[Update to the review: Josef has contributed to the discussion forum on the show here. Worth a read. ]
I knew that I wanted to write a post about ‘Born in the Wrong Body: A Change of Heart’ before it even aired, especially so because many of my friends told me they were reluctant or nervous about watching it for themselves. As someone who has not made a gender transition even once (let alone twice, or even three times!) I felt I could view it dispassionately and objectively.
However, after seeing it, I found myself affected in quite unexpected ways. The aspects that I expected to feel negatively about were just not there, and my overall reaction was very mixed – finding both positive and negative emotions rolling together leaving me … somewhat neutral. I have decided simply to write a synopsis of what we were shown, and leave it up to the reader to come to their own conclusions. I’m sure if this spurs you to watch the show, you can find it on YouTube, or coming up in MSNBC’s frequent re-run schedule.
I’m going to use the pronouns that (mostly) match the current gender presentation of the two people shown in the documentary. (If this offends you, I’m sorry – in a case like this, there simply is no “right way”.) Without further ado, here’s what we learn:
It was stressed up front that of all those who transition, only a very, very tiny proportion ever “go back”. In fact, I suspect the two subjects we follow were the only ones who could be identified and were willing to have their stories told. Most similar documentary programs feature three or more subjects to give a wider experience.
Born as Charles, our first subject reveals that his gender wasn’t exactly clear to the doctor who delivered him. He had ambiguous genitalia, including an organ that was somewhere between a testicle and an ovary. The decision was made to raise him as a boy, although he says he never fit in as a child, and started growing breasts at age 12. (Right there is the point at which I feel most transgendered people will say “Aha! Okay, this doesn’t apply to me”.) He tried dating girls, but had his first boyfriend at the age of 17 – and thought he’d found the label that applied to him. “Oh! I’m gay!” However, he still found difficulty in fitting in with the gay culture, and two suicide attempts quickly followed.
Charles decided it would be easier to live as a female – it would fit better with his natural gestures and mode of speech. Having made this decision, he was like a “speeding locomotive headed towards [his] goal”. He never dreamt he would have any desire to return to living as a male. As Judy, he started taking hormones at the age of 19, and two years later had FFS. A pair of 38DDD breasts (“to fit my 6′ frame”) followed which made a career as an exotic dancer very lucrative. In fact, the earnings from dancing in nightclubs paid for GRS at the age of 24.
Judy had had a total of seven years of therapy before GRS, and the narrator interjected at this point to explain the “legal and ethical” Standards of Care that doctors follow before performing such surgery. Despite rejection by some family members, there was a welcome acceptance from a non-judgmental grandmother, and Judy started to dream of a husband, marriage, the house with a white picket fence and a dog in the yard. However, there was always the constant worry when living in 100% stealth. “I can’t just go out and date a straight guy – at what point do I tell him?” Judy’s first marriage was to a man who was unaware that his wife was a transsexual. However, the pressure was too great and they were divorced after only six months without the truth ever being revealed.
Judy married again two years later after finding someone through a “tell all” personal ad. However, this approach was no more successful and ended in a second divorce. A string of short-lived relationship failures followed and doubt crept into Judy’s mind about ever finding happiness as a woman.
Exhausted, discouraged and disheartened, he educated himself on issues of gender and decided this life as a female was not genuine for him – was not who he really was. A clip was shown where – still living as Judy with hip-length hair – he says he thought about issues of faith and God and turned to the organization ‘JONAH’ (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality), where reparative therapy was used to “cure” those who sought a solution to their troubled lives.
However, the return to life as a man – under the new name of Josef – was not triggered by religion or any other organization. In fact, he tells us, he’s not sure if God exists. “I simply grew out of the feelings that I had that made me want to live as a female”. Josef tells us that he has gone through a revolution, evolved, grown. He does not regret his original decision to become a woman, and would not discourage anyone else from undergoing SRS – but he would urge them to explore all other options first. He comes up with several opposing feelings about the detransition, “It’s scary being a male, there is familiarity and safety in being a female” versus “I can walk the way my body is built to walk – lumbering, male steps.”
These days, Josef does a lot of body building to recover his male physique. He tells us it’s “good to be free of the 38DDD boobs that were swinging around all the time”. Although he’s not going to have a second set of bottom surgery – there is no way to return a fully-functional set of male genitalia – he seems at ease with equipment that still looks and functions like a female. He speaks of how others want to put people into “male” and “female” boxes with no room for anything in-between. Josef has found a way to be comfortable with himself – most importantly, with being gay which is a comfort he did not have when he was male the first time around. He does make the point that as a gay man with female anatomy, it is hard to find a loving relationship – someone who likes him the way he is.
He concludes by saying it is “weird to talk about Judy as like another person” which makes him very different from the second subject of the program.
Michael describes himself as “impulsive, a lone wolf”. We see him in his current “biker” persona as we hear about his unconventional route through transition. His desire to be a woman was like the desire for “riches, for a pot of gold”. As a child, he had learning disabilities and behavioral problems. He also never fit in – until he discovered the punk rock movement in college. He quickly became involved in street gangs, and picked up a nasty drug habit. His solution to being depressed and suicidal was an overnight transition. He was never “part time” – he called his therapist and told her “I’m coming as a woman to therapy today”. When she asked him, “Don’t you think we should talk about this first?” he agreed – but turned up as a woman anyway. He says he never cared if he was an “ugly woman”, but became a shopoholic, and got compliments on his make-up techniques. “As Michelle I was hotter than most of the genetic girls I hung out with.”
Within a year, Michelle had brand new 36D breasts through surgery (although the documentary was unclear whether GRS was also undertaken). Interviewed in the present, Michael always talks about Michelle in the third person, and showed us the empty closet that contained Michelle’s clothes. He says he didn’t have to try to act as a woman, that it came naturally. There was also never a desire for men sexually, just an interest in women. He describes himself as a male lesbian with a dislike for male/female sexual relations. “I like to make love like two women make love”. Michael also refers to his male genitalia as “Snoopy” – “It was always hard making sure Snoopy was tucked up out of the way”.
For Michael, religion was clearly the catalyst that inspired his transition back. As Michelle, there was always a struggle to maintain relationships and a feeling of loneliness. A friend extended an invitation to Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, where the charismatic Pastor Bob was enthralling. There was no clue that the church would try to impose a change – but that’s what happened. After several months of attending, Michael was fully transformed back to male, including breast removal – but with this transformation he began to spiral into emotionally disturbed behavior which the church members were unprepared to deal with. He finally went to a competent psychologist who diagnosed him with Borderline Personality Disorder. A very brief interview with Pastor Bob tells us that “Michael’s not the first person to be disappointed by the church”, and that some transgender people detransition “quite happily”.
Michael plans to stay a man, but wishes he was still Michelle. The return has been extremely difficult with three suicide attempts and a relapse into drug addiction. He tells us that Michelle had a social life, people who wanted her in their lives. However, he has no money to go back to being Michelle, no family support and very few friends. We see the reminders in his home of Michelle, the flowers in the pink bathroom.
“I miss her so much … The one thing that I do want would be to have never switched back from Michelle to Michael.”
Filed under: Commentary, Transgender Tagged: | detransition, detransitioning, FFS, gay, gender identity, GID, GRS, hormones, hrt, intersex, marriage, msnbc, religion, reparative therapy, srs, standards of care, surgery, television, transexual, Transgender, transition, transitioning, transsexual, tv