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Illinois Issues: Personal Interviews On Being Transgender

Rachel Otwell/WUIS

Over the past few months I have worked on a story about what it's like to be transgender, especially for those who do not have the privilege of fame and plenty of resources. For many, being transgender comes with stigma and discrimination in just about every facet of life.

In 2011, I cut my teeth in radio as an intern for the NPR program, Tell Me More with Michel Martin (canceled in 2014.) There, I pitched the idea of doing an interview about a newly published report. It surveyed thousands of transgender people across the country. I remember having to persuade some of my colleagues that living conditions for transgender people is a civil rights issue. Not surprisingly, there was a need to educate staff on what the word meant - for some it conjured thoughts of cross-dressers and prostitutes. I was pleased when my idea was ultimately accepted, and after that it was an issue the program revisited.

Bruce Jenner's transition to Caitlyn Jenner has brought this issue to light perhaps more than ever. It's part of the national dialogue lately, covered and discussed by what seems like every media outlet and political pundit. Lawmakers and policy makers are focusing on making changes for those who live outside of traditional gender norms. Unfortunately for many, the fear of violence and discrimination is still a daily concern.

You can read about this issue more broadly here, in a story I did for Illinois Issues called 'Being Transgender In Illinois'. But I also wanted to bring you the interviews I did with two transgender people who are not celebrities, who simply want to live happy and productive lives. The first interview here is with Emma Todd. She is a young trans woman who has been a political activist since she was in high school. 

Mehr Tumulty is a trans man and single mom (yes, mom) living in Chicago. The 29 year old is an artist and he works for the Illinois SOS. Listen to my interview with him:

My interview with Mehr Tumulty

Tumulty and I also did an interview via email, here it is:

When did you first start having conflicted feelings about gender – or a sense that your biology and psychology didn’t match up?

I can't even remember the first time I felt like I would have rather been or was supposed to be a boy instead of a girl. It was something I always felt. I remember being 4 or 5, being frustrated about it almost every day. I had no feminine interests. I didn't like dresses. My dad tells me now that I always was more interested in wanting boy's clothes when we went shopping while I was a child. I much would have rather played in the dirt and ride bicycles all day. I was able to get away with a lot of these things, because they weren't gender specific, I was mostly just considered a tomboy. However, I also envied the male anatomy, but I felt like that was "wrong" of me, that I would get made fun of if anyone found out or that I would be in trouble if I told my parents that I wished I had a penis instead of a vagina.

When I was very young, I assumed when I grew up I would be a man, that I would look more like my dad. I remember sneaking into the bathroom and pretending to shave my face when I was 4 or 5 years old.

As much as I wanted to be a boy, and felt like I obsessed about it every day, I felt deeply ashamed of that. I don't know what instilled that shameful feeling in myself so early. I felt like a pervert before I knew what a pervert even was. I know I was made fun of from time to time by neighbor kids of how I "acted" like a boy, and I wonder if that gave me the impression that it was such a bad thing. I got my hair cut very short when I was 5. It resembled somewhat of a chili bowl hair cut. I wanted to be a boy, and did everything I could to be one without anyone knowing... yet when I was confused to be a boy, I felt offended. I think that was mostly just because it validated my fears and I was trying to embrace my urge to be a boy without anyone knowing.

I felt that my parents didn't help. I remember my mother making me wear dresses sometimes and I would cry, yet I would do it because I had to obey them. My grandparents would go to garage sales on weekends and come over to my house and make me try on girl-outfit after outfit and show them. They'd make me spin around, show it off, tell me how pretty I looked. I hated those times.

I also grew up in an extremely religious atmosphere (Lutheran) and of course the fear of God was put on me too and that influenced my self-loathing and fear that I was going to hell for wanting to be a boy. I remember being taught early on that boys weren't allowed to like boys, girls weren't allowed to like girls. These were sins... sins led to hell... If liking someone of the same gender was a sin. I couldn't imagine how much God would hate me for wanting to be the opposite gender altogether.

All I wanted was to be accepted by my peers and by my parents. I wanted to feel valid and liked. I knew at that point if I began acting more "girly", people would make fun of me less. I was attracted to boys, but I knew they would only like me if I acted like a girl.

As time went on, I decided it would just be easier to hate myself for my feelings of wanting to be a boy. This seemed less scary than the alternative of being in trouble by my parents, by my religious school, by church, by God, etc. If I kept my dirty secret a secret, it may as well not exist at all if no one knew.

By the time I was a teenager, I stopped giving credit to the idea that I wished I was rather a boy. I began just weighing my self worth on how good I was at being female. Regardless of always feeling like I would have rather been a boy in life, I stopped believing that it influenced me anymore. Rather I believed I just wasn't good enough at being a female after a while... I wasn't doing good enough at being Me. I reached for validation through other people, I had no sense of self.

I felt that once I hit female milestones, I'd be able to finally feel confident and validated as a female. I thought I'd be happy when I was allowed to shave my legs, when I grew boobs, when I got my first period, when someone thought I was pretty, when someone wanted to date me, when I became a mother.

All of these things, I felt would make me feel confident in myself, yet nothing ever did...

When did you decide to transition and why?

I decided finally to transition in Late Spring of 2014. In my adult life, I had several mental breaks, a few of which landed me in the hospital after excessive self-injury problems. After my last admission to a hospital in 2013, I was assigned to a therapist here in Chicago. I had my share of therapists in my lifetime but few of them had done me any good. I never had brought up the gender concerns to them because frankly, I never thought it was a problem of mine. I knew I hated my body, I knew I hated myself. I knew I had no sense of self. I knew I always would have rather been a boy... but somehow my sense of denial had never put those thoughts together for 20+ years at that point. I really felt like I had been depressed since I was a child.

Without ever mentioning any gender issues to my therapist for over a year, I discussed my childhood quite a bit with her anyway and was able to get over some somewhat traumatic situations that I had with neighbor kids (that I don't want to go into, honestly). This made me start questioning my gender problems again. I knew that transgenderism existed since I was a child, but I never felt like it applied to me. I had convinced myself that the feelings I had were just gross and wrong, despite being no different than other transgender people.

I began doing a lot of research on female-to-male transition for a few months on my own in the Spring of 2014, without the influence of any other person. This wasn't something that I wanted anyone else's opinion on, it was still a tender topic for myself alone and I didn't want any outside feedback.

I brought my gender concerns up when talking with my therapist one day. The emotional strength it took to talk about it with her was so difficult. I still felt as ashamed as I was when I was a kid when it came to those desires to be male instead of female. My instinct was that she was going to tell me I was bad or gross or in trouble, even though I had no reason to believe that would happen. When she encouraged my feelings to be valid feelings, a lot of things shifted for me. I knew that this was actually maybe going to happen and I felt as though I was finally ready for it. I remember the moment I actually made the decision to begin hormone replacement therapy. I was alone in my apartment and flipping through the internet. I very randomly came across a photo of a person I did not know... it was a male.. and it was a spitting image of me, but as a male. I have no idea who that person was, but that's what pushed my decision over the edge. I can't even explain how excited I felt. I felt like I finally was going to do that one thing for myself that I had been wanting for my entire life up until that point.

How has it affected you as a parent? Do you still go by “mom” – why or why not?

I feel like my role as a mother hasn't changed a bit. I don't feel like I have changed who I was, but more so just became better at being myself. I still go by "mom" to Elliott, because I am after all, his mother. I grew him in my belly. I birthed him. I raised him. My maternal instincts surpass any gender or lack thereof. I can't imagine being anything but Elliott's mother. He knows I like to look like a boy and he says that he likes it. He says he can tell I feel happier. I don't think children assign gender roles unless we tell them to. He still thinks of me as his mother, I'm just also somewhat of a dude.

How has it affected relationships – ie friendships, dating?

Some people in my life have adjusted more difficultly than others. Since most of my friends are in Springfield, IL, I don't see them very often, so in midst transition when they see me, several months might pass between meetings and at first there is always a bit of "Eh! Holy Crap!" reactions concerning my voice, appearance, etc.. but everyone has said within 15 minutes, the changes don't phase them anymore and they can tell that I seem 100% more happy and lively. One of my best friends told me that I seemed more comfortable finally. He told me that it makes a lot of sense that I transitioned to male, that if fits my personality better.

Concerning dating -- I have lost all interest in dating as of right now. I don't feel as though dating can really work for me right now. I'm still learning about myself and learning how to love myself. I'm succeeding at that, but I have no interest in incorporating anyone else into the mix. I used to date people to find validation and worth. I now realize I am at a completely different point in my life where I need none of that to enjoy my own company.

How have colleagues at work responded?

Work has adjusted much easier than expected. When I "came out" to my coworkers, it was somewhat informal and people around me were respectful of me and have not treated me any differently.

What has the transition consisted of? Clothing? How you style yourself (makeup or lack thereof, hair…)? Hormones?

The transition for me has consisted as of this point only a hormonal change. Everything else I may have changed about my appearance happened to accommodate the physical changes I think. The more I began feeling confident about myself, I quit wearing dresses... I only would wear dresses because I felt that I was doing something I was supposed to do by "looking pretty"... I was good a looking pretty. This made people compliment me, this made me think I was feeling validated. Truth is, I don't identify with looking pretty. I did it for the compliments... that was all. Same with makeup. No make up anymore. I began changing my hair and clothing to accommodate my physical changes. Whatever it took to compliment whatever else was going on with my body. I have been binding my chest since I began hormone therapy, and hope to soon get my breasts removed. I don't identify with my boobs. They don't feel like they belong to me. Same with my vagina, but there's not much I can do about that right now. I don't feel that genital surgery for female-to-male transgender people has come far enough to where I'd be happy with the results, so I'm waiting until later in my life to pursue that.

Are there any bad side effects of transitioning?

The only thing I "lost" by transitioning was my singing voice. It's bittersweet to have lost my singing voice.

Do you consider yourself to be body dysmorphic?

Entirely. I don't identify with my breasts or vagina. They seem abnormally foreign to me. My entire body felt this way until it began changing from taking testosterone. I actually feel like I'm beginning to recognize who I am when I look in the mirror now. I look so much more familiar to myself. In my head, I always looked the way that I do now. I never associated a gender to it, or felt that it was any more masculine or less feminine than I used to look, just different. When I used to look in a mirror and see the person I saw, I realized every time that I had gotten proportions off a bit. To finally see myself as I always thought I looked is a very comforting feeling. I had thought that everyone probably felt as disconnected from their body as I had over my lifetime, but apparently that's not the case. In midst of many of my most depressive episodes, I felt that it was possible that I didn't exist altogether... and when people moved around me when passing me on a sidewalk, for instance, the fact that I existed felt validating.

Are you feeling better now that you have begun to transition?

Yes! I feel like I have finally crawled out from inside my head for the first time in my entire life.

What do you think most people don’t know about this that you wish they did? What questions are you sick of answering?

Honestly, I don't get sick of answering questions... because I think the problem is people aren't asking enough questions. I think people need to be educated about transgenderism, and I'm happy to be part of so many lives to where I can help spread that knowledge.

I think if there's any false assumptions that can be wiped out, is that people assume that since I want to be male, they get an image of a plaid, hairy, muscular lumberjack in their head, or they wonder why I wouldn't just be happier being a "butch" woman... it isn't about that though. It's about a literal gender, not stereotypes. It's about genetics.

How are you dealing with pro-nouns, and what name do you go by?

Pronouns are the most complicated thing for me. I feel the best way to go about it in my own situation at this point is to let whoever use whichever pronoun seems most natural in the situation. In interpersonal situations, I truly don't mind being referred to as "she"... it is what I've been used to my whole life, and it never bothered me. I don't see the need to change it. My transition isn't about a social issue... it's truly physical for me. In public, I prefer to be "he" because it saves a lot of confusion in those situations. I worry that many people put too much weight on pronouns, only because if someone doesn't like feeling defined by a word, I feel like they should change the definition.

I like the idea of breaking down the boxes we put ourselves in, rather than building new ones up around ourselves. I have decided to go by Mehr... which is pronounced the same was as Mary, but without the EE sound at the end of it. This being for the fact that I never had any qualms with my name... but I do have a problem with the amount of harassment I get from the public being a dude named Mary.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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