Summer, we are in you! After a month-long celebration of Pride, we enter this hot summer month with fireworks and a 3-day weekend. Louisville’s July packs in Poorcastle, Forecastle, then finishes out the month with Burger Week. As a bonus, Cheesecake Factory’s “Cheesecake Day” is always the last week in July too. As exciting as this all is, summer is complicated and often uncomfortable when you’re stuck in a body you don’t relate to.
After years of dysphoria and shame, I finally took steps to have top surgery with Dr. Gallagher at the University Gender Affirmation Surgery Center in Indianapolis on May 8, 2018. Waking up from surgery and looking down to see a flat chest was the greatest moment in my life. A literal weight was taken off my chest. I could finally breathe! I finally liked and recognized the body I saw when I looked in the mirror. I truly owe Dr. Gallagher my life. She removed the cancerous leeches that clung to my chest and gave me the chance to have a new and full quality of life. As I write this, I’ve been free for 440 days. Last summer I was still healing, making 2019 the first full summer in my new body. As a newly freed man, I have relished every moment. but especially these warm weather firsts.
1. No More Layers and A Lot Less Laundry
I’ve always loved summer. As a kid, summer meant no school and weeks of camp. Yep, I was a Squirrel Scout. (Ok, you know what gender-specific word fits in front of “Scout”… But my Mom loves to tell the story of my little brother coming to day camp and telling people he was a “squirrel scout” (mispronouncing “girl”). I much prefer “squirrel” over the other). As a Scout, I got to spend lots of time with cute girls in the woods. They’d sometimes ask me if I was a “boy or a girl”. I LOVED this question because it meant that I wasn’t automatically being mislabeled as a girl. But I hated answering the question, because my answer removed their doubt and mislabeled me into the wrong bow. I didn’t want to remove that doubt. I wanted to be honest, but I knew that it wasn’t safe to do so. Word would get back to my counselors, my parents, my family, my church.. I’d be shamed, or grounded, or even banned from camp. Camp was my happy place, so I lied and claimed a gender I wasn’t. (But I’d always make my voice as deep as I could when I answered).
When puberty hit, summer got even more awkward. Wearing a sports bra kind of helped, but my chest didn’t look or feel flat. My shirts gave me away too. Even in my “boy” clothing, you could see the outline of a layer underneath. So I started wearing two shirts. Sometimes I’d wear my two shirts and men’s under-tank. I’d throw on a hoodie whenever I could. The more layers I wore, and the more I hunched and rolled my shoulders forward, the less visible my chest was. When I moved out and discovered what a binder was, I ordered them online. The binders made me feel safe and more comfortable, but they were very tight and hurt after a few hours of wearing them. The pain was better than the dysphoria. With a binder on, I got to forget what I was cursed with for a bit. I’d wash and dry my binder after every use, ensuring it would be at its maximum tightness for the next wear. I’d replace them every 6-12 months when they lost some elasticity. Binding cost me a great deal of time and money, but it was essential for my emotional survival. I continued this practice of binding, layering and hiding for years, but my dysphoria never went away. My quality of life was suffering. My soul ached. I needed top surgery.
Top surgery freed me. I was finally comfortable in my body. Today, I no longer have to bind and hide. Now I’m a one-shirt guy who also does a lot less laundry.
2. Shirts, Optional
Bet you thought being shirtless would be #1 on my list, huh? I considered it, but it’s important to understand that feeling comfortable in clothes is a prerequisite for feeling comfortable in no clothes. Not to wear out the analogy, but there are lots of complicated layers to being shirtless. I could spend an entire article on the topic, but here’s what I’ve noticed walking down the gender-divide.
- Women are sexualized in a way that men aren’t. If a woman feels comfortable enough to want to mow the lawn topless, I think it’s silly that law prevents her from doing so. Maybe it’s because I’m trans, but I’ve always felt like it’s unfair.
- Women are body-shamed in a way that men aren’t. I’ve always been chubby and my belly has never been flat. My little muffin top hangs over my pants from time to time. Pre-transition, even if I had felt comfortable wearing just a binder, I was socialized to hate my pudge and to keep it out of sight. Society doesn’t celebrate all body sizes.
- Men are celebrated in any shape or form. Testosterone has changed my body. My fat redistributed and I started getting body hair. I first noticed it on my belly. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE IT. I love the way my body looks and feel, but I noticed that the more masculine I got, the more acceptable it was for me to be chubby and shirtless.
- Not everyone has a great top surgery experience. Dr. Gallagher is an artist. Per my asking, she intentionally made incisions to the contour of my pectoral muscles. She also took my scars back a little further under my armpits than normal to help remove more of my sideboob fat and ensure that I didn’t end up with “dog ears”. Fortunately, Dr. Gallagher gave me a chest that sparks Marie Kondo level joy.
So yes, I am shirtless, ALL THE DAMN TIME, well, at home anyway. Last summer I was still healing. Dr. Gallagher suggested giving my incisions 12 months to heal before lots of sun exposure. Since surgery, I’ve ditched my shirt to do yard work, swim, walk/run on the treadmill (at home), and even just sit out on my front porch.
3. Swimming, Scars and All.
I know, I know. Swimming easily falls under shirtless things, but swimming is special to me, so it makes the list. I grew up in the pool. As a kid, my Mom worked at the YMCA, so I spent LOTS of time in the water. I joined the swim team at 6 or 7. Reminiscing now, I’m remember that my coach called me “Meek”, not my birth name. At 15, I got my first job as a swim instructor and at 16, I got certified and began working as a lifeguard. I swam on my high school swim team and at the end of my CIT (Counselor in Training) Summer at Squirrel Scout Camp, I was hired on as an Aquatics staff person. In college, I took SCUBA as an elective and as an adult, I even spent a season as a volunteer assistant coach for the Hammerheads Swim Team at Mary T. Meagher. So yea, I LOVE swimming.
In the water, I felt safe. Out of the water, I felt vulnerable. I was in a girls speedo with a girls body. It was pretty hard to not be gendered incorrectly. I also felt awkward around the other boys. I was never one of them. I wasn’t one of the girls either. Standing on the desk with no towel to hide me, in line to dive during practice or going into the women’s locker room before and after practice was emotionally challenging for me. I compared my body to the other guys’. I was reminded of what parts I did and didn’t have and of how I appeared to everyone else. Luckily though, swimming is great exercise, so the endorphins helped me ignore those negative thoughts. Also, speedos provide fantastic compression. Before I had binders, I’d sometimes wear my speedo under my clothes just to flatten my chest.
All my life, I can remember times that I had the opportunity swim, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough to get in. Sometimes because I didn’t have a swimsuit, or worried about how and where I would change out of my swim clothes. Post-surgery, this is no longer a worry. As long as I’ve got a change of pants, I’m good to go!
After surgery, I had to stay out of sitting water for 6-weeks. So no pools or baths. After that, I was allowed to swim, but it was recommended that limit my sun exposure and wear a high SPF sunscreen and/or tape my incision lines with silicone. In July last year, I swam for the first time in my friend’s pool. He hosts an annual Louisville TransMen Pool Party each year, so my first time swimming shirtless was comfortable and in a pool of people that could personally relate to my journey. In fact, my second time swimming last summer was at the LaGrange Quarry with the same group of guys.
I remember being nervous about people seeing my scars. I wondered if anyone would stare or say anything. I wondered if i’d be outed and treated badly. They didn’t and I wasn’t. Over the summer, I graduated in comfort level and went swimming and shirtless tanning at a Lake in New York. Jess and I had gone to Niagara for her birthday, then stopped at Camp Chesterfield for a few nights on the way home. She was in a class, so I had some time to kill. I’d never been brave enough to sit shirtless with strangers, but I did, and it was fine. I even ended up participating in a sweat lodge that night, shirtless, and with strangers.
These experiences were all special, and all helped me to get acquainted with my new body in public spaces. The real high point to swimming was when Jess and I went to Cancun for a little post-holiday getaway. Our adults-only hotel was literally on the beach and had 5-6 different pools (one was topless). We spent most of the trip in the water. I was SO excited to be in the ocean for the first time that I filmed it! The pools and beaches were full of people, but no one stared at or asked about my scars.
4. Apply Sunscreen
It sounds crazy, but I didn’t bother with sunscreen before top surgery. I didn’t care about this body. I loathed it. It wasn’t mine. My soul was trapped. I was a hostage.
Being truly transparent, I’ll share that I used to hope to get cancer, breast cancer. I figured that cancer would be the only way to get my chest removed and not have to disclose my trans-ness to my parents and grandparents. People don’t shame cancer survivors, they applaud them for being brave and not giving up. And we should, but we should treat transpeople much the same way. Like cancer, we didn’t choose this. Some days it takes every ounce we have not to give up and call it quits. No one bullies cancer survivors. No one says that cancer is a sin or a “lifestyle”. Cancer survivors are greeted with love and compassion, that’s what ALL people need, but especially trans youth. Like cancer treatment, trans acceptance and medical treatment is often a life or death situation.
I unapologetically love this body now. So now, I apply sunscreen. After 33 years of not applying sunscreen, it took some time to learn how to do it properly. Check out my funny tan lines from that lake in New York. At least I protected my incision lines!
5. Push-ups and Burpees and Mountain Climbers. Oh, My.
I’ve always been an on-again, off-again fitness person. I love lifting weights and being strong, but I hated and even avoided certain exercises because of the way my body moved during them. Mountain Climbers or Burpees for example. Yuck! They made my chest jiggle and my shirt ride up. I was extremely uncomfortable being asked to do them at boot camps, or even with P90X videos alone at home. I’d have to first tuck in my shirt, then move into position and move my legs slowly, more like a crunch to keep my dysphoria at bay.
I’ve always liked push-ups. It’s an exercise that is slow and controlled. But I wouldn’t dare do them without a binder on. Not even alone in my house. Without a binder, things touched the floor and made me very aware of my chest. I sometimes had the urge to knock out a round of push-ups before bed, but wouldn’t because I didn’t want to struggle with putting the binder back on. Now I can do any exercise, anytime. I still don’t love burpees or mountain climbers, but now I don’t care if my shirt rides up or if I feel a little jiggle.
6. Work, Work, Fashion Baby
Never, in a million years would I have ever felt comfortable enough to walk a runway. I hated my body, I hated looking at pictures of myself, and I didn’t have great posture or loads of swagger, so I can’t imagine anyone wanting me to model for them. But, last month I was asked to walk the runway at for the Saving Sunny “Fashion Meets Passion” fundraising event at Play Louisville. The theme was Hometown Heroes, and someone recommended me as such. I got to strut up and down Play’s catwalk in two different Blofish Clothing outfits.
The event felt like something out of a dream. We were treated like VIPs all day. Backstage we had hair and makeup stylists, snacks and a champagne toast. We were taught how to walk before the show, learning where to stop and pose. Walking onto the stage we were greeted with booming bass and exuberant applause. With Jess, friends and allies in the crowd, I felt like a million bucks. I walked tall and proud. I was finally in a body I wanted to show off. Not only did we help raise money for a great charity, but Quinton Thomas Photography and Jess Amburgey captured the show with some bomb-ass pictures! I legit felt like a celebrity. Being visibly trans has led to some really cool opportunities and important conversations.
7. Vulnerable with Pride
Last month wasn’t my first Pride. It wasn’t my first time walking in the Pride Parade. The past three years, I’ve walked with Yelp Louisville. Last year I walked waving a trans flag. That was special to me. This year I walked with the Louisville TransMen (LTM). Walking behind our large banner, we were visible, a whole group of us.
Before the parade, LTM members had gathered to write affirmations on index cards. We wrote things like “you matter”, “you are loved”, “you are enough”, and “you are not alone”. We wrote things that we often needed to hear along our own journeys. We wrote over 600 affirmations, then stapled our info and a trans sticker to each one. As we walked, we passed them out to to the crowd. We hoped they’d reach members of our community that needed some kindness and support.
It was a tad scary to walk so visibly for the 1.5 route to the Festival, but I was so encouraged by the love and acceptance our city offered us. Furthermore, I was proud of LTM’s members. I know many of their stories. Many similar to mine, others even more difficult. But they looked beyond their fear and pain to be visible and help spread love, positivity and kindess to others.
As we neared the end of the route, I mentally prepared myself for the protestors. I was prepared to be yelled at and called names. Prepared to have a “Christian” blab hateful things to me and my community. But that’s not what happened. Instead, I found a long row of mothers and parents standing in front of the protestors, holding signs that said “Free Mom Hugs” and affirmations similar to the ones we’d written. I was hit with a wall of emotion. I swallowed back tears and went from Mom to Mom, being embraced by each one in a hug. Here I was, a visible trans man, being lovingly embraced by Mothers as I marched to the Pride Festival with the queer community. The kindness of strangers was not lost on me. If you were one of those Moms, thank you. You have no idea what that encounter meant to me.
7. Bonus: Mentions That Don’t Need a Full Paragraph
Other cool “firsts” since top surgery.
- Bought, wore and felt comfortable in tank tops!
- Traveled internationally as a man, twice! ln the past year, Jess and I stamped our passports in Canada and Mexico.
- Had complete strangers tell me they read my story and were moved by it. Was asked by many strangers if they could hug me, (inlight of reading my articles). I gladly accepted every time.
Top surgery was life-changing and life-saving for me. All of my mornings start with a smile. I wake up, stretch and run my hands along my flat chest and incision lines. Sometimes still feels surreal. I love this body and am so grateful to be where I am in my social and medical transition.
Some days I want to sit back and soak up all the privilege that comes with “passing”. But staying silently comfortable and keeping my story to myself won’t help to change the world for the next generation of trans kids. I make myself vulnerable, sharing pain and triumphs so that others can read them and be better allies by way of understanding, love, compassion, and acceptance. Together, we can all be life-savers.
August 3rd is my “Manniversary”. Next month I’ll be talking about bathrooms and other considerations people and businesses can do to help Louisville’s trans and non-binary community feel more welcome and comfortable.