By Spencer Buell
Two years ago in early October, Owen is a sophomore, and he is standing out in the hallway on the fifth floor of the McCarthy Center, script in hand, poring over his lines. He has never been in a play before, but he is about to audition for “The Vagina Monologues.”
His monologue – called “Coochie Snorcher,” written from the perspective of a young woman overcoming sexual abuse, and experiencing her first foray into lesbian sex – is one of the longest in the “Vaginas” catalogue. And like most of the production, it deals fairly candidly with sexuality. The character’s “coochie snorcher? That’s her vagina. At one point, she vividly describes being raped.
Owen isn’t all that nervous, at least not for the audition. It is the thought of eventually being vulnerable on stage and confronting the sea of eyes watching him that is his real concern.
He had missed the first round of auditions, but a slot opened up when one of the cast members dropped out of the show, and his friend Meghan Earle pushed him to try out. “She dragged me,” Owen says. “I enjoyed going to the shows and everything, but it never crossed my mind to actually try out for them.”
Earle had given him a copy of the script a few days earlier, and he had read through it a few times, but it took some prodding during their afternoon class together to get him actually walking across State Street to the McCarthy Center, where the auditions were being held. When he finally gave in, Owen says he was just being a good sport.
Close friend and “Vaginas” cast member Samantha Palmer remembers watching him practice, his five-foot-eleven-inch frame dressed in a pair of blue jeans and a buttonup shirt, mouthing the words over and over again as he waited for his turn to try out. He is laying on a fake southern drawl – the monologue is based on the story of a southern African-American woman – but Owen knows his accent is not all that convincing. As Palmer recalls that night, “I don’t think he thought he was going to get in at all.”
He has never liked the mustard yellow paint on the walls of Club Room 3, where the production’s co-directors, who will be analyzing his performance, are sitting, and he is thinking about that when his name is called.
“Amanda,” he hears. He opens door to the room, faces the directors where they are seated at the end of a long, oval-shaped wooden table, and gives it a shot.
Back then, Owen went by a woman’s name, the one his mom and dad gave him when he was born in October of 1990 in a female body. But since the start of this semester, he is Owen. He came up with the name while writing a short story for a creative writing class. The main character, a man named Owen Alexander, he says, is “the kind of character that I know in every way. I know what his apartment looks like, how he would act in every situation.”
Owen asked that his last name not be published here, not because he cares whether Framingham State students know he is a transgender man – he doesn’t – but for other reasons. He worries that potential employers, co-workers, or, anyone, really, might Google search his name and find out about his sexual identity before they even have the chance to get to know him.
There are laws which limit what kinds of questions employers can ask job applicants during interviews, such as how old they are or whether they are married or have kids. In Massachusetts, whether their chosen genders match up with their biology is one of them. This year, Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law a bill that updated civil rights legislation to protect transgender men and women from discrimination when it comes to getting a job or a loan, or renting an apartment, among other provisions. But still, Google searches make measures aimed at preventing prejudice all the more complicated to enforce, so, for the sake of this story, Owen is Owen.
Besides, he says, “It’s not the first thing you want people to know about you when they meet you, you know?”
It was a few minutes before midnight when he got the call. He nailed that “Vagina Monologues” audition, and he got the part.
“I genuinely could not believe it,” he says.
He called Earle. She screamed. “If she were near me,” he says, “I think she would have tackled me to the ground.”
It wasn’t until he hung up the phone that it hit him. “Great,” he thought. “Now what have I gotten myself into?”
Cut to about five months later, and Owen is standing alone on the stage of the Forum in the McCarthy Center giving a smooth, sensual rendition of the “Coochie Snorcher” monologue with confidence and a relaxed swagger. He stopped performing it with a drawl months ago. He is doing this one like Owen. He delivers the monologue’s final lines, “You know, I realized later, she was my surprising, unexpected, politically incorrect salvation. She transformed my sorry-ass coochie snorcher, and raised it up into a kind of heaven,” and, to rousing applause, steps back behind the curtain.
That year, he became a Vagina Warrior, a title he says he will carry with pride for the rest of his life. “I am so thankful for ‘Vaginas,’” he says, looking back. “It’s, like, a community, or a sorority, I guess.” He says by this point, he could probably recite about 80 percent of the play from memory.
“The Vagina Monologues,” though, is strictly an all-female operation. Just as important as the rehearsal itself, every meeting includes a “Vagina Happy Time,” in which members talk about high and low points from the past week in a judgment-free zone. They also discuss women’s issues and relationship struggles, and often share deeply personal stories. Understandably, they prefer to do so without men around. “Sometimes, things get serious,” Owen says.
“It is probably one of the most unique shows ever,” says Earle. “It’s not just one of those shows where you show up, you read your lines and you go home. … It kind of forces you to self-reflect a little bit. Its really empowering, too, because it really makes you re-evaluate, like, ‘OK, who am I? What is my sexuality, really?’”
Despite two years of intimate involvement with the group, and the development of close relationships with many of its members, Owen presented Palmer and Earle, codirectors of this year’s production, with a conundrum: Owen is now a man, and men aren’t allowed.
Earlier, Owen, Palmer and Earle had even talked about directing the show together. But Owen’s transition changed everything.
When it comes to “Vagina Happy Time,” however, he says, “The thing is, I know exactly what they’re talking about. I know what it’s like to be raised as a woman. … I’m a total feminist. There is no way I can undo all the things that I am.”
For Owen, the key underlying existential questions he will spend the rest of his life answering have become: What does it mean to be a man? What kind of a man does he want to be? What does this journey into manhood mean for him, his friends and his classmates?
In the end, at least in the context of “The Vagina Monologues,” they settled on a solution. Despite his being a man, Owen could stay.
“We knew he wanted to be there, and we wanted him there,” Palmer says, “and the rest doesn’t matter.”
His days performing monologues, however, are over. “I couldn’t be on stage for that,” he says. “That would contradict, like, everything I’ve done.” Nevertheless, he has found other ways to contribute, drawing on his experience from years past to help make rehearsals run as smoothly as possible by collecting papers, taking notes and helping the cast members run through their lines. During auditions this semester, he often took the job of holding doors open for people as they walked by, and, in the process, earned the moniker “manservant,” which he doesn’t mind at all.
But for much of the cast, many of them new first-year recruits who know him only as Owen, he still had to explain what he was doing there. At this point in his life, he is doing what he can to blend in as “just another guy,” but in that moment, being just another guy would mean giving up a part of his life that he loved. So, during one meeting in midOctober, he addressed the “Happy Time” crowd as its 45 members gazed back at him.
“Listen,” he said to them. “I’m sure some of you are wondering why I’m here. My name is Owen. I have been in the ‘Vaginas’ show for two years now. My best friend is directing the show. I’m transitioning, and ‘Vaginas’ helped me find this out about myself. So I can’t actually be in the show, but I will be here with you.”
While most people he knows have been accepting of Owen’s transition, a few have questioned his decision to begin living his life as a man.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, it’s just a selfesteem problem – that you don’t love yourself,’” he says. “And I’m like, ‘No, that’s not the thing. I think I’m great. I have no problems with my self. It’s the body that comes with it that causes me the problems if I think about it.’”
For years, Owen has looked at pictures of himself and thought his physical appearance didn’t match up with his internalized conception of his identity. His jaw was too round. His hair wasn’t right. He had breasts. He would catch a glimpse of himself in reflective surfaces – bathroom mirrors, computer screens or the gigantic windows leading up to the entrance to the student center – and not like what he was seeing. He felt like a man, yet looked so unmistakably like a woman.
“I would think, ‘Who let me go out in public like that? Why didn’t anyone tell me that what I was thinking was not right?’ he says. “But no one knew about that discrepancy but me.”
On his worst days, he worried he would one day wake up and realize he was schizophrenic – that the woman he had been seeing in the mirror could not possibly be him, that all this time, he had been “seeing something that wasn’t there.” Now, though, when he shows up at school or work and looks most like Owen, he feels most like Owen, and that helps.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I’ll look in the mirror and be like, ‘Dang. You look good.’”
He felt comfortable interacting with guys at his high school, but since he arrived at college, he has felt much more at ease with his group of female friends. These days, though, he finds he freezes up in situations in which he is surrounded by men. “I don’t even know what to say or what to do,” he says, sighing and throwing up his hands. “I just feel like they can see right through me.” He hopes that, one day, he will be able to make and sustain friendships with guys to whom his masculinity is not inexorably linked to his sex. As much as he wants to, Owen has yet to experience that priceless feeling of being welcomed and included by a group of men. “I feel completely feminine when I’m with biological males,” he says. “It’s horrible. It’s really horrible, actually.”
He has a habit of studying people’s faces when they meet him for the first time – watching them scan his face and torso searching for visual cues about who he is as a person. “Their eyes give them away,” he says. He tries not to, but he can’t help it. Every encounter is different, but sometimes, people take his gender at face value. He will walk into a room, introduce himself, and no one thinks twice about his name or his appearance. It’s called “passing” – when his gender identity and people’s perceptions of it line up. “It’s a big thing for him,” says Kimmi Awiszio, Owen’s girlfriend.
Over Thanksgiving, Owen met a group of Awiszio’s relatives for the first time. Her parents and sister know all about his transition, but her aunt and uncle had no idea. To save himself the disappointment later, he has to be careful not to assume people will see him as a man. But after an afternoon of sharing turkey and mashed potatoes at the same table, Awiszio had some good news for Owen. “Just to let you know,” she told him, “the people you just met? They didn’t have any question about it whatsoever.” He had passed.
Among the high points of Owen’s life now are those moments when he sees the body he wants to, and the tiny victories that come with them. It is about more than just “passing,” he says. It is about feeling as if he can participate in the world around him without any social barriers. It is about being present.
Before starting the fall semester this year, Owen sent an e-mail to his professors asking if they would, please, from that point on, call him by his chosen name and refer to him with male pronouns – that is, “he” instead of “she”; not “her” seminar thesis, but “his.”
This was it. He was coming out to the FSU community at large. The classmate and student his peers had once known as a woman would now be living as a man. No more persistent auditory reminders of a gender that wasn’t his. No more daily dissonance in those moments he would answer a question, hand in a paper or have one passed back to him. Owen would be Owen. “It didn’t seem real,” he says.
Dr. Lorretta Holloway of FSU’s English department remembers the day Owen’s email popped up on her computer screen. Her first thought was, “Why ‘Owen,’ of all the names in the world?” Apparently, Holloway thought he looked more like a “Jeremy.”
After years of teaching and raising two daughters, Holloway knows what transitions look like, and remembers not being fazed. Rarely do students walk across the graduation stage much resembling the people they were when they first arrived at school, and she has seen plenty of the comedy and drama that emerges along the way. When Owen was a first-year, a time in students’ lives often characterized by turmoil and drastic reassessment, she remembers him being exceptionally calm and calculating, poised and self-aware.
“He never seemed to be the kind of person who made hasty, emotional decisions,” Holloway says. “If I got an e-mail where he had said, ‘You know what? This is my e-mail to say goodbye. I’ve decided to become a Buddhist monk,’ I would be like, “Oh, OK,’ because I know that this is something that has really been thought through.”
So, in preparation for the first day of their British Literature II class together, Holloway scanned the list to the middle where the name “Amanda” was printed. She crossed it off, for good. That day in September, she stood at the front of the class, the list in her left hand, a pencil in her right, and began calling out names. Present. Check. Present. Check.
Holloway had not yet passed out the syllabus for that semester, but Owen had one on his desk next to his notebook. He knew he would have a rigorous course load this semester, so he wanted to get started early. More names. Present. Check.
The class consists of a combination of people who knew Owen by his old name, but knew he was transitioning, people who were hearing the new name for the first time, and people who didn’t know him at all. But everyone, in that moment, was about to learn what they were to call him.
He and Holloway briefly made eye contact, and she said it.
“Owen,” he heard. He was present.
Holloway admits that, after almost four years of knowing Owen as a woman, she has struggled sometimes to remember which pronouns to use. “He teases me all the time because I spend a lot of time saying ‘Owen’ and not using the pronoun because I’m so concerned that I’m going to mess up,” she says. She has encouraged him to remind her when she slips in a stray “she” here and there, which is a particularly obvious mistake in their four-member, all-male Seminar in Literature class. He makes sure that he does.
Using the correct pronoun when speaking about him takes only a quarter of a second, but it is in those quick, fleeting moments that he faces either acknowledgement of his identity or nullification of it. People make mistakes all the time without meaning to, though, and he tries to brush it off when it happens, even on those tough days when it hurts more than people realize. Holloway, who Owen considers to be among the two or three professors with whom he is closest, is trying. “I give her props,” he says.
Some problems still come up, though. For example, in FSU records, as well as the ones held by his health care provider Harvard Pilgrim, the DMV, and just about everyone else, he is still referred to by his birth name. His school-provided e-mail address still bears his old name, as does his profile on electronic learning tool Blackboard, on which a lot of work for classes is carried out, which sometimes generates confusion among some of his classmates, many of whom didn’t know him before his transition.
Changing his name, legally that is, will be a costly, time-consuming process. “It’s just a lot of paperwork and a lot of paying for paperwork,” he says. First, as a resident of Millbury, he will have to fill out a form, appear at Worcester County Probate and Family Court and pay a $185 fee. On the line where he is asked for his “reason for name change,” he will write “personal.” Then, he will have to get a new social security card, driver’s license and so on – and fork over more fees. “Then it’s going through all those other things – dentist, credit card company – and basically anything else that has your name on it,” he says. “Just pick up the phone and keep calling people.”
He has copies of most of what he will need on file, and all the necessary steps are on his to-do list. But his friends and family know who he is, and so do his teachers. His nametag at the hotel where he works as a housekeeper says “Owen.” The people he sees on a regular basis know who he is and what to call him. So for now, he’s just saving up some money and working on finishing off this semester before he straightens things out with official record-keepers in the state of Massachusetts, who, as far as he is concerned, do not know him at all.
Time is running out, though. Owen is graduating this spring, and when he is called to walk across the stage on the Village Green in May, he wants to hear his name.
Owen’s FTM, or female-to-male, transition really began a few years ago, when he started coming to terms with the fact that the body he had been born with did not accurately represent his gender. Before he had ever taken his first steps officially coming out as a transgender man, Owen’s transition was a step-by-step process of expressing his feelings to college friends and relatives, often one at a time.
This would not be his first time coming out, though. During his junior year of high school, Owen came out as a lesbian. At Millbury High, his graduating class was about 150-strong, and most already knew him pretty well. “A lot of people weren’t surprised,” he says. “They were just like, ‘OK, good. I’m glad that you finally said that because we just got tired of you prancing around and pretending that you’re not.’”
He stopped wearing typical women’s clothes by about sophomore year, after realizing he felt much more comfortable in baggy jeans or basketball shorts than in more feminine choices. At his school’s semiformal dance senior year, when most women were donning gender-specific dresses and skirts, he wore a dark gray pair of pants and a vest, a teal dress shirt which matched his girlfriend’s outfit, and a white tie.
Two years later, sometime over winter break during their sophomore year at FSU, Earle and Owen, then “Amanda,” had planned to go dancing at Mirabar, a gay club in Providence. Earle’s first memory of Owen is from first-year orientation, when the new arrivals to FSU were introduced, split into groups and, as Earle puts it, made “to do all these stupid skits” together. Owen was assigned the role of a fairy tale character, and, Earle says, he was hilarious. “That person is so funny,” she thought. She had to meet Amanda. They ended up being lab partners, and by luck, happened to be in at least one class together for three straight years. They hit it off even before they had technically started their college careers, she said. “It was one of those immediate friendships.”
So, in addition to hanging out during the school year, the pair started getting together over breaks, going to dinner at each other’s houses and so on. This night, they were going to Mirabar. When they arrived, Owen realized he had forgotten his driver’s license, so they couldn’t get in, and what followed was a long drive home and lots of time to talk.
At around 11 p.m., just a few minutes from home, Owen and Earle were sitting in Earle’s car, the upbeat pop rock of Andre 3000 coming through her speakers, waiting for a stoplight to turn green.
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” he heard himself say, “but I don’t feel like a girl. I picture myself with a beard, and I want to be able to shave my face.”
Sitting in the commuter cafeteria in December, a few minutes late for her Monday night “Vagina Monologues” rehearsal, Earle is smiling and fluffing some imaginary facial hair as she recalls the moment. At that stoplight, they shared a laugh. “I said to him, ‘You know, if you grow a beard, you need to let me, like, touch your face. It’s going to be so much fun.”
They ended that night sitting on Earle’s couch shopping for binders – special clothing otherwise known as “compression garments” designed to help reduce the visibility of breasts. Owen didn’t have a debit card at the time, so Earle offered to buy one for him. The beard was out of his control, at least for now, but his chest? He could start taking care of that immediately. They could take care of it together. “He just seemed really relieved,” Earle says.
Two weeks before his first therapy session with Diane Ellaborn, a gender identity specialist, Owen met Kimmi. Awiszio was a first-year at the time, and while both were going to “Vaginas” meetings in January, she developed what she calls a “stupid crush” on him. She was too nervous to approach him, but after some friendly intervention from Earle, she learned Owen had a “stupid crush” on her, too.
At that point, Awiszio identified as a lesbian, and she still does today. Labels, she says, have a way of making people a lot less complicated than they really are. She has had boyfriends in the past, but by her eighth grade year at a “hardcore Christian school,” she knew she was attracted to girls.
She knew Owen as “Amanda” then, and she really, really liked Amanda. They started talking and hanging out more and more often, and soon, they were a couple. When he broke the news about his identity, though, her heart sank. Did this mean she was attracted to guys now? Would this mean she wasn’t a lesbian anymore? What would her label be?
Today, the two are all but inseparable. Awiszio spends at least half of the week staying at Owen’s home in Millbury. She doesn’t own a car, but Owen happily drives her everywhere in his 2003 Saturn Ion – to work, to school, to her house, to his. They take time out of marathons of homework to appreciate the simple pleasures of playing Lego Star Wars on his Wii. They feel a mutual disdain for his turtle, named “Turtle,” whose glass terrarium they reluctantly take turns cleaning. Their relationship, she says, just works. She can’t even remember the last time they had an argument. “We have this thing where we can just feel each other,” she says. “Like, when he’s having a bad day, I can feel it in my stomach, and when I’m having a bad day, he can feel it, too.”
They have learned to communicate without having to use words, but that day, just a few weeks after the start of their relationship, words mattered. “I’m doing this,” he told her. I’m transitioning. And he wanted Awiszio to be with him on this journey. She understood.
Owen is currently on the hunt for an apartment – this summer, they will be moving in together. It’s a big step, but why not? Kimmi likes Owen for Owen, and that, she says, is all she needs to know.
It’s a Friday morning in mid-July, and Owen is sitting on a hospital recliner chair at the Amherst Medical Center, a needle hovering two inches over his right thigh. He is wearing a green UConn sweatshirt, a black fitted hat on backwards and what appears to be an expectant smile. His mom frames him up in the viewfinder of a Canon digital camera. She clicks the shutter. For the next four-and-a-half months, that image would be his Facebook profile picture – a place of prominence in the Digital Age, where users showcase the version of themselves they think best represents who they are at a particular time and place. In it, Owen is about to take testosterone, .25 milliliters of it, for the first time.
The night before, Awiszio had been staying at his house, helping him get ready for his appointment. They had to be up at 5 a.m. – an hour-long ride on the Massachusetts Turnpike awaited them. It was going to be an early night. To her surprise, Awiszio was crying. “I am scared this is going to change you,” she said to him.
Getting to this point had not been easy. Just to get an appointment, Owen had to take the required first step to set the process in motion. He had to start seeing Diane Ellaborn, a therapist and advocate with 30 years of experience working with trans people, about a tenth of them college students for whom the transitional experience of being an undergraduate includes a newly discovered dissociation with their biological gender.
With Ellaborn, Owen had to start from the very beginning. For four months, he talked about his childhood – what kinds of movies he liked, what kinds of toys he played with, what he wore at Halloween, what his relationship was like with his sister. He told Ellaborn that among his fondest early memories was “shaving with my grampy” – pretending to, at least, and patting his cheeks with scented white lather.
Then came the questionnaire, the one produced by his insurance provider as a way to peek into his psychological state and, later, to track his progress. In the past year, had he ever felt as if he had been born in the wrong body? Easy. Yes.
The work Ellaborn does with her clients, though, extends far beyond the conversations that take place in her office three miles from the FSU campus on Edmands Road. Her circle of contacts includes a group of healthcare professionals who have undergone sensitivity training with her. She is on a first-name basis with them, and she makes sure they attend to the small, but important details, such as not assuming that a patient’s name is reflected accurately in their medical records. “A gender specialist, to me, should really be looking at the whole person and their overall health,” she says. “I’m very hands-on.”
Ellaborn would eventually fax a letter to Dr. Stuart Chipkin’s endocrinology clinic in Amherst. “It is my professional opinion that, although biologically female, Amanda aka Owen meets the DSM IV criteria for Gender Identity Disorder,” it said. The discomfort Owen had felt for years finally had an official diagnosis, and with it, a “cure.”
That term, “identity disorder,” will be stricken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, when the next edition comes out over the summer. In its place, the manual will list “dysphoria,” the opposite of “euphoria,” and the scientific term for the feeling Owen gets in the pit of his stomach on the days he feels least like himself. Someone calls him “she.” He has to do group work with male classmates. He remembers that his e-mail address starts with an “A,” for “Amanda.” Dysphoria.
Currently, however, in order to get the drugs he needs – a monthly one milliliter supply of testosterone, or “T,” for short – he had to be diagnosed with a “disorder.” He is not completely comfortable with that reality, but, he says, “You know what? It gets me what I need to get. So if they want to call it a ‘disorder,’ OK. Fine.”
Hormone replacement therapy will have some so-called “masculinizing” effects on Owen. His larynx will become enlarged. His voice will drop by about an octave. His jaw line will start to tighten up. He will develop some extra muscle mass and body hair. And hopefully, he says, he will get his beard.
Before he could get started, though, he had to start making regular trips back and forth to appointments around the state – all with Ellaborn’s help. On top of everything else on his plate this semester, he has had to switch his primary care physician, get frequent blood tests to monitor his cholesterol levels, which can spike once people start taking “T,” and meet with a nutritionist. He stores the dozens of prescriptions, letters and lab results he has amassed over the last year neatly organized in a three-ringed binder, but keeping track of all of his new medical responsibilities can sometimes be overwhelming, and he can’t imagine doing it alone. “I’m just really glad that I have Diane,” he says. He would have to get over the next major obstacle, however, without her.
Owen has a crippling fear of needles. Before his appointment, he had to track down a special, smaller one with a gauge, or needle width, of 25, the second-smallest available – just wide enough for the oily hormone to fit through a tiny hole at its end. After repeated trips to other pharmacies, he finally tracked down a set of them at a Walgreens in Worcester, and they were with him as he drove to Chipkin’s clinic, dreading what was to come. His cat Hailey has diabetes, and he can give her the insulin shots she needs without flinching. However, there is something about injecting himself that causes him to panic.
Back on the hospital chair, a specialist is walking him through the process. His mom is there with the camera, waiting for the moment to come. Owen slowly pulls back the plunger, filling a syringe, bit by bit, with about half the amount of liquid one might use to clean contact lenses, making sure no bubbles get inside. An instructional sheet of paper tells him to pick one of a few fatty areas for the injection: just above the knee, the back of his arm, in one butt cheek. He doesn’t have to find a vein, but the trick is to avoid hitting any nerves. He picks the knee. Holding the syringe in his right hand, he stretches the skin tight with the thumb and index finger of his left. His mom thinks he is about to do it, so she takes the picture. But he can’t. He keeps imagining the tip of the needle breaking through each individual layer of skin, then scraping up against his bone. He knows he is being irrational, but he is frozen. Months and months of soulsearching and planning, trips to doctors’ offices, blood tests, check-ups, late-night confessions and last-minute tears, and only two inches separate him and his medicine. He feels a nurse’s palm against his hand, gently moving it down toward his leg. He holds his breath. In it goes.
“It’s been four months now, and he’s still the same guy,” Awiszio says. The “T,” so far, has not made Owen any less like Owen.
He has yet to get over his needle phobia, and after weeks of watching him struggle to inject the “T,” Awiszio decided to start doing it for him – every Friday, just before they leave for school together. “I’m still afraid that I’m going to hurt him,” she says, “but I’ve gotten used to it now.” He will have to become accustomed to self-administering eventually, though. Because the human body doesn’t absorb and store testosterone, hormone treatments have to be undertaken regularly for life.
Occasionally, because of the high levels of hormone in his system in the days just after he takes his “T,” Owen will feel a brief rush of energy surge through his body. His heart races, and he immediately feels the need to get up and move – jump around, hysterically clean his room, anything. Fast. Two days after that first appointment, he literally ran laps around his house, then lifted Awiszio off the ground in a giant bear hug. The euphoria comes in a wave, which eventually recedes. By the time Thursday rolls around, he finds that “I’m just getting slower and grumpier.” By Friday night, he starts feeling better.
Each month, his prescription provides him with one small vial holding one milliliter, or four doses, and four needles. The needles are $13 each – “which doesn’t make any sense,” he says – but the hormones are covered entirely by his insurance provider Harvard Pilgrim. And that’s a big deal, says Dr. Lori Girshick, author of “Transgender Voices: Beyond Women and Men.” In her book, she chronicles the many ways in which people have historically procured hormone treatments – paying for big bills out of pocket, buying vials on the street, finding it on the Internet and flying it in from other countries – when insurance companies won’t cover it. Owen is very much aware of how lucky he is. Regardless of how difficult everything else will be, getting his monthly “T” is easy.
Testosterone therapy, however, is just the first in what could be many, potentially costly, steps. A significant number of serious decisions will need to be made throughout Owen’s adult life based on how he answers two fundamental questions: What will it take to make Owen the man he wants to be? To what lengths is he willing to go to become himself?
He has begun setting his sights on breast reduction, also known as “top surgery,” but, he says, that won’t be for a while. “It’s, like, the cost of a car,” he says, somewhere in the neighborhood of $6,000 – $7,000, depending on the surgeon, and as an elective, cosmetic surgery, it is not covered by insurance. The use of breast binders works for now, though, and he says they are much better than the old-fashioned Ace bandage method. The problem with using the medical wrap is that it can be kind of clunky and way too tight, so much so that using them for too long can do damage to the user’s rib cage and make it hard to breathe. Binders from websites like Underworks.com are tailored to an individual’s specific breast size, and are just tight enough to flatten out his chest without hurting him. They will have to do.
Sex reassignment surgery, on the other hand, is less of a big deal for him. When he was younger, he remembers thinking, “I have to do all of it, or I’m not going to be a real man.” But after all that he has learned about himself and about the transience of gender, whether he has a penis has started to seem inconsequential. The procedure is also tens of thousands of dollars more expensive than top surgery, and, he says, “I don’t have to spend that much money to get something that no one’s going see besides my partner, who is obviously going to love me no matter what.”
Owen still has hundreds of old photos of himself and records of conversations with friends posted all over social networking sites – years and years of memories from before his transition – and the question now is what to do with them.
Trans men and women respond differently to the challenges Facebook poses, some of them doing away with their old sites completely, starting new ones as soon as they begin going by their new names. Owen says he can’t change the fact that he lived most of his life as a woman, nor would he. But he can’t help but feel that some of those pictures just don’t look like him. He hasn’t come to a decision about what to do with that years-long catalog of his life, but Owen the Vagina Warrior, Owen the poet, the writer, the actor, the feminist, the friend, is embracing them for the time being. He is leaving his Facebook site as it is.
He is looking more and more like a guy as the weeks go on, tracking his progress on a Tumblr blog called “A Gentleman’s Beard,” where he posts periodic picture updates. The site was Awiszio’s idea. Owen’s physiological changes are significant, but she says they can be subtle for those who see him every day, and might not notice his evolution otherwise. He does look different, and Awiszio wants him to recognize it.
The prefix “trans” in the word “transgender” means “across,” “beyond,” or “through.” “It’s not a static term,” says Girshick. “It means movement.”
For Owen, it is a state of being, a journey, the beginning and end of which are nearly impossible to pin down. He is still coming to terms with what it means to be a man.
So what, finally, does that mean?
“I think that I’m doing it already,” Owen says, with finals on the horizon and the semester coming to a close. “I just don’t think that other people see it. It’s just that I feel the need to have that physical representation – the beard, the deeper voice and everything – not to be misgendered all the time.
After his latest round of blood tests in September, Owen learned that the testosterone levels in his body were at 396 nanograms per deciliter and rising – up from 44 before he started hormone replacement therapy. Typical levels in males are somewhere between 300 – 1,100. Chemically, technically, he is in the biological range. He doesn’t make too big a deal of this, though. Of all the components that make a man, chemistry is just a minor element. Social roles are more important.
Last month, his sister Heather gave birth to a baby boy named Benjamin, and just after he was born, Owen held him in his arms. This was his nephew. Benjamin will have an uncle.
And just last night, at the first-annual Miss FSU contest, Owen was Monique Vacon’s escort for the formal wear portion of the event. He wore a slick black suit and a white tie, and casually walked Vacon across the broad stage of the Dwight Performing Arts Center. His role, he says, was to make her look good.
Owen is coming to understand that he can define manhood on his own terms. His identity, he says, “is about being a good person and holding doors open and caring about people. In the end, I just want to take all the good things about both genders, and make them into one.” Owen wants to be all the things that he is. He wants to be Owen.
His profile picture – the one of him holding the “T” needle? He changed it just after the Miss FSU contest concluded last night. In the new photo, he is leaning forward in the front row of the DPAC auditorium, a wide grin across his face. His jaw line looks tight. His chest is flat. He looks different, and he knows it. He spent four months with the same Facebook picture up, and last night was as good a time as ever to change it, and show himself to the world the way he wants to be seen.
Dang, he thought. I look good.