The lives of transgender people have been in the news a lot recently, from the speculation about whether Bruce Jenner is transitioning to the acclaim for Laverne Cox's spectacular performance as a transgender inmate on Orange Is the New Black.
While acceptance of transgender people is growing, some transgender people find that a stigma around asking questions about the experience of transgender people is a barrier to full equality.
Jessie Knouse, a college student currently transitioning from female to male, wants to educate people around him about what it means to be transgender and what the experience of transitioning has been like for him so far:
I would rather people ask me questions than assume what the answer would be. If we are to change the world and create better equality and acceptance, how can we accomplish this by remaining silent? I don't want people to accept me out of pity; I want people to understand my decision and the process I have decided to put myself through to feel "normal." People are afraid of the unknown, so if we provide education, how can they fear us any longer?
As a trans man, Jessie has found that there are several questions on people's minds about his experience that they are too afraid to ask. While some transgender people understandably would not welcome a lot of questions, Jessie welcomes the opportunity to answer any question thrown his way "simply because [he wants] the chance to be understood and to be equal to any other person on this Earth."
Jessie listed questions he thinks most people want to know the answer to but are too afraid to ask. Below I paraphrase his answers, which are based on his own experience and may not represent the experiences of every transgender person, but his responses reflect his own experience openly and honestly.
"Are you going to grow a penis?"
As much as he wishes transitioning were that easy, he will not grow a penis.
"Are you going to get top and bottom surgery?"
Jessie is intending to get top surgery as soon as he can figure out a way for his health insurance to cover it. Since there is no way to create a fully functional penis yet, he will be holding off on that one.
"What are you going to do about your breasts until they're removed?"
Jessie binds his chest down with a chest binder. Since he has a bigger bust, it is a lot harder for him to conceal his breasts. He has noticed that the testosterone he injects every other week actually softens the fatty tissue in his breasts, making it easier to bind them down in order to look flat-chested.
"What is testosterone like?"
His initial answer to this question was "It is like sticking a needle into my thigh every two weeks." Upon recognizing the harshness of his response, though, he explained that testosterone is like finally finding that last puzzle piece you needed to complete the picture. With every shot he feels himself getting closer to the person he is supposed to be.
"What will change in your genital region with the use of hormones?"
According to Jessie, this one is very simple. His clitoris is going to grow in size, but not a significant amount. Most trans men find that it grows to be around two to three inches long. Another aspect that will change is the hair growth in his genital region. As a woman he grew very coarse pubic hair just above his vagina but not extending past the crease to his leg. Now that he has been on testosterone, his pubic hair is finer and softer as well as growing on the joining portion of his pelvis and thighs.
"Do the testosterone injections make you an angry person?"
According to Jessie, most people assume that testosterone makes you a raging ball of aggression, but he counts that assumption as a myth. Jessie says that everyone has the ability to become angry and upset. He describes it this way:
Imagine going through puberty again. You know that portion of your life when you were still considered a child, but you wanted to do anything and everything to become independent? Remember the mix of emotions and the anger you felt by not being able to achieve this feeling? That is transitioning in a nutshell. The only time I ever experienced myself going into an angry rage was when I had given myself my shot after getting off working night shift, falling asleep for an hour until I had to work at my other job, having an aggressive dream, and then waking up ready to get into a fight. Even that aggressive episode did not last longer than two hours. Other than that experience, I get irritable and upset just like any other person.
"How do you have sex?"
Before Jessie came out as transgender, he identified as a lesbian. Jessie says, "If you are a lesbian and reading this, you already know where this is heading. The millions of times I have been asked 'How do you have sex?' are uncountable at this point in time." The best answer Jessie could come up with is that to him "sex is more than just physical pleasure." He explains:
It is the need to satisfy your partner in a way that they will only allow you to do for them. It is the mental bond created by pleasing your partner in whichever way she prefers and understanding the different ways to touch her that really get her going. Sex is not sticking a penis into a vagina but an activity of mental bonding between two people who trust each other enough to give them this prize of satisfaction.
"Is sex different now that you are transitioning?"
Jessie wants everyone to think about this fun fact: The clitoris has 8,000 nerve endings, while the penis has only 4,000 nerve endings. Since Jessie's clitoris has been enlarging, more of the clitoris protrudes from the hood, or skin covering. This means that more of those nerve endings are exposed, which causes his orgasms to happen a lot more quickly and a bit more intensely. Women usually feel an orgasm in their pelvis before it spreads throughout their entire body, but Jessie's orgasms are now felt in his pelvis, stomach, and legs. He adds, "Foreplay turns me on only if my partner talks to me as though I am a completely normal man."
"Do you use a strap-on to have sex?"
Jessie finds strap-on penises useless. When he began testosterone, he thought that a strap-on would give his body the sense that he actually had a penis, but he found that it caused him to suffer from extreme penis envy. Jessie describes it this way:
Imagine having a penis that you can't actually feel any sort of pleasure from. That is just a pure form of torture to me. I do not know if this is an occurring result for every trans man, but I know for me, I just can't do it.
"How/when did you know you are transgender?"
Jessie explains that this story is about two years long. When he was a senior in high school, he came across a transgender man. At that time he had no idea what "transgender" even meant. After meeting this man, he began research to see if "transgender" may be the term to describe him. The longer he researched what being transgender means, the more he felt sure he is a transgender man himself. The moment he realized he was 100-percent sure this is him came when he found himself looking in the mirror one morning at college. He says:
I looked at myself and asked, "What do you see staring back at you?" It was obvious: I saw a man. I realized that every day I tried so very hard to play the role of a man. I wore baggie clothing to hide my curves, sports bras to try to compress my breasts, and short hair to blend in more. I knew that this was not just a style phase I was going through, because all my life I have worn baggie clothing to conceal my womanly features. After this moment I spent another year doing research just in case this was a phase or impulse decision. Nothing changed. And here I am today, transitioning.
"Why did you wait so long to come out?"
Jessie waited to come out because to him, a diagnosis of "gender dysphoria" is not necessarily enough to make a change as substantial as a gender transition. As Jessie describes it, someone with depression has a list of symptoms he can go through to determine whether he is indeed suffering from depression, but transgender individuals need to determine whether they feel as though they are trapped in the wrong body. If the answer is yes, then the individual is transgender. But for Jessie, "that is definitely not a sufficient explanation to ... completely turn [your life] around to go in the opposite direction." He says, "I needed something more to be completely sure this was me." For this reason he spent two years researching female-to-male transitions and transgender individuals. He learned all he could about transitioning, where the science on this topic is, what gender dysphoria is, etc., before coming out.
"How did your family react?"
Jessie says that, first and foremost, he does not have a great relationship with his family. The first person he told was his little brother, who is 14 now. Explaining why he came out to his brother first, Jessie told me:
This boy is the center of my universe. He is the reason I am alive today and the reason I pursue my dreams. I want him to see that if you put your mind to something, you can do anything. I asked him what he would think if he were to have a brother. His response was one of confusion, so I told him I want to be a man and that would make me his brother. His response made me fall over with laughter. He said, "I just can't imagine you with a penis."
Today Jessie's little brother is very supportive and even calls him "Jessie." The second person Jessie told was his older half-sister. She responded with compassion and love, which is more than Jessie could have hoped for. Jessie thought for sure that his mother would not care about his decision to transition, because when he'd come out as a lesbian, she'd simply said, "OK." But this time his mother's response was "I am not paying for you to become a man." According to Jessie, his mother is still struggling with accepting that the girl she gave birth to is actually a boy. Jessie's father, on the other hand, put on a nice façade: He told Jessie that he knew Jessie wanted to be a man and that he was OK with Jessie's decision to transition, but Jessie later found out that his father really is not all right with his decision. Jessie's grandmother and her significant other are not supportive either. (He did not have to tell them; his family took care of that for him.) Jessie says, "To me this is all OK. As long as my little brother loves and supports me, that is all the support I need."
"How do you tell a significant other that you are transgender?"
According to Jessie, this question seems to arise constantly, and most do not realize that there is a very simple answer to it. Jessie believes that, simply, if you think you want to commit to and invest yourself in another person, just tell that person you were assigned female at birth but transitioned and are a man. Jessie knows that rejection is frightening but thinks that holding information from someone you care about is harder than just being honest with them. If they can't accept you, it is their loss, because this journey you are going through is a life lesson and just plain beautiful.
As for telling someone you have been with for an extended amount of time that you are transgender, it can be a bit more complicated. Jessie was in a relationship during his senior year of high school and told his girlfriend that he thought he might be transgender. She told him she was not OK with this and urged him to think about it for another year before actually making a decision about transitioning. Although at that time it hurt to feel rejected, Jessie feels that she helped him grow, because he was not ready at that time to admit he was transgender, so he took her advice and did research for two years. For that he thanks her. When he finally decided to pursue transitioning, his partner at that time was very supportive and even went with him to his first appointment. Jessie advises:
If you think you may be transgender, look into it. Do your research. When you are certain of this decision, bring it to your partner, but never let someone sway your mind just because they may not be OK with it. What is best for him or her may not always be what is best for you.
"Which bathroom do you use?"
Jessie likes to have fun with his options. Since his gender expression is non-binary, he uses whichever bathroom he feels like using on any given day. Jessie's college campus has begun to designate certain bathrooms as gender-neutral, which he thinks is nice. Most of the time Jessie uses the women's bathroom, because he finds that, especially in public spaces, the women's bathroom is a lot cleaner and fresher than the men's bathroom. When Jessie came out as transgender at work, he asked his general manager which bathroom he should use, because they only had public bathrooms. His boss' response was extremely unexpected: "Use the bathroom you feel like using." Jessie knows a lot of transgender individuals who struggle with even finding a job, and he is fortunate that he found a place of great acceptance.
"Do you use a packer?"
Jessie thinks many people wonder about this question even though not everyone knows what a packer is. A packer is an object used to make individuals look like they have a bulge in their pants where the penis should be. Jessie does not use a packer and has no desire for one. He enjoys not being able to be placed in one specific gender. Although Jessie identifies as a man, he has made it a point to maintain a lot of his femininity in order to stay connected to both genders.
"Since you were a lesbian before, will you be gay after transitioning?"
Jessie believes there are a lot of misconceptions around gender identity and sexual orientation. He has found that in most cases transitioning does not influence sexual orientation. In terms of changes in attraction, he now finds it easier to look at a woman and become aroused without having to imagine a scenario in his mind. Jessie believes that as a woman, you have to concentrate on a scenario to become aroused, whereas a man can look at a woman and just become aroused by her appearance.
"What is your sexual orientation?"
When Jessie left the lesbian community, he felt melancholy. He had identified with this specific group for about six years of his life. Jessie thinks that what most people do not realize is that leaving the lesbian community is a lot harder than it seems, as lesbians who take an interest in a man are, in most cases, frowned upon by the lesbian community, and he thinks that this is also the case for those who leave because they now claim to be straight. As a women's and gender studies major, Jessie has learned the effects of categorization and finds it rather conformist. For these reasons he no longer identifies with any particular sexual orientation. He says, "I like women; it is as simple as that."
Jessie has been on testosterone for three months and says that he feels wonderful about himself:
The changes I have been experiencing are very exciting, and I can't wait until I can finally pass without a doubt as male. ... Out of this entire experience, I would love to thank the people who have been supporting me with this decision. It is very hard for anyone to come out as LGBT without the support and love of friends and family.