A Real Man
When you consider what happened to the now famous transsexual Brandon Teena in Nebraska in 1993, you begin to appreciate how much courage it takes to be a man. To be a man, that is, when you started life as a woman. The current film 'Boys Don't Cry' tells the story of Brandon Teena (née Teena Brandon) in graphic detail. (The film's director, Kimberly Peirce, first encountered the story, as broken by Donna Minkowitz, in The 'Village Voice' of April 19, 1994, and was inspired to turn it into a movie.) Though born and raised a girl, in her late teens and early twenties Brandon lived as a young man in Lincoln and then rural Nebraska, managing at first to fool her group of intimate friends and even the teenage girls she dated into believing she was male. When two of Brandon's male friends discovered her secret, they beat and raped her brutally. A week later, they hunted her down; along with two other occupants of her house she was shot at point-blank range, but she alone was stabbed in the belly with a hunting knife.
Though Drew Seidman lives in New York City, where gender is a bit more fluid than in the white-bread hinterlands of the Midwest, every day the 23-year-old has to live with the knowledge that the same thing could one day happen to him. November marks the sixth month of a female-to-male sex change process that he's chosen to undergo.
"I know I'm a target," he says calmly, "but I think I'm less of a target than 'm-to-f's" (that is, male-to-female transsexuals). "Most people just think I'm a kid in a baseball hat," he adds, shrugging. And he's right. If you're a six-foot blonde ex-male with hands and feet the size of Brooklyn, you're probably never quite going to pass muster as a female. But the five-foot-five-inch, 145-pound Drew, whose mannerisms are astoundingly boyish and whose voice is starting to sound almost like a grown man's, passes most of the time, even though his name is a little androgynous. He took it from his favorite great-grandfather, who taught him fishing and carpentry.
EDrew, formerly Susan, began the process of changing his sex by seeing a psychotherapist who, after several months of analysis, provided him with a letter to a physician from whom he could then obtain a prescription for hormones. He started self-injecting 200 mg of a testosterone compound, or "T" as he calls it, back in June. He has been administering a one cc intramuscular injection every two weeks ever since. (Insurance covers none of these injections until an official name and sex change is made on legal documents, allowing the newly "male" person to claim them as coverable male-hormone therapy. A three-month supply of "T" usually costs between $40 and $100. A supply of syringes is an extra $60.)
By August, Susan's vocal cords had begun to thicken and, after one brief episode of bleeding, her period was gone. She-now he-hasn't seen it since. Soon other male secondary sex characteristics started to manifest themselves.
"My sex drive went through the roof," Drew says. "I felt like I had to have sex once a day or I would die." He also says that he became increasingly aroused by even simple visual stimuli, such as a beautiful girl walking down the street. "I was into porn as a girl," he says, "but now I'm really into porn." He laughs and adds, "It really gives me insight on males."
He has begun to grow a peach-fuzz beard, which he shaves ritually. The stubble is very fine and soft, and may never produce anything that really resembles a full beard, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility; some female-to-males enjoy copious growths of facial hair. Patches of hair are beginning to come in on his chest, on his knuckles, and on the backs of his hands, but nothing you'd spot if he didn't point it out. He's also begun to notice that he has more energy and stamina than he had before, and he seems to be experiencing a second adolescence-though, of course, a peculiarly boyish one.
"It's weird," he says. "I do things that teenage boys like to do. I go out and eat large amounts of really gross food, and I laugh at dumb jokes."
But other effects of testosterone don't seem to have played a role in Drew's transformation. He says he thinks that it's mostly a myth, for example, that testosterone causes undue aggression to manifest itself. On the contrary, he says that testosterone has had a calming effect on him, which may be in part because the rage and confusion Susan felt as a woman has been mitigated by becoming a man. The conflict has been largely resolved, and Drew says he feels much better in his skin than he did before making the switch.
But the switch is by no means complete. Slowly Drew's body is growing bigger. His neck is an inch thicker than it was, his calves an inch and a half, his biceps almost two inches. His thighs are nearly two inches leaner, and the weight that used to reside there has redeposited itself around his waist. "I have a little belly now," he jokes, lifting up his shirt to show me. He then proceeds to open more of his shirt to show off his newly enlarged and defined shoulder muscles and a heftier set of pecs underneath his deflating but still bound breasts. He plans to have both breasts removed in February when he goes in for some basic f-to-m surgery: a double mastectomy.
Drew plans to undergo a minimally invasive type of mastectomy in which the surgeon will make a small incision below the nipple. Through that aperture the breast tissue will be removed. Sometimes this entails liposuction, after which the incision will be stitched, leaving a barely noticeable scar behind. (The nipples will later be appropriately resized and repositioned to appear male.) For up to three months after the surgery, Drew will have to wear a compression vest that will enable his skin to attach itself to the newly exposed pectoral muscles. Then, if all goes well-and, presumably, if Drew builds a musculature he's proud of-he'll be able to walk around in public without a shirt.
"I've spent my whole life hunching my shoulders in order to hide my breasts. When I was a teenager, my parents even sent me to a doctor hoping to cure my bad posture. Last year, when I told them I was transitioning, I was finally able to tell them why I had been slouching all my life. I had always hated my breasts."
Most women must understand the enormous sense of liberation entailed in doffing one's shirt in public with impunity. When many of these women were girls, being able to go shirtless on a hot day had to have ranked as one of the most enviable advantages of being a boy, along with being able to urinate standing up.
Drew remembers this as his first childhood obsession with being like the boys. "I always wanted to pee standing up. I finally devised a way to do it in the woods, but it wasn't the same." At five, Susan was placing rolled socks in her underwear and looking at herself in the mirror. "It just seemed righter," Drew says.
Of course, believers in reincarnation have little trouble explaining this phenomenon of feeling more at home in the body of the opposite sex, but the rest of us generally have a difficult time getting our minds around it. The stereotypical explanation we most often hear for transsexualism is one in which the person describes feeling like a woman "trapped" in a man's body or vice versa. Although Drew makes a point of saying that he by no means speaks for all or even most transsexuals, he mostly subscribes to this typical view.
But there's more to it, he explains. "It's much more than skin I'm wearing," he observes, describing his situation in what seems a much more organic way. He says he opted to change his sex because he couldn't envision a future as a woman. He couldn't imagine growing old as a woman. The bottom line is that Drew wants to be seen, on the outside, the way Susan has always felt on the inside-as male.
He doesn't discount the past life explanation entirely, but he doesn't lend it undue credence, either. "I went to see a fortune-teller on the beach in Venice once," he recounts, "and I asked her about my past lives. She said that she had never seen this before, but that in every one of my previous lives I had been a man. For whatever that's worth."
Drew doesn't seem sure about whether or not he'll opt for surgery below the waist, partly because it's expensive, and partly because it's a much more involved procedure than a mastectomy. He has basically two options.
One surgery, called metaidoioplasty, would take his already enlarged clitoris (the testosterone alone has made it grow to about three times its normal size) and disconnect the lower part of it from the vulva, making it into a kind of miniature or micropenis. The surgeons would also reroute the urethra through the new phallus, thereby enabling Drew to urinate standing up. Thereafter, he could use a pump that would stretch the blood vessels and might enlarge the penis slightly. This surgery would allow him to retain sexual feeling.
The other surgery, phalloplasty, which Drew says he's not considering, entails taking a large skin graft from the inside of the forearm, wrapping it around grafted fatty tissue, and fashioning something that resembles a normal size penis. This penis would, of course, not be sexually functional or sentient, so what Drew might gain in size he would lose in performance and, to a certain degree, in satisfaction.
In general, these surgeries range in cost from $18,000 to $65,000. Some surgery may be covered by insurance; how much depends on how insistent a person is and on whether or not a mastectomy (or a hysterectomy) can be justified medically. This, of course, means that such justifications must be made before the person changes her name, and therefore her sex; many non-transsexual women undergo these surgeries for other reasons. Persuading insurance companies to cover these procedures is apparently not onerous, or there are a lot of pre-op transsexuals willing to scrape the bucks together: Of the estimated 30,000 self- labeled transsexuals worldwide (10,000 in the U.S. alone), between 3000 and 10,000 have undergone surgery.
But whatever the relative losses and/or gains involved, Drew is sure that the choice he's made is the right one. Unlike a great many transsexuals, he's been blessed with a girlfriend who was his lesbian lover when he was a woman and has been willing to brook his change into a male. That, in itself, is rather miraculous. Likewise he has a family that accepts him completely. His four sisters refer to him as their brother, and introduce him as such to their friends. His parents call him their son, and treat him like one-which means that he and his father now enjoy man-to-man chats.
"My uncle doesn't hug me when he sees me anymore, the way he did when I was a woman," Drew says. "He shakes my hand now. It feels great."
When someone calls him "sir"-whether it's on the street, in a restaurant, or in a bar-Drew still gets a charge out of it. But, of course, this raises the sticky question of what makes a man a man. What, after all, does calling someone "sir" or being fooled into doing so really mean in a society as androgynous as ours? Non-transsexual people are mistaken for the opposite sex every day. So what is it that will finally draw the line? Will it be when the breasts are gone and the approximated penis is in place, or will it be when Drew has lived as a man for a good 10 years? After all, most of being and feeling like one sex or the other has to do with being treated like a member of that sex. Drew won't really know what it's like to be a man until he has lived it for a long enough period of time to make it count. Having missed boyhood, the most formative years of gender identification, he may never feel quite like a "real" man.
Drew has had arguments about this very question with guys in bars. He relates it this way: "They tell me that wanting to be a man and having surgery can't make me a man." And it's true that Drew will never have a genuine penis, and perhaps most importantly wasn't born with one, but he insists that this doesn't matter. "I'm not sure I can tell you what makes a man a man," he says, "but I know it's not a penis."
He has a point. Most people would agree that if you lop off a traditional biological male's penis, or even if you merely castrate him, he doesn't cease to be male. He wouldn't then pass for a woman on the street, for example. So is it primarily our hormones that make us what we are? This seems truer, since they are responsible for so much of what we associate with each sex. Hormones are, after all, the prime ingredient in Drew's transformation. Removing the organs is entirely cosmetic-a far less subtle and complex process, if for no other reason than reconfiguring one's various knobs and crevices has no chemical effect on the brain.
But these kinds of questions don't seem to bother Drew much. He's more concerned with enjoying his new life, and appears content to let the rest of us bicker over the details. Smiling his slightly too pretty smile, he sums it up quite simply: "I just can't wait to be a dad."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- The NYPD Has Installed Cameras Across the City So You Won't Be Tempted to Set Off...
- Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Aging
- There’s Nothing Wrong With the MTA That a Hundred Years and a Few Hundred Billion...