Transgender Narrative: Why We Lie

•28 November 2014 • 2 Comments

© Zachary McCallum, originally published on

Transgender people are in the media spotlight these days, and for the first time, it’s not as the butt of bigoted jokes. There have even been a spate of transgender beauty queens in the news (the inherent misogyny of beauty pageants notwithstanding.) Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time. Jared Leto won an Oscar for portraying a transwoman. There are books for parents of transgender children and sympathetic television programs about those children.

What gives? Are we really, as a people, coming to our collective senses about gender identity? I’d love to think so.

As the idea that gender identity doesn’t start and end with the genitals becomes more culturally pervasive, it’s not just the newstainment flavor-of-the-week. Real change is happening. The US Department of Health and Human Services has declared that discrimination against transgender individuals is illegal under the Affordable Care Act, and the case that led to that clarification of the rules made the national news. The FAA has made it easier for trans* pilots to be licensed, and the EEOC ruled that transgender people were covered under Title VII’s employment discrimination protections. In some countries, including Australia and Argentina, a transgender individual can specify the correct gender for their passports without needing an official stamp of approval from a medical professional; in the UK the options include not indicating gender on one’s passport at all; and even in the unenlightened US one can, with just a doctor’s letter, have a correctly gendered passport issued.

I really couldn’t tell you why trans* people have become so much more interesting to the media and acceptable to governments than they once were, but I welcome the change, since I’m one of them.

But as the cultural narrative expands to include ‘transgender person’ as a stock character, it does so in a way that’s, well, just a stock character. The trans* person in the public eye is almost always some variant on the woman who was born with a penis and just “always knew” she was female, or the boy born with a vagina who refused to wear a single dress and never touched a Barbie® Doll.

It’s a nice, easily packaged, easily understood story, and sometimes it’s even true. Some of us do know (and as those recent news articles reported, some are even lucky enough to begin transition) before puberty. But others live entire lifetimes as one sex, and then at the age of seventy or eighty or ninety, make the change. Many, like me, transition in early-to-mid adulthood after months or years of soul-searching and introspection. And there are people who identify as something other than male or female, who don’t jump across the line from boy to girl or girl to boy, but take up residence in the broad middle plain known as genderqueer.

Before we transitioned, some of us were butch lesbians or femme drag queens whose transitions were unsurprising to our friends and families, but others of us looked nothing like a Lifetime TV protagonist. I know a transwoman who is captain of a marine rescue company. Until she was in her late thirties anyone would have taken her for a typical manly sailor; now she’s an atypical, manicured sailor. I know a transman who describes himself in childhood as “a classic girly-girl.”

Even though I never felt particularly successful at femininity, I spent years wearing my hair long and dressing in dangly earrings and flowy fabrics before I decided to transition to male. I played with stuffed toys and dolls as a kid, even Barbie® (although I did cut her hair short and send her rappelling down the stairwell tied to a jump rope.)

Now in truth, I did sort of “always know”, but what I always knew was that I wasn’t like other girls. I didn’t feel like a girl. When I cast myself in stories it was always as a boy, but that wasn’t the same as believing I was a boy.

I didn’t know; I suspected.

When I decided to transition, I knew it wasn’t the traditional American ideal of masculinity I was aiming for, and in some ways the fact that I knew I wasn’t going to be a “man’s man” was part of what prevented me from transitioning sooner. Since I didn’t fit the common archetype of ultra-tomboy who always knew he was born in the wrong body, I didn’t think of transition as an option.

For one thing, the trans* person in the public story almost always turns heterosexual once they’ve transitioned: “I thought I was a lesbian, but I was really a man trapped in a woman’s body.” “I thought I was a gay man, but it turns out I was a straight woman.”

There’s nothing wrong with those stories, but they’re not my story. I’m queer—I used to call myself bisexual, but the more I’ve opened up my definition of gender, the less the two-flavors-only term “bi” appeals—I was queer before transition, and I’m still queer after it.

(Actually a lot of trans* people aren’t heterosexual. Some transwomen who identified as heterosexual before transition identify as lesbian afterward. Some transmen are gay. Some of us find ourselves inexplicably attracted to the gender we used to find unappealing; the story of the transman who used to be a lesbian and now only sleeps with other men is not uncommon. But in a culture where homosexual is a second-class status, a narrative in which the transgender person is redeemed from a lifetime of homosexual misery by becoming straight through the magic of transition, is the only story we hear.)

It was only through my deep friendships with a few, very important gay men, and being part of a larger queer community at Peninsula Metropolitan Community Church, that I realized that it was in fact perfectly acceptable for me to be a fabulous guy who wears lavender, coos over babies, cries at sad movies, talks with his hands, and owns more pairs of shoes than his sister. That I could be the kind of man I wanted to be. When I understood that, I finally gave myself permission to say, “I am male.”

But it’s true, before I said it, I carefully mined my personal history for examples of how I was never really a girl. And when I presented my decision to transition to my friends and family, it was with the “always knew” narrative well rehearsed. In that, I’m like almost every other trans* person I’ve ever talked to about the coming out process.

Why is “I always knew” the common narrative? Why do so many of us tell some version of that story even if it isn’t true?

There are several reasons that come to mind, and I think they all play a part.

For one thing, as I said above, it’s a simple, easy-to-understand story. It’s palatable, especially for people who haven’t spent much time considering gender. If you feel male, you’ve always felt male, and you were lucky enough to be born with a penis and testes and a Y chromosome—or you feel female, have always felt female, and were born with a vagina and ovaries and two X chromosomes—then you’ve probably never really questioned your own gender identity. If the transman you’re talking to says “I’ve always felt male,” or the transwoman tells you she’s always felt female, it makes sense, since to the average person gender seems obvious and intrinsic.

Another reason is that, in order to obtain medical treatment for transition, we usually need a psychologist’s sworn statement that we are suffering from a mental condition known as Gender Identity Disorder. We’re put in the tricky position of having to prove that we are both sane and rational in our pursuit of medical transition, and mentally distressed enough by the feeling that we are in a wrongly-gendered body that the only reasonable course of treatment is a medical one.

(There are a lot of transgender people, myself included, who have a real problem with that, by the way. In order to have surgery to remove my breasts and sculpt my chest into a more masculine shape, I had to spend thousands of dollars and many hours talking to a licensed psychologist first. If I’d wanted my breasts made larger—even ridiculously larger—all I would have had to do was walk into a plastic surgeon’s office, pick out my new cup size, and fork over the cash.)

Add to that the fact that in order to get new legal documents with our names and gender markers correct, we have to submit a medical doctor’s statement that we have “completed transition,” and you can see why we get so good at the “I’ve always known” story. It’s a lot easier to convince a psychologist, a physician, and a judge if your story is locked up tight, with no ambiguity or ambivalence.

To be fair, changing gender is a big deal. Gender is, after all, the very first thing we use to categorize someone. Is the new baby a boy or a girl? Snips and snails and puppydog tails, or sugar and spice and everything nice? It defines and constrains almost everything about how we behave, what’s expected of us, and in many ways, who we are.

Long before we ever came out to anyone else, we had to come out to ourselves. We’ve agonized over it. Should we? Dare we? What if we lose the love of the people closest to us? What if we’re mocked? What if we’re shunned? What if we get fired? What if we’re killed? And we ask ourselves the questions we imagine our friends and family will ask, too: What if we’re wrong? Are we just fooling ourselves? Should we just try a little harder to conform to the gender we were assigned at birth?

The “I always knew” story is comforting; it’s a story we tell ourselves to quiet those fears. It makes it easier for us to trust our own reality if we can look at our pasts and see the evidence piled up. For a transwoman: having pink and purple as favorite colors; loving baking and playing house and dress-up; hating team sports; just wanting to be Mommy’s Little Helper. For me: I wanted to wear my cowboy boots every day. When we played make-believe I was always the prince, never the princess. I loved catching turtles and toads and snakes. A child psychologist once told my parents there was something wrong with me because I didn’t understand I was a girl.

After years of being ashamed of those things, because they marked us as failures at our assigned genders, it’s a relief to be able to point to them and say, “See? That’s what was wrong with me. I wasn’t a failure of a girl, I was just a boy all along.”

And once we have convinced ourselves, we need to convince everyone else. We want there to be no question in anyone’s mind that this is the right thing. That we’re making the right choice. That there is no other path. So we gloss over the times when maybe we didn’t feel like we were born in the wrong body, we omit the part where sometimes we liked dressing up in high heels and makeup, or working on cars and watching football, or any of the hundreds of other gender-stereotyped things about us that didn’t conform to our newly stated gender identity. We want to assure everyone that whatever gender they may have once thought was ours, this one, the one we say we are now, is the right one.

Which brings me to a question I want to leave with you: Why are we, as transgender people, challenged by others to prove we really are who we say we are? Why do we feel this reflexive need to prove our genders beyond a shadow of a doubt? Because when we find ourselves backed into the “I always knew” corner, we end up doing the same thing we did all those years we were trying to fit the gender we were assigned at birth: repressing an essential part of ourselves for fear it will betray us.

Ironically, as I become more comfortable living as male, I am less threatened by the fact I was once identified as a girl. I can look at the whole picture and say yes, this is who I am. It’s one of the reasons I don’t want to get a reissued birth certificate. Though I want my passport and driver’s license and the deed to my house and title to my car in my current name, with my current gender, I don’t mind if the government still records the birth of a baby girl. I just want the people in my life now to agree that she grew up to be a good man.

Trans*—a term that stands for transgender, transsexual, transmasculine, transfeminine, and gender-transgressive. I use it in order to be as inclusive as possible when talking about people outside of the gender binary.


Nonpliments: How Not to Give a Trans* Person a Compliment

•28 November 2014 • Leave a Comment

Text © Zachary McCallum, Art © Justin Hubbell, originally published on

cartoon of a female appearing person sayng to a male appearing person wow, like I never would have thought you were transexual cuz you don't look transexual? Like you look really good!

According to Urban Dictionary, a “nonpliment” is a back-handed insult disguised as a compliment, and trans* people hear a lot of them. Sometimes the insult is actually intended, but as often as not, an insult isn’t what the nonpliment giver had in mind at all; they genuinely thought they were praising the recipient. But let me tell you, being on the receiving end of a nonpliment isn’t flattering. It just doesn’t give you the same glow that a true compliment does.

Here’s the classic trans* nonpliment: “Wow, you pass really well.”

What’s wrong with that? Well, for starters, there’s the word “pass,” which has connotations of forgery and deceit—to pass a bad check, to pass a fake off as the real thing.

Wow, that’s insulting.

And what’s the opposite of “pass”? If you ever took a class for credit but no grade, you know the answer to that: it’s “fail.” So a trans* person who doesn’t meet your standard of gender presentation has “failed”? Again, insulting.

Plus, “pass” carries the idea that it’s incumbent upon the trans* person to get their gender-presentation “right.” To successfully mimic whatever gender they want the world to perceive them as.

Julia Serano in her book Whipping Girl says it beautifully:

“The crux of the problem is that the words ‘pass’ and ‘passing’ are active verbs. So when we say that a transsexual is ‘passing,’ it gives the false impression that they are the only active participant in this scenario (i.e, the transsexual is working hard to achieve a certain gendered appearance and everyone else is passively being duped or not duped by the transsexual’s ‘performance’). However, I would argue that the reverse is true: The public is the primary participant by virtue of their incessant need to gender every person they see as either female or male.”

A better word, and one that many trans* people prefer, is “read.” As in, “The clerk at the DMV read me as male and called me Mr. McCallum.” Now the act of perceiving my gender is where it belongs, in the eyes of the perceiver. If the clerk reads me as female, then it’s the clerk, not I, who has failed.

But you’re not out of the weeds on your nonpliment if you just substitute the word “read” for “pass.” “Wow, you really read as male,” still has a whiff of “I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-real-man” about it.

Here are some “you pass” nonpliments in disguise. Can you spot them? These are all drawn from my personal experience, all given by people who genuinely like me and would never consider themselves transphobic.

A long-time friend I don’t get to see in person often: “Wow, you look really great! I’d never guess you were trans*.”

An acquaintance who hadn’t seen me since I let my facial hair grow in: “That’s amazing. It’s just like a real beard.”

My dentist: “I have three other transsexual patients, and you’re definitely the best of any of them. I mean, you actually look like a real guy.”

I left each of those encounters with an uncomfortable, rubbed-the-wrong-way feeling that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, because in each of those cases I didn’t for a second doubt the good will of the nonpliment givers, and they were all moved to say what they did because they wanted to acknowledge my transition.

And let’s be honest, I do want to be perceived as unambiguously male. I want to look “like a real guy.”

But the thing is, I am a real guy. Remarking on my “realness” just highlights the fact that they don’t think of me as “real.”

Another aspect compounding the problem and leading to nonpliments is the fact that transition often entails quite dramatic physical change. Especially for someone who hasn’t seen you in a while, when you are in the middle of transition you can look very different from one meeting to the next. Oftentimes so different that someone not remarking on it would make you wonder if they’d even looked at you at all.

The last time I’d seen my dentist, I’d been on testosterone for a little less than a year, I was clean-shaven, and I was still binding down large breasts. Although I was often read as male, I was still sometimes read as butch female. In the six months between appointments, I crossed some invisible line, one a pun-minded friend dubbed “the untranny valley”—NB: “tranny” is a deeply offensive term and should never be used to refer to a trans* person, but the pun was too amusing to pass up—and was being read as male approximately 100% of the time in my day-to-day life. I’m post-surgery flat-chested, bearded, tenor voiced, and my hairline is starting to recede: of course my dentist noticed!

So how do you tactfully remark on a huge change? How do you give a compliment instead of a nonpliment? The most important thing to remember is that a true compliment never needs a qualifier. Here’s my favorite:

“You look great!”

It works for just about any situation.

Your formerly out-of-shape friend has toned up:

Compliment: “Wow, you look great!”

Nonpliment: “Wow, now one would ever guess you used to be fat.”

Your middle-aged patient dyed her hair bright red:

Compliment: “Wow, you look great!”

Nonpliment: “That’s a great color. It really covers the grey!”

Your neighbor had plastic surgery:

Complment: “Wow, you look great!”

Nonpliment: “Your surgeon did an amazing job. You don’t have a Jew nose at all anymore.”

No, wait, that one’s not even a nonpliment, it’s just a straight up insult. But you get the idea.

If you want to get specific, here are some ways to extend a compliment so that it acknowledges your trans* friend’s transition.

“Wow, you look great! A beard really suits you.”

“Wow, you look great! I love what you’ve done with your eye makeup.”

“Wow, you look great! That’s a fantastic outfit.”

And best of all:

“Wow, you look great! You seem so confident and comfortable. I’m really happy for you.”

For an extended and very entertaining take on trans* nonpliments, check out this fabulous short video by Dutch-English Transman JJFanshawe

Transition Blues?

•12 July 2014 • 2 Comments

I’m a much happier human being since I transitioned, but…

But there are some things about men I really hate. Well, about patriarchy, I guess. Not about men, or being a man myself, but about sexist, male-centric culture. I hate it enough to feel oddly uncomfortable identifying myself as male.

Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back, not in a million years. I’m much more myself as a man than I ever was as a woman. And most things about me haven’t changed: I’m still a feminist. I’m still a liberal. I’m still queer. I still like anime and sci-fi and fantasy, and cute kids and pets, and bright colors and shiny things, and Japanese art, and all the other things about me that make me me. Transition has allowed me to shuck a layer of falseness, stop pretending to be something I’m not, and just get on with the business of being myself.

But there’s a loss to transition, as well as a gain.

It makes me sad, in a deep, existential place, to know that I’ve given up membership in a Sisterhood I never really fit into, but always wanted to, to find myself stuck with “men’s right’s activists” and dudebros as the fellows of my new tribe. I hated men like that as a woman; I hate them even more as a man.

And yeah, yeah, #notallmen. There are certainly more awesome men in my life than awful ones, but it only takes a few rotten apples to spoil the whole barrel.

I hate that some women I meet fear me, just a little, just for being male. I hate that I can’t smile at a kid in the grocery store without being a suspect pedophile, can’t walk down a sidewalk without having to cut a wide berth around any woman walking alone. Hate the look in her eyes as I go by.

And I know that look, because it’s ingrained in me. I spent too many years living as a woman not to be just as instinctively afraid of men, especially men on their own. I know exactly what she’s afraid of because I’m still afraid of it, too, and I hate that I’ve become part of the problem just by existing. That by becoming visibly male, I’ve made the world feel that little bit more unsafe for that women.

The farther away my days as a female get, the more self-conscious I feel. I pass Victoria’s Secret in the mall and find myself averting my eyes from the lingerie displays, because they most definitely aren’t for me, and any woman who caught me looking at them would probably read me as a creep. I don’t smile at kids anymore, or I do and then I flinch away. Or I make a quick comparison to my nephew, to reassure the parent that I’m not a creepy predator, I’m a gay uncle. I try to appear gay, even though I’m really bisexual, because gay men are less threatening to women.

I’m not blaming those women for being afraid. They have every right to be afraid. I’ve lived that fear myself. I still have that fear.

What I want to say is this: Sexism is bad for society, period. I have a dual perspective on it that makes it even clearer to me how that works, because it hurt me as a woman, and in a different way, it hurts me as a man. It hurts women more. It definitely hurts women more, but it also hurts men. And until there is real equality, it will keep hurting us all.


#Yesallwomen* and Some Men, Too

•28 May 2014 • 6 Comments

I’m a transgender man who was born and raised female.

When I was living as a woman, I was raped and beaten more than once by a man who professed to love me. I was catcalled, groped and  propositioned by strangers, and told I deserved it for being fat, for being a “dyke” when I was dressed masculinely, and for being a slut when dressed femininely. I learned all the self-defense tricks: keys on a stretchy coil bracelet and carried in a splay-pointed fist, check the back seat of the car before getting in, avoid dark and isolated places, never walk alone. If threatened, shout “fire” instead of “rape” or “help”. Strike for the eyes, the throat, the instep, the groin. Make yourself urinate or defecate or vomit on your attacker if you can. Above all, run away.

Women are afraid of men, and based on both statistics and my own experiences, they have every right to be.

I was and still am fiercely feminist. The decision to transition was not an easy one, in part due to my fear that by acknowledging my true, male self, I was betraying my sisters and going over to the dark side. As a man now, amongst other men, I hear misogyny they don’t even realize is in their jokes, in their assumptions, in the way they take up more than their fair share of space in movie theaters and waiting rooms and on public transit. I call them out when I can. I’ve told more than one man his jokes were misogynist and rude, and the way he treats women makes me ashamed to know him.

But sometimes it’s not just men.

I was at a party recently with several progressive, open-minded men and women. A guy I don’t know well, but who is good friends with some of my friends, and whose trademark seems to be obnoxious humor, made several jokes that made my skin crawl. He jokingly said to one friend, “woman, get me a sandwich”. She laughed like it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. He, again in a joking tone, told the eleven-year-old daughter of another friend she couldn’t have a cupcake because it might make her fat. When I said that was stupid and she could eat whatever her mom said it was okay for her to eat, he said, “Hey, I’m fat shaming here!” then riffed on it some more, and everyone — men and women and the eleven-year-old — laughed.

Except me.

Everyone laughed at all this guy’s jokes.  Men who I thought knew better. Women I have always thought of as feminists. People who are parents of young daughters. I was the only one who seemed uncomfortable. Maybe it was because they know him better, and believed his jokes were “ironic”. But it didn’t feel funny to me. Even ironically. I felt flinchy and angry while it was going on, and powerless to stop it because everyone else was complicit. Two days later I’m still upset. And I still don’t know what to do.

This is why we need #yesallwomen. I can see the root of the problem here, buried so deeply that even progressive, feminist women don’t see it. I want to bring it into the light and let it die of shame, but that will only happen if everyone can see it for what it really is.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over my fear of men, even though I am one myself now. I still check the back seat of my car, avoid isolated places, and think about exactly how I’ll defend myself if I’m out for a walk at night and I spot a man or a group of men. That’s what #yesallwomen is about. Because even as a man, I still live with a fear that few cisgender men can begin to understand, but every woman I’ve ever known understands in her bones.

*In response to tragic assault in Santa Barbara, #yesallwomen has become a social media movement decrying misogyny. If you need a primer on it, here’s a good one: The Deviation: A Look at the Santa Barbara Shooting

Jared Leto Won an Oscar and I’m OK with That

•7 March 2014 • 3 Comments

As a trans* theatre professional, I feel conflicted about the brouhaha being raised over Jared Leto’s Best Supporting Actor win for playing a transwoman in Dallas Buyers Club.

jared leto holding his 2014 oscar

I’m bothered by the idea that a straight actor shouldn’t be cast to play a gay character, and a cis actor shouldn’t be cast to play a trans* role. If the reverse were held, then trans* actors would only ever be cast to play trans* characters – the roles for which are few and far between compared to cis roles. And gay actors would never be cast to play straight roles, which would rob us of many of our cinematic greats.

I support trans* actors being cast to play trans* roles, but not every actor is the right fit for every role. I wasn’t present for casting, so I don’t know whether they auditioned any transwomen, but it’s possible that of the actors they heard, Jared Leto was the best fit for the role in ways that trumped his sexual orientation and gender identity. Perhaps he had the best range, the best chemistry with the other actors already cast, the best rapport with the director, the most availability in terms of shooting schedule, or just gave the director the closest to what they were looking for to bring the part to life.

Jared Leto as Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club

Should he have acknowledged the trans* community in his acceptance speech? Yes, that would have been the right thing to do. But the job of an actor is to act. To portray a character who might be radically different from who the actor is as a person. If he did his research, portrayed the character with sensitivity and skill, and brought a trans* character to life on screen with finesse, then he rightly deserves praise for his work, not opprobrium.

Trans* Language in Brief

•14 February 2014 • Leave a Comment

Facebook is allowing custom gender identity labels, yay! I have updated mine to Trans* Male, following the example of my hero Harvey Milk, who exhorted us all to throw open the closet doors.

Here’s a brief primer I wrote for people who read my Facebook, for whom the terms may be new:

Cis — [cisgender, cis woman, cis man, etc] A person who feels their gender identity conforms to the one they were assigned at birth. (i.e. The doctor said “It’s a girl!” and the person feels female.)

Trans /Trans* — [Transgender, transsexual, trans man, trans woman, etc] A person who feels their gender identity is different from the one they were assigned at birth, often that it is the “opposite sex” from the one they were assigned at birth. Some, but not all, Trans* people take hormones and/or undergo surgeries and other body modifications to make their physical expressions conform more closely to their gender identities.

Genderqueer/Gender non-conforming/Two-spirit — A person who feels their gender identity is not exclusively the one they were assigned at birth, or who does not conform to convention about gender expression.

What does the asterisk mean in Trans*?
The asterisk is like a wildcard that makes the term more inclusive. Transsexual and Transgender are both covered in Trans*. Some people include genderqueer and other gender non-conforming identities under the label Trans* as well, in the same way that Queer can be used to include every stripe of the LGBT rainbow.

What about the word “Tranny”?
Originally a derogatory term for Trans* people. Some Trans* people use it to reclaim it, in much the same way that some LGBT people have reclaimed the term “Queer.” Others find the term “Tranny” highly offensive. Use with extreme caution (or better yet, don’t.)

“Transgender” or “Transgendered”?
Transgender. Just like a Black person is not “Blackened”. Being Transgender is an innate property, not a condition that happened to the Trans* person.

A Man By Any Other Name

•25 September 2013 • 5 Comments

As of Tuesday, September 17th, 2013, I am legally Zachary Andrew, and my gender is legally male.

How about that?

Awesome housemate and partner-in-crime Ryan and I got up disagreeably early on Tuesday in order to drive the near-hour to the San Mateo County Superior Court in Redwood City. The hearing was scheduled for 9:00 AM, but between traffic and parking, we were a couple minutes late. Fortunately two other excellent friends, Bea and C, who both live in Redwood City, were meeting us there. C was also suffering parking challenges, but Bea had gotten there in plenty of time and texted us what courtroom we needed to be in (2J), and that my case was tenth on the docket, so our tardiness was not a problem.

After circling the parking garage a few times we found a spot. Then we had to remove our belts and pocket contents and etc to pass through the metal detector. I was wearing my nicest dark jeans, which are just a tad loose in the waist. Sans-belt they made an immediate bid for escape, but I managed to grab a belt loop and keep myself decent long enough to assure the deputies that I was not harboring any weapons.

San Mateo County Superior Court

Re-assembled, we went to the courtroom. It was surprisingly full. Two-thirds of the observer seats were taken by attorneys, plaintiffs, defendants, and the occasional cop or two in uniform, presumably there to give evidence. Lining the wall to the door, several more attorneys clutched folders and documents, and looked variously impatient, bored, and grim as they waited for their cases to be called.

Bea, Ryan, and I had to squeeze past a portly and unimpressed-with-us policeman in order to get seats. C arrived after us, and had to sit two rows behind.

Now here’s something I wasn’t expecting at all: the judge was hearing criminal cases. I figured civil matters like name changing would be in a separate courtroom from preliminary hearings on things like bank fraud, felony assault, and restraining orders, but nope. Among others, there was a young woman there to sue for an order of protection who was clearly uncomfortable having to stand right next to the man she was asking for protection from as she made her request (it was granted, thank goodness.) And a Spanish-speaking man accused of assault whose attorney hadn’t shown up—when the court reporter looked up the name of the attorney the man gave, she could find no record of such an attorney even being an officer of the court. I felt really bad for that guy.

So there I am in this room full of mostly unhappy, tense, anxious, and/or bored people. The more cases the judge called, the more nervous I got, until I had to clench my nails into my palms to try to force my heart to stop racing. Finally the judge said, “Let’s turn to the name changes for a minute.” And then he called my name.

My birth name.

So I, bearded and manly, in a fabulous orchid-purple dress shirt, charcoal vest, dark jeans, and my favorite cowboy boots, stood up, squeezed past the unimpressed policeman again, and went to stand at the same tables where all the other plaintiffs had stood before me. I was close to having a coronary event as I said, “Yes, that’s me. I’m Florence. For now.”

I don’t know what I was expecting after I raised my right hand and took the oath. I guess maybe I thought the judge was going to ask me to go over my reasons for changing my name, maybe ask some hard-hitting questions about my trans*ness. I was ready to do battle to prove I deserved that my petition for name and gender change be granted. But what he did was look at the application I’d filed weeks ago, and ask me, “Is everything in this petition the truth?”

I was so unprepared for that, I blue-screened for a moment. All I could think was, I haven’t seen that document in weeks, I can’t remember what I said in it. I know I didn’t lie about anything… I looked at the judge like a deer caught in the headlights and squeaked, “Yes?”

He didn’t seem bothered by my uncertainty. He just went right on. “I see you have your proof of publication, and your letter from your doctor… yes, yes… Does any one here have an objection to this name change?”

Silence. Thank God.

“Then I order that from this day forward, your True Full Name is Zachary Andrew McC–.” My True Full Name, like something a wizard would use to cast a spell. Something that brings an entity into being. “That’s Z-A-C-H-A-R-Y,” he spelled out for the court reporter. “And your gender is male.” Stamp, stamp, went his big and official seal of judgement on my documents. He smiled at me. “Congratulations, Mr. McC–.”

My grin was a mile wide.

But here’s the really surprising thing: the whole courtroom applauded. I expected my friends to applaud, but when the judge said congratulations, and I heard applause, it was clear it came from quite a few more than just the three friends who’d come with me. I thanked the judge and turned around to find that just about everyone in that courtroom—the anxious plaintiffs and defendants; the grim, bored, impatient attorneys; even the unimpressed policeman—were smiling and cheering for me.

As we went out of the courtroom, a blonde police woman winked and gave me a thumbs up.

Bea, whose wife is from Hawaii, gave me a lei. We hugged, and got someone to take our picture. And then we went out for pancakes (well, I had French toast, but there was real maple syrup.)

Ryan, C, Zach, and Bea, outside the courtroom

Ryan, C, Zach, and Bea, outside the courtroom

The afternoon was much duller, and involved waiting for a long time at the Social Security office to change my name and gender there, now that I had my court order, but that’s not the important part. The important part is I legally changed my name and gender. I was scared to death when I started this process two and a half years ago. And scared to death again finalizing it in front of an indifferent and possibly hostile crowd of strangers.

And those strangers cheered for me and congratulated me. Just as all along the way, my family and friends have cheered for me.

I know the Bay Area is a tolerant place, and I’m lucky to live here. I know my family are dyed-in-the-wool social liberals who firmly believe in LGBT rights. I know my friends are behind me 100% even when they don’t understand me. But even so. Even so. I didn’t expect that kind of support.

Thank you, courtroom full of strangers. Thank you, judge. Thank you, friends. Thank you family.

I made it.

Transition: Expensive but Worth It

•12 August 2013 • 17 Comments

I thought it couldn’t be done, but it has: I’m a man. All it took was time, money, effort, and a willingness to believe.

It’s been a little over two years since I went on testosterone, and a year since I had chest surgery. Next month, I have a court hearing to process my legal name and gender change. I’ve grown a beard and body hair (and a lot of frankly unnecessary upper arm and shoulder hair); my voice has settled at a low tenor; my hairline has receded to a widow’s peak (and is starting to thin a little, alas); and I’m consistently read as male both in person and on the phone. The only people who still call me “she” are the ones who’ve known me so long they just can’t seem to shake the habit.

On August 1, 2012, I had double incision top surgery with Dr. Brownstein in San Francisco. He retired in December 2012, so I was one of his end-of-career patients. You could tell he was so over being a doctor and ready to be done, but he still did a great job. I had a few minor complications having to do with my asthma, so I stayed in the hospital overnight, but overall it wasn’t bad. The drains were gross, my housemate DK was a champ, and the scars are fine with me.

Doing breathing exercise post-surgery

Doing breathing exercise post-surgery

I got an excellent result, cosmetically. My new endocrinologist said, when he met me, “Wow, you have a great chest. A lot of guys with your BMI have big moobs, but you’re completely flat.” I have no sensation in my nipples, and I think they’re slightly not in the right place, but that’s a small price to pay for having a completely male chest. Actually, my body thinks my nipples are down and to the sides of where they actually are, I suspect because the ends of the nerves that used to connect them are there. (One thing I’m less happy about: my belly really sticks out a lot now. I had no idea I was this fat until my chest was flat.)

It’s great having a flat chest. I can look at myself in the mirror bare-chested and it feels good. I like how shirts fit. I’m done with binders forever. I even stand up straighter. In many ways, I take it for granted now. I do miss the money, though. Between doctor and hospital fees, it ended up costing me around $15,000: something insurance wouldn’t cover.

(For  a friend who will be having his top surgery later this year, things are much brighter economically. California passed a law this year that makes it illegal for medical insurance to exclude coverage based on gender identity or expression. That means his surgery will be covered, giving him an out of pocket of about $250. Sweet, right? Alas, even if I’d waited, I wouldn’t have been covered, though: since I get my health insurance through Medicare (being disabled), the law wouldn’t apply to me. Still, it’s a tremendous win for Trans* rights. And it means people who don’t have a lot of savings but do have decent insurance, can get gender reassignment surgery! At least in California.)

So speaking of economics and hassle: now the name and gender change.

I’ve had to fly a few times over the last year, and rent cars in Texas and Louisiana. And a few bars have carded me. Let me tell you, handing over an ID (both passport and drivers license) with a very female name, showing a photo of a long-haired person, with the F box ticked for sex, and claiming it’s your bearded, short-haired, clearly male self, is a little nerve wracking. Although actually, I got fairly little flak for it, all things considered.. The Texas rental car person was the most suspicious. Most people either just looked at the ID, looked at me, and then accepted it, or accepted it when I said, “I’m transgender.” I think they decided that no one would be audacious enough to hand over an ID that seemed that unlike them unless they were, in fact, the person they claimed to be.

Texas challenged me for more details, but she backed down when I offered to go with her to a back room and show her proof of my birth sex. I would have, too, but I’m glad she didn’t call my bluff.

Anyway, soon that will all be in the past. I’ve filed the petition with the San Mateo Superior Court for a change of name and gender, and I have a court date: September 17 at 9:00 AM! On that day, I will become, legally, a man named Zachary Andrew. Then I just have to do a thousand and one things to get the name change reflected everywhere, including (ulp) talking to my ex-husband and finalizing some stuff on formerly shared retirement accounts.

Here’s what it takes to change your name and gender:

To Get a Court Order for Name and Gender Change in California

  1. Fill out a bunch of forms
  2. Provide a letter from a doctor stating that you have had appropriate medical treatment to change your sex
  3. File a court petition, pay $465, and get a hearing date
  4. Publish the order to show cause in a local newspaper for four weeks. (Because my mortgage holder and credit card issuers are totally reading the Pacifica Tribune to find out who might be changing their names to evade their debts.)
  5. Go to your court hearing
  6. Get certified copies of the Order of Name and Gender Change ($25.50 each)

Then, in this order:

  1. Change Social Security name and gender (Certified Order of Name Change, Letter from Physician, Application)
  2. Change Driver’s License name and gender (Certified Order of Name Change, Updated Social Security, Letter from Physician, Application, $26)
  3. Update Car registration (Title with new name typed above old name, Form for name change, Certified Order of Name Change)
  4. Get New Passport (Certified Order of Name Change, Letter from Physician, Original Passport, Photograph, Application, $140)
  5. Change name on Bank accounts (Certified Order of Name Change, Updated Social Security, New ID)
  6. Get new checks printed, and order new credit cards
  7. Change name on Stock and Retirement accounts (Certified Order of Name Change, Updated Social Security, New ID)
  8. Update Title on House (still figuring out what to do for that)
  9. Update name on Car and House Insurance
  10. Change name on Mortgage account
  11. Change name on Utility and other bills

And there are probably things I’m forgetting.

Broken down, just the bureaucracy costs are:

Court Filing 465
Newspaper Ad 170
Certified copies x3 76.5
DMV 26
Passport photo 12
Passport 140
New checks 30
Mailing costs 25
Total $944.5

Yikes, right? But in the end, it’s worth it. So, so worth it. I feel comfortable in my own skin at long last. I feel like myself. I really am, at last, that little girl who grew up to be a good man.

Nezu at 4 years old

Nezu at 4 years old

Nezu today

Nezu today

•1 February 2013 • 2 Comments

Dear readers,

Before I was ever a writer and editor, I was, and continue to be, a theatre professional. Specifically a director and stage manager. For the last month I’ve been in Los Angeles to direct a workshop production of a new dramatic musical. I’ve been immensely privileged to work on all three of Wayne Self’s original musicals, including this latest work, Upstairs, about the 1973 arson fire at the Up Stairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans. It’s rare in musical theatre to be able to address such weighty themes; the Up Stairs Lounge fire is as much a part of the LGBTQ rights story as Stonewall, Harvey Milk, the AIDS Quilt, and Prop 8. Itis a story that needs to be told, and it needs to be remembered.

Today I am asking for three things:

1. Donate to the Upstairs Kickstarter. We need to raise $10,000 by February 17, or we get none of the money pledged so far. Every little bit helps, even just a dollar or two. 

2. If you will be in the San Francisco Bay Area 2/12-2/14, come see one of the three workshop performances of Upstairs.

3. If you know anyone who might be interested in helping us make the New Orleans 40th anniversary performance and an L.A. production a reality this summer, pass along the Upstairs website and Kickstarter information to them. Signal Boost this everywhere you can.

What’s this about?

Upstairs tells the long-forgotten story of a tragic arson fire in a gay bar in New Orleans in 1973. Thirty-two people, many of them members of the then-fledgling New Orleans Metropolitan Community Church, which had been meeting at the Up Stairs Lounge, were killed, in what remains to this day the single deadliest crime against an LGBT population in US history. At the time, the story was almost completely ignored by the news media. Though a suspect was identified, no arrest was ever made.

Wayne’s play is an elegant, haunting tale of damnation and salvation, telling the stories of several of the victims of the fire. The characters  include Buddy (based on the real Buddy Rasmussen), a bartender who led 35 people to safety, and Buddy’s partner Adam. Mitch, the associate pastor of the NOLA MCC, and his partner Horace. Drag performer Marcy and her dresser Reginald. And Agneau, a tormented and self-hating gay man. It is a morality play with a twist, told with sensitivity and dark humor, with a catchy and modern jazz and blues influenced score.

The cast is amazing: professional, insightful, and just tremendously talented. This Q&A with some of the cast members will give you an idea of the caliber of people I am working with.

In two weeks we will be premiering this workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area. Performances are scheduled for 2/12 in San Mateo, 2/13 in Berkeley, and 2/14 in San Francisco, and tickets are still available.

We hope to bring an expanded production to New Orleans this summer, in time for the 40th anniversary of the fire, and to bring the show to Los Angeles for a two week run after that. But that will only happen if the workshop performances and our Kickstarter are a success.

As I said at the opening, here’s how you can help:

1. Donate to the Upstairs Kickstarter. We need to raise $10,000 by February 17, or we get none of the money pledged so far. Every little bit helps, even just a dollar or two. 

2. If you will be in the San Francisco Bay Area 2/12-2/14, come see one of the three workshop performances of Upstairs.

3. If you know anyone who might be interested in helping us make the New Orleans 40th anniversary performance and an L.A. production a reality this summer, pass along the Upstairs website and Kickstarter information to them. Signal Boost this everywhere you can.

Thank you so much for any support you can give.

Zach McCallum (aka Nezu)
Director, Upstairs

Owldolatrous Press: Nezu’s New “Job”

•20 November 2012 • 1 Comment

I’ve been devoting my time for the last several months to a new project: I’m Managing Editor and a contributing author at Owldolatrous Press, an LGBTQI-positive webzine. As editor I’m doing a lot of management and behind the scenes work, as well as copy-editing and some graphic design. And as a contributor, I’m writing, mostly from a trans* perspective.

Here are my articles to date, I’d be honored if you read them, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses. Feel free to leave me feedback here or on the Owldolatrous site, if you are so moved.

Transgender Narratives: Why We Lie
The media myth is that all transgender people share a common story, but the truth is much more complex and rich. Some of us didn’t know from birth, but the pressure to pretend we did is immense.

Tranarchy in Pacifica
Graffiti in the sleepy seaside town where Zach lives seems to indicate there’s more to Pacifica than meets the eye.

Wait, I’m Back in the Closet? Coming Out Transgender
By the time Zach started coming out as transgender, he’d been out as queer for so long he’d forgotten how scary the process was. He found the stakes were even higher this time, as he came out again to family, friends, and co-workers, and to a whole new set of people. This time he wasn’t just asking them to accept his queerness, he was asking them to change what they called him and how they interacted with him: to think of him in an entirely new way.

Taking on a Full Grown Bully
“If you want to live in a world where bullying doesn’t happen, it is your business to try to make it stop.” Zach’s long-held resolve never to stand idly by when someone is being bullied was tested when he and a friend intervened in a street altercation and found themselves the bullies’ new targets.

Nonpliments: How Not to Give a Trans* Person a Compliment
When is a compliment not a compliment? When it’s a nonpliment. Editor Zach McCallum dissects that unfortunate old standard, “You pass so well,” gives several examples of the nonpliment in disguise from his own experience, and offers a much better alternative. The most important thing to remember is that a true compliment never needs a qualifier. Here’s my favorite: “You look great!”

What’s Wrong With Transgender Day of Remembrance
November 20 is a day set aside to honor and remember transgender victims of hate crimes. The statistics are appalling, but what does it say about trans* people that the only day we have on the calendar as our own is a day of grief? Zach McCallum looks forward to a day when we celebrate our trans* siblings lives rather than mourn their deaths.