Asia Nephtis is still undecided. Should she remove the last remnant of Joshua Miller, her former male self, or go full bore in transitioning fully to the woman she always believed she was.
It’s an important calculus, whether to have her male genitalia removed in the final year of her transition from male, her sex assigned at birth, or to have something to hang on to reminiscent of whom she was and has longed to separate herself from.
“I feel like that’s the last part of me that belongs to Joshua,” says Nephtis, 34, who is in her last year of medically transitioning from male to female. “I still have another year to decide; I’m ninety per cent sure I will, though,” she admits.
Renae Gene bears no ambivalence: she’s ready to say goodbye when it’s time to the last vestiges of her former male self. Unlike Nephtis, Gene, also transgender and who is in the first year of medically transitioning, is still doing her research but is convinced it’s something that will likely happen.
“I’m not on the fence about it,” Gene says emphatically in her southern drawl. “There’s a lot of fear, and I get it; it’ll always be in the back of your head if I made the right decision or not, but it’s something I definitely want to do.”
Male to female transitions are more common than female to male.
Bottom surgery, as it’s commonly known, is usually the last step for trans people undergoing a medical transition from the sex they were given at birth to the gender identity they harbour within themselves.
And for many who chose to fully transition—the process is usually a five-year ordeal of taking hormones and puberty blockers and estrogen replacement therapy—the decision can be a fraught one.
It’s important to remember that not all choose to medically transform themselves, including facial feminisation surgery and speech therapy—training one’s voice to go from tenor to alto. Some decided to socially transition, coming out to family and friends instead, without the injections and replacement therapy.
Some studies reveal that upwards of two-thirds seek medical treatment; about one-third seek out surgery. The fascination has seemingly always swirled around rather a trans person has had “top” or “bottom” surgery reassignments.
For a man transitioning to a woman, the question, some trans persons say, lingers in the minds of the curious, “Is it still there?”
This misses the point, says Nephtis, who cuts a striking figure at 5’11”; and though she’s in the final stages of fully becoming a woman—developing breasts, a softer tone and more feminine touches, trans people, like everyone else, simply want to be treated with dignity and seen as human beings, to love whom they chose and, despite what doctors and nurses said at birth, treated how they truly feel on the inside.
“I always felt like a girl,” says Nephtis.
Long viewed as a misunderstood minority, transgender (an umbrella term that might include others who identify with other descriptors), Trans persons have been gaining wider visibility—and with it, acceptance—in society.
With the last season of the Netflix hit Pose streaming now, which showed the lives of trans people in New York City; Amazon Prime’s Transparent, depicting the character and father, Mort, who decides to come out later in life; and Laverne Cox’s breakout performance in Orange Is the New Black—the lives of transgendered people have been in the spotlight.
“We’re in a place now where more and more trans people want to come forward and say, ‘This is who I am,’” said Cox, who became a lightning rod for trans people in the public eye.
“More of us are living visibly, and pursuing our dreams visibly, so people can say, ‘Oh yeah, I know someone who’s Trans.’”
Still, the plight of Trans people to make a foray into mainstream society and the wider culture is moving, some believe, at a snail’s pace.
The Trump Administration reversed progressive policies and agendas set in motion by the Obama Administration in the U.S. And the public culture war over gender-neutral bathrooms, which became a political football, in the states pitched lawmakers on either side of the aisle, for and against, to stake their political fortunes on the subject. Those against it believed that it could be a public safety concern, although studies have revealed that not to be the case.
Many politicos see transgender rights as the next great Civil Rights frontier.
Of the 700,000 or so who identify as trans in the states, representing a sliver of the population, at 0.5 per cent, the bulk of whose lives are a far cry from the world of Hollywood and other well-lit spaces, just trying to survive and escape gripping poverty and stigma is an everyday experience, one Nephtis and Gene know well.
Even though Facebook now has over fifty gender categories to choose from, trans people are still significantly more likely to be impoverished, unemployed and otherwise vulnerable than other people, many studies reveal.
Both Nephtis and Gene are now well on their way to blossoming into the women they’ve always believed they were. But their own personal trajectory from male to female has been a challenging one.
As Time Magazine reported, trans peoples’ “biggest obstacle is that they live in a world largely built on a fixed and binary definition of gender”—one Nephtis says she never accepted, even as a child.
Though being trans is certainly not a new concept, people have been living and defying gender norms throughout history; in the West, trans persons didn’t gain a public audience until around the 1950s, when The New York Daily News reported a story of a former GI who became a “blonde beauty,” and who sought medical intervention in Europe.
“Nature made a mistake which I corrected,” reported Christine Jorgensen at the time.
“Most people are happy in the gender they’re raised,” said Elizabeth Reis, professor of gender studies at the University of Oregon. “They don’t wake up every day questioning if they are male or female.”
Nephtis never was comfortable as a male, although he fit the part perfectly, had sexual relations with women, and even has two daughters. She wants, like most, to identify as how she feels, not the anatomy with which she was born. So she hid the fact that she felt more female than male until she was thirty years old.
“It was then that I came out of the closet and told my family. I felt freer to do that then. I owned everything,” she says now. I just felt I wasn’t being authentic as Joshua, even though that’s who I was.”
She talks now about years of sexual abuse by predatory relatives and how she equated that with love and acceptance, how she longed for people to listen to her and believe what was happening to her as a young boy.
At fourteen, her caregivers abandoned her because of who she wanted to be; still, now, her mother has not reckoned with her as a female, calling her Joshua (her birth name).
“My relationship with my mother was a cold one. It was a distant relationship. She put men in her life ahead of me.”
The relationship now with her mother, once chilly, has found someplace for mutual understanding, even if still at arm’s length. “I’ve started to forgive her, even find sympathy for her,” says Nephtis. “It’s mixed with a lot of love and hate, I think.”
These days, as she nears the end of her transition stage, she thinks quite a bit of Joshua, the young boy she used to be and has, she says now, a fondness for him: an understanding and compassion.
“Joshua was an angry, hypermasculine and aggressive person—the superman that got tired,” she remembers. “I didn’t start smiling until I was thirty when I began to develop as a woman.”
For those wanting to decide to medically transition, it can be scary, daunting—and expensive. But, Gene and Nephtis were able to do it thanks to good insurance and healthcare spaces that recognise the need for those trapped in identities they’d sooner disown, like Howard Brown, in Chicago, where Nephtis goes for her transition care.
Experts in sexual reassignment procedures explain that counselling and therapy should be an adjunct to the actual physical procedures, ensuring that one is emotionally ready for such a change.
“Transitioning can be scary. I’m farther ahead in the journey, and I still get scared sometimes; it’s a big undertaking, the transition is still new to me,” exclaims Nephtis.
Still weighing whether to get that “bottom” surgery with a year left in the transition phase, Nephtis says it’s a big decision to make, and it can be “life-altering.”
“A lot of people do it for other people. I’m a bit braver than that. I want to do it, I think for me.”
Joshua used to bench 275lbs, leg press 900lbs and squat 225 lbs. No more. These days, as she develops into the woman, she’s always wanted to be, makeup and dresses high heels are the ornaments du jour.
“I believe Joshua evolved; he’s not gone.”
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