Seventeen million television viewers were agog this April when former Olympian and current reality TV star Bruce Jenner sat down with Diane Sawyer and revealed that she identifies as a woman. It's a revelation given even more exposure with the release of the July issue of Vanity Fair, featuring new woman Caitlyn Jenner on the cover. It is in these highly publicized moments that we must acknowledge the vast differences between Jenner’s life and the lives of other trans* folk (the asterisk denotes an umbrella usage for trans, including transgender, transsexual, cross-dresser, gender fluid, agender, etc.).
Jenner’s net worth of $100 million allows her to pursue everything associated with a transition—hormone replacement therapy (aka HRT), feminization laryngoplasty, implants and, perhaps, gender affirmation surgery—some of which the average trans* person may need but not be able to afford. Which brings me to my next point—the agency of independent wealth versus the perils of employment while trans*. Unlike the majority of her compatriots in transition, Jenner doesn’t have to worry about finding a job, facing workplace harassment or wrongful termination.
Because of all of those resources, Jenner has the means to choose this life and identity. For people like 29-year-old Ellen Harry, however, the ability to make such choices can seem nonexistent. I should know; she’s my fiancée.
Let’s skip the clichés associated with the trans* coming out narrative: No legal name disclosed. No “Before & After” pictures or discussions of genitals. No expressions of slack-jawed shock at this disclosure. Ellen is Ellen. She loves Star Wars and Hello Kitty; tinned oysters and black lace blouses; Metallica, Morrissey and The Mountain Goats. She is a cellist, a historian, a landscaper, a gamer and a line cook. Ellen is argumentative and bratty, gracious and moody. She and booze have been fast friends. She is a person, not a martyr or a superhero.
Ellen, whose treatment has been in full force since Oct. 15, 2014, spoke with me about the clarity of HRT, the stickiness of terminology surrounding the trans* experience, how her coming out has been received and her hopes for the future.
What changes have you noticed since you began HRT?
Before, my thoughts, emotions, my entire existence—day to day or even moment to moment—were shaky. With HRT, it's akin to when you look at a blurry image through a focused lens. My thoughts are easier to articulate; my emotions make sense to me. I attribute that to having my brain functioning in the right chemical soup.
It’s such a relief to finally be able to see the world, like the first time I put on glasses. It’s that same sensation of “Wow, I've been spending so much time missing all of this.”
Even though you have the Affordable Care Act to cover the majority of your health care concerns, how much do you think your meds would cost if you were paying for them out of pocket?
That I couldn’t begin to estimate. Before the PPACA Medicaid expansion went into effect in 2014, I didn't have any options. Before I had a doctor, I had to find [the meds] from online overseas pharmacies that don’t require a prescription. Places based in India, Pakistan, China, etc.
Tell us about your experiences with doctors.
I was optimistic with my doctor when I first saw her. I was to list any substances I was using. Initially, I didn't think to mention the spironolactone (an androgen suppressant) or the estrogen. Then, at the last 10 to 15 seconds, I put them down, thinking, “Eh, what the hell?”
She surprised me by saying, “I assume you're a transgender woman, and are taking these for that purpose,” and I said yes. Then she gave me prescriptions for both. She referred me to a nurse practitioner in endocrinology who, with the two of them together, managed the first few months of my treatment extremely well.
However, my nurse practitioner was completely not up to the task and stopped seeing me. My doctor tried to pass me off on UNM Endocrinology with a referral—one which turns out to have a two-year waiting list—while I was in the middle of treatment. Every day that goes by when my hormones aren’t in the proper balance after I've already started a full regimen of treatment can have consequences.
UPDATE: After our interview Ellen discovered that her hormone levels were within normal range for this stage of her treatment. She was also referred to—and subsequently scheduled an appointment with—a local endocrinology practice.
Two questions: What are your thoughts on MTF (“male-to-female”) as a term? And how do you feel about the word “transition” being applied to your experience?
I absolutely cannot stand either one. I think they're awful, even though they’re often used by trans* people. For example, “MTF”: To me that doesn't make sense, to say “when I was a man” or “when I was a woman.” It almost seems like something you’d hear a bigot say: “when they were a man.” It’s like implying that gay people weren’t born gay. What kind of sense would it make to say, “You just came out of the closet; what’s it like since you became gay?” That wouldn't hold up under any kind of scrutiny.
But I can understand why it's such a compulsion to become this different person from who you were. I think that's part of referring to one’s past life as “when I was a ...” There can be an impulse to become completely different to prove you're a gender that people have not perceived you as. You constantly have to prove your credibility as a sentient being when you’re trans*.
Then the second term, “transition,” is essentially the same thing for me. I use “treatment.” I use “hormone replacement therapy.” Those are fine. They describe an actual part of being transgender. But the idea of “transitioning” from one gender to another seems inaccurate. I'm not transitioning from male to female; I've always been a female because that's the way I was born. I simply had the incorrect hormones and primary/secondary sex characteristics.
How has your coming out been received by family?
With my father, who moved to Portland last year, it was pretty much a nonstarter. He used to be thoughtful and engaged; now he's a Christian Conservative. So yeah, I didn't want to tell him. My mother and brother have been very supportive. I’ve hinted—and directly said—things over the course of my entire life to them about this, so they've been fine for the most part. My mother does seem to have a leisurely attitude toward it sometimes. She can be bad about respecting me, about misgendering me as male.
Your mother has told me that she knew she’d misgendered you, and that she felt guilty. She realized what she was doing and tried to correct it. So she is aware.
I know. Part of me thought for the longest time, “Mistakes will be made. This sort of thing will happen, and I should be patient because they are supportive.” Still, I do feel that I have been extremely patient.
What about with friends?
Most of my friends in Albuquerque were high school friends that I made based on the premise that I was male. Over time we just drifted away, and it didn’t seem like I would still be able to relate to them. Another group of friends disowned me after I came out. There is one old friend here who I hardly see, but that's because we're both flakes (laughs), but she's fine with it. I have friends that I live right next to as well. My other supportive friends are in cities like Chicago, Austin or Portland.
Initially, I thought I could skate through at work, that being misgendered and misnamed would not affect me. But I realized that I couldn't do it. I was getting desperate to the point that I was either looking for other jobs or had to come out.
One of my coworkers—I'll call her M—noticed that my chest was enlarging, that I had tits, and asked me what was going on. I think it was half curiosity and half “Where can I get some?” [laughs] It was a spur-of-the-moment thing where I flat out told the truth. Honesty is something that my relationship with you has helped me with; I'm less inclined to bullshit people.
And about your bosses? I know that you have two.
There’s the front of house manager. She is the wife and co-owner. Then there’s the kitchen manager who I work for.
The wife actually noticed first, before anyone else. She’d been cool with me before that. She probably thought, “What a nice young man.” But as soon as she noticed, her attitude darkened. She still refers to me as “he,” “him” and “his.” I have not spoken to her directly about it because I assumed that she would either ask me about it or just take the hint from the way others were referring to me. But that wasn't the case.
When I came out to my boss, he was befuddled at first, but then said it was fine. I was elated. Then on Monday, he had this fast-talking under-his-breath equivocating tone. He said, “We talked about this over the weekend. Is it alright if we refer to you as ‘Harry’? It can be short for Harriet.” First of all, that’s not my name. And secondly, no. Harry is not short for Harriet in anybody's conception. I was stunned. I was being negated right then and there.
Now my boss finally makes the effort. He calls me Ellen, my real name, not my legal name. He does still misgender me sometimes—referring to me in the masculine—but he corrects himself. My other boss still refuses, though she has been slightly more polite to me recently.
What is your ideal future, say, one to five years from now? Where do you see yourself?
The problem is it's so daunting to know that when you were 14, you had a lot of promise, but you obliterated it for all those years because of the craziness and self torture. Essentially, starting your life as a person at 30 is problematic, so I'm taking that realistically, as I imagine a lot of trans* people my age—or even older—have to do.
Since I have given up music for now (my music career crashed and burned due to theft), I have concentrated on the other thing that I love: cooking. I’d like to move up the rungs, from line cook to head cook to sous chef, in a more food-oriented town than Albuquerque. I love Austin, but I do acknowledge that it’s in Texas [laughs]. Portland is a bit of a sister city to Austin but is in a much more hospitable state, as is Seattle. It would be lovely to get out and do that. I would like to have a tiny house or an RV, to move somewhere reasonable, and to finally have a normal life.