September came and went

I’ve spent my entire life catching up.

My earliest memories are from being in the hospital battling leukemia as a 3-year-old; from as far back as I can remember, I looked to the future for an easier tomorrow. This early reconciliation with my own mortality drove me to go after my dreams and passions, while simultaneously growing inside me a fear of not realizing my potential – my friends call it overachieving – alongside a struggle with the calmness that comes with being content. These feelings ebbed and flowed throughout the three decades since I had cancer, coming on full force after traumatic experiences like the car accident I was in when I was 21. Today, the trigger isn’t obviously traumatic – the trigger is happiness.

I’ve been post-op for less than three months. As soon as I stepped off the plane from Florida in August, I jumped back into my San Francisco life full force. I feel like a puppy wriggling in life’s arms that just wants to be put down so I can run. But unlike the curiosity and chaos that comes with exploring a new beautiful world, when I hit the ground I ran full force towards the future. I feel alive in a way I’ve never felt before. I feel a deep-seated need to catch up. And like a new puppy that has been running around all day, sleep comes when I am not ready, and days are cut short by the ache of my still healing body.

People keep reminding me that it’s my Jesus year. There’s something about the 3rd year of each decade: age 3, I survived cancer; age 13 was my “golden birthday” and I picked up my first guitar; age 23, I explored Europe alone and fell deeply and recklessly in love; age 33, for the first time in my life, I’ve arrived.

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August: One tee-shirt

mesoccerMy red soccer jersey was my favorite tee-shirt when I was 7 years old. This was during the days before AYSO soccer uniforms traded cotton for synthetic fibers, which were hotter and scratchier but made us feel like professionals. My jersey had a large soccer ball screened onto the front under large letters, and during the course of washing out grass stains every weekend the paint began to crack until it became the softness that we refer to as “jersey” today.  Right around the time of the switch to synthetic jerseys I hit puberty.  Gone were the days of feeling soft cotton against my chest.

Before top surgery I wore chest binders daily for seven years. Their 70% nylon and 30% spandex squeeze your chest into a livable contour. It feels like a hug, both in intimacy and safety.  I easily spent close to 18 hours a day held in that embrace, sometimes 24. Red lines and abrasions were frequent, and on really hot days it was hard to breath. Like any undergarment, the outlines of the edges were traceable through a shirt, so layering was essential. Piling on undershirts, tee-shirts, button-downs, vests and jackets was fine in the cool summers of San Francisco, but became a health risk when I traveled to the tropics where temperatures commonly reached 100°F. Heat stroke is real and nylon doesn’t breath well. Keeping cool railed against peace of mind.

Four weeks post-op the last of the bandages and medical tape came off and I left the house in only one tee-shirt for the first time. Unlike the loss of sensitivity that comes from wearing socks everyday, the tactile experience of feeling soft jersey cotton against my chest was present and unyielding. I can feel the breeze lifting the light fabric off my skin and running over my shoulders. Softness has a new meaning. Walking is nicer, focusing is easier, and at some point the feeling of cotton against my chest too will lose its sensitivity, and a new normal will arrive.

bandages off (shot 23)

The two feelings are completely distinct.

The first, the need to get rid of my breasts, I was prepared for. Since the moment in my childhood where I learned what being a girl meant for the future of my body,  I dreaded the day puberty set in. This was followed by years of sports bras turned chest binders, layers of shirts and hunched shoulders. July 31st, the day of my surgery, I was finally able to experience the fulfillment of this need. Even under the layers of bandages and through the haze of the pain killers, when I came to after the procedure I felt the lightness. A huge weight had been lifted, quite literally. It was exhausting. It’s like I’d been holding my breath since I was fourteen years old. On July 31st, I exhaled.

The possibility of having a male contoured chest is the second one. Throughout the years of growing disconnect I had with my chest my focus was on wanting them gone; I hadn’t been able to imagine what would be in their place. I’ve imagined an empty void. I couldn’t picture what it would actually look like for me to have a masculine chest. And I didn’t care. Anything was better than what I had. On August 6th, I had the bandages removed and was able to see my chest for the first time. It was the opposite of drowning. It was taking the training wheels off the bike. It was the second after the roller coaster starts its decent, past the building anticipation and into the moment where you throw your arms up and scream. It was seesaws and slides, it was my first home run, it was red popsicles and roller-skates. It was my first kiss, it was tree houses and love letters, it was falling in love.  It was a feeling of knowing that things were going to be better than just ok. It was gold.

 

 

3 days post-op (quick check in)

It all happened really quickly.

Mom and I returned to the hotel after my pre-op appointment and dinner with my cousin. We had to be at the surgery center at 6am, so I began packing up the few things I’d brought that had been strewn about. I folded up the shark shirt and left the hawaiian button down hanging in the closet for tomorrow. I stacked a pair of basketball shorts and briefs on top of my shoes on the floor. I stepped into the shower and shaved my armpits for the first time in a decade, instructions from the surgeon to make the bandaging process easier. I looked down at my chest. I expected to have some sort of moment. Something akin to a moment of silence, or any sort of feelings of fondness, memories, or morning. Nothing came. I stood for a few minutes as water ran down my brow. Finally a smile grew from the corners of my lips, I stepped out of the shower, wrestled my nipple rings out, looked at my breasts for the last time, and pulled on a binder.

I dreamed of birds, not of flying. I studied the plumage of their wings. The birds were healthy, full, and their colors drab. Thinking back, they could have easily been quails. I held them and felt the lightness of their weight, the softness of their feathers. They weren’t alive, they were prepared specimens. By holding them I was studying for something I couldn’t define.

shayleeleThe elevator in the hotel surrounded us in mirrors. There was a never-ending cascade of Shayles and Moms. It was still night and google maps wasn’t accessing enough internet to tell me how to get to the surgery center. We pulled into the parking lot at 5:54am, the lights in the center flickered on as we walked towards the doors. Two kitties rounded the corner eagerly awaiting breakfast. I took a selfie.

I started scribbling in my medical history on stacks of forms. I saw “M” printed in the gender box and felt a fullness, a pride like I felt when I received my drivers license at 16. I awkwardly stumbled over my words as I pointed this out to the nurse, this was great but I hadn’t changed my legal documents yet. Everything had to be reprinted. Every identification was double thick. If you looked closely, you could still make out the “M” under the new id stickers.

Southern hospitality filled the pre-op room. Garramone and I talked genetics and tacos while he sketched I remember counting down from 10 when I was being wheeled to the operating room. My mom was allowed to follow as I was pushed, and the last thing I remember is 6.

I made the short video above at the peak of a round of pain meds. At those moments I can focus, move around a little bit, and think. I’ve started saving up work to do when I know I’ll hit that peak; Science, Neat emails, friend and family check-ins, PhD program search. The pain is real though. Sleeping on my back, and sitting most of the day, is painful. Not being able to take care of my self is a huge mental challenge. I can’t cook, I can’t lift the water pitcher out of refrigerator, I can barely get myself in and out of bed. I’m like a T Rex. A T Rex on pain medication. A T Rex that wants to go for a run, and do yoga, and focus long enough to work on my DNA alignment. This is a huge exercise in patience, in self-love and care. A T Rex that is ready to evolve feathers. And take flight.

top surgery tomorrow (excited…and a little nervous)

Yesterday I sat at the round glass table in my mother’s kitchen and read through the pre- and post-op care instructions for Thursday. My last day in San Francisco was packed to the brim: science festival scheming, DNA sequencing, coral lecture, meeting with visiting researcher, and packing for two weeks in Florida, all before I hoped on a red eye. It wasn’t unlike my last few months, it seems that happiness and business go hand in hand.

I got really nervous last night. Actually, I got scared. Surgery is scary. Being in the hospital is scary. And triggering. My earliest memories on this planet are of my experience with cancer as a 3-year-old. The hospital in Chicago was large, huge from my vantage point. I always trusted that everyone knew what they were doing. As I grew up, I learned that they don’t. Lots of things go wrong in hospitals. It’s irksome.

I left my pre-op appointment feeling a lot more confident and excited. My surgery is at 7:30am EST, so while all of you back home in SF are sleeping…I’ll be gaining access to 50% more of my body. Nerves aside, I can’t believe this day is finally here. I’m looking forward to a freedom I’ve craved for so long.

While I was waiting for my pre-op appointment, I sat with my mom in the waiting room filled with other transguys and their moms. There were all sorts of levels of nervousness present. When I first walked in, my instinct was to say hi to everyone (but then I remembered we were in a doctors office). I looked around at all these moms and thought, wow, you’ve all shared that moment,  when your kids says “I have something to tell you…”.

I hear that I’ll be pretty bed-bound the first week post-op. If you have time, send me an email (letters, baby/puppy pics, food pics, haikus, youtube vids, science links…I’ll take anything), I’d love to hear from you.

On a funny note: I just spent 30 minutes wrestling with my nipple rings. For ten years they’ve helped me feel less naked when naked. It was a good run guys.

It’s SF Trans march today, and I couldn’t be prouder

It’s Pride weekend in SF and today is my first trans march being out, and it feels really good.

I’m already falling behind in these blog posts. Since my last post, I’ve traveled to Philly for the Trans Health Conference, hosted Science, Neat in SF, and have just returned from an incredible biology conference in Raleigh. Life is good, and fast.

These past few weeks have also been full of changes on testosterone (most of which I talk about in the two videos). My favorite change was subtle. Ever since I returned from the Philippines, an overwhelming majority of people that I don’t know are reading me as male. It feels incredible.

Other changes in the last month or so:
– sweating way more when working out
– major breaking out
– officially never have to buy tampons again
– no more mood swings
– confidence up, and risk-taking up
– sex drive through the roof
– stronger. bigger. i’ve put on about 15 lbs since starting T
– it’s finally time to stop getting scanned by the TSA. The last trip through, the female
attendant wanted to rescan me bc I showed up female, and the male attendant wanted to
know if I was sure I didn’t have a necklace on. I assure him I was just wearing 4
shirts.
– all my dress shirts don’t fit over my shoulders anymore (I feel like the hulk)
– the rare moments that I experience anger, it feels like I’m holding the gates back on a
pack of angry sled dogs with a toothpick

The Philly Trans Health Conference was one of the most life affirming events I’ve attended. Beyond the education and connection to resources, I met some incredible men that I hope will be friends for life. My opinions on surgery have shifted, I feel less alone in the struggle to figure out my path, and I feel empowered to be out and visible, especially after meeting many folks in STEM fields there who don’t have that option.

I presented my first conference talk at the Evolution conference. This last week in NC was also life affirming, although in a very different way. I met folks to collaborate with, found a lab I’m going to work really hard to join for my PhD, and am feeling confident as a guy in this field. I also attended the Women in Science lunch, as an ally. While I struggle with my own visibility in these spaces, I do not struggle with standing up for and starting conversations about women, POC, and LGBTQ folks in STEM.

When people ask me if I have support in my transition, the answer had been an overwhelming yes, with the exception of one person who drifted off the radar. Happy to report that that connection was rekindled, and now I can officially say that yes, every single person I have come out to is 100% on board.

Also, if anyone knows how to stop getting these black screens on my youtube videos, let me know.

 

 

Science and Gender (Shot 10 &11)

Dear San Francisco,

I have a confession: I miss you. More than I’d like to admit.

I am sitting outside on the patio overlooking the Verdi Island Passage, it’s just before sunset and the sky is glowing. There is a slight breeze and I am sipping on a mango shake.  In 30 minutes I’ll run upstairs and grab my gear for our night dive. My muscles are the good kind of sore and I’m sun-kissed. I’m able to identify so many more nudibranch species underwater, and I’ve probably eaten an entire chocolate cake. As far as science goes, this is pretty much the best.  Wake up at 6am every day, eat breakfast, do two 90-min dives, eat lunch, process specimens, drink a mango shake, maybe do a night dive, dinner, share a bucket of beer, process specimens, sleep.  Being here is a not so subtle reminder of how happy I am in this career choice, how excited I am to be working towards someday being able to run an expedition like this myself.  There is no better way to learn than in the field. I’ve thought a lot about Pez Maya, the volunteer coral reef monitoring project I joined five years ago when I wanted to make sure that a career change to biology was what I wanted to do. I was as sure then as I am now.

Layered between the bliss of it all is gender. Transitioning as a grad student has been one of the more challenging spaces I’ve had to navigate.  First, I have to say that I’ve gotten nothing but acceptance and support from everyone, which means the world to me especially because I had been so scared of how my transition might impact my career. What’s so tough about it out here in the Philippines is two-fold, how I’m seen and treated by others, and how I see myself. We are all living in pretty close quarters here (I was assigned a cis-male roommate for the first week, something my advisor checked in with me about in advance, which meant the world to me) and it’s the first time I’ve spend this much time with everyone.  There are also folks from other institutions and other departments that I’m less familiar with. So as to be expected, I got “she’d” a lot right off the bat, and I had to decide on the fly if/how to have some conversations with folks who I want to respect me professionally. The guy I roomed with is a casual acquaintance from high places at the Academy, someone I hadn’t personally told about being trans.  I saw him downstairs having a drink with the guys so I thought it was safe to give myself a shot. I was debating if I should bring it up when he walked in on me. We ended up having a really good conversation about it (he’s family too), and with some of the other visiting researchers, but it is really challenging being around people who still see me as female even though they want to be supportive. The “she’s” are turning into “she-he” corrections and a lot of folks seem to be just avoiding pronouns all together, something that I used to prefer pre-transition, but now makes me just as uncomfortable. Which is where you come in San Francisco. Even though the “she’s” are par for the course, it’s usually way offset by the overwhelming amount of support and community, and the power of being around people who aren’t just supportive, but who really understand, who get it. That’s gold. There are times when sexist and homophobic undertones make it into the joking around here. And it’s hard to know how to navigate it in this situation.  Normally, I’m quick to speak up about this sort of thing, but it’s my first expedition as a grad student, and I’m struggling equally as hard to keep up as a budding scientist.  I find myself desperately trying to remember that all of these people don’t mean it. It’s making the boys club a little hard to be a part of, and the feminist in me is disappointed that I’m not standing up for what I believe in.  What it is doing is helping me appreciate my advisor, and reminding me what I’m looking for in a PhD lab.  The days are hot, the work is hard, the sleep is little and with that, the weight of the reminders that I was born female is heavier. This brings me to how I’m dealing with seeing myself.  It is hard to be pre-op in the tropics. It’s hot. Many days it’s over 100 degrees.  I wear more clothing swimming than most people do on a cool San Francisco day.  Also, the truth of the matter is, it’s hard to hide your body in a wetsuit. It just is.

Where I am getting support, though unknowingly, is from the Filipinos.  I’m being read and treated exactly they way I’m comfortable with.  Thank you. It’s hope.  It reminds me that there’s hope for an easier future.

I’m leaving the expedition tomorrow for a week on the beach. Time to think, reflect, and rebuild my confidence that being who I am, and being patient in this process, is worth it.  San Francisco, see you soon.

Voice (Shot 8)

In ten minutes my flight for the Philippines should be taking off…but it’s delayed, and I’m at home still. Perfect time to catch up on blogging. The biggest news is that my blood work came back great. Kidneys, liver, blood cells, you name it, all normal.  What that means is that I was able to increase my testosterone injections to double what I had started on. Instead of injecting more every two weeks, instead I’m staying on the same amount, just every week. Last week was the first time that kicked in and it hit me really hard. My heart was racing and I couldn’t focus, it was just like my first few weeks on testosterone again. The difference was that the next day, I felt great.  I had my next shot this past Wednesday, and I didn’t experience any out of the ordinary feelings. I’m feeling strong, happy, much less crazy, and glad to say goodbye to those horrible lows that came with shots every two weeks. When I was looking over my blood work with my doctor, I noticed my blood testosterone level score. It was somewhere in the low 500s, which she told me was in the normal cis-male range. When I asked what my blood testosterone was before I started T, she told me that they usually don’t check because cis-women’s testosterone range is so much lower (15-70ng/dL). I was more surprised that the cis-male adult range of testosterone was so large (270-1,070ng/mL). Low 500s is fine with me. Hopefully I’ll be catching a cab to SFO in the next hour. I’m actually looking forward to the 14hr flight to Manila. I haven’t had that much free time in ages. (Shot 9)

hope for the flowers (week 10)

I could live in DC.

IMG_7268I never thought I’d feel that way, but walking around on my first warm spring night, I was overwhelmed by this feeling. Perhaps it was the the way the air tasted like home, and the brick buildings and leafless trees. Maybe it was how much space there is, from the expansive lawns to the pubs that seat more than a few at the bar. I walked around anonymously, surrounded by newness, and remembered what it felt like to feel just like me.  In this place, I could just be myself with no explanation; only a handful of people knew me from the past.

I was in DC for the national FameLab competition, and spent a week working on science communication with talented folks from all over the country at National Geographic headquarters.  I thought a lot about coming out.  I worried a lot about how I was being read. I weighed the consequences of wait-and-see vs unnecessarily outing myself.  The morning I went to meet the group, I sipped hot hotel coffee and sleepily gave myself an injection of testosterone. I buttoned my checked shirt and walked into the cool morning air.  I was feeling good.  I sat down in one of the padded chairs in the semi-circle of us, and the instructor explained our first activity…Turn to the person next to you, ask these questions, and then introduce them to the group. My heart sank. As the words came out of his mouth, I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me (see blog post from MaIMG_7270rch 17), this again? My hands began to sweat, I started mumbling some things about myself to my partner, until I finally said, look, I’m freaking out because I’m transgender and I don’t know how you’re reading me, but I need to check in with you about pronouns… Everything turned out fine, but throughout the week, I was constantly reading how other people read me.  I had a few conversations with some of the other participants, but by and large, just left it alone.  I know some of them knew I was transgender and some of them didn’t. What was empowering, was not feeling obligated to talk about it. This might be why I’m drawn to new places.