Third Place Writing – Personality/Profile


What makes a man

Transgendered graduate student finds harmony in transition from woman to man
Originally published in the Ball State Daily News

When he was a little girl, Leo said he hated wearing dresses. Today the Ball State University graduate student is sitting in his office, clad in khakis and a button-up shirt.

At first encounter Leo, who asked for his last name not to be used, looks like a typical thirty-something guy; sideburns, goatee, a little pudgy but nothing out of the ordinary. In a raspy tenor voice, he talks about the store he and his wife own, about their cats and about how he quit smoking three months ago and can’t live without nicotine gum.

But Leo’s demure appearance betrays his extraordinary past. In 1999, he began the process of physically transitioning from a woman named Lynette into a man called Leo. It started with counseling and moved on to testosterone injections, which lowered his voice and allowed him to grow facial hair. In 2000, he had his breasts surgically removed. But Leo said his transition did not end with a surgery and some injections. Rather it is an ongoing journey into the depths of what it means to be a man.

Transgendered in America

Leo is not alone in his transition. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that one in 100,000 women are unhappy enough with their genders that they seek sexual reassignment surgeries.

George Gaither, assistant professor of psychological science at Ball State, said TV shows such as Nip Tuck helped introduce transgender issues into the mainstream media.

“It’s getting out there, but to the person who isn’t really open to it, it isn’t going to have that much of an effect,” Gaither said.

Transgendered people are struggling for acceptance in today’s society, but this was not always the case, said Gaither, who teaches a course in sexual behavior.

In the southwest, Native American tribes such as the Zuni venerated transgendered people whom they called “Two Spirits” because they had both masculine and feminine characteristics.

“They’re almost elevated in their society,” Gaither said. “Almost like Shamans.”

In mainstream American culture transgendered people don’t fair as well because the public’s perception is often obscured by fear and misconception.

Gaither said ignorant, even slanderous, myths about transgendered people are still commonly accepted. One myth says they are all pedophiles, and another says contact with transgendered people makes impressionable children want to change their genders.

“[Transgendered people] are individuals,” Gaither said. “A lot of times a lot of people lose sight of that. We use labels a lot and when you use labels it’s easier to dehumanize people.”

Ms to Fs, or people who transitioned from male to female, generally face more problems in their daily lives than Fs to Ms, Gaither said. This is because stronger features, broader shoulders and Adam’s apples make it hard for them to pass as a woman.

In most cases, testosterone, clothing and breast removal, are enough to allow Fs to Ms to pass for their preferred gender in everyday life.

A new driver’s license

“People usually don’t think to verify if you’re male if you look male,” Leo said.

It’s late afternoon at the mt cup coffee shop. Orange light slants in from the windows as Leo talks about how he got his driver’s license changed when he lived in Boston, so it said he was a man.

He was nervous as he walked up to the counter at the Registry of Motor Vehicles, he recalled with a slight smile. The people there might say no. They might ask for documents. He didn’t know what would happen.

Leo said he looked masculine but had yet to take testosterone or have surgery and there was a tiny fear that he might not pass as a man.

He walked up to the counter and pointed boldly to the “F” on his license.

“You guys made a mistake,” he said.

“Oh. My. God. I’m so sorry, sir,” the clerk said.

The RMV changed the letter to “M,” and Leo walked out of the office a licensed male driver in the state of Massachusetts.

Leo said the “M” on the document was more than just a letter. Years of struggle and transition were packed into it. The letter didn’t just stand for “male,” it stood for acceptance. It meant salvation from a police officer’s embarrassing questions if he got pulled over or a bartender’s confused insults if he got carded. For Leo the new driver’s license was one of the first pieces of tangible proof that he was no longer a woman.

The episode at the Registry of Motor Vehicles is a triumphant memory, one Leo is happy to talk about. But there is another, darker time that haunts Leo’s past.

Wrestling a demon

A teenage girl knelt in front of the altar at her parent’s church with a crowd of hands swaying over her. The congregation clustered around. In a ceremony full of tears, prayers and sweat, the church pleaded with God to remove the demon that tormented the 15-year-old and threatened to send her soul to Hell.

It was 1990, and Leo had told his parents a few days earlier that he was sexually attracted to women. The ceremony was supposed to cure him, to drive out his homosexuality and set him back on the strait and narrow pathway.

Leo said he hoped with all his heart the laying-on-of-hands ceremony would work. He closed his eyes and tried to feel the invincible, divine energy surging from God through the hands of the faithful and into his soul. It did not come. After the exorcism people walked out of the church and drove home, but Leo’s attraction to women stayed.

Convinced she was being tormented by demonic forces, the teenage girl attempted suicide shortly after the exorcism.

“I didn’t really want to die, I just didn’t want to feel that,” Leo said. “It’s not a good feeling to feel like you are possessed by a demon.”

Leo said his failed suicide was the culmination of many years of intense confusion and pain that began when he was young. Puberty was especially hard. As he matured from a girl to a woman Leo said he was overcome with a sense that something was tragically wrong, as though some terrible mistake had been made.

“I hated getting breasts; it was horrifying,” he said. “I thought I could cause myself to get breast cancer by hitting them and I’d have to get them removed.”

Leo said his discomfort with the growths on his chest did not compare to the psychological pain he felt each time he menstruated.

“I had this because I had a female body,” he said. “During that time you have to attend to it. It was a painful constant reminder of what my body was intended to do, that it was intended to carry babies.”

An A-student all through high school, Leo was an out-of-the-closet lesbian by the time he graduated. Although he had a loving and understanding girlfriend, Leo said he remained unsatisfied as he prepared for his first semester at Ball State.

“I identified as a lesbian but I wasn’t comfortable being perceived as a woman,” he said. “Moving away gave me more options.”

Leaving home

One night in June 1993, Leo’s father told him to sit down at the kitchen table. It was about Leo’s girlfriend. She was living in the house with Leo, sleeping in his bed. This was an evil thing, his father said, and he was not going to allow it to continue under his roof.

Leo said the confrontation escalated into a screaming argument in which he and the girl left the house and moved into an apartment together. It was the last time Leo spoke with his father.

Leo’s mother was more accepting. Although she disapproves of certain parts of his lifestyle, the two have stayed close through the years.

That fall, Leo began his first semester at Ball State. But the combination of classes, a full-time job and the turmoil in his family life proved to be too much for him. Leo got As and Bs, but the workload was grueling and he had to drop something.

He chose school.

“I just couldn’t keep up with my classes,” Leo said. “I had to drop out.”

Leo returned to Ball State for spring semester as a part-time student. He excelled this time, graduating in 1998 with a degree in Psychology.

Things have improved for transgendered students at Ball State since the days when he was an undergraduate, Leo said. The Lesbian Bisexual Gay Straight Alliance, for example, changed its name to Spectrum to be more inclusive of transgendered people.

The library only owned one book dealing with transgender issues when Leo first came to the university. Now it has more than twenty.

Spectrum president Zac Davis said his organization has three transgendered members but hopes to attract more.

“There’s not a big demographic of transgendered students that are out,” he said. “So it’s difficult to do programs for them.”

Spectrum tries to educate people about transgender issues through speaker panels and other events, Davis said.

Spectrum is also working on a program with the university that would give Ball State faculty and staff a greater understanding of the GLBT community. Davis said the program would emphasize the transgendered community.

The transition

After he graduated from Ball State, Leo got a job offer in Boston. He jumped at the opportunity.

His five-year-long relationship had ended, and as his plane left Indiana, Leo was journeying to an unknown place. When he arrived in the city, Leo said he felt totally alone.

“It was scary,” Leo said. “I was completely by myself.”

Despite his loneliness, Leo said his first few months in Boston were liberating.

“It solidified my independence even though it was scary at first,” he said. “But I started feeling like if I could do this, I could do anything. It was a big confidence builder.”

With all the time to himself, Leo came to terms with something he had repressed for a long time. He wasn’t a lesbian, he was a man who was born in the wrong body.

Leo started researching his condition on the Internet and found there was an actual name for it, gender dysphoria. Soon after, he started going to counseling. In November 1999, Leo started taking testosterone injections which lowered his voice and allowed him to grow facial hair.

In July 2000, Leo flew to San Francisco for the operation that would remove his breasts.

The surgeon he chose, Michael Brownstein, specializes in gender reassignment surgeries and is one of the better-known doctors in his field. Leo said choosing the right surgeon was crucial for people looking to transition. Patients in the hands of an unskilled surgeon often end up with horrid scarring and unnatural nipple placement.

Leo said he finally felt like himself when his breast tissue was taken out, like he was in the right body.

“It was a kind of statement of me saying, ‘This is who I am,'” he said. “Going through my transition, it was also kind of a celebration of myself, like I’d been freed.”

After the operation, Leo recovered at a friend’s house while his chest healed. The friend, also a transgendered man, was sympathetic to Leo. He took care of him, even woke him up in the middle of the night to make sure he took his pain medicine.

Leo’s employees and co-workers were supportive of his transition. So when he returned to his job in Boston, his post-operation body was not a big deal.

His style was always to wear men’s clothing to work where he was called by the male name, Leo, rather than his given name, Lynette.

At work, the only difficulties Leo faced because of his transition came from the company’s corporate headquarters.

“The company is based out of Salt Lake City,” Leo said. “Some of the Mormon corporate staff that seemed friendly when we’d talk on the phone before were kind of uncomfortable, but that dissipated after a time. I had a very uneventful transition on the job.”

How Leo met his wife

Leo met his wife Carolyn in Boston during a community theater production of “The Music Man.” Leo played Tommy Djilas and Carolyn was his girlfriend, Zaneeta Shinn.

The two were dance partners in the musical. Carolyn said she kept falling over her future husband during routines and landing on him in some awkward spots.

“I kept landing on his lap and I kept worrying I was going to hit him in the balls and he was like, ‘Don’t worry about it,'” she said.

The couple hung out for the first time outside of the play when a tree branch fell in Carolyn’s yard and she needed someone with a saw to help cut it up. Leo volunteered right away.

“I didn’t even have a saw,” he said. “I had to go and rent one.”

Right after he finished with the branch, Leo decided to tell Carolyn about his past as a woman.

“I told her as soon as I decided I was interested in her,” he said. “I didn’t want her to get to know me and like me, then find out and feel deceived or betrayed. I wanted her to know early on.”

Carolyn said Leo’s past as a woman did not bother her, and she fell in love with Leo for who he was, not for what was between his legs.

“He was the first person that really got me,” Carolyn said. “We had similar religious beliefs, we talked about life, about God.”

Bringing it all home

Leo asked Carolyn to marry him after five weeks of dating. When she told her relatives about her new fiance, they were confused. Leo’s family didn’t even want to hear about it at the time.

Leo and Carolyn decided a formal wedding might not be their best bet. Taking advantage of a package deal at a bed and breakfast in New Hampshire, the couple chose to elope. The ceremony was low key. Leo wore a tuxedo he bought at Goodwill and his wife found her dress on eBay.

“The only thing missing was my family,” Leo said. “My mother wasn’t very accepting of me getting married as a man.”

After the marriage, the couple bought a house outside of Anderson, and Leo returned to Ball State as a teaching assistant.

Except for the occasional panel discussion, Leo doesn’t usually bring up his past as a woman. It is a big part of his life, but it doesn’t define him as a person, he said. He’s more concerned about the future.

He wants to teach high school when he is done at Ball State, he said.

“They have a program called Transition to Teaching,” he said. “I guess that will be my second transition.”

The program puts graduate students on a fast track to certification so they can teach secondary education.

Leo has come a long way from his life as the daughter of impoverished Pentecostal parents. Despite the turbulent episodes in his past, his life now is surprisingly mundane. He spends most of his time teaching and preparing for his classes.

“I’m not abnormal,” he said. “I just have this extraordinary past. I’ve had the privilege of seeing the world when it perceived me as different things.”