MSNBC’s ‘Born in the Wrong Body: A Change of Heart’

[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.”

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17 Responses

  1. Thank you for your review of what sounds like a fascinating programme, Khyri. I suppose it will give those who oppose our transitions ammunition to say we are doing the wrong thing, but I for one know where my future lies!

  2. For me it just seems like Josef is offering a different version of the story than he offered in the documentary “Almost Myself.” That documentary follow his transition back from female to male, and you really get the idea that he was pushed into by the ex-gay movement and not after reconsidering the concepts of gender. I actually really feel very sorry for Joseph. I think he felt trapped into going back to male and is not seeking to justify the transition. It must be difficult for him. If you have time, check out “Almost Myself“, it not only shows Josef’s de-transition, but intersperses it with interviews with other trans women, and gives a really positive view of their lives and their experiences. You get the feeling from the film that Josef feels he made the wrong choice going back to male, and that the vast majority of trans women go on to live happy lives very content with their transition.

    Kathryn

    [Editor’s Note: A preview of “Almost Myself” is available on YouTube here. The complete documentary can be purchased through the links above, as well as on Amazon.com.]

  3. Hello Khyri and all…

    The MSNBC is a different version of my story. It’s a four years later version after many changes in my life. I was miserable after 20 years living as female. What once was the answer to all my problems had become like a prison. Someone who once spouted the old party line, “I”m a woman trapped in a mans body and need SRS became, I’m a man trapped in womans body and wanna return to being male!” As Khyri said, there are many folks she has talked to that were not comfortable to watch the show. Perhaps that is because they don’t want to face up honestly to their own issues involving their transition. Who knows? People in the gender community get too freaked out about what is male, what is female, who is true transgender, who is a mere fetishistic transvestiite, whatever. Don’t let the boxes of the unenlightened straight world fence you in! Folks, all the labeling and who is better than who needs to stop. We all need to embrace sexuality and gender in whatever form it comes in. If somebody wants to change their sex back and forth 10 times during their life who are we to judge? Isn’t it most important that the person is happy and we care enough to be nice to them instead of trying to hurt them?

    What I have learned in the gender community is that truly kind and caring people are hard to find if you don’t fit into some perfect gender box. There is so much division in the gender community and it just stinks! It’s our diversity and caring for one another, kindness and lending a helping hand to someone who may not be just like you or your click of friends that is going to make the world a better place for us all. I need to get off that soapbox for now.

    As I waded through all the crap of faith and nonfaith in God, etc., I grew and changed as a person and what I believed in and what I believed happened to me, so of course in the four year between Almost Myself and Change of Heart there is going to be a different take on my own story. The revelation at age 40 that I had some slight intersex issues called for a major rewrite and rethinking of my history and how I looked at my life over the years and my reactions. Hind sight is 20/20 and often changes a story to make it more exacting then what you could offer when you were going through the hell. I was a bitter bitch when I detransitioned from Judy to become Josef and certain members of the trans community weren’t making it any better by manufacturing outright lies about me and promoting them. I mean come on! Death threats for etransitioning in a messy fashion?. I prayed for a miracle to a God that didn’t exist or perhaps had other plans for me? What other plans? Go through living hell and come out the other side as someone who while having had such a rough time is not bitter in the end? It took some adjusting and melding, but my story today is different than yesterday! Once I was labeled a “true transsexual” by the medical establishment and after 7 years of a Harry Benjamin I got my SRS and felt I was certainly on the road to happiness. Well, after some years the happiness and wondering if this was the right decision began to fade and I had to due a personal inventory to find out why. The main thing is I WAS NOT AFRAID TO TO THIS! Over and over I questioned myself on how such a mistake could have been made. 7 years of Harry Benjamin, 20 year of living post op and wanting to live as a male again? What the hell? I simply was not afraid to be honest with myself and take the steps needed to pursue personal happiness. Yes, my case may seem extreme, but it becomes even more extreme when you stick your head in the sand and refuse to watch the show or learn that there are many more people out there that regret their sexchange decision than the statistics that the gender community promotes. There are tons of post op trans women who are not happy and wish they had not done this, but cannot even fathom ever going back to living as male. It’s not for everybody. I am but one example of someone who has done a great job living in three bodies. The thing is that I feel happy now and that is all that matters. Somehow I grew into masculinity after a more effeminate beginning in life. I am very happy to identify as a gay male who is a bottom with a Mangina. I date more now than I ever did as a female. I have a group on the net just for gay guys who want surgery to have a vagina yet remain totally masculine. Now, before you judge that, consider our female to male friends who identify as gay men after transition yet are very happy to keep their female parts for sexual activity and would never want phalloplasty. What exactly is the difference between someone like that and someone like me?

    The transgender rainbow is a beautiful thing if we would all just be supportive of each other and leave room for everybodies light to shine. The world is becoming a better place for us all. Lets keep it that way.

    One group I have really liked on the net and folks I have met in person is http://www.unitedgenders.org. They don’t discriminate on any type of gender or hormonal expression.

    Yes, I was horrendous and made a messy detransition in the public eye as some have said, but I have apologized to those I hurt along the way when I was angry. There were just some in the trans community that were determined to not let one of transdoms most famous success stories detransition in the public eye. They were all paranoid it would make all trans people look bad in the eyes of the homo and transphobic world. Well, I’m here to tell you honey, it didn’t. My trail blazing and pioneering has opened up a lot more hearts to the issue of gender and transfolk have a lot more straight allies today from such efforts. Now, I have found my place and my peace and am totally involved in all aspects of supporting all facets of the gay and trans community. I’m finally able to feel good about myself as a transperson/nontrans/whatevertrans/gay. Lets not label, let just support each other in our journies and the world will be a much more educated and caring place for us all.

    Sheez! You’d think i was taking estrogen again with such emotionally charged stuff flowing out of me!

    Hugs and blessings,
    Josef Kirchner (@yahoo.com)

  4. I would like to get in touch with Joseph who changed back to a man and still has the female parts. I am in a similar situation. I would love to get in touch.

  5. Very interesting! I can totally understand how something like that might happen. People change over the years, why not this also? As gender confused people, the options have always been limited, either one or the other, but it doesn’t have to be that way. True diversity is what we really need in this community. The choice to be who we need to be, even if it doesn’t fit the binary molds of society.
    It’s good to hear your story, Josef!

  6. this is to Josef, I really thank you for providing your story and your transition experiences. I am too at a middle piont I guess you can say. I have been stagnant on my transition for some time…only taking hormones and full-time. needless to say I went about it wrong and now want to detransition. The only difference is I don’t think I would stay a male. I just need to be able to prepare better and be more emotionaly stable before I proceed again…and of course make sure that this is really what I want.
    Its been very hard being in this soceity and dealing wish body images, self esteem, and so forth. one thing that I have learned is DO NOT JUMP HEAD FIRST! the pool can be very shallow and sharp!. as I have found.

    so thank you very much for being open and honest about your transition…so many transgendered people are not. it seems to be alot of compitition and the “im more of a female then you” stuff. gotta love those boxes.

  7. I just wish as much consideration and publicity was given to those who are very sure of their own decisions to transitiion and remain –

    To me, this is almost a reinforcement of mainstream belief (even with the underlying tones of acceptance) that people “aren’t really sure” rather than the few who (to each their own) have made a decision to accept their born genders.

    My wish isn’t to detract – but rather point out quite curiously why people would rather see a story such as this one than those who have found happiness and acceptance of themselves within transition.

    • “I just wish as much consideration and publicity was given to those who are very sure of their own decisions…”

      There IS given a lot of publicity to people who transition! There are thounsands of trans-activists all over the world, hundreds of YouTube channels and tons of organizations who help thosse who transition. On the contrary, there’s no so much help for those who don’t belieive in the illusion of “changing one’s sex” anymore and wish to return to who they really are. Fortunately, we start hearing some stories that hopefully will help people, like my self, out there.

  8. I am writing on behalf of the Organisation Intersex International to add a link to OII, the largest grassroots intersex organisation in the world. ISNA is now defunct.

    Our link is

    http://www.intersexualite.org

    Kind regards,
    Curtis E. Hinkle
    Founder, Organisation Intersex International
    http://www.intersexualite.org/

  9. After seeing a CSI show about someone with 2 sets of DNA, I wonder how many more cases of chimeras there are?

    Some that feels trapped in the wrong body should be tested.

  10. I transitioned to female at age 16. I lived and worked as a female for 10 years. Then I met a woman, fell in love and went back to being a male. I still don’t know if I made the right decision. Its been two years and while I am still in love with my girlfriend I would like to be a woman again.

    • being a MtF non op transgender person i think that gender is fluid. i am genetic male i live and dress FT female i am married to a genetic female and am a parent. from my poit of view gender is fluid. you can live your life however you wish weather that is completly transitioning to female or male then transitioning back or like myself staying somewhere in between the 2 life is to dang short to get hung up on gender and sexuality. live love and be free my brothers and sisters for we all will be dust all to soon.

  11. I am a straight female and admire every person who has or is going through this terrible feeling. How strong you must be to do what is in your heart. I admire that. KEEP GOING and DON’T EVER GIVE UP remember others are watching and might draw from your strength. this show really touched me. I felt “now these are real human beings who truly express their feelings, no bullshit”. I would love to have a friend who is not afraid to tell you like it is. Ya know a true honest friend. Maybe I have been looking in the wrong place for support and friendship. I wish only the BEST for everyone in their journey.hugs and kisses

  12. September 2010 Update – Hi folks, Josef Kirchner here. Just thought I’d add a little update to things. I had read over the commentary on my documentary and the responses here. One responder has taken issue with it seeming like two very different versions of my story were told in my first documentary http://www.AlmostMyself and the MSNBC documentary Change of Heart being spoken of here. I have to admit that I said things in the first documentary that even shock me now. I was a person going through turbulent changes. I was seeking to desperately shed the unwanted female life after my complete and utter disillusionment with bill of goods I’d been sold. I hardly recognize the person from the first documentary because I was going through so much. The full transition to female took nearly 7 years, but the transition to male took one day and consisted of cutting my hair and changing my clothes (and strapping down my breasts). I was evolving as a person and I can see things seemlessly now, not like two different stories. It was a traumatic time full of emotions and ideas. As I pull it all together in the book I’m writing about my life it does appear seemless, not like two versions. Facts require backstory.

    I really respect those people who have found life more tolerable since transition, but it only added heartache to my life. Transgender people are hard pressed to “pass” and “fit in” with their new sex. I did very well with that from outward appearances having lived in stealth mode for many years and even marrying a man who did not know my status. Whatever works for people, but being passable and keeping the truth a secret did not work for me. When this illusion was shattered so too I began doing a lot of soul searching. I knew living as male had felt like pretending, but then, later, living as female felt like pretending too. This journey into the unknown allowed me accidently stumble upon the truth of myself being intersexed through my family physician doing a routine chromosome exam. Then things all finally made sense. I had to rewrite my life story in my own head in light of the new medical truths. It was a very challenging time in my life (no thanks to the sexchange industry who see’s things and black or white, male or female only)

    Here I am five years later and feeling like I have finally come into my own as the type of transgender/intersex man I am today. I’ve also found there are thousands of others like me and I’ve created a support group for these men. Life is really good for me now. I only wish the sexchange industry would have allowed me this option from the beginning or at least done a chromosome test on me. I could have avoided a lot of journey down the road less traveled and had a million dollars to buy a house in Hollywood! lol

    • Dear Josef,
      Thanks for your update. I have followed your journey through the years. I am really happy to hear that you are doing well now. I know it must inappropriate but I just wanted to say you were so beautiful as Judith. Look at that hair (how did you treat it?). Of course, you are extremely handsom as Josef, too. You must be blessed. Good luck to you.

  13. Hi i have read all the above . Some applies to me so not. I am post op only 2 yrs. I allready feel that i have been involved in an adictive state. Heding stright into transsition, no one to stop me. two years with a psyc team amounting to a toyal of 6hrs. 30 mins at a time , I must have been convincing. Now i feel someone should have stopped me , but how. Its like i had become addicted to dressing and passing in public until i started dressing everyday. Even at work. People were kind and i had a lot of support from the trans community. I was so sure this was the right thing to do. Now i have taken it to its limit. I feel trapped all over again. I feel redicioulouse ever time i see myself in a mirror. A few weeks ago i just sat in my bedroom and cryed for almost three days . I had no idea what to go out as . A male or a female . All i could think about was had i become trapped in an addiction and coming to terms with this how was i going to get out of all this. My Church are very supportive of me being female . God loves me for who iam not what iam. But the question remains who am i

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