By Sunnivie Brydum
Matt Kailey is a 57-year-old transgender man. Originally from Lincoln, Nebraska, Kailey knew he was “different” from the time he was ten years old. But without any language to give voice to the misalignment he felt between his female-assigned gender and his male-identified gender identity, Kailey lived life as a woman for 42 years. While he says that portion of his life wasn’t always comfortable, he affirms that it wasn’t miserable, either.
But when Kailey was 42, he scheduled an appointment with a therapist for a reason unrelated to his gender issues. Little did Kailey know that the therapist – quite coincidentally – was a gender specialist, who seized on Kailey’s “throw-away sentence” that he had always wanted to be and felt like a boy. It was through this therapist that Kailey learned about transgender identity, finally giving him language to describe the disconnect between his body and his authentic, male-identified gender identity.
With a concrete diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder -– the condition enumerated in the DSM IV for those who identify as transgender -– Kailey was able to undergo hormone therapy and begin his transition. Kailey began volunteering with the now-defunct but transgender-inclusive Equality Colorado and the Gender Identity Center of Colorado, setting the tone for a lifetime of activism and education. That was 14 years ago.
Today, Kailey is one of the state’s most prominent transgender activists, speakers, and writers. He has been featured in five documentary films, several literary anthologies, and was the first transgender editor of a major LGBT publication when he served eight years as the Managing Editor at Out Front Colorado. Kailey’s book Just Add Hormones: The Insider’s Guide to the Transsexual Experience, published by Beacon Press in 2005, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and is still in circulation. Kailey’s prolific blog, Tranifesto, received the first-ever TransGuys Community Award for Best Blog in 2010, and he has been honored with four different awards for his community activism – three from the Gender Identity Center of Colorado, and one from the Tiffany Club of New England. He currently teaches gender and sexuality classes at Red Rocks Community College and Metropolitan State College of Denver, and holds speaking engagements at forums, colleges, and universities around the country.
As part of Transgender Awareness Month, get to know Matt, the issues he cares about, and the lessons he wants to teach.
Sunnivie Brydum: Please share some of your coming out story – how old were you when you first knew you were transgender, and what did that coming out process look like?
Matt Kailey: I kind of realized I was trans when I was 10 years old, but I didn’t have any language for it. We didn’t have the internet back then – this was 1965. There was no way to find out any information and like so many people, I thought I was the only one who felt a certain way, and that it was just me and that I was probably crazy. I dropped some hints here and there with people; just about how I felt like a boy or that I should be a boy. But I wasn’t particularly a tomboy, and I think feeling that I was the only one in 1965 in Lincoln, Nebraska, it was more like “Well, it’s probably not something that you should talk about. It’s probably better if you just forget about it, because you can’t do anything about it anyway, because you’re the only one in the whole wide world.”
Discovering there was something “different” about me at the age of 10 was kind of the end of it until I was 42 years old. I continued to have these feelings but was still not able to identify them. … I wasn’t suicidal, and I managed my life just fine, actually, for 42 years. It wasn’t always comfortable, and it wasn’t always happy because of this lingering thing underneath, but it was not a bad life.
There are some people who have a very hard time grappling with this. There are many trans people who become suicidal because of this. And that’s a legitimate response. It’s a serious response to a serious condition. And that’s why it’s important to take this condition seriously — particularly if you’re talking about young people. Suicide is still a huge problem in our community, for many reasons. Some of which are the stigma, silence, lack of acceptance, second-class citizenship and lack of rights, and the violence that we are party to and that we witness every day. There’s a lot of reasons for suicidal thoughts and behaviors in our community.
SB: How did you eventually come to terms with your gender identity?
MK: At age 42, I found out quite by accident that this was actually a thing that had a name, and that other people felt this way. I had gone to a therapist for another reason, and I had inadvertently mentioned that I had always wanted to be a guy. And in my mind, that was a throw-away sentence. Because I’d given up on that – I knew I wasn’t going to be a guy, I knew I wasn’t a guy.
But my throwaway sentence, to a gender specialist, meant something. Through her I found out that there was an actual thing that people had – situations that people were in, a way that people were. And this was it and it had a name, and it had a solution, it had a treatment – which was transition.
Transition is not appropriate for everyone. But it’s appropriate for many people, and it was appropriate for me. So thanks to that therapist, I was introduced to books, I was introduced to the Gender Identity Center of Colorado, and I was introduced to a lot of resources that helped me make a decision about what I was going to do. So that’s when I decided that I was going to transition.
It’s really important for people to understand that transition is not right for everyone who has a misalignment between their gender identity and physical body. The majority of people who have some sort of misalignment with their gender identity and physical body do not transition.
I also think it’s important for people to know that for those people who do decide to transition, it’s a medical necessity. It’s not a cosmetic surgery. It’s not optional. Even the U.S. Tax Court has decided that this is a medical necessity – that transition surgery for those who need it, and transition treatments for those who need them are considered medically necessary. They can be claimed as medical expenses for tax purposes – this was O’Donnabhian v. Commisioner of IRS.
So my coming out was just that – coming to that realization that I was trans and having that diagnosis. Because it’s still a diagnosable condition – it’s in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders IV, as Gender Identity Disorder. In 2013, in the DSM V, the name is changing to Gender Dysphoria.
I think this happens for a lot of people – once you have a diagnosis, once you have a name for what you’re feeling, and once you have the knowledge that there’s something you can do about it, it tends to snowball. Because as first, I said, “Well, as long as I know what’s wrong with me, so to speak, I can live with that.” And that only lasted a couple weeks until I said, “No, I can’t, I’m going to transition.”
And then I did. I took hormones, I had some surgery. I haven’t had genital surgery – some people say that’s really nobody’s business whether I have or not, and in most cases, it’s not. However, I think it’s important for people to know that we don’t all have genital surgery, and that’s for a variety of reasons:
One is choice. Some people choose not to. Many, many people can’t afford it, and are still not feeling whole and feeling right because they can’t afford it. Some people for health reasons can’t have surgery.
Another thing that people need to understand is that transition is done when you say it’s done – when you feel whole and complete in who you are. And that’s different for everybody.
SB: If you wouldn’t mind, tell us a little bit about what some of the more difficult parts of moving through life as a trans person have been?
MK: For me, there have definitely been difficult parts. But I have been extremely lucky. I am a white transman, with a college education, who was raised in a semi-middle-class family. I can certainly complain about difficulties, but my difficulties as a trans person have been nothing compared to some other trans people – particularly transwomen and transwomen of color, who are the primary targets of unspeakable brutality.
One trans person is killed approximately every four days in the world. And if we read the news, we see that. So my minor difficulties, I want to be clear, are minor difficulties. And I’m really damn lucky.
One of the key positive things about being a transman is that we assimilate so easily. So we don’t have to be out, for the most part, unless we choose to. Because testosterone is so strong that it changes our physical features within six months to a year, and we look like any other guy on the street. Many transwomen are successful at assimilation, too, but for some it is more difficult, which makes them far more easy targets for violence and hatred.
So my minor, petty problems have been: bathroom use. There’s not always a stall with a door available. In many cases you’re in a bathroom with people who are not trans, and there is some risk of violence. There is some risk of possible attack or harassment if there’s not a stall on the bathroom with a door. However, depending on where you are, it can be a significant risk to your safety.
I would also say emergency medical care. If I have to go to the emergency room or a clinic, which I’ve had to do a few times, they don’t understand what I’m trying to say. They don’t understand my body. I went to the emergency room once, and the doctor was convinced the problem was my prostate, and I kept telling him I didn’t have a prostate – he didn’t get it. Because when people think trans, they think trans women, so he was sure I had a prostate when, clearly, I don’t.
I’m 57, so I definitely have a fear of aging. I have a fear of where I’m going to end up when I can’t take care of myself. What kind of nursing home or assisted living facility is going to accept me, and how will I be treated? Just having been mistreated a few times in the medical community as a person who can at this point speak up for myself, I worry about what’s going to happen when I can’t. And where might I go if I come down with a debilitating illness or if I just get old?
SB: What do you think are some of the root causes of the unfathomable violence that gets directed at transwomen and transwomen of color, that is so much more prevalent and pronounced than that against the rest of LGB community combined?
MK: I think the major root cause of that is misogyny. My opinion is that transphobia and homophobia are both extensions of misogyny, and if we could eliminate misogyny, we could eliminate transphobia and homophobia.
Our culture does not like women. And our culture does not understand why anyone who was born male would want to “become female.” And since we’re not educated on trans issues, that’s how they see trans women – as someone who would willingly, by choice, give up their privilege. They don’t see it as a medical condition. They see it as some kind of choice where a “perfectly good man” threw away his privilege. Of course, that’s absolutely wrong. People don’t understand that, though.
Most of the violence that’s committed is obviously committed by men. Transwomen are very threatening to men, I think in many ways. There’s been research that’s proven that people who are more homophobic are more aroused by homosexual images and interactions. I think that transfers over into transphobia in that the men who are most insecure about their own masculinity are the most threatened by transwomen. And they think – “Is that me? Could that be me? I think maybe that might be me…” And so to get rid of that, you kill that.
I think that in some cases, the brutality that we see is far more than just a gunshot to the head. It’s not a knife to the chest; it’s not a fist to the face. It’s overkill, so to speak – no pun intended. It’s heads literally bashed, and faces bashed, arms and legs cut off, heads cut off; it’s pure and utter destruction. It’s not just that, “I want to kill you.” It’s, “I want to eliminate you from the face of the earth. I want to annihilate you.”
So it’s not just murder, which is bad enough. This is a kind of brutality that we don’t see in other killings. I think whatever this person is trying to get rid of inside of themselves, the only way that they can possibly do that is to literally obliterate this threat, which is this transwoman.
In some cases, if there’s been sexual attraction or sexual interaction, there’s a feeling of betrayal. That feeling of betrayal, again, represents this fear of “Oh my god, I had sex with a man.” When you didn’t – you had sex with a woman. You were attracted to a woman. You find out maybe this person is a woman with a penis, then think “Oh my god, I had sex with a man.” That’s internal – I can’t face myself, so I’m going to destroy you in an attempt to destroy that part of myself.
SB: Now that we’ve dwelled a bit on the tragedy that can be encompassed in the trans experience, what are a couple of the things that have been most unexpectedly joyous for you in living authentically?
MK: One of the things that I’ve experienced – and I’ve heard this from other people as well – is sort of a spiritual awakening, or realization. I’m not religious – I’m an atheist, I was raised in an atheist home, and I will always be an atheist… But that spiritual aspect has been enjoyable. I’ve enjoyed seeing both sides of life. I’ve enjoyed encompassing male and female energy, and being able to recognize that there are certain things that exist in all people.
It’s also been fun to see what different hormones do. People will say that men and women are the same. Men and women aren’t the same. Certainly, that’s a generalization, and if you take a man and a woman together they may be more similar than they are different, but I’m talking about as a whole, there are a lot of differences… And I think those differences in many cases come down to hormones. So it’s been fascinating to know what testosterone does, as well as what estrogen does. In my Human Sexuality Class at Red Rocks Community College, I explain to my students, “You know, I’ve been there, I’ve seen this. I can tell you how testosterone affects sex drive, or aggression, or ability to cry, and I can tell you what estrogen does.”
I think that in another time, in another place, I and many of my fellow trans people would have been celebrated and honored, held in high regard, and been able to lead communities. We would be able to teach people instead of being discriminated against. So it’s nice to know that there are cultures that recognize that, and honor that, and that I’m one of those people. I just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Given the choice, if I had to do it over, to be trans or not, knowing what I know now – I would choose to be trans.
SB: Do you have any words of encouragement or advice to young people who are coming out as trans, or for those whose experiences mirror yours, and they didn’t come out until later in life – do you have anything you’d like to say to them?
MK: What I’d say to young people, specifically, is that you’re going to change the world. You’re going to change how our world views gender, how it views sexual orientation, how it views people that are different. And so it may seem difficult or impossible, because you’re still struggling under the same constraints that all of us have throughout our life in this world. You’re still struggling with a male-female gender binary system, but you are the ones that are going to change it. And that’s why it’s so important for you to come out as who you are. Because that’s how you can change it.
You have to remember to be safe, and you have to also remember that once you come out, it’s extremely difficult to go back in, so choose your timing wisely. But by being who you are, you’re helping people. People who aren’t even born yet – they won’t have to suffer the same prejudice and discrimination that we’re still suffering. So that’s what I would say to young people.
What I would say to anybody – young, old, whatever – is that being trans is fraught with peril. However, being authentic is probably the most important thing you can do. It’s the best you can feel.
You get one life – this is it. You can regret and moan and groan the fact that you’re trans, and that’s the one life that you get. Why it happened doesn’t matter. Why it happened to you doesn’t matter. The fact is that it did, you are. So what are you going to do about it? Are you going to bemoan it and be unhappy and miserable, or are you going to embrace it as who and what you are, and change the world with it.
Being trans may not be a choice, but you certainly have a choice about what you do with your transformation.
Sunnivie Brydum is the Denver LGBT Issues Examiner and a guest blogger for One Colorado. This article is also available on Examiner.com. You can also find Sunni on Facebook and Twitter, exploring and talking about her passion: the politics of equality.