I didn’t see a factory robot. I didn’t see a potential assailant. I didn’t see a ghost. I didn’t see one-note Adam, the ugly, hairy, depressed lump-of-shit “ogre” and “Frankenstein” and “Undertaker” whose only redeeming feature was being able to perform manual labor for money.
I saw S. A. Hunt, the attractive, complex intellectual who looks good in an empire waist and choker, who wrote all those books and has lots of cool friends and spends their days writing in the local-hangout coffee shop.
I saw Sam, the graceful cryptid that loves ducklings and good coffee and rainy days and mellow folk-rock music from the 60s.
I cast off the worthless husk of my old one-sided lie of a facade, and found the child of Aphrodite and Hephaestus looking back at me, a rock-and-roll demigod with black-painted nails and anvil fists.
I finally made eye contact with my soul for the first time.
And it was exhilarating. Intoxicating.
During my search for a therapist the previous autumn, I had somehow accidentally managed to end up with some surprisingly good health insurance, so I tracked down a dentist and had the tooth extracted.
A side effect of getting the insurance was that I also landed a primary care physician, and I was finally able to make an appointment to see a doctor and get a checkup—the first physical I’d had since my days in the Army almost ten years ago. Hopefully, I told myself, if I made an appointment with my new primary care physician, perhaps I could somehow talk them into referring me to the endocrinologist at MacLaren Hospital.
That didn’t happen. I think I mentioned it during my appointment, but with my anxiety and my tendency to be shy about advocating my own issues, it sort of got lost in the discussion about my health--kind of like yelling to be heard in a noisy bar--and by that time I had just about written it off as a long shot, so I didn’t push it.
Plus, I got the feeling that the doc wasn’t familiar with transgender issues, maybe even uncomfortable, and was kind of reluctant to even talk about it.
However, I was finishing up my physical when my new PCP mentioned they had a therapist on-site, an honest-to-God mental health counselor, a woman no less, and that it might benefit me to visit them. “Now, I’m not saying you’re crazy,” the doctor reassured me. “Anybody can benefit from seeing a therapist.”
“Does my insurance cover it?”
Excitedly, I agreed. I’d been wanting to see one for the better part of two years ever since things had gone south with Jess (too little too late, I guess, but better late than never), but now I had a secondary motive—hopefully I could find a way to hormone replacement therapy through proving myself to the therapist.
From my research into the process of becoming transgender that there were certain documents, I knew I would probably need to achieve HRT, called a “letter of informed consent”—basically an affidavit swearing that you, the Patient, are consciously aware of the side effects of the transgender process, you’re not being coerced into the process, and you still want to go through with it. And I figured that if I could prove my gender dysphoria and non-binary status to the Alcona therapist, I could at least get somebody on my side in the uphill battle to come.
That didn’t quite prove to be the case, but the therapist was at least positive about my decision. My primary care physician pointed me in another direction in my HRT quest: the local Community Mental Health office. I wasn’t sold on that, but I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence if I didn’t chase down every lead I got.
To my surprise, the paperwork I received from my PCP after my physical contained a diagnosis of “gender identity disorder,” which I didn’t agree with, considering gender identity disorder was obsolete; it had been removed from the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013, and I didn’t consider my feelings to be a mental illness.
At any rate, my gender dysphoria issues had been recognized by my PCP, with very little pushback, so I decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Meanwhile, I was still taking the ProEstro black cohosh supplements, buying them when I could afford them, but the facial feminization had worn off and I considered abandoning them because I didn’t see the point when they were no longer contributing any visible change. One nice side effect, though, was that my mood had significantly improved, and it was definitely tied to the supplements. Kate could always tell when I wasn’t taking them because I had a shorter fuse, thinner skin, and a more solemn temperament.
An odder side effect was that after seeing myself with feminine features, I could more easily recognize my masculine features, and I could see the handsome side of me better. My self-image and self-esteem went up on both sides.
A rising tide lifts all ships, they say.
“Oh,” I said, awkwardly. “Thanks? I guess?”
Can’t say I was surprised. Around here, CMH is who you call when your mentally-ill neighbor is running around naked in ten-degree temps with a kitchen knife, talking about how the government keeps untying his shoes when he’s not looking.
Not who you go to for gender identity help.
Not a whole lot of people came to that first walk—about thirty, including two dogs. We assembled in the plaza in front of the Crooked Tree Arts building to get ready to walk through the downtown tourism district.
My partner Kate had purchased a bulk box of little rainbow flags on Amazon and we passed them out to the assembly, along with bottles of water from a cooler.
Jake and his mother Sherry sat at the periphery of the throng, Jake in a wheelchair, holding a rainbow flag. Jake is a slender boy with glasses and an undercut, seemingly small for his age, with the punkish je ne sais quoi of a teen protagonist from an 80s horror-adventure. I knew him from Roast & Toast; I’d seen him working there for quite a while, and we’d become passing acquaintances. But what I hadn’t realized until just then was that he was a trans-male. Vivid mastectomy scars peeked out from under his sleeveless shirt, like the scars of fresh war wounds.
After the Pride walk, we all connected on Facebook, and Kate told me she and Sherry had spoken about the process the Howards had gone through pursuing transgender therapy.
Apparently, three hours south of us in a little town called Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, was a “gender services clinic,” owned and operated by a counselor, psychotherapist and patient advocate named Deanna Heath. Jake had undertaken his personal journey there, and after accruing a couple years of experience of the process by his side, Sherry was all too happy to be our sherpa.
Have you decided it is time to explore gender transition and make a decision about whether or not to go ahead?
These issues create difficult situations in every area of life, relationships, work, health, family and social life. Through therapy these issues can be explored and your path can be developed.
Areas of identity, especially gender identity are issues at the heart of who we are. Our practice provides comprehensive services for those exploring their gender identity and those on the path to transition and beyond.
We provide referrals to trans friendly professionals such as physicians, attorneys, speech therapists, surgeons and more so you are assured a positive experience as you transition. Advocacy is an essential part of what we do.
At Greater Michigan Gender Services, we offer in-office consultation, coaching and therapy sessions, referrals, advocacy as well as online sessions using a web camera.
We help you sort out your place on the gender spectrum and determine if transitioning is an appropriate course of action. If it is, we can assist you through the various stages of the transition process.
Benefits while attending therapy:
- Clarity about your gender and what action to take, if any.
- Knowledge about the various stages of the gender transition process.
- Self-awareness related to how your transgender identity fits within your individual identity.
- Referrals to physicians for hormones, electrologists and laser specialists for hair removal, speech therapists for voice feminization and masculinization
- Referrals to surgeons for facial feminization and gender confirmation surgeries, along with top surgery for female-to male patients.
- Issuance of carry letters.
- Direction to hair stylists and make-up artists.
- Guidance in movement, voice and wardrobe.
- Recommendations for internet sites, films and books to further your personal gender exploration and transition.
- Coming-out guidance for friends and family, at school and on the job through letters, presentations, and one-on-one conversations.
- Screening and treatment for psychological and emotional issues that may co-occur with gender dysphoria.
- Sense of well-being, as the gender therapeutic process moves forward.
Her professional website says,
My work experience includes 25 years in hospice and health care along with experience in college student issues, adoptions, the court system and facilitating loss and grief groups. My training and my work experience have provided me with wide ranging experiences which are very valuable in my work as a therapist.
I’d found my Holy Grail.
Emailing Deanna through the contact form on their website, I gave her a rundown of my situation and goals. A couple days later, she emailed back to set up an appointment: Tuesday, September the 3rd. Four in the afternoon.
And, I was incredulous to discover, my insurance would pay for everything.
The ball was finally rolling.
You might notice that I didn’t say I shave my legs. Shaving my legs is generally not a good idea, because the hair is so coarse, and when it starts to grow back the next day, it itches so bad my digging leaves sores, and I get ingrown hairs. Lotion does nothing.
Over the summer, I bought an epilator, but man, that shit is rough.
An epilator uses a rotating barrel covered in dozens of tweezers to pull hair out of the skin at power-drill speeds. It’s like shaving with a belt sander. And it doesn’t last—over the course of a couple of days, I made it all the way from my ankles to my knees and it only took a week or so for it to start growing back. I will definitely have to take advantage of the gender clinic’s hair removal offer.
It occurs to me that you might be thinking, “you’ve mentioned ‘going femme,’ but what about ‘going masc’?”
To answer that, it might be prudent to tell you how I started dressing femme in the first place. Like I said earlier, it started with the Halloween leggings I bought at Meijer. Not only were they comfortable, but in retrospect I think I was experiencing the “gender euphoria” I mentioned before, in a small, incremental way. “Micro-experiencing,” you might say. I began to consider it “stress relief” to get home, get out of my clothes, and lounge around the apartment in my leggings, and I think now that the pressure-valve feeling I got was the gender euphoria coming in a little bit every night.
In order to facilitate my femme days, on the days I dress masculine, I don’t do any upkeep. Basically when I “go masc,” I go back to the way I was until this year, and present as a man. It’s all about how you want to “present.” When you go to a job interview, you want to present as a sleek, competent professional. When you go to your next boxing match, you want to present as a natural-born gladiator, ready to beat some ass.
These days I consider dressing like a guy “slumming it,” because I’ll be honest with you, one thing I’ve learned this year is that guys have it easy when it comes to their appearance.
Guys don’t have to worry about buying a hundred types of makeup (eyeliner, shadow, brow pencil, mascara, foundation, concealer, lipstick, blush, etc, plus beard concealer for me) and spending time putting it on with a brush set they also had to buy; they don’t have to worry about different underwear fabrics (wearing Spandex too often can cause a yeast infection) or buying different types of bras (different kinds of support, different fit, different style - sports bras aren’t as nice or sexy as lacy, soft ones, but you don’t want to go jogging in lingerie) . . . and, you know, that’s not even getting into the feminine products like tampons, which thankfully I don’t have to deal with.
No, when I go masc, I just slap on a T-shirt, joggers, and sneakers, and call it macaroni. Yankee doodle dandy.
Sometimes I don’t even bother doing anything with my hair. I don’t shave, and I just wear a T-shirt, sneakers, and pants—usually a pair of “joggers,” sometimes a pair of jeans. All black, of course. But the point is to let my face rest. If I shave every day, it gets to the point where I’m really digging to get that subcutaneous hair, the hair I can only feel if I stretch my cheeks, and it gives me serious razorburn.
Makes my face blotchy, makes the beard-shadow worse, and I despise having a beard-shadow. On the days I go masc, I want to code as masculine, and pass as a guy. But on the days I go femme, I want to code as feminine, and pass as a girl. And having that blue-gray dirt smear across my face makes it nigh impossible.
Hopefully the estrogen will do something to my facial hair. It most likely won’t stop growing altogether, but it might be easier to deal with, easier to pluck or wax. As an assigned-male-at-birth, most of my body hair is coarse and rooted deeply, especially my facial hair. My mustache and beard have heavy, bulbous roots a quarter of an inch long, and require a considerable amount of force to pull out, even moreso than the hair on my head.
To further the comparison to Dungeons & Dragons, I’m trading a couple points of Strength and possibly Constitution for points in Dexterity, Wisdom, and Charisma. One of the effects of estrogen therapy is that I will not be as strong as I used to be.
I’m okay with this, because at my age—two years from 40—and at this stage in my life, I’m already not as strong as I used to be. And my female side doesn’t need this strength as much as I did when I was perceived as one-hundred-percent male. So I’m happy to give it up.
Estrogen will make my skin softer, and redistribute my fat, changing my silhouette and the shape of my face. Hopefully this means I’ll lose at least some of my gut and regain it around my hips, thighs, and ass.
Another effect will be a smoother temperament and reduced anxiety, the effect I discovered while taking black cohosh. I won’t be nearly as irritable or generally angry—things roll off my back easier, I’ll take things more in stride. I don’t lash out or experience a loss of control anymore, and that will certainly be the case when I start HRT.
It will also eventually cause me to develop breasts, which I am more than cool with. I mean, seriously—I’ll have my own boobs, real ones, not silicone. All mine.
There are other effects it will have, as well as other procedures I’m planning with Deanna, but I’m not sure I feel comfortable discussing them in this blog post. You are more than welcome to ask me any questions you may have, though. I am an open book.
Since Kate’s car wasn’t quite reliable enough for the road trip, we borrowed their mom’s vehicle, a snazzy new Ford Escape with all the bells and whistles, including GPS, the most important tool in our road arsenal. I’d loaded my iPod with podcasts to listen to on the way out there, but we ended up listening to music instead, to free up our attention for the GPS director.
The drive was nice. Mostly interstate, with a few turns through our satellite towns—Charlevoix and Gaylord, chiefly. Since we had a little extra time to get to my appointment, we stopped at a gaming store in Gaylord called “Geniehobbies,” where I bought a copy of Monster of the Week. Pretty amazing place, lots of cool stuff, and a large game-play area upstairs, with a secret mini-painting room in the back that looks like a Mafia backroom-deals table, dark and secluded. Apparently there’s a pretty sweet indie bookstore in town called “Saturn Booksellers,” but we didn’t quite have time to check it out at the time. I should be doing a signing there this winter, though, so I’ll get in there eventually!
Rest of the drive passed without incident, and as we came into Mt. Pleasant, I was struck by how idyllic the town looked in the afternoon sun. Lots of browns and beiges in the architecture, bread-colored bricks paired with angular metal and glass, and with the low skyline, it all came together in a very satisfying mid-century-modern way, like a transplant straight out of the Seventies or Eighties. Sort of looked like the set of Halloween or Stranger Things.
After we found the gender clinic and parked, we realized we were hungry and still had a little time, so we walked around the neighborhood and found a co-op grocery store to buy something to snack on.
Then it was time.
The gender clinic was in a suite in a stately-looking building, accessible through a lobby of marble, where a fountain burbled quietly under a skylight giving us a glimpse of a listless white sky.
The next thing I noticed was that one of the office windows was a counter window with thin bars across frosted glass, and a hand-painted sign that said STAMPS, or something of that nature. On the other side of the glass, I could see books and a potted succulent. Apparently the gender clinic used to be a post office.
Kate sat in the waiting room with their laptop to work on a project, while I wandered into the receptionist’s office to confirm my appointment. For some reason they seemed surprised to see me, as if I’d never had an appointment at all, but then Deanna Heath showed up and everything worked itself out. They took down my preferred name and pronouns, then I filled out a medical-history questionnaire in the waiting room. No, I don’t smoke and never have. I don’t do drugs.
Peeling myself off their leather couch, I wandered back into the office, where I was ushered into what looked like a small Victorian sitting room. The subtle grandeur of the lobby had filtered into the building’s deeper recesses, and washed-out sunlight seeped through a window high in the wall. I took a seat on the sofa and an attractive young counselor relaxed in an armchair in front of me.
What ensued was basically a recap of my life up to that point, with a focus on my decision to come here, the discoveries that had led me to realize I was non-binary, and the traumas that had helped shape me.
I was seven or eight years old.
Never forgot it, not even a little bit. What he told me has reverberated in my head at least once, every day, since.
In retrospect, I think perhaps I have resisted my recent revelations, and my recent changes, and my true nature, for so long . . . and fought so hard, and pushed so far, and did so much, and sought so much recognition for my efforts at presenting a straight, hard-working man to the world because I didn’t want him to be right. I didn’t want his disdain and disgust to be validated. I was the man of the goddamn house. I worked off 74 pounds in Basic Combat Training in 2005, and ruptured a disc in my spine just before going to Afghanistan in 2010, pushing myself past what he told me that day. I have worked my body half to death my whole adult life trying to stay ahead of his insinuation that I was unworthy of being.
One day when I was little, I was lying on my bedroom floor drawing happily, the light off, facing away from the door. Mid-afternoon sun drifted through the windows.
Suddenly the room shook and I was four feet in the air. It had happened so abruptly I didn’t even realize what was going on until I was on my feet. He had wordlessly stormed into my room, grabbed the back of my shirt, and yanked me bodily up off the floor. He started yelling at me about not having done my homework.
It scared the hell out of me. He scared the hell out of me, all the time. My heart-rate is going up just typing all this out.
He died in a car accident the year I turned fourteen.
“You’re the man of the house now,” someone told me at the hospital.
At his funeral, I cried on my biological father’s shoulder. I sobbed. For a very long time, I had no idea why.
Even beyond the fact that I had taken on that rebellious, self-absorbed aspect of a teenage boy, I was not given to crying at funerals—I’m still not, honestly, I’m usually clear-eyed and wandering around looking for other people to console. And I was especially not given to considering my father a source of comfort. He was traumatizingly abusive, an enormous, bearded Harley-riding biker in a motorcycle gang, a drunk and a cokehead, the reason why he and my mother had divorced when I was six. He is one of the reasons why I can’t handle being around erratic people, or men shouting angrily, and why I can’t handle loud, sharp noises.
He is one of the reasons I have PTSD at 38 years old. Not Afghanistan, my father, the “man” who should have been the bedrock of my fucking childhood.
No, it must have been tears of relief.
Over the next couple of years, I did my level best to comfort my widow mother on her darkest, loneliest, most devastated nights. And it never once even occurred to me to use him, or his death, as an emotional weapon against my younger brother and sister. I love all three of them, and I never would have let my feelings about him erode our relationship.
But I had been absolutely terrified of that man. And the disdain he had for me as a young man has been chasing me into the grave ever since.
As a philosophy, “kintsugi” can be seen to have similarities to the Japanese philosophy of “wabi-sabi,” an embracing of the flawed or imperfect. Japanese aesthetics values marks of wear by the use of an object. This can be seen as a rationale for keeping an object around even after it has broken and as a justification of kintsugi itself, highlighting the cracks and repairs as simply an event in the life of an object rather than allowing its service to end at the time of its damage or breakage.
Kintsugi can relate to the Japanese philosophy of "no mind" (無心 mushin), which encompasses the concepts of non-attachment, acceptance of change, and fate as aspects of human life. [...]
Kintsugi is the general concept of highlighting or emphasizing imperfections, visualizing mends and seams as an additive or an area to celebrate or focus on, rather than absence or missing pieces. Modern artists experiment with the ancient technique as a means of analyzing the idea of loss, synthesis, and improvement through destruction and repair or rebirth.
Masculinity represents a poison that’s been sickening me since I was barely out of diapers. It has been the wedge, the crack that’s been separating me down the middle my entire life, eroding my male side, forcing me to repress my female side.
So, yeah, I’m done being a “man.” I’ve had enough, thanks. My life has been a series of being failed by men and a society domineered by men, and my quest to, at first, meet their demands, and then to push myself beyond them. And out of guilt and fear, I’ve very nearly destroyed my body and my soul in the process.
I wanted to be a better father than Joe Hunt, but I never got the chance. So I try to be a good father to the people around me. The youths in my D&D group. The authors struggling beside me. The queer kids in my social circles. My friends, both offline and on.
These are the things that I told the therapist that day at the gender clinic in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. I didn’t need or want that overwhelming physical strength any longer. It’s time to kintsugi these two halves back together and restore the real me, the best me, the non-binary me, the worn-out and battle-scarred me, the Me who is both of these genders, and become my true self, who I should have always been: Sam the gold-veined owlbear, who knows what they are, and what they are capable of.
“You won’t be as strong anymore,” the counselor told me, explaining the effects of HRT. They had agreed to give me a letter of informed consent and set me up for estrogen. “But from what you’ve told me, it sounds like you won’t need it.” 🦋