding my own secret in him. His acceptance, emotional support and packages of information on treatment options were exactly what I needed. Another huge help was graduate school. At 23 I began a new life in a big city where few people knew me. I built a small stash of women's clothes and wore them in private, and began to experiment with makeup a bit. I discovered the Internet and its marvelous array of information for transgender people. I also began seeing a therapist that first year, and after a referral from a small gender organization I began hormones a few months later.

Although estrogen changed my body, what needed changing most was between my ears. For years I had agonized that I'd never be a petite woman like so many women I admired. I couldn't see what was special and beautiful about myself. I knew no one else in my situation, and had no one to lean on for support. That changed when I struck up long-distance friendships with other transgender women. One of them, a young woman whose age and construction were similar to mine, struck me as being so comfortable in her own skin. To her surgery was the last little problem she had to fix; in the meantime, she was carrying on with her life and her work as any other woman would, and having a happy life in the process. I decided that if she could be comfortable in her own skin that I could do the same. That was probably the most important thing that happened throughout my transition: learning to like myself. The quality of my life improved exponentially thereafter, and now there's no one else I'd rather be.

I finally transitioned part-time when I was 25, living and working as female everywhere but in my department at school. Everywhere else, I was a woman -- a slightly overdressed one much of the time, but enough of a woman to be taken as a woman, which absolutely thrilled me because I had expected it to be so much more difficult. It turned out to be very easy for me, and in no time it was second nature. I had originally tried for an appearance that screamed "I'm a woman," but over time I found my own style, which is more tomboy than anything else. Occasionally stylish, of course, but mostly tomboy. I realized that to be female, I didn't have to force myself to get into traditional female stuff I really didn't care for, that it's perfectly okay to look cute in a cool dress and still know my way around a small-block Chevy engine. That's pretty cool. It seems to crank the guys up, too (pardon the pun).

When I finally went full time, I was very lucky to get support from the highest levels of my department. I confided my situation to the Graduate Dean, who had known me since I began there. His reaction was one of very deep concern for my well-being, and he pledged his support. True to his word, the caring and respectful reception I got from faculty members, staff members and my fellow graduate students never ceased to astonish me. The professor I worked for never let my condition get in the way; he only expected me to work hard and meet deadlines, and I not only earned his respect but my confidence in my own abilities went up. This atmosphere -- one that said "We don't care what gender you are so long as you work hard," a mindset I thought I'd never find in that part of the world -- was exactly what I had hoped for and needed, and those were some of my happiest and most productive days.

I've been blessed, even though five years ago I would never have thought I'd be where I am now: at the age of 28, scheduled for surgery next year, finishing a Ph.D., recently changed from one job into a new and better one, in a wonderful relationship with the greatest guy in the world and making plans for marriage someday before long, and in general pretty darn successful and happy. I've met so many great people along the way and had some fulfilling experiences. I've also had my share of battles -- with doctors who didn't take my condition seriously; with bureaucrats over documentation; and with many of the other usual suspects. But even though I wouldn't wish this on anyone, I don't think I would have wanted to miss it. I'd like to think it's made me a little bit better person than I'd be otherwise. I am thankful and love my life the way it more or less is now.


What are the best things I did in all this? Some of them are things I realized, and some are things I did:

Don't let what is, or isn't, between your legs, determine your happiness. Once upon a time I felt I'd never be a real woman unless and until I had SRS. I've already been through one postponement, and now I realize that even if my SRS never happens I could live a happy and contented life without it, that what's between my legs really matters only to me, my SO and my doctor. It might end up being a legal pain in the ass, so far as not being able to amend my birth certificate and such, but I could deal with that if need be. Very few people ever realize what's between your legs unless you draw attention to it. Besides, there is too much in this life to enjoy, and excessive fretting about what's below your waterline takes away time that could be better spent appreciating other things.

What comes from inside will determine how you're perceived from the outside. When I lacked confidence in myself, I got read instantly. But since I got comfortable with myself and can project it my self-confidence, I've been treated as a woman even though I had stubble on my face or presented documentation with my old name. It's what makes the difference between "attractive young woman" and "guy in a dress." You will be surprised at how many battles you can save yourself, and how far you can go, by being polite and kind, carrying yourself confidently, and giving a warm smile when dealing with others. It may not always work, but it sure goes an awful long way. And even if you're found out, at least you've given them reason to say "Well, she sure seems like nice folks anyway." :)

If you live in a small town, especially a town where you're known more for being someone's child than for being yourself, go somewhere bigger and get some anonymity. It's not only easier for you to find the resources you need in a and larger place, but it also gets you away from the neighborhood gossips, who don't want to understand you so much as use your situation as conversational currency. It's extremely difficult to transition at home, especially if you live with your parents and they don't like the idea of you transitioning. In a new locale, you stand a better chance of building relationships on your own terms instead of carrying family baggage. In addition, if you have to publish a legal notice when changing your name, you have bigger newspapers. Small-town gossips scour small-town newspapers front to back, but rarely do they take papers from larger and distant locales.

Keep your sense of humor fully functional at all times. What you're going through is not something most folks see every day. As a result, their reactions may sometimes seem absurd, if not infuriating. A sense of humor really, really helps you cope with these kinds of things. Otherwise, you'll never stay afloat. Humor is so valuable, not only for defusing awkward situations and comforting people who are nervous about with your situation, but for keeping your own emotional platform stable. I truly do not believe you can make a successful transition without a sense of humor. Growing an extra layer of skin helps, too, because you are bound to run into a handful of people who will just absolutely make your life miserable. Clerks in driver's license offices come to mind for some reason. Being a bit more thick-skinned helps curb the urge to jump the counter and pound them repeatedly with a shovel. :)


What would I do differently? Oh, boy! Where do I begin?

Don't wait, especially if you've known all your life what's deep inside! As has been documented elsewhere, the physiological effectiveness of hormone treatment diminishes with each passing year. I started 'mones when I was 24 and turned out fairly nicely without any plastic surgery, but sometimes I wonder how I'd look if I could have started earlier. If male pattern baldness is starting to show, it's a darn good idea to get going on 'mones while regrowth is a possibility (I was really lucky and got all mine back). In addition, the longer you wait, the more you risk. If you transition at 21, before you've gotten set into a career, it's much easier than when you're 31 and have established a long work history as a male. If you begin young, you can begin a career where your change of genders doesn't have to be that much of an issue, if an issue at all. On a more spiritual level, another contributor said something that bears repeating: there is something magical about spending part of one's second decade as a young woman. You can take that to the bank. It is not to be missed.

Start electrolysis as soon as possible! I goofed around and didn't start electro until after I transitioned, and still have to shave every morning. It's complete and utter misery. Few things make a woman feel less womanly. Not to mention, when estrogen starts making your skin translucent, you may start having a five-o-clock shadow effect, especially if you have already have pale or fair skin as I do. If you don't want to look like Homer Simpson (d'oh!), and if you don't want to coat your entire face with Sears Weatherbeater make-up every morning, get as much electro done as soon as you can, maybe even as one of your very first steps. It takes a long time, and the sooner you start the sooner you're done.

Squirrel back every single red cent you can save and put it towards transition, not only because changing one's sex gulps money at an astonishing rate, but also because the sooner you save, the sooner you can get it all done. In graduate school I blew a lot of money that I could have put towards becoming post-op and post-electro by now. It may mean living in a smaller apartment; it may mean one more night of ramen noodle soup; it may mean another year of driving the hand-me-down Gremlin with the duct tape on the seats; but believe me, it's worth it. Every cent you save now gets you there that much sooner, and is one less cent you'll have to scrape up later on, and potentially one less day you'll have to sit there and wonder what it's like when it's all over with. Besides, much of the stuff I frittered away my time and money on back then, I couldn't care less about today. In so many ways a successful transition is like what the Rutles said: all you need is cash.

Anyway, those are my observations. I can't speak for how universal they are, because like everyone who's come this way I've caught some breaks and had some setbacks. Every case varies. But I do know that as difficult as things may have seemed throughout this whole process, even the worst setback didn't fill me even though it might seem difficult at times, and now my life is happier than ever. No matter what happens, don't give up! As one of my heroes was fond of saying, "Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal."


[Jenny also sent along additional information regarding her experiences with legal and medical issues. They underscore the importance of being assertive in getting the professional services you need. Don't take no for an answer, especially when you're laying out money for things that will have far-reaching effects on your life! --AJ]

LEGAL DOCUMENTATION

This was, by far, the most difficult part of my whole transition, mostly because the people I tried dealing with at government offices could be unsympathetic, if not outright rude, no matter how kind and cooperative I tried to be. My first step was to change my name. When I went downtown to file the paperwork, the deputy clerk was very rude because my paperwork had not been prepared according to some set of guidelines that I had not been informed of when I got the paperwork. I got so outdone with these sorts of ever-moving goalposts that I hired a family law attorney whose fees were reasonable; better still, her paralegal ended up being my best friend through my whole struggle. I learned from my attorney that the clerks at the main courthouse had a long history of being rude to non-attorneys. Sad, when you think about it, because as a taxpayer they should have treated me a whole lot better. Oh, well....

I caught a break in that my case was assigned to a judge who agreed to sign the court order ex parte (i.e. without requiring me to show up for a hearing). Since I was working on finishing grad school back in my home state, this was extremely handy. Had I thought to do so, I would have asked my attorney to also attempt to have the judge issue an amended order to also change my gender on legal documents. If you're able to do this, I recommend asking about it. Some judges and/or jurisdictions may not do it, but others do. It all depends on who you draw and/or where you live. It's worth investigating. I didn't, and my reluctance ended up costing me.

Once I had my court order and certified copies (in the county I then lived in, the documents are sent to recordation and are unavailable for a month), I went about changing my legal documents, most notably my driver's license. Acting on a tip from a transgender rights group in my state, I had my therapist write a letter stating that I had changed genders and needed my documentation changed to reflect my new gender.

At my first stop, I was tantalizingly close to having a corrected license. Since the first name I had at birth worked for male or female, and was kind of cool, I retained it, and instead changed only my masculine middle name to something with the same middle initial. The clerk was about to change the sex designator for me, thinking it was a mistake. That's when, being the conscientious girl scout I am, I opened my big fat mouth and volunteered that I had the requisite documentation. He stopped what he was doing and went to his supervisor, who told me I would require a court order to change my gender on my license. He offered to change my name, but I refused this offer and left.

A few days later I tried again at another office. Immediately upon seeing the name change documentation the clerk realized she was dealing with a transsexual, treated me with just a little bit more attitude than I cared for. The supervisor at this office -- who had no qualms about discussing my business in front of other customers -- told me that I needed a letter from my surgeon before they'd change the sex designator. I decided to take my chances and just get my name changed, but I made clear my displeasure over their decision and their attitude about it. The picture on this license was...well, less than happy.

In the meantime, my paralegal had been working overtime on this for me, and took it up with the regional director of the Division of Driver Licenses. His office put her in contact with the manager of the office where I had originally tried to get my license changed. This, combined with a letter I had written to the state DMV that had been brought to the attention of the office manager, worked a miracle. The office manager personally made sure that I got a corrected driver's license, and was extremely nice about it. The picture on this one was much happier -- I think the radiance of my smile threw the color balance out. :)

Hiring an attorney ended up costing me some money -- about $400 or so, money I'd have rather plowed into a few electro sessions -- but, considering the difficulty and rudeness I experienced along the way, it really paid off. If you're lucky enough to get an attorney with a paralegal who will work hard on your behalf, it's extremely helpful, especially when you have trouble dealing with the people who are ostensibly your servants -- it gets their attention, and they're a little less likely to screw with you then. And had it not been for the good legal team I had working for me, I might have given up. Instead, now I have the name I'd been wanting and an accurate gender designator on my license, and I can breathe a little easier now. This is not to say that you can't do all this without professional help, but I found the whole process to be a sure cure for hubris.

HEALTH/MEDICAL CARE

I've had kind of a strange relationship with the physicians I've had over the past three years or so. Along the way I've learned that what you'd think isn't always true -- counter to my original perception, many physicians have no experience with transgender people. That's why it's highly important that you make sure your physician has all the information you can supply on your condition and treatment, and why you need to make sure to discuss it with him or her to make sure the physician understands.

My original endocrinologist/gynecologist was a very warm, very nice man, but it became clear that treating transgender people was not his first line of business, and I did not get the full range of care or instruction I needed. When I came in for checkups, he rarely did the usual exams (breast exams, testicular exams, prostate exam, etc.) and mostly talked with me about what was going on and how I felt. This ended up hurting me on down the road.

One night I was in the shower doing my usual regimen of self-examinations when I felt a tiny bump on my left testicle. Over the next few days, that testicle didn't quite feel right, either. I've always been over-cautious when it came to my own health, and fear cancer the way I fear nuclear war, so I went to my family doctor a few days later. This was a young doctor who apparently had no experience with transgender people, and he assumed that the bump was the result of an infection or perhaps a result of my hormone regimen. He gave me some antibiotics in the hope it would clear up. It didn't. I should have gone to a urologist right then and there, but didn't.

Over time the testicle swelled, turned knotty and became painful. I thought it was an injury and didn't think much about it until it created intense cramping in my left side and long periods when I felt run-down for no apparent reason. I thought it was the effects of the hormones, that maybe it was my time of the month. One weekend the testicle hurt non-stop, to the point where I ended up in the emergency room. Three days later I was undergoing surgery to remove the swollen testicle. The urologist made no secret of his dislike for my gender change, saying I was "asking for trouble," and probably would have refused to remove the other testicle, but at least I was able to keep him from installing an implant to take the place of the departed unit. I felt better the moment I came out of anesthesia, and over the next few months was elated to find that my hormones worked much better, too.

The lab work showed the testicle to be cancerous; fortunately, it was a seminoma, which is easily treated, and better still it had not spread. I spent the summer taking preventive radiation treatments and having lab work done, and since then have remained clean (knocking wood), although I do have a rather lovely long scar just inboard of my left hip. In the meantime, my original endoc left the practice, and I was put in the care of a nurse practitioner who was shocked that my previous doctor had not done the sorts of exams on me that he had before. Indeed, such an exam could have detected my cancer earlier. Since then, when I've gone to see her, she has given me thorough exams, talked at length with me about the process, and has really made me feel cared-for.

The lesson in all this is to be careful when you're dealing with doctors. Don't be afraid to get second or third opinions if you feel something's still wrong, or if you're not satisfied with a treatment or explanation. I have generally trusted doctors (after all, they make more than I do). But I put too much trust in a couple for about nine months too long, and by all rights it should have cost me my life, and only through the grace of a higher power (and a weekend of excruciating pain) am I here now.

I've gotten conflicting reports from different doctors about what estrogen does and doesn't do so far as its effects on male genitalia, but it's another argument why you should, if at all possible, go to a very good endocrinologist or gynecologist and have your regimen professional administered and monitored. It's also a good argument why you should consider an orchiectomy as soon as possible -- not only does it take away a potential cancer risk, but you can take as little in the way of hormones as possible to get a much more pleasing effect. Just removing one testicle made a huge difference in my development, and if I weren't already less than a year from SRS I'd see about having the other one lifted. :)


Andrea's comments

As Jenny notes in her background info, this is not something you can do on your own. You must have the support of a trusted friend or relative. You must reach out to those who can help you. You should also find a therapist you like and trust.

Surgery is not the key to happiness. It can ease some discomfort and help with confidence, but happiness only comes through self-acceptance.

Big cities are the best places to transition. More resources and more anonymity. College or grad school is an excellent place to transition as far as support from peers and superiors. If you can't get to a big city, at least get to a nearby university town.

Don't wait. Truer words were never spoken. If you know in your heart that you must do this, do not wait. Time is of the essence. Each day you wait makes it that much harder. You must sit down this week and start laying out a timetable.

You gotta love a chick who can quote Hannah More! Everyone will face obstacles in transition. However, I can assure you that you can overcome them if you focus.

Getting a court order for name change is extremely important. It might cost a few hundred dollars, but it is definitely worth the money. It will make changing all of your documentation easier.

Many people have experienced difficulties with name change and other legal documents. Don't let this deter you! These are very important things to deal with. Many TS women are shy and reluctant to push for things they deserve because they don't want a potentially embarrassing confrontation. Be polite but persistent. I know someone in a small town who was turned down three times for a name change, but she succeeded on the fourth time. Don't give up-- there's a way if you stay focused.

Substandard medical care is unfortunately very common for TSs. Many well-intentioned practitioners simply have little or no experience, and you often have to guide them yourself. Worse yet are doctors who are not cooperative for whatever reason. If you run into a doctor who you feel is not responsive to your needs, you should find another, especially one recommended by another TS.


Send me your thoughts, links, and advice!

If you transitioned in your teens or twenties and have any advice you'd like to share, please contact me , and I'll give it a permanent (and anonymous) home.