International Transgender Day of Visibility

tiffcar

March 31, 2018

I’ve heard in documentaries and read in several places an account of an African greeting. Sometimes it’s attributed to the Zulu, other times not. The greeting is “Sawubona” which according to Google Translate means “hello”. The articles I’ve read say that it literally translates to “I see you.” And the response that is given is “Sikhona,” translated in English to “I am here.” Which, I’ve read, literally means “Until you see me I do not exist.” I don’t speak any African languages and I can’t verify the truth to these phrases and or their purported meanings. But if you just think about it, “I see you.” To be seen. To be acknowledged to exist. We walk past people every day that we do not know so we choose to not see them. We may see their shoes, or the backs of their heads, but we actively do not “see” them. It’s the same when we drive. They are “them.” They are not Bill, or Rose, or someone that we consider a person. “They”…..”It” is just an obstacle. But you know what? There are people in those people!

When I was performing at an outdoor environmental theater I portrayed any number of characters. And each character was non-threatening, like-able, and approachable. The fact that I was in a costume also meant that I was the rock star, part of the show. It meant that this was a safe place to talk to strangers. It’s sad really that it required a specific “place” where you were “allowed” to not only engage people but where they felt safe to be engaged. Somewhere along the lines it became dangerous for us to interact with anyone we saw on a daily basis. And what is the result? Violence? Ostracism? Our inability to see someone? To see someone with an opposing point of view and still recognize them as a human. Our inability to see a homeless person as a life. Someone who is a child, father, sister…..

“I see you”
“Until you see me I do not exist.”

Today is International Transgender Day of Visibility. It didn’t mean much to me until I identified as transgender. To me it didn’t exist because I didn’t see it. Today “I see you.” I see everyone that is struggling on their journey. I see those that are achieving their goals. I see everyone who is afraid to take the first step. I see those that are taking up the cause to make this world safer for those of us afraid to take that step. And I see those that gave so much so that we can be seen.

Today I see you. Today you exist.

88.6 miles

trans_flag
The Transgender Pride Flag
Created by American trans woman Monica Helms in 1999, and first shown at a pride parade in Phoenix, Arizona, United States in 2000
click here to learn more

March 29, 2018

I get a lot of questions about my marriage and especially about how my wife is taking my transition. We were married while I was still presenting male, but my wife has known about my feminine side since we first became friends. We met each other after we had each been in bad relationships with bad breakups. We had each taken a sabbatical about the same time to California (me in the Bay Area, her in Pasadena), and we had each returned home to the Milwaukee/Chicago area with a better understanding of ourselves. Our retreats had been in finding out who we were and what our wants and hopes were. We had both been working at an outdoor environmental theater venue for 10 years by this point but hadn’t met until our individual returns back from California to that venue. We came home to the social group that we shared. Over the years that group had dwindled and changed, and got smaller and smaller, and so we finally met after a performance day in a local restaurant. At first neither of us was looking for a relationship. We became fast friends over a similar upbringing. Our parents were older, and our cultural references were very similar.

She was living in Chicago and I in Milwaukee but we saw each other on the weekends at the venue where we worked. On one particular trip driving her home to Chicago (she didn’t and still doesn’t drive) I revealed my feminine side, my dressing in secret. We shared our history of failed relationships. She told me of her relationships with both male and female partners. After about a year of intense friendshipness (yes, I just did that though the computer wanted to auto-correct it to “friends hipness” which I kind of like!) I told her that I had a crush on her. We lived a somewhat long distance relationship for about a year. 88.6 miles, that was the distance on my car’s trip-o-meter. I would watch those digits click past every Friday night as I made my way down to her Rodger’s Park “Garden” bachelorette pad, decorated all pastel blue and purple with hand-painted leopard bathroom walls and leopard upholstered futon. We were in love and spent many hours in and around the Clark and Belmont neighborhood visiting the hip shops like The Alley and Hollywood Mirror, and eating sushi at Nohanna on North Broadway near Briar (now closed). It was the late 90’s and by late 2000/early 2001 she had moved up to live with me in my cramped, 1-bedroom Bay View apartment. The decision to move her to Milwaukee was due to the simple fact that I had a good paying job.

I remember several occasions where she would ask me if had thought about transitioning to becoming a woman full-time. At that point I wasn’t yet identifying transgender. I had not thought about that. I just knew that I had a partner that accepted my quirks. She would often say that she wished we lived somewhere where I could dress and go out, and it wouldn’t be odd. She would talk of places in the US or more specifically in Europe, where she had travelled quite a bit, where it was accepted that some men would present female at times. We lived in that cramped and wonderful space for 10 years growing, marrying, and thriving despite a bedroom with her clothes and two sets of mine, a living room that doubled as a guest room, a dining area that doubled as an art studio and sewing space, and one tiny bathroom. Eventually we bought a 1920s Milwaukee Bungalow where we continue to grow and change in the way that people do with time.

When I first announced that I was transgender and my intention was, over time, to transition to living full-time as a woman my wife began to get all sort of messages and questions of “Oh my! How are you taking this?” and “Are you two splitting up?” or “Are you OK?” Those people didn’t know that we are a very healthy couple. In fact we have never had a fight. We realize that if we enter a discussion with aggression it is most likely due to being tired or hungry, so we eat first and then talk. Others may like to duke it out but not us. We are open and honest with each other.

A few years ago she had seen that my daily life was getting more and more stressful. I had originally attributed it to workplace stress but after making the realization that I was more than just a casual evening and weekend crossdresser, and that my personal growth was stagnating, I needed to get help. I first spoke to a relative who is a retired therapist. It was safer for me to talk to them than begin the process of finding a paid professional. This was in the autumn of 2015 and by the following April I was in regular therapy sessions with a local therapist whose client base is LGBTQIA+. This therapy was initially for “workplace stress” but eventually for gender dysphoria.

To help herself, my wife joined a few “support groups” for spouses of transgender individuals. She said that the typical group member was in the situation of “Oh, my god! My husband of 20 years just told me that he’s really a woman and I don’t know what to do!” But we weren’t and aren’t like that. We’ve been able to talk about this and other things in our 20 year relationship. We support each other and share some incredible adventures together. And those adventures have been in beautiful locations like Venice and the Lake District of England, but also in places like Muskogee, Oklahoma and right here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is my best friend and the only person I want to see when I’m at my worst and need comfort. She’s my travel companion, my navigator, my guide. She makes me laugh all the time. We have stupid phrases that require a specific call and response that reference some of the most inane things. She is by far the most intelligent person I’ve ever met. She can spell any word, and she knows music. Boy does she know music! Her lexicon spreads from Renaissance music through to the current electronic genres. She does have a blind spot for country and western though, except for Hee-Haw, another cultural similarity between us from our upbringings. We can be in a grocery store and an 80s song will come on the overhead speaker and she will name the title, group, producer, where it was recorded, and usually some miscellaneous fact about it. Then we’ll be at a department store and a classical song will come on and she’ll do the same thing, composer, which version it is, the conductor and even the first chair violinist! Why she isn’t a music curator yet I don’t know. She’s written two books on human interaction, edited and published them herself. She is a DJ and will soon be celebrating 5 years on the air (internet radio) where she hosts a live audio/video show of house music (and other genres). Her side projects include foreign language voice-over work (she speaks Italian, Spanish, French, Some German and Dutch). She is hired occasionally as a corporate trainer. And on top of all of this she is manger of operations for a municipal call-center. But I know her as my best friend and the person that charmingly gets her “right” and “left” directions confused.

After I had begun my transition I posted on social media one day that I would take any questions that anyone had. My intention all along was that I wanted to make this transition about educating those that don’t know a transgender person. I want to dispel the myths and help normalize this. I was very surprised at how many people asked about how we deal with our intimacy. This is one of those things where you certainly wouldn’t ask a cis-gender couple about their sex life, and is kind of a no-no, but I did open up to any questions. My response is this, when we married we didn’t marry the other gender, we married the other person. There is so much more to a relationship than sex, and if that defines anyone’s relationship I would be concerned about the stability and longevity of that union. Also, this is one of those questions that you just don’t ask. It’s not polite. Just like asking a transgender person about the state of their genitals, or whether or not they are going to, or have already had bottom surgery (often referred to as “The Surgery”). I know it’s difficult to navigate the “do’s and don’ts” of the etiquette. It’s best to either investigate on the internet or use common sense. If you wouldn’t ask a cis-gender person, wouldn’t want it asked of you, or if you wouldn’t ask your grandmother, then maybe it’s not appropriate. There are great resources online like GLAAD – the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (glaad.org), or FORGE (forge-forward.org), or simply Google “transgender ally resources”. There is a lot out there to help everyone educate and support each other and be a better ally.

For now, for me, I’ve got my own personal ally. She’s willing to physically defend me if she has to. She’ll protect me when I’m frail, She’ll comfort me when I get sad from being  publicly misgendeted. And she’ll sit by my side while I recover from the surges that try to make me whole. And best of all we no longer have to travel 88.6 miles to do it.

First Day Back at Work

office

March 27, 2018

Yesterday was my first day back at work. I had taken a leave of absence for the entire month but since my recovery was going so well I wanted to return a week early. It’s interesting, when I was sitting at home resting I felt like I could do so much more but I was also not active for the 9 hours I am when at work. So yesterday was tough for me. It wasn’t tough in interacting with my coworkers after having had craniofacial surgery. Everyone knew why I had been gone. They’d known for months leading up to my departure. In fact the last day at work before leaving for surgery the girls in the front office had a luncheon for me. I have some wonderful coworkers who are excited to witness my transition first-hand. They are all very supportive. No, yesterday was physically difficult. I didn’t have a large work load, and I am not permitted to do any strenuous activities. My marching orders from the surgeon are as follows:

  • Avoid strenuous activities for one month.
  • No glasses for six weeks after surgery.
  • No strenuous activities that may result in trauma to the nose for three months. ( I think I’ll avoid any trauma to the nose indefinitely!)
  • Avoid getting sunburn for three months after surgery.

These were outlined on my release to return to work. I think that not being able to wear my glasses is more challenging than I thought it would be. Oh sure, I can purchase a headband that has a hook for lifting the nose rest of the glasses off of the bridge of my nose, but the elastic of the headband would be too tight around my head incision. I do have a cute lorgnette with reading glass strength that I use to look at the computer but it certainly isn’t convenient when I type with both hands. I’ve resorted to increasing the computer text as large as I can, typing while looking at the keys, and then reviewing and fixing afterwards. It seems to be a decent enough work around for now. So please be advised, if you are having similar surgery and you wear glasses daily for near and far sight, you will have to figure out a temporary solution for 6-8 weeks! Luckily I have an appointment with my ophthalmologist next week. I will be asking him about the possibility of contact lenses. Last December he discovered the presence of foveal cysts in the macula of my left eye which are signs of macular edema. This is a side-effect of my type 1 diabetes of 34 years. I have been managing diabetic retinopathy for about the past 20 years. It has stabilized since being on an insulin pump these past 13 years, but macular edema is the next step in the progression of that condition. I have had numerous rounds of laser surgery in both eyes, and at one point in 2005 sustained a pretty large hemorrhage in that left eye that left me almost completely blind in that eye for 4 months.

My diabetes and all of the accompanying complications have affected any kind of normal or sustained progress in my transition but they haven’t stopped it! I will not let my uncertain chronic health affect my continued transition. I’ve lived in an uncertain state of who I am for 46 years. I’m not stopping now! I am so much happier. Everything makes sense. It may be difficult for others to understand how I can suddenly become the person that I now am after living for years as a male. I’ve had experienced entire narratives in those 46 years with distinct beginnings, middles and ends…jobs, relationships, friendships….trips, fascinations, hobbies….but always with, as a dear friend stated upon her first impression of meeting me, a quiet sadness. I’ve never felt as complete in my body as I do now. And since my facial surgery I have never smiled as much. I’m still questioning whether the casual observer sees those male elements in my face that used to be a dead giveaway or are they now gone, hidden away like those lost narratives. Do people finally see me as Tiffany, as a woman? Do “I”? So much of this is about my perception of who “I” am. Now, sometimes when I dream I’m conscious of that fact that I dream of myself as a woman. Sometimes I’m still very much my assigned ‘male-at-birth’ incarnation. I’m sure that will continue much the same way that we dream of our relatives who have passed on being very much alive while in our dream state.

Throughout my life, it actually started when I was young, like in my early teenage years, I would have this dream of a female presence. I never saw her face, but I knew that I loved her. She would always be behind me or in my periphery. The first time I can remember dreaming about her I was sitting on a pier along a body of water. She was behind me to the back left and was moving counterclockwise around me but I never saw her face. I just knew I loved her to the core of my being. At first I thought it was the girl I would meet and marry. When I would dream about her in my 20s and 30s I thought she was the child that I would help create and nurture. I’m sure you can see where this is going. Now I know that it was me I had been dreaming about since my tween years. It was the 2nd self that I’d been carrying around my whole life. It WAS a child that I was nurturing into the woman that I would eventually become.

I believe that because I was diagnosed with diabetes at age 14, around the time of puberty, I didn’t identify what I was feeling. I suddenly had a much more complicated situation to deal with. Insulin is a hormone and affects one’s mood, drastically at times. I think it also redirected any thoughts away from the question of who am I. The mid-1980s, when I was diagnosed, were not a time of transgender awareness. I remember having had thoughts of questioning whether or not I was gay, but I knew I was attracted to women. I was also attracted to dressing as a woman. In my world, at that time, I only knew gay, lesbian, and straight. What I was feeling at that time not only didn’t fall into those categories but also seemed so strange to me, like I was the only one who felt that way and there wasn’t a pop culture figure that I could imprint on. The closest things to gender queer in my awareness at that time were the male bands wearing eyeliner and makeup, or someone like Boy George, a gay male, wearing feminine things and appearing closer to a female than a male, or K.D. Lang in the mirrored opposite of Boy George. None of it seemed to fit what I felt, so I continued on with my life dressing in secret and assembling an exterior that I was comfortable in, but was composed from the only pallet that I thought was available to me. “You can choose from these suits, these shoes, this furniture, these likes and dislikes. But that’s it.’

Hindsight is 20/20. Through this current self-discovery (Is it self-discovery when your therapist helps you?!) I can now identify the questionable choices I’ve made through my life and see how they relate to not being my true self. I don’t feel cheated out on the past several decades though. The people and experiences throughout my life helped me to get where I am. They certainly helped shape who I am, the person that was finally able to break out of the shell. In nature, the seed cones of the Lodgepole pine tree will stay on its branch anywhere from 10 to 20 years. The cones build up this thick internal resin that encapsulates the seeds within. The only thing that will melt this resin and free the seed is extreme heat like that of a forest fire. The seed can’t even begin its journey of life until it has been freed by fire. I like to think that the time that I lived up until now was my fire. And now I’m finally free to grow strong in the sun. At least strong enough to survive a day back at work!

Thoughts on Transitioning

IMG_3481.JPGCocoon printing plate circa 1991 – T. Thomas

March 25, 2018

I feel like I’m still being reborn. I’ve spun my cocoon and am still transforming. It has been less than three weeks since surgery. Swelling continues to change the shape of my face in minute ways. My upper lip is slowly decreasing in size as my body absorbs some of the fat that was injected, and my nose changes shape as it heals inside. Some days I look like a prize fighter or Hollywood style hit man with crooked face. I am so happy with the changes though . I never get tired of hearing “miss”, or when I’m with my wife, “ladies.” As my endocrinologist said when I saw him last week, “I’m sure you will have no difficulty being mis-gendered now.” And so far he’s right! I’m also carrying myself differently. I’m allowing myself to be more feminine. It’s really a bunch of bull***t that the gestures and way I present myself now are acceptable since I’m presenting female, but if I was still presenting male it would illicit rude comments.  When I “came out” I had a former coworker whom I’d worked with for 10-plus years say “Man, I can’t believe it. You never talked funny or… (holding up his pinkie in femmy gesture). Really?! Is this really that misunderstood? Is it because people are uneducated, don’t want to know, or maybe just haven’t been exposed to a trans-person? Well this blog is about giving people the opportunity to learn and understand.

The thing about this is, I didn’t consider that I was transgender until a friend described me as such to one of their friends. A few days later we were talking and they told me this and asked me what I thought about it. It really threw me. This was after Caitlyn Jenner had made her transition public. It took me a while to accept it and to even begin to take the steps to find a therapist. After I revealed myself publicly I had other close friends ask why I never told them. That’s just it. I didn’t know! How could I say what I was feeling when I was so confused? I was secretly dressing as a woman for decades. I thought I was just mentally damaged, that I was broken, that if anyone found out I would loose everything, my job, my family, my friends… When you have a secret like this you think that you’re a pervert or that what you’re doing is illegal. No matter that this was in the public eye and mainstream media. Hell, Boy George presented such a different image than the norm thirty years ago, not that he was identifying transgender. But none of that meant that I understood myself. It took months in therapy just to accept it in myself. Since then, so much of my life makes sense. So much of my growing up, my feelings, my choices over the years, it all makes sense now.

I began my journey in April 2016, and really started to physically transition in November of that year. But in the past 16 months, seven of which I’ve been living as a woman, it’s been interesting to experience the changes. While I can’t take estrogen I have been on a testosterone blocker and have been slowly increasing the dosage, with my doctor’s direction, to my current level which is the standard for transgender care. This final increase happened just last week. I can definitely feel the change in my body and mind. I think that with testosterone I had this unwanted aggression at times. I don’t know if this is how all transgender women feel it was for them or if this is how men feel without knowing it. It’s seems like there was this short fuse that could be lit very easily. I’m not a doctor or researcher, so I don’t fully understand the medical side of it.. These are just my thoughts.

Observations

Now that I am living as a woman I’ve noticed some things.

  • Men hold the door for me. I kind of like it even though I’m not attracted to men. I used to do the same thing as much as I could when I was still presenting male and it’s nice to be on the opposite side chivalry.
  • I’ve had the experience of being honked and whistled at.
  • I’m a little more cautious of my surroundings and when people are either uncomfortable with me or regarding me with menace.
  • Cisgender women seem to think that I need advice on clothes, or makeup, or other feminine things. I know this is out of love and support, but I have been doing those things for decades just like they have.
  • Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is that women will openly say things like “I hate you because you look better in a dress then I do.” Would they actually say this to another woman that they hardly know? It seems that they feel that it’s OK to speak this way to me because I lived as a male for so long. It’s very odd but I don’t let it get to me. This is just an observation.
  • People think I suddenly became a woman. The fact is that I was born a transgender woman but was assigned make at birth because of the presence of external genitalia. The doctor didn’t scan my brain to determine nuances and differences in determining gender. There were two options in the 60’s, but this is actually a topic for another time

So what’s next?

As I mentioned earlier, I am now at my full dosage for my testosterone blocker. This puts me at the peak of the medication side of things that aren’t related to my chronic health conditions. My endocrinologist also referred me to a new surgeon in Wisconsin that is performing top and bottom surgery. I have begun the process to schedule a meeting with her to learn more about what can and can’t be done, when, and how. I am also planning another trip next year to the surgeon that performed my facial feminization surgery, this time to perform a scalp/hair transplant that he and his medical partner developed years ago. I am missing quite a bit of hair on my crown and my hairline has receded quite a bit. This lengthy process should allow me to regain all of that hair, and abandon the hair pieces I must wear daily.

Near the end of 2019 I will turn 50. I hope that around that time I will no longer be transitioning, that the cocoon will be empty, and that I will be basking my wings in the sunlight.

FFS: Day 14

temp (2)

March 20, 2018 – first day of spring

For those of you unaware, I underwent FFS or facial feminization surgery on March 7th. I chose to have this surgery to help me pass more effectively as a cis-gender woman. I also chose this to help suppress my gender dysphoria, a mental condition many transgender people live with. Many people are unhappy with their appearance, however gender dysphoria can be crippling. We already live with this disconnect of not having been born with the gender in which we identify.

I also chose to undergo FFS because I am a non-HRT transgender woman. HRT or ‘Hormone Replacement Therapy’ is a path some transgender people follow to transition to a more aligned sense of self and appearance. For trans-men it is the taking of testosterone and for trans-women the taking of estrogen. There are other medications a trans-person may take to assist in this process but those are the two hormones, at least that I am familiar with, that are used. In my case I began taking estrogen on July 30th, 2016. Ten days later on August 10th I suffered a TIA (transient ischemic attack) or mini-stroke. A normal TIA will cause temporary loss of some brain function but that usually clears up within 24 hours. In my case it left me with permanent localized paresthesia or numbness on my left side. The most notable places are in my foot, leg, torso, and left hand. It only amounts to about a 10% loss of feeling. But it affects my ability to type, or play guitar, or even judge my grip.

So why was I so lucky….. One of the possible side effects of estrogen is blood clots. Combine that with my history of type 1 diabetes of 34 years and it makes for a potentially dangerous situation, and I was unlucky enough to get a clot. This effectively ended my ability to transition in a traditional way. I am still able to take Spironolactone, a testosterone blocker that is often used in conjunction with estrogen. It has some added benefits of reducing hyper tension and is also known to cause gynecomastia or breast growth. Bonus! However, had I been able to take estrogen I would have benefited by many physical changes to my face and body. My skin would have become softer. My face shape wold have softened and rounded. And the areas where my body stored fat would have shifted to a more female way. Belly fat would have moved the hips and buttock.

Having FFS allowed me to at least soften the features of my face. I had three procedures done out of nine that my surgeon offered me. They are; an orbital contour with brow lift, rhinoplasty, and lastly a lip lift with augmentation. The first procedure, the orbital contour, involved creating an incision along the hairline, pulling back the skin, grinding down the brow ridge that is present in a male skull, and then stitching the incision closed while also lifting the brows to follow a higher and more feminine line. The second procedure for me involved straightening a flare above mid way on my bridge and then also adjusting the bridge to follow a smoother contour from the forehead down to the tip of the nose. There was also some cartilage work performed. The final procedure was the lip lift. This is a process of removing an M-shaped strip where the nose meets the high upper lip. The gap is then pulled together and sutured closed which raises the lip and closes the space between the upper lip and the nose, a trait also dominant in male anatomy. During this process I also had fat from my inner thighs injected into the upper lip to give it a fuller, feminine look. All of these changes are subtle, but those subtleties are what a first glace captures to identify a male or female face.

The cost of these procedures is in the tens of thousands of dollars and insurance doesn’t cover it. A dear friend convinced me to start a crowd funding campaign and I was astounded by the support I received. Through generous donations I was able to raise half of the surgery cost. For the balance I took out several loans. I am still accepting donations to ease those debts. My crowd funding page is located here: gofundme.com/bringtiff2life. I am deeply thankful for everyone who has donated. These procedures aren’t cosmetic in a vain way. These aid in suppressing that gender dysphoria that so many transgender people face. Gender dysphoria that is a contributing factor in the high suicide rate among the trans community. It is calculated to be ten times higher than the national average at around 46%. If you hold up one hand and think of your five fingers as close friends and then fold two of them down. Those two people, out of five transgender people, would commit suicide. And yet an operation that could reduce this is not covered. There are several more procedures that I could have had done like cheek implants or a chin contour, but I think that the three that I chose have the greatest impact on feminizing the face. I would like to work towards convincing insurance companies to cover these procedures for all trans-women. It could save lives.

I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to undergo these procedures. I am still recovering. I only had this done two weeks ago, and I have months to go to heal, but I can already feel the difference in how I see the image of myself and also how others see me. That first glance from a stranger is no longer followed by a stare or a whisper and sometimes even a giggle. I am heading into a new phase in my life. a very different and new life. So it’s appropriate that today is the first day of spring, and I am slowly coming out of my cocoon. And I love the color of my wings!

Tiff

Barry Sonnenfeld says…

I remember, or think I remember watching a DVD extra from Men in Black 1 or 2 where Barry Sonnenfeld says something about how he starts a scene after action has already has begun. When you watch a Sonnenfeld movie (Men in Black, Addams Family Values, etc…) you’ll see what he means. It is like entering a room after a party has started. You don’t need to work up to anything. There is no need for long drawn out exposition. No need to ease into it. The action is already flowing but not to a point where you don’t know what is happening. I’m starting this journal, blog, textual meditation after my story has begun. Oh, don’t worry… I’ll have enough flashback scenes to fill in the back story. And maybe, just maybe, a villain will be defeated, a world will be saved… I can at least guarantee, someone WILL get the girl!

groomingtake care of each other