By Dave Schwab
Your daughter just became your son.
Gender is overrated, say the Sabolek family of Ocean Beach, which just dealt with daughter Carol using hormone replacement at 25 years old, to transform into James.
Just how disruptive can a child’s gender change be to a family?
It all depends on the dynamics of the individuals — and families — involved.
A tomboy growing up, James Sabolek, who no longer answers to Carol, never felt out of place in his skin.
“I didn’t feel an overwhelming desire for male genitalia,” he said. “But something did feel ‘off’ once I started puberty. I never did like ‘girly’ things.”
Admitting to “resentment toward puberty and my body changing,” James nonetheless expressed difficulty differentiating those feelings from just being a “tumultuous teen.”
“Gender isn’t terribly important to me (probably surprising),” James said. “I don’t feel it has much bearing on my identity. I am who I am. It just turns out I prefer looking male and having testosterone in my system to the alternative.”
James’ mom, Cassandra, wasn’t taken aback when she learned Carol wanted to become James.
“I was never really ‘shocked,’ ” Cassandra admitted. “James always expressed a disdain for most things ‘feminine.’ I remember buying him a T-shirt (black, with the logo for the band Korn, his teen favorite) and I passed his bedroom door and saw him trying to scrape the glitter out of the logo on the shirt … he always hated anything pink, glittery, flowered, etc.
“The only concern I had was that I remembered how I was at age 25, and I was worried he would make physical changes that couldn’t be undone 10 years later if he changed his mind,” she added.
James credits his girlfriend, Nannette Ralphs, for convincing him to “just do it [transform], given how often I talked about it. I actually remember the first time I said aloud, ‘I am trans,’ and it felt really good. It was about three months before I started hormone-replacement therapy, and at the very beginning of my search for a gender therapist.”
James’ first step approaching a gender therapist involved an email.
“I went into detail for the first time about how confused I felt about gender after learning that it isn’t necessarily set in stone, and that the more I thought about it, the more sure I felt that the category of ‘woman’ didn’t fit me,” he said. “Then we met in person, but it was less about ‘proving’ that I was trans, and more her accepting me and guiding me to the ‘what next.’ She pretty much just provided validation and resources.”
James’ significant other, Nannette, who is LGBT, said James “always” showed symptoms of gender dysphoria [stress].
“He would talk, semi-jokingly, ‘about maybe just transitioning.’ And I’d reply, ‘Alright.’ But gradually, he began to mean it more and more. And I started to mean it too, until he was flat out admitting he wanted to transition. And I was flat out telling him to find a therapist and a doctor and start the process.”
Sex reassignment surgery for female-to-male transgender people includes a variety of surgical procedures that alter female anatomical traits to provide physical traits more appropriate to the trans man’s male identity and function..
Many trans men eschew genital reassignment surgery for other surgical options, including bilateral mastectomy (breast removal) and chest contouring (providing male chest shape), and hysterectomy (the removal of internal sex organs). Sex reassignment surgery is usually preceded by beginning hormone replacement with testosterone.
James experienced difficulty with hormones prior to his transitioning.
“Anything hormonal with regards to estrogen [female hormone] was unpleasant for me, including several attempts to use hormonal birth control that made any ability I had to regulate my emotions seem to go away,” he said. “Once I was on testosterone [male hormone], my emotions felt more like my emotions, and less like something I had to endure apart from myself.”
Nannette was always supportive of James’ gender transition.
“The gender dysphoria he experienced was anxiety-inducing and frustrating for him, and, because I care about him, I would feel similarly amped up by his distress,” she said. “So supporting him felt like the natural thing to do. He was really unhappy, and I wanted him to be happy. He needed to [transition].”
Nannette characterized James’ transformation as a “shared” experience.
“We were learning something new together: And that’s fun,” she said. “And he was becoming more confident in his body, and that translated so much to how he navigated the world. He just became happier and more comfortable, which is exactly what we both had wanted to happen, so I was happy for him.”
James noted his gender transition was as much mental as physical.
“It took a long time to realize that I am transgender, gradually going from ‘nah,’ I don’t want a penis so I’m not ‘transgender,’ to ‘well,’ maybe I am ‘genderqueer,’ and eventually, I want to start taking testosterone so that I appear male to people who don’t know me, and therefore transition, because it turns out I am totally transgender.”
James pointed out, so far, he has opted only for hormonal replacement and “top-only” reconstructive surgery not involving his genitalia.
“It is possible I’ll change my mind with regards to bottom surgery.” he said, adding, “I’ve heard stories of that happening to other trans men after several years on testosterone (I’m only at a year and a half). I’d also certainly be more interested in it if the end results were more like that of someone who was born with their penis. I’ve seen some results that are spectacular and know some trans guys online who are happy with their bottom surgery. But it’s not really important to me right now.”
James plans to have a hysterectomy.
“I’ve actually had negative feelings towards my uterus well before I realized I was trans,” James said. “My girlfriend says, while most women hate ‘that time of the month,’ my loathing of it struck her as particularly bad, and part of why she wasn’t surprised when I came out to her.
“I will have to stay on hormones for the rest of my life,” he acknowledged. But also likened that reality to having to rely on an asthma inhaler or taking insulin for diabetes.
“I have heard there are pharmaceutical companies exploring administration options other than injections so it might not even be too inconvenient in the future,” James added.
In coming to terms with Carol’s decision to morph into James, his mother Cassandra said her other daughter, Sunday, helped her immensely.
“She told me I was not to express any sort of misgivings,” Cassandra said. “I relied on Sunday to teach me how to be supportive in the best way, to constantly correct me when I forgot to refer to James as he/him as he wanted. … I’m glad my kids have a close relationship and they can rely on one another.”
Sunday Johnson said it wasn’t hard for her to come to terms with her then-sister’s sex change.
“I’ve always been close to my brother and I knew before anyone else did that he didn’t feel comfortable identifying as the gender he was assigned at birth,” she said, adding, “He always confided in me.”
Sunday said her mom needed more help “conditioning” herself to James’ transformation.
“My mom is very accepting, but it was still strange for her and took a while to get used to,” she said. “She and my grandma mentioned ‘mourning’ for Carol Anne, and I had to tell them that they’re the same person. I found it a bit silly for them to be ‘mourning.’”
Regarding James’ gender transition, Nannette said they weren’t afraid of acceptance by their peers. That was a given belonging to the LGBTQ community.
“But we did both work in a customer service job that had a lot of regulars, and I didn’t know how most of them would react,” Nannette said. “For the most part, they were supportive and took it in stride.”
But there was one notable exception.
“I was disappointed one day when I told a regular … and she asked very flatly, and with an undercurrent of disgust, ‘So, does she have a dick?’ After a while, I began to treat the reactions as a sort of finger in the wind. It allowed me to guide my interactions with people in the future.”
Asked if he misses being female, James replied, “I tried really hard to think of something — and couldn’t. I’m also bisexual. So I don’t really fit into straight male culture, any better than I used to fit into straight female culture.”
Concerning his gender transformation, he pointed out, “Transitioning was actually quicker than I thought. I had support from people online and my closest friends. The hardest part is advocating for yourself. But I believe that process probably does weed out the people who aren’t 100 percent committed to transitioning. You have to be the one to call the doctors, make the appointments, call your insurance, keep the paperwork up to date, etc.”
His mother said James’ transformation has not changed her outlook on sexuality or life.
“I’ve always been open-minded and in high school, in the ’80s, my best friend came out to me as gay (I already knew),” Cassandra said. “His name was Chris, and he committed suicide when we were in our 30s after his mother returned a Christmas card he had sent to her.”
On being transgender, James noted it’s widely construed by mainstream society as being “mysterious and weird and heavily ‘othered,’ an oddity or a mental illness,
Western culture, which is of course the globe’s dominant culture, sees ‘men’ and ‘women’ as two very rigid categories with no overlap. But I think a man and a woman from a similar walk of life, would have more in common than two men from different life experiences.
“The separation of ‘men’ and ‘women’ our society enforces, makes about as much sense as acting like ‘light-haired people’ and ‘dark-haired people’ are two distinct categories with nothing in common that can define a person’s whole identity, which is not the case,” James continued. “I think there is too much emphasis about gender in general in our society, and not nearly enough emphasis about how it can be fluid and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with someone’s personality or identity.”
Would he recommend someone following in his footsteps?
“If, like me, they have thought about it for years and, like me, they make the first step to see a therapist, then yes,” he said. “However, I was very lucky in that most everyone accepted me, and I was shielded by my loved ones from those who didn’t. If it places someone in danger, like if it’s a teenager whose parents are violently anti-transgender, they should wait until they are safe.
“Since it is becoming more commonplace for people to transition as teenagers, there is a feeling in the trans community that the earlier you can do it, the better you can pass as your real gender instead of the one you were assigned at birth, but that isn’t necessarily true,” James said.
“It is never too late, which means people need to not be afraid of not starting early enough. It is definitely not something to rush into, especially for people transitioning from female to male, considering how misogyny affects being a woman. You have to think long and hard about whether you hate the way women are treated. Or whether you hate the way you are treated because of being seen as a woman. I still struggle with that sometimes, and I started (seriously) questioning my gender as early as five years ago.”
Now that James’ gender transition is a fait accompli, Nannette said, “We’re both adjusting fine. I’m comfortable with it. … It affected his life negatively (and so it affected my life negatively to see him unhappy). Life is easier and brighter in a lot of ways because that huge shadow isn’t looming over him.
“Not much actually changes,” noted Nannette about gender transformation. “Their body, name, and gender, yes. But if you peel back everything about your significant other, hopefully you’ll find that you dated them for many more, deeper reasons — compatibility, idiosyncrasies, sense of humor, shared interests — than just physicality. Those things aren’t changing or going anywhere.
“So if you’re dating your friend, you’re going to keep loving your friend,” she continued. “You just have to call them a different name and pronoun, and now they have stubble. How you relate to and love each other isn’t going to drastically change. But how they love and relate to themselves will. Honestly, it’s nice to see your friend through that. It feels good to see them feel good. It’s way more cause for celebration than panic.”
Are there any lessons to be learned — or shared — or advice given, about gender transformation and its consequences?
“The only lesson I’d like to impart using my experience is that gender isn’t as rigid and inflexible as people like to think! I still have some ‘effeminate’ personality traits that don’t make me less of a man, just like how a man who is not trans wouldn’t be less of a man for liking pink or makeup,” said James.
“It comes down to what feels comfortable for people on an individual level,” he continued. “The transformation has cemented this belief. Men should be able to act and look however they like and still be respected as men, and the same goes for women.”
In the final analysis of gender metamorphosis, James concluded, “It is more personal and individualistic and should be self-determined — not assigned at birth based on a baby’s genitals.”
“This isn’t about you or your feelings, ” said Cassandra about Jame’s gender reassignment. “The only thing that matters is your child’s happiness. Everything else is secondary. As parents, we get only a couple of opportunities in a lifetime to show our children that we love them unconditionally, and that we will fight for them no matter what. Don’t miss one of those opportunities.”
—Dave Schwab can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.