“There is still no word or term to describe my (gender) identity. I am not a girl, I am not a boy and I am not trans, yet I am all.”
I met TJ before her surgery, she was super excited about her pending operation. After our initial photo session, I couldn’t get it out of my head that it’d be great to photograph TJ’s journey. It’s not everyday you experience such a life changing event and the photographer in me didn’t want this opportunity to slip us by. It’s a very personal journey and both parties need to have absolute trust in each other. I asked TJ if she would trust me to document her journey. She said yes. Over the next few weeks /months we did pre-op, post-op and “woo hoo look at me now” shots. I don’t believe TJ realises how inspirational she is. She definitively soars with her own wings. Thank you my friend for taking me on this journey with you and for sharing your story.
The first day of preschool broke my heart. That is when it was drilled into me by all the kids and my teacher that I was in fact a girl, not a boy. This was devastating. My parents had always told me I was a girl but I didn’t believe them. I didn’t understand the difference between girls and boys,I just knew I wasn’t a girl. Even at that young age I knew I had the wrong body, it wasn’t mine, and it didn’t fit my head or my heart. To everyone around me I was a girl, but inside, I knew I wasn’t. I spent every day of the next 35years feeling uncomfortable and wrong inside my own body.
I became very angry, but I couldn’t explain why and feared what would happen if I did. Years of hearing “why can’t you be more like a girl”, “you’re not a boy”; “act like your sister” led me to believe that it wasn’t ok for me to be me. That I was not loveable as me. So I became someone I wasn’t. I became someone that was acceptable. I was miserable.
I hated my body and I ate. I ate until I was huge, I weighed more than 110 kilos at my heaviest and I never looked at myself in the mirror. I was strong, I was huge, I was miserable. I was athletic, I could beat the other kids at sports, but I hated myself and I hid inside the food, inside the walls, inside myself.
It wasn’t until I was 33 that things started to change. It started with Nina. Nina understood me better than anyone previously and knew that I was hiding. She saw who I really was inside, rather than just how I appeared on the outside. She made me feel like it was ok to reveal parts of myself that were hidden very deep. She was the first person I ever told about the way I felt inside and with my body. Nina made me feel safe and loved and accepted, no matter what. She gave me the strength to find me. To be me. To accept me.
In starting to accept myself, I came face to face with my biggest hurts and fears. This was the hardest part of the process but the most necessary. The feelings of my past came hard and fast to haunt me as I started to peel away the layers that bound my inside to my old self. I faced issues around my family, around never feeling good enough, around hating my body and myself, around not feeling loved, around not feeling accepted as myself, for myself. And the biggest issue: where do I fit in? I wasn’t a girl, I wasn’t a boy and I wasn’t trans (to me trans is changing from one gender to the other). There was no word, no phrase to describe me. I couldn’t deal with these things on my own so I sought help. I realised that I didn’t fit into any box, or any label or word that society had come up with. But that it didn’t matter. I knew where I fit in my head and in my heart and finally I was at a place in myself where that was all that mattered.
Three days after my 38th birthday, I received my first binder in the post. I was SOOOO excited. I quickly ripped open the packaging and wedged myself in. I put a singlet shirt on and looked at myself and in that split second the decision was made. I finally felt the connection between how I felt inside and how I looked on the outside. By this time I had lost half my body weight so I was feeling better about myself. I knew as soon as I looked at myself in the mirror with the binder that my breasts were going to go – I was going to have my breasts removed. It wasn’t a decision really, it was the only choice. I remember feeling a sense of calm, I finally recognised myself.
A month later I had an appointment with a surgeon. As I had also lost 55kgs I decided to have my extra skin removed at the same time and found a surgeon who could do both. I rang many surgeons but most would not do top surgery when “there was no good reason for it”. Australian law requires a person to undergo psychiatric evaluation before any gender re-assignment surgery. I needed to have a minimum of three sessions with a psychiatrist and get “permission” from a certified professional for my surgery to go forward. I was very lucky and found someone specialising in gender issues that could fit me in within a few weeks. I had my three sessions and was given the green light. When I was given the go ahead I burst into tears. This was one of the happiest days of my life. A few weeks later my surgeon received the official letter and I was booked in. Now all I had to do was wait… This was to be the longest month of my life.
Many of my friends questioned whether I was sure this was what I wanted to do. Did I need more time to think before making this unalterable change to my body, since it had only been 4 months since making the decision to have the surgery? I explained that I needed no more time. This decision had been in the making for 35 years. This was not a choice; this was the only way for me to live.
About a week before my surgery, Pam, the girl I was seeing at the time, put me in front of my full length mirror half naked and told me to look at myself. I think her intention was for me to look at my old body and its scars and appreciate the time I spent in it. This backfired – catastrophically. I couldn’t look. I started crying uncontrollably. I couldn’t explain why at the time. But it was at that time that all the feelings of self-hate came to the surface and I realised just how much I hated my body, hated myself, and understood how sad it was that I had never looked at myself in a mirror unless I was fully dressed (preferably looking at myself from the neck up). I hated mirrors. Every time I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognise who was looking back at me. It wasn’t me. I had no connection to that person, I couldn’t see myself inside my reflection.
I woke up the day of my surgery remembering an incredibly vivid dream. I dreamt of three circles and a solid bar. I didn’t understand my dream, all I knew was that I was the circles then I was the bar. After my surgery it became clear to me what this dream meant. Before the surgery, I was the three circles. They represented my head, my body and my heart. All elements were there but not connected, disjointed. But after the surgery I was the bar, I was solid, I was connected. Finally, my head, my heart and body were one – as they should be, as I had longed for.
That day I went into surgery, I wasn’t nervous about the surgery, I was nervous about whether my friends would still love me after I had changed, after I had fixed the disconnect between my internal and external selves. I had hid myself for so long and learned that it wasn’t acceptable to be me, would they still love me after I was me? But I wasn’t stopping for anyone.
I don’t remember much of the night of my surgery other than waking up and seeing one of my closest friends. The next day I was incredibly ill from the anaesthetic, but 9am the morning after I was getting in my car to go home. I remember before sending me home the nurses changed the dressings on my wounds. They asked if I wanted to see. I was pretty out of it on pain-killers but I remember looking at my chest and thinking “I can breathe”.
After the healing and recovery, I remember the overwhelming feeling of being “home” in my body. There was a quiet in my head that I had never experienced before. I was finally me. My outside matched my inside.
It has been almost 12 months since my surgery and my head remains quiet. The torment of the last 35 years has disappeared. My heart is open. Breathing is easier, everything is easier. Life is good. I have found that inner happiness that I always heard about but never really believed existed – or believed it could exist for ME. There is still no word or term to describe my (gender) identity. I am not a girl, I am not a boy and I am not trans, yet I am all.
Now, I am TJ, and I am loved for exactly who I am.