The ultimate show of family support for gender affirmation surgery.
Mom, Dad, and I sat huddled around the plastic surgeon's desktop computer, eyeing the monitor uncomfortably while he watched us with a mischievous grin. On the screen was a grid like the one in the opening of The Brady Bunch. But instead of a family member inside each square, there was a different kind of member. We were challenged to spot the fake—the one created by the procedure I would be having.
I could feel the tops of my ears turn red. At 33, scrutinizing male genitalia with a parent on either side of me was awkward enough, let alone working with them as a team to pick out the imposter. Then again, I was no stranger to awkwardness.
Raised the middle daughter of a close-knit Armenian family in the Boston suburbs, I'd known I was a boy since the age of five. It was only after graduating from college and seriously contemplating killing myself that I finally got up the courage to tell my parents and two sisters the truth. This was in 1993, when "transgender" wasn't a word anyone knew. The word was "transsexual" and thanks to the media, it had a very negative connotation. Movies like Dressed to Kill, The Silence of The Lambs, even Ace Ventura: Pet Detective all portrayed gender dysphoric individuals as whack jobs. I was afraid if I told anyone how I felt inside they'd lump me into that category.
When it came to my parents, my fear of rejection was terrifying. I had no idea how they'd react or if they'd be able to understand. I knew they loved me, but did they love me enough? Enough to accept me for who I really was and deal with the ramifications? It was more common to be shunned or kicked out of the house, a big reason why half of all transgender youth attempted suicide every year, many succeeding. This year alone there have already been 11 reported deaths.
I decided to tell them over Sunday dinner. Sitting at the kitchen table without any appetite, I tried to think of a way in. My psychologist advised that I break it to them in stages, that it would be easier to digest my revelation that way rather than blurt out my end goal: gender reassignment surgery. A logical approach, yes, but how do I bring it up? "Please pass the rolls and from now on start referring to me as your son?" I had no idea how to explain my gender identity—something so inherent to my being—to people who never had to question their own. The knot in my stomach tightened as I pushed the chicken and pilaf around my plate. I caught my pained expression in the glass tabletop and broke down.
Through sobs I attempted to explain what it felt like to go through life in a body that didn't match my gender. I told them as far back as I could remember, I had always felt I was a boy, which was why growing up I only played with superheroes, cars, and action figures. Why I wanted a haircut "like Daddy's" and refused to wear skirts or dresses. I admitted I was only attracted to girls. That in my dreams I was always male. That every time I looked in the mirror, I hated the female I saw.
I wiped my runny nose with my sleeve and peeked at their faces. They were both crying, guilt-ridden for being unaware of my suffering. They tried to make sense of everything I said, rationalizing that maybe I was "just gay," which was what they thought I was going to confess. I had thrown them a gender identity curveball. It was a lot to take in.
After processing the news, my father, a prominent CEO, asked if I could just live with it—stay the way I was and let this be my handicap. I told him I'd been living with "it" for 23 years and if I had to keep pretending to be a girl, I'd rather not live at all. My mother, a former nurse, needed to mourn the loss of her daughter before she could accept me as her son. It took time but to my relief, they became my biggest supporters and along with my sisters, vowed we'd get through this together.
I had wrongly assumed my mom and dad would be focused on what people would think of them once word got out about my gender change and that they'd be ashamed of me. But all they were really concerned about was my chance at having a full, happy life. Once they realized transitioning was my best shot, they did whatever they could to increase my odds. While that included paying for the many surgeries I needed to feel complete (the "deluxe model" doesn't come cheap), their involvement didn't end there. To my surprise, they became intimately involved in the entire process.
Without hesitation they accompanied me to Nashville to meet the young hotshot plastic surgeon who was going to help the dream I'd had since kindergarten become a reality. He came highly recommended for his skill, attitude, and bedside manner. The fact that he happened to be Greek scored extra points with my mom. To her it was the next best thing to being Armenian. "I've got a great feeling about him," she said. "It's meant to be!"
When he personally greeted us and introduced himself only by his first name, I liked him immediately. It felt disrespectful to follow his lead though, so I called him "Doc."
If Doc's accent didn't betray his ethnic heritage, his dark eyes and olive complexion were good clues. With my similar coloring, we could have been first cousins. His English was formal; he used very few contractions. He also spoke quickly—when he got the chance. It was hard to get a word in with my mom going on about the similarities between Greek and Armenian food.
"Have you ever had paklava?" Mom asked him. "It's the Armenian version of baklava. We make it with cinnamon. I'll have to send you some, you'll looove it."
I locked eyes with my father whose lack of patience I'd inherited. We both felt the precious minutes of the 60 we were allotted ticking away. Thankfully so did the nurse, who popped in as a subtle cue to get down to business. That's when Doc surprised us with his "one of these doesn't belong" quiz, which we failed. As it turned out, it was a trick question. They were all anatomical originals. The point was to illustrate there was no "right way" a male organ should look. I understood where Doc was coming from but I still pointed to the most stereotypical image on the screen and said, "I get it, but that's the one I want."
We spent the rest of the hour asking questions (some more embarrassing than others) and discussing procedural details before nailing down a time frame for what I learned would be six surgeries over two years. Just as wrapped my head around that one, Doc casually informed me that I would need to get laser hair removal treatments in an extremely sensitive location.
"But I thought you just used skin from my forearm, hip and abdomen?"
"Possibly the groin area too. I won't know until I see how your tissue responds, but we will definitely be using your labia for the balls."
I didn't know what was more horrifying: the thought of getting zapped with a laser down there or having a conversation about my labia in front of my parents. Doc assumed the former.
"Look Chris, it is up to you. I am sensing you have a very specific idea of what you want aesthetically. I am just letting you know what you will have to go through to get it."
"Okay gotcha." I was relieved we were finally putting an end to this conversation.
"Besides," he added, "lots of guys have hairy balls."
Mom turned to me, "You don't want that. Get the laser."
Oh my god, make it stop.
Thankfully Dad stepped in and in his business-like manner brought the meeting to a close. On our way out, Mom promised to send Doc homemade paklava and a Red Sox hat for his wife, whom we'd learned was from New England.
Having secured both a talented doctor and a surgery date, we decided to celebrate with drinks and live music at a honky-tonk bar downtown. As I sat there sipping my Miller Lite, watching my dad watch my mom get hit on by a dancing drunk man in his seventies, it hit me how lucky I was. I thought back to that night at the kitchen table and was ashamed I ever questioned whether they loved me enough.
Doc's estimate of six surgeries over two years turned into 22 procedures over five years. I don't know what I would've done without my parents to lean on emotionally, financially and literally, since there were times I couldn't walk on my own.
That said, when they asked me to give them a working demonstration of the finished product, I respectfully declined.
I had to draw the line somewhere.
Portions of the above were adapted from Chris Edwards's memoir, BALLS: It Takes Some to Get Some.
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