Monday, March 31, 2008
Matthew Blankers is scared of the men's room.
Sometimes, on the KU campus, he walks into one, and if it's crowded, or cramped, or if he just can't summon the nerve, he heads to the sink, turns on the water, washes his hands (la-di-dah) and walks out in search of another.
Five, six, seven bathrooms in a row he might walk into, wash his hands, and walk out, until his guts finally demand that he close himself into a stall and take his piss.
Blankers, 31, is a transguy, and in the most essential ways-his ideas, beliefs, personality, etc.-he hasn't changed much in the one-and-a-half years since he stopped going by the name his parents gave him, Sara.
Even physically, he's more the same than he is different. A surgeon removed his breasts. The shots of testosterone he gives himself twice a month have lowered his voice and altered his body chemistry. But he looks mostly the same.
He's not entirely comfortable calling himself "he," but he's more comfortable with that than he is with "she." He prefers the term "genderqueer," not identifying with either gender, but when he has to pick-and, as he realizes more than most, a person has to pick a lot-Blankers goes with "he."
Although he feels nervous, even afraid, when he pushes open the men's room door, he feels even more uncomfortable in the women's bathroom. Neither gender quite works.
For years, as a "butch" lesbian, he was questioned in the women's bathroom. Once, Target security was called on him. Another time, a woman turned around with a look of terror and demanded why he followed her in. "I flashed a lot of people my tits in the bathroom, when I still had them," he says.
Now that Blankers has switched from one bathroom to another, he has a new set of trepidations. While he at least had the sexual equipment required for the women's room, if not the gender identity, he fears what may happen if he and his vagina are ever questioned now.
"It's not so much that I'm afraid that people are going to think I'm a girl, but I'm afraid that people will perceive me as different," he says. "As something that's not masculine enough. It's interesting, when I do get yelled at now, I get called a fag."
When you don't fit in with a tenet of society as basic as gender, when you're genderqueer, life can get messy.
"It's all mostly presented as, 'I was born in the wrong body,' and the 'gender change' is the cure for it," he says. "For me, I feel more like I haven't changed genders. I haven't changed anything, really. Social markers, social things, the way that people see me has changed."
For Blankers, a lifelong lack of acceptance-a message from society that he wasn't right, manifested every day in a hundred tiny ways-fed his desire to change.
He tells a familiar story of not fitting in from an early age, of not wanting to wear dresses or put on makeup and all that. He was often mistaken for a boy. Still, he remembers childhood as a fairly happy, carefree period. Then puberty hit. "Everything kind of changed," he says. "Drastically changed."
He went from an outgoing, self-assured kid to a quiet, introverted teenager. He had friends but didn't go out much. "I described it as feeling like there was something fundamentally flawed, and I couldn't really put my finger on it," he says.
In high school, in California, he was kicked off his Baptist church's worship team, for which he played drums, for shaving his head. To his parents' chagrin, he came out as a lesbian, and what he hoped would be his liberation was met internally by more depression brought on by his outcast status.
He stayed in California when his parents moved to Lenexa after high school and became more deeply depressed. One day he called his mom in tears and she suggested he come to Kansas for the summer. He did, and he wound up staying.
A couple of years later, he ran across a magazine article about transmen. The article hit him immediately as something he might want to do, but it didn't seem realistic. "You read about people in magazines or you see things on TV, and it's so far removed," he says.
In 2005, at the age of 28, he moved to Lawrence, and for the first time since puberty he started socializing more, and got involved in the queer community. For the first time, he met people who'd transitioned from female to male. He wanted to do it, but he was scared.
"You live your life for, at that point, 28, 29 years, with this set of rules or ideas about how you're supposed to behave," he says. "It was a really difficult thing to try and even wrap my head around beginning to change that."
In August 2006, his dad had this third open-heart surgery. As Blankers was waiting during the operation, a thought lit up his brain: "If he doesn't make it, I'm going to do this."
His dad lived, but that sudden thought had forced him to admit what was holding him back. "What I was the most afraid of was what my dad was going to think about me," he says. "Really, anybody, but my dad in particular. What he thinks about me matters a lot."
After the surgery, he wrote letters to his parents, his two older brothers and some others, telling them he was transitioning. He was no longer Sara. He was Matthew. On November 20, 2006, he took his first testosterone shot. On June 26, 2007, he had a bilateral mastectomy.
With a complicated, messy and ungodly expensive sex-change surgery all but out of the question, he's about as much man as he's ever going to be.
Every day, Blankers would pass The Wheel on his walk home from campus, where he's a student in the School of Social Welfare.
One day about six months before he started taking testosterone, a group of guys were hanging out in front of the bar. "Fat dyke," he heard one of them say as he walked past. He turned around and was greeted with some snickering, and continued down the hill.
Nine months later he walked past again, as Matthew instead of Sara. Guys were out celebrating a Jayhawk victory, he remembers, and again, a voice came at him. "Hey dude, what's going on?" The former "fat dyke" didn't realize they were yelling at him until he turned around and somebody said, "Come have a beer!"
Public perception of him has changed drastically, he says. While before he was seen by many as a weird, butch girl with a Mohawk, now he's perceived, most of the time, as a "regular guy."
But does he need the validation of the weekday crowd of frat boys at The Wheel-or anyone who wouldn't accept Sara for who she was? He says that while he's glad for the social convenience of being taken for one of the dudes, it makes him all the more angry that he was rejected before.
"It really makes my blood boil sometimes," he says. "I enjoy people being nice to me, obviously, but it really makes me angry that it matters so much, these few little social markers. My voice is a little bit lower, my chest is flatter, but beyond that I'm really the same person, but treated totally different."
There were parts of being perceived as a woman that he enjoyed. The sense of community among other lesbians, the lesbian head nod. He's left out of that now. And while he's accepted on the street by the same people who would scorn him as a butch lesbian, that's only because they see a man, not someone who's genderqueer.
"Part of it is definitely being perceived as non-queer, definitely being perceived as part of the heteronormative society," he says. "I go back and forth between being, on one hand, really relieved and happy to finally be able to walk down the street and be left alone-just to be able to be and have it be OK, just go about my way and nobody bugs me-but at the same time, I feel really invisible now."
His roommate, who's also a transguy and didn't want his named used in this story for privacy reasons (we'll call him Caleb), has had a similar experience. Like Blankers, he never felt right as a girl-as a child he wanted to wear Superman underwear, not Daisy Duck panties-until he looked in the mirror at the age of 23 and saw a man, and eventually started presenting as one.
Before, when he and his girlfriend at the time would walk down the street with his girlfriend's three kids, they'd get all kinds of nasty looks. He'd shave his head with a razor to try and pass as a guy in public, but when people recognized him as a woman, they were scared. As a butch lesbian, he says he saw moms literally shield their children from him multiple times in the grocery store.
Once, he grew a Mohawk. "It was an intense Mohawk, it was f*ckin' nice," he says. "But I only had it for two days, because I swear people thought I was the spawn of Satan."
Today, sporting a solid set of testosterone-induced sideburns, he can walk down the street holding hands with his girlfriend without being questioned. While he enjoys the benefits of fitting the heteronormative model on the surface-they're mistaken for a straight couple-he also doesn't hide the fact that he's a transguy. His co-workers know. If someone asks, he tells them.
"Maybe I should get a red 'T' tattooed on my forehead," he jokes, "saying, 'I'm not one of you mothafuckas.'"
Caleb, 27, sums up his second puberty in two words: alcohol and porn.
In his first couple of months taking testosterone, that's about all he spent his money on, he says, with a little left over for food. He'd never been into porn before, but now, as he eloquently puts it, "porn kicks ass."
Probably the most surprising thing that's happened since he started taking testosterone is that, for the first time in his life, he's found himself attracted to men as well as women.
"I just walked to the gay porn section," he says. "I was just drawn to it, and I tried to avoid it for so long. I couldn't help myself. I think that part of it was just the fact that I want a dick, so I want to be around 'em, I want to see 'em."
Two other side effects have been acne and mood swings. For a time, he says, the testosterone made him feel so angry that he was afraid he was going to get into a fight at work-he works as a line cook-and get fired.
"These kids get in fights at school, and then they get sent to the principal's office and they might get suspended, and they get grounded or whatever," he says. "But if I do it, I lose my job. I was scared."
Vanessa Hays, Blankers' girlfriend, says these mood swings have been the hardest thing for her to deal with during his transition. "It's been painful to watch him become displaced from the communities we came out of together," she says. "And mood swings are rough. There are definitely times when parts of his personality, the way he's interacting with the world, are changing a little bit."
Both Blankers and Caleb have lost weight and gained muscle since taking testosterone. In a year and a half, Caleb has lost 40 pounds and Blankers has lost 10.
"The difficult times have been when he's really been struggling with his body image or sense of place in the world," Hays says.
Since he started being perceived as a guy, Blankers has been awakened to a new world of misogyny and male privilege that he was locked out of as a woman.
He's noticed the way, when he raises his hand in class at the same time as a female student, she'll usually say, "No, really, you go first." When he goes out at night and strangers talk to him, it's usually, "What's up dude?" rather than, "Fat dyke."
"I can't even begin to describe how much power it's given me," he says. "And it pisses me off all the time, every single day, every single time I'm in some situation walking down the street in downtown Lawrence and people are like, 'Hey dude, what's going on?'"
In a perfect world, he says he wouldn't have had to take testosterone or lop of his breasts. He would have been accepted as he was, whether he called himself "she" or "he." Gender wouldn't matter.
At the same time, he says being read as a man makes life easier, makes him the happiest he's been in his life. Even if he doesn't truly identify as a man. He still feels like a woman in a lot of ways because of how he grew up. "People see me now and immediately assume 30 years of history that doesn't exist," he says.
Both condemning a misogynistic, anti-queer society and going out of his way to conform to it creates a lot of contradictions he has to come to terms with.
"I can't really explain why I'm more comfortable being perceived as a man," he says. "I don't know what it is exactly about that. Even what it means to be a man in our society, I don't agree with either. I guess maybe it's the lesser of two evils."
He says his brothers have adjusted well to his transition. And his parents have gone through a spiritual journey that started when their Baptist church in California didn't accept him as a lesbian. "We felt we were put in a position of either turning our back on our child or turning our back on God," says his mom, Margaret Blankers.
The news that he wanted to be called Matthew came as another shock. "I wasn't very well educated about transgender issues, and I thought it would be a phase that would go away," Margaret says. "I just wasn't very well informed. But it kept cropping up."
These days, Matthew's parents are members of the Presbyterian Church, which they've found to be more accepting of the LGBT community. Margaret recently helped coordinate a tour for Jack Rogers and his book, "Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church," and traveled with a group to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of Congress for equal rights for the LGBT community.
Caleb says he sees his parents frequently, and they've actually found it easier to accept him now. "One of the first things my mom said after I came out as trans was, 'You know, 1 percent of babies are born intersexed. You were just born intersexed on the inside,'" he says. ":Even though I don't see myself as a straight guy, I think it's easier for them to see that."
Like Blankers, he still despises the fact that he wasn't accepted as a woman. And it's not as if he's completely accepted now. One incident that sticks out in his mind is when he started making small talk with an older man behind the grocery store counter, and the guy thought he was flirting with him.
"He looked at me like I was a freak, like there was something wrong with me because I was making friendly conversation, joking around, but maybe in a feminine manner," he says. "From then on, I pretty much decided that all I say is 'please' and 'thank you' and walk away, because otherwise people are going to treat me like a freak."
But is he happier than he was before?
"I'm definitely happier," he says without hesitation, and then thinks. "Because I'm right now." Even if that implies he was wrong before, and even if he doesn't agree with that. The bottom line is that he feels more comfortable now. "Because people weren't treating me the way I wanted to be treated," he continues, "and I wasn't presenting the way I wanted to present."
And now, "I'm me. I'm a tranny boy." Â»