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How Testosterone Made Me a Dick

And other adventures in gender-affirmation surgery.

Beth's voice had begun to sound like an unintelligible adult from a Charlie Brown cartoon. A few minutes earlier I'd simply asked if her sister would be joining us for dinner. Ten minutes later I was still waiting for the story she was telling to lead me to the answer. Finally I snapped.

"So is she joining us or not?"

"Hey, I was getting to that. What's wrong with you? You usually like my stories."

"I don't know, it's just . . . I asked you like ten minutes ago. It was a simple question."

"You know, Mandy and I have both noticed you've been a lot more impatient lately and less sensitive. We think it's that damn testosterone."

They were right. I had kind of noticed it too, but never made the connection. My tone was different and not just because my voice had changed. I was more confident, sticking up for my ideas and speaking up more in meetings. I was couching things less and being more direct—telling it like it is, both inside and apparently outside the office.

"Oh no. Am I turning into a dick?"

"No, you're not a dick," Beth said. "You're just more like a guy. I just have to get used to it."

So did I. When I began the injections, I was well informed of the physical changes the testosterone would have on my body. But I was not prepared for the emotional ones. While going through this adjustment period, it became clear to me that a lot of male and female gender stereotyping is definitely rooted in legitimate hormonal differences. Take aggression for example. As a woman, I used to watch guys get into drunken arguments that escalated into fistfights and wonder what the hell was wrong with them. Then, after a few months on testosterone, there I was throwing the first punch. At a Halloween party . . . dressed as a used Kleenex.

Chris Edwards / Image courtesy of Mary Beth Koeth

I was entertaining a group of my female friends with one of my classic stories. Just as I was getting to the good part, this douchebag dressed in an air force flight suit appeared in the doorway, mirrored sunglasses and all. He was jealous I was getting all the girls' attention and made it his mission to knock me down a few pegs.

"Man, you're short," he announced.

I ignored him and went on with my story.

"Seriously, you are really short."

One of my friends yelled, "Shut up, asshole," but he wouldn't and began closing the distance between us.

"Doesn't it bother you when you're with a girl and she's taller than you?" he baited.

"Look around. It doesn't seem to bother them."

With that comeback all the girls started cheering, which only pissed him off even more. He came closer, his stocky 5'10" frame towering over me by six inches.

"Seriously, I wanna know how tall you are."

"Seriously, why don't you shut the fuck up?"

"Why don't you make me?"

And with that I launched myself at him and if someone hadn't gotten in between us, he would've beaten the snot out of me, which would have been only fitting considering my costume. It was then I realized the quick wit that served me well as a girl could now lead to a major ass-kicking as a guy. I may not have back up next time. In the future I was going to have to check my tongue and my testosterone at the door if I wanted to avoid getting into fistfights.

The point is, most gender stereotypes are based in endocrinology. Men are expected to be more outspoken and aggressive than women. Well, why wouldn't we be, with all that testosterone pumping through our bodies? Women are more sensitive and emotional than men, right? Well, it's a lot easier to be that way when your body is flooded with estrogen—trust me, I know. Take the old adage, boys don't cry. Before going on testosterone, I was depressed, so crying was something I did quite often. Like many women, I found it to be an emotional release. A way to "get it all out" and move on. But about a month into the injections, the tears wouldn't come. Even on my saddest days—nothing. I'd think about the worst things, like people I loved dying—still nothing. I even brought out the big guns: Terms of Endearment. That scene toward the end when Debra Winger is dying in her hospital bed and saying goodbye to her two boys? I thought for sure that would do it, but nope. Dry as a bone. I was starting to worry I'd never be able to cry again.

I spoke to my doctor and he told me not to worry. He said I might cry less than before but that I certainly hadn't lost the ability. He was right. After I got my tonsils out and the pain meds wore off, oh, there were tears. Later on, when my favorite cousin, Candy, passed away, I cried throughout the entire memorial service and funeral. The year my mom went through chemo? Daily cry-fest. And when my girlfriend broke up with me right before my flight home? T.A.B.—Total Airport Breakdown.

Bottom line: If a guy cries less than a girl, it isn't necessarily because he is unfeeling or less emotional. More likely, it's due to his hormonal make-up. Unless, of course, he really is just a dick. 

On the upside, all these negative side effects of testosterone were overshadowed by one major bonus: My periods had stopped. Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, I was free at last. The cramps, bloating, lower-back pain, mood swings, risk associated with wearing white pants, and humiliation of having to shop in the feminine protection aisle . . . I was done with that living hell. I threw a "pad-burning party" for my envious female friends and gave away whatever boxes of tampons and bottles of Midol I had left.

After the party, I thought back to the stormy night on the Cape when I first got my period. I knew it was all over for me then. I was male but my body was definitely female, and every month I would get a five-day reminder of the cruel joke God had played on me. Fourteen years later, the joke was finally over and the monthly reminder, gone. 

But there were still two other "reminders" that needed getting rid of.

Of all the gender-confirming surgeries I had over the course of seventeen years, my mastectomy was the most life-changing because it made the most difference in how I looked on the outside and felt on the inside. Not having to bind anymore gave me a feeling of liberation and a major confidence boost. And while testosterone didn't increase my height, this surgery actually did. After several people told me I looked taller (one even accused me of wearing lifts!), I measured myself. Sure enough, I had grown about three-quarters of an inch. This was no medical miracle. In fact, the explanation was quite simple: Before surgery, I hunched all the time to disguise the fact I had boobs. Now that they were gone, I was standing up straight. Nonetheless, I was happy to give my doctor the credit, and she was even happier to take it.

More importantly, thanks to her handiwork, I could now take my shirt off at the beach or pool just like any other guy. I'd had two more minor procedures, and my chest was looking pretty good. But did it look good enough to go shirtless in front of hundreds of coworkers?

I debated while sitting at the poolside bar at Arnold's annual summer outing. This year, in addition to having a flat chest, I was thirty pounds lighter with nearly two years of testosterone injections under my belt and a fresh back wax. I scanned the pool deck to see how all the other guys were handling the ninety-degree heat: fifty-fifty shirts and skins, so there was no pressure. Besides, my going shirtless could never trump the infamous Speedo incident of '95. Still, I wasn't ready.

After a few more drinks and extensive cloud coverage, a group of us creatives decided to blow off the pool and enter the volleyball tournament where somehow, despite the heavy rain and alcohol impairment, we ended up advancing to the finals. Even with major downpours, a large crowd gathered to watch. Trash talk between the teams was out of control, and with bragging rights at stake, the game got serious. Guys began stripping off their rain-soaked t-shirts and the competitive side of me contemplated ditching mine too, as it was impeding my performance.

We were down by two and it was my turn to serve. I looked around. Most of the guys without shirts were on the "full-figured" side. This was definitely not the beach volleyball scene from Top Gun. Not even close.

Fuck it.

I pulled my sopping wet t-shirt over my head and flung it aside. If nothing else, it would be a good distraction technique. Whether it was or it wasn't, I don't know, but when I was done serving we were up by two. And for me, more memorable than the championship win was the team photo in which I proudly posed shirtless as a man for the very first time.

It was a keeper. A true representation of who I am; who I was meant to be. From that point on, I could no longer bear to look at any past photos of myself as a girl. They represented a person I felt no connection with anymore and reminded me of a painful, inauthentic time in my life when I just couldn't bear to live as I was. For those of us who've transitioned, it's not about the pain of who we were then. It's about the joy of who we are now.

From Chris Edwards' newly released memoir, BALLS: It Takes Some to Get Some