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A Young Man’s Guide to Becoming a Nerd Girl, Part 3 of 3: Life on the Other Side

Part 1 | Part 2

Given that I’ve lived as both a man and as a woman at various points in my life, I’d like to think that the experience has given me a relatively unique perspective on how men and women interact with, and are treated by, society. Some of these differences are minor, even subtle; others are quite striking. In the process of transitioning, I’ve had to learn first-hand what it means to be a woman in our culture, allowing me to compare and contrast those lessons to what I learned living as a man. While sometimes surreal[1], my journey has been utterly fascinating from a sociological point of view.

Amongst some of the more notable things I’ve learned in my transition:

Male privilege is totally a thing, and very real

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Lest ye doubt that women are just making it up, or exaggerating the pervasive societal bias towards men, let me assure you, we’re not. While men certainly do face unique struggles of their own (I’m no stranger to toxic masculinity), women have to deal with far more widespread difficulty in navigating the world. This has ranged from minor annoyances (suddenly I’m getting talked over a lot more, especially when men are involved in the conversation) to dealing with rather frightening scenarios (making sure I would be able to get an early ride home from an overnight New Year’s Eve party if I didn’t feel safe staying there- something that would’ve never crossed my mind before I transitioned). While I knew that women had to deal with a lot of crap that men didn’t (my fiancée had made a point to get me more educated on feminist issues, even back when I still identified as a man), and had been warned about it by other trans people, nothing prepared me for the sheer ubiquitousness or insidiousness of it.

Women’s personal space isn’t as respected as men’s is

PersonalSpace

This is arguably a subset of male privilege, but it’s one that particularly sticks out to me. When I presented male, people usually gave me a respectable berth. Now that I’m seen as woman, people tend to get much closer, and sometimes will even casually touch me during conversation or while walking by, even if they’re complete strangers. I suspect this is because, as a man, I was seen subconsciously as a potential threat; as a woman, I’m not. There is one upshot to this, however, and that is

People are friendlier to women

It’s not a huge difference, but I have definitely noticed more smiles and casual conversation, especially from other women. It’s definitely been one of the more positive social changes I’ve had.

People are more likely to open up to women

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This goes hand-in-hand with the above- people (men especially) seem to feel safer being more vulnerable around women then men. Previously, when I was still seen as male, people (again, men especially) were generally more hesitant to discuss more personal and emotional-laden topics, sticking to more impersonal subjects such as politics, current events, shop talk, and the like. One thing I’ve really enjoyed since starting transition is that now it seems like people are much more likely to have actual, real conversations with me, conversations that feature a much higher degree of emotional intimacy.

This difference does have its downside, however: for example, many women in science have noted that there’s a tendency for students and colleagues within their departments to preferentially come to them when they’re dealing with emotional or psychological struggles, since it’s expected that as women, they’ll be better suited to handling it, even when they’re not.

The reason it takes women so long to clothes shop is because nothing fits

Clothes

Seriously. The sizing system for men is pretty straight-forward- you measure your waistline, and that’s your pants size. Shirt size isn’t much harder.

The sizing system for women, however is nothing short of capricious and arbitrary. For example, depending on the manufacturer and cut, my dress size can literally be anywhere from a 4 to a 16. Bra sizes are an even more eldritch madness. It took a while for me to actually figure out what would be likely to fit me, and even then I usually have to try things on to know for sure.

The astrobiology community is actually pretty gender equitable

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Given the difficulties faced by women in science, the first time I went to a science conference after socially transitioning, I was really bracing myself for a sudden onslaught of sexism that I’d hitherto been shielded from. However, I was very pleasantly surprised- even amongst people who had no idea I was trans, I never felt like I was treated differently than I had been when I was presenting as male. I’m not sure if that’s because our field is young and has a very high percentage of women, or because the people who tend to go into such a cutting-edge area of research are more likely to be open-minded, or both, but whatever the reason, I’m very grateful for it.

Conclusion

Of course, there have been plenty of other, smaller things I’ve learned along the way- how to put my hair in a ponytail, that there’s a qualitative difference between male and female orgasms [2], the indescribably exquisite feeling that comes from taking off your bra at the end of the day, and so forth.

Overall, however, the whole experience of transition has been not quite like anything else I’ve done in life. Despite the hardships and challenges it sometimes entails, my choice to transition, and to live my life as the woman I truly am, has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.


[1] Something that trans people rarely mention about transition is that, while it’s often a liberating and empowering experience, it also is pretty weird when you stop to really think about it (particularly if, like me, you spent a large part of your life honestly believing you weren’t “really” trans). I have at least one very strong memory from the early stages of my transition, of thinking to myself “My fiancée just explained to me how to put on a sports bra. How did my life get here?”

[2] Since I know you want you want to know, but are afraid to ask: male orgasms tend to be sudden, intense, and highly localized- kind of like you’ve been struck by lightning. They’re also accompanied by a feeling of pressure being released. Female orgasms, on the other hand, feel more diffuse through the body, have a better build-up, and tend to linger- it’s like when you’re swimming out in the ocean, and a swell slowly picks you up and puts you back down.

There’s also quite a bit of variation in quality compared to male orgasms: with weak male orgasms, you can generally tell that at least something happened, but with female ones, you can’t necessarily even tell that; middling orgasms are about the same for both genders; and for really good orgasms, well, let’s just say there’s a reason women tend to be screamers and men don’t.


TessTessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

A Young Man’s Guide to Becoming a Nerd Girl, Part 2 of 3: Hormones and Other Magic

After reading part one, you may be wondering what exactly goes into transition. Well, as it turns out, a lot – and while it is a time and energy consuming process in the extreme, the results can be nothing short of astounding.

Popular media might have you believe that getting a “sex change” is a single procedure- you walk into the hospital male, and walk out female (or vice versa). Alas, if only it were that easy.

The truth is that transitioning has a number of components to it (including hormone replacement therapy (HRT), changing names and pronouns, dressing differently, and surgeries, amongst others), and often takes years before completion (however that’s defined by the trans person in question). The nature of the transition reflects the identity of the trans person – whether they identify as male, female, both, neither, or something else all together. Furthermore, which components a trans person includes in their transition varies widely – many, for example, may just take HRT and socially present as their identified gender, and eschew surgery (whether it’s because they can’t afford it, aren’t satisfied with the results, or simply don’t feel it’s necessary for them to be happy).   The order often varies, as well – some going on HRT and then changing their social presentation, while others do the reverse. Excluding one or many of these components doesn’t make the person any less trans- ultimately, it’s their body, and their decision.

Here are some of the common elements of transitioning:

Counseling

Couch

While not all trans people feel the need for counseling, it can be helpful to many of us. After all, you usually don’t spend years or decades trying to be something you’re not without developing a few issues- not to mention having to cope with a culture that, while it’s gradually improving, is still often hostile to trans people. Additionally, some doctors require a note from a mental health professional before administering transition-related procedures, though there has been a movement away from this “gatekeeper” model towards one based around informed consent, at least when it comes to hormonal treatment (surgery still requires letters from not one, but two therapists, one of which must be a licensed psychologist with a PhD, who certify that you’re mentally fit for the procedure, and that you’ve been living as your target gender for at least a year prior- it’s quite a number of hoops to jump through).

Hormones

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Many trans people seek to transition medically- that is, to modify their bodies to reflect their identity, and so that they can (quite literally) be comfortable in their own skin. Hormone replacement therapy is the keystone of transitioning medically and results in dramatic and pervasive changes.

In my case, I was put on the standard HRT regime for someone transitioning from male to female, as I felt I would be most comfortable in a female body. This typically includes estradiol (a form of estrogen, which can be injected, absorbed through the skin via adhesive patch, or dissolved under the tongue in pill form). However, since testosterone “competes” with estrogen for binding with cell receptors and will overpower it, the regimen usually includes one or more testosterone-blockers, which prevents testosterone from binding. Additionally, estrogen, once it reaches sufficiently high levels, will greatly lower testosterone production.

Some of the effects of my HRT treatment have included:

Breast development

Probably the biggest and most visible change, and honestly, the one I’ve enjoyed the most – watching myself go from being completely flat-chested to a C cup (and still growing!) has been rewarding on a deeply visceral level. As a side note, with the right hormonal treatment, lactation can be induced, allowing me to breastfeed – something my fiancée and I plan on doing when we get around to having a kid, so we can split the midnight feeding runs.

Reduction in body hair

My body hair has thinned considerably, and what’s left is much finer and lighter colored. I still have a bit more than I would like, though, especially on my chest. I’m hoping that’ll eventually thin out, too.

Softer skin

My skin is a lot smoother, softer, and clearer than it was before. Oddly enough, this- along with my change in scent[1]- is one of my fiancee’s favorite aspects of my transition.

Body fat redistribution

This is a subtle, yet extremely powerful effect of HRT. Not only have I started to develop curves (previously, I was basically a rectangle), my facial appearance has changed as well- my cheeks have filled out and become more prominent, my lower jaw has thinned a little, and my face overall is now much softer and rounded.

Reduction in muscle mass

My overall figure looks more feminine now as a result, though my stamina and strength have definitely taken a hit. I can still open most jars, though.

Increase in my sense of smell

While I’ve never had a particularly strong sense of smell, I do notice scents more than I used to. This, apparently, is widely reported amongst trans women, with many experiencing a much greater enhancement to their olfactory acuity than I did.

Emotional changes

While I was always pretty emotional, the speed at which my moods change has greatly quickened (in technical terms, I have higher emotional lability). While previously it might take me a bit to get angry, sad, or joyful about something, now it feels like my moods go from zero to sixty in milliseconds. I also occasionally have to deal with mood swings, which took some getting used to. With that said, overall I feel much calmer and confident, and far happier than I ever could’ve imagined- in fact, I’m not sure I really knew what happiness was before I transitioned.

 I should note hormones don’t do everything- they can’t change your skeletal structure, for example. Nor, in the case of trans women (but not trans men!), do they really affect the voice – I had to go through eight sessions of voice therapy and months of practice to be able to speak with a female-sounding voice (I also recently started taking singing lessons, which has also helped). And while my beard grew in more slowly, to actually have it removed I’ve had to undergo numerous sessions of laser hair removal and electrolysis (which, somewhat frustratingly, is still ongoing- though I have gotten to the point where I no longer need make-up to hide my beard shadow).

Social and Legal Transition

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This is a fancy way of saying of changing how you dress, act, speak, and so forth, as well as having your legal documentation updated to reflect your identity. In my case, once I had been on HRT for a few months, I gradually started dressing more and more androgynously, until I switched over to wearing women’s clothing completely. My style remained somewhat androgynous for a few months after I started living as Tessa full-time, but over time I’ve gotten more femme (I heart sundresses! And sweater dresses!).

Getting your legal documents updated varies from state to state- I was lucky to live in a state that all was required for changing the “M” on my driver’s license to an “F” was a note from a doctor verifying that you are receiving the “appropriate treatment” (as deemed by the doctor) for your gender transition. The Social Security Administration and the State Department (for passports) have similar requirements. Other states, however, require that you’ve had surgery, and in some cases, when it comes to birth certificates, won’t let you change them at all. Which is horrible and those states should feel bad about themselves.

Surgery

Surgeon tools - scalpel, forceps, clamps, scissors - isolated

There are actually several surgeries available to trans people – some trans women elect to have facial feminization surgery to make their facial appearance more womanly. Breast augmentation/removal is another, and voice surgeries and Adam’s apple reduction are also an option for trans women.

The one that gets everyone in a tizzy, however, is referred to variously as sexual reassignment surgery (SRS), genital reassignment surgery (GRS), or simply “bottom surgery”. For trans women, the results are often highly satisfactory[2], in terms of sensitivity (many surgeons boast that 90% or more of their patients are orgasmic post-surgery), function, and appearance; the resulting vulva, clitoris, and vagina can often only be distinguished from that of a cisgender[3] woman’s by a gynecological exam. For trans men, unfortunately, the results are often less satisfactory and require painful skin graphs; consequently, most trans men elect not to get bottom surgery

A caveat: asking a trans person their surgical status (if they’ve had it and/or if they plan to) is considered highly offensive (since it’s basically a roundabout way of asking what’s in our pants).   While I’m pretty open about such things, it’s often best to just not ask.

With that said, I personally haven’t had surgery yet, but I’m currently scheduled to in July 2017. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the surgery or the recovery process itself (which includes three months of convalescence and activity restriction, plus another three to nine months of healing before you’re fully back to normal, as well as daily maintenance [4] for the first year or so), I am definitely looking forward to the end result.

Conclusion

So far, transitioning has been the most audacious, scary, exciting, demanding and ultimately rewarding thing I’ve done in my life. While it’s a little mind-boggling to think how much I’ve changed in such a short time (three years ago, I was still convinced I was a straight dude), I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Part 3


[1] Apparently, I smell way better than I used to. Make of that comment what you will.

[2] If you’re morbidly curious as to how this procedure works, there’s an excellent (and bloodless) CGI animation of it here.

[3] If you’re not up on the vernacular, cisgender (or simply cis) is how you refer to someone who’s not transgender.

[4] Specifically, you’re required to do what’s called dilation. You know how when you get your ears (or other body part) pierced, you have to at least periodically leave the ring or stud in so the body doesn’t treat like it a wound and heal it shut? Yeah, same idea, except with what are essentially medical grade dildos instead of piercings. Thankfully, like a piercing, over time, you have to dilate less often, first multiple times a day, then only once a day, then only once or twice a month.


TessTessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

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