His 95-year-old grandfather hadn’t seen him for about a year and a half, until last November, when they decided to meet up for breakfast. As he walked into the restaurant with facial hair and a deeper voice, his grandfather simply shook his hand, patted him on the back and said, “Welcome to the club.”
Ryan, a sophomore exercise science major who requested to have his name withheld for his own safety, is transgender; although he was born biologically female, he identifies as male. He began his female-to-male transition just over two years ago at the age of 18.
“When I was a younger teenager, I came out as lesbian,” Ryan said. “I was fine with that, and then I met someone when I was 14 who was a trans man… I didn’t know anything about being transgender, and he was a really cool guy. He told me about his story, and it kind of got me thinking, ‘This sounds close to how I feel sometimes.’”
On May 15, two days after finals end and everyone else leaves for vacation, Ryan will undergo chest reconstruction surgery in order to further transition from female to male.
The surgery costs $6,800 in total, half of which Ryan was able to fundraise through GoFundMe due to numerous donations from friends, family and strangers; the other half will be covered by his parents, who told Ryan at first that he’d be expected to repay the $3,400. That changed just two weeks ago, however, when Ryan received the following email from his father after reaching his halfway goal:
I just looked at your fund site. I’m glad you are getting what you need to reach your goal.
We don’t expect you to pay us back. That’s our gift to you. So take that off your fund site if you would please.
We love you, Buddy.
As anyone can imagine, Ryan’s decision to transition wasn’t an easy one to make – nor was it easy for his parents to understand, though they still loved him.
“It hasn’t been, ‘Oh my god, you’re a freak’ or anything like that,” Ryan said. “It’s been, ‘We don’t get it.’”
One person who has been particularly helpful on Ryan’s journey is his girlfriend of three years, Alicia.
“She definitely knew I was having issues with gender when she started dating me,” Ryan said. “But I wasn’t really set on anything. I wasn’t really serious. I didn’t understand it that well.”
Ryan was afraid of making the decision, concerned about his own safety. But his girlfriend was supportive.
“She said, ‘I’ll love you either way, but you’ve got to stop being afraid,’” Ryan said. “‘Because if you keep ignoring this, you’re not going to be happy’… so I came out as gender-queer for a while.”
With this stance, Ryan allowed for people to use either male or female pronouns to address him; it was a comfortable gray area for him to explore his identity.
Sometimes he was more sensitive than others, however – Ryan would detest hearing female pronouns one moment, but then a couple of hours later he would be okay with them.
“I had a lot of issues trying to figure out what it was, how far I wanted to go,” Ryan said. “And a lot of it was, I didn’t understand my own self.”
Ryan’s struggle for identity is pretty much like the struggle of anyone else at this age: to find themselves, to create themselves; to understand who they are in their heart of hearts.
“I’m just like anyone else in the sense that everyone’s trying to find themselves, to be comfortable with themselves and figure out who they are… and that’s pretty much what I’m doing,” Ryan said. “It just so happens that I’m not doing it like most people would. It’s a little more of an internal struggle, because I’m not comfortable with my own body, whereas most people don’t think of it in that sense… they might be like, ‘Oh, I don’t like how this looks,’ but I see myself and I’m just disgusted. I don’t feel like this is how I’m supposed to look at all.”
Because he’s still in the middle of transitioning, Ryan suffers from occasional dysphoria, which is a combination of anxiety and depression in response to how his body is configured and how that aligns with his how he wants it to be. Ryan gets dysphoric when he binds his chest but it isn’t as bound as he’d like. Binding – tightly flattening the chest – is itself discomforting, and risky, often leading to bruising.
“There are days when I know I have to put on a binder in the morning, and my body is just screaming because it doesn’t want to,” Ryan said. “But then at the same time, I need to do it for my own comfort and safety, even if I really don’t want to.”
If Ryan were to go a day without binding, he could be putting himself in danger simply by being in public; as he’s transitioned he’s come to look very masculine and the last thing he’d need is to be faced with discrimination due to his transitioning state.
“At this point, how I look now, after I’ve gone through hormones… If you looked at my face, it’s like, ‘Oh, you look like a guy,’” Ryan said. “But if anyone [isn’t comfortable with my appearance], then they could totally pick on me or do something awful. So that’s for a safety reason, and it’s also for my own comfort.”
In the end, Ryan doesn’t see himself as all that much different from anyone else.
“I just really have to know who I am,” Ryan said. “It’s a journey of getting to know my own self and becoming more comfortable. It’s just the same basic journey everyone has.”