Monday, March 21, 2011

Transcending Gender

Fascinating story I have been reading... Hope you enjoy! Oh, and sorry for the loooong silence, things are great!

Transcending gender

In a world where he's long felt invisible, Aydin Kennedy reflects on the man he's become, and the female identity he left behind

By Stacey Kennelly 
staceyk@newsreview.com
More stories by this author... 

This article was published on 03.17.11.

Aydin Kennedy and his wife, Christia, pose with Olivia, Aydin's chihuahua, in their living room on a recent morning.
PHOTO BY STACEY KENNELLY

Aydin Kennedy is a 34-year-old social worker and student who lives in Chico, where he likes to ride his bike, play with his dogs Rylee and Olivia, root for Stanford women's basketball, lift weights and mow the lawn. His wife, Christia Currie-Kennedy, likes that he's courageous, funny and cute. The two hope to start a family soon.

You wouldn't know it from looking at him, but three years ago Aydin was a woman. Had you met him then, you would have seen a tall, slender, attractive and athletic-looking woman who wore men's clothing and had cropped curly hair, olive skin, and striking blue eyes.

He's still good-looking, but his curls are gone and his soft facial structure has become more masculine. He sports sparse facial hair and his body has bulked up, the result of weekly testosterone injections, exercise and a healthful lifestyle.

You'd also never know, especially if you saw him with his wife—a pretty, fresh-faced woman with a pearly smile like her husband's—that he still has female reproductive organs.

The three years since Aydin began changing from a woman into a man have been an emotional rollercoaster. First he started taking weekly testosterone injections. Then he had his breasts surgically removed. And then he married the perfect woman for him.

Society treats him as a heterosexual man, but because he spent most of his life living as a lesbian woman and because he still has his female reproductive organs, he occupies a unique place in the sexual universe that gives him a remarkable perspective on sexuality and society's focus on gender roles.

He describes it this way: "I didn't go from this box to another box. I'm outside the boxes."

The experience has also been unique for Christia, who met Aydin while he was still a woman. She relentlessly supported him throughout his transition, including when he told his family about his transition from female to male and when he had his breasts removed.

"I gave up my visibility around my sexuality, and so did Christia," Aydin said, referring to the lesbian identities they both erased when Aydin transitioned into a man. "I'm not straight and I'm not gay, so where am I? Where do I fit?"

Ironically, that is the same question he has been asking his entire life. In an effort to quell feelings of isolation and invisibility, he speaks publicly in Chico and beyond on a regular basis, telling his story in an effort to dispel the myths and stigmas surrounding a population that has long been misunderstood and ignored.

"I'm not done," he said. "I'm three years into my medical transition and four years into the emotional transition, but I'm still collecting tools for my toolbox."

Aydin in 2006, before any testosterone injections or surgery.
PHOTO COURTESY OF AYDIN KENNEDY

Aydin Kennedy's story isn't a clich├ęd "born-in-the-wrong-body" scenario, although he acknowledges that for many transsexual people, that's the case. His body has served him well through his life, he said, despite the self-destructive behaviors he put it through as a young adult while trying to cope with his gender identity.

"It's the same body," he said, referring to before and after his female-to-male transition. "Hormones and surgery have just helped bridge that gap between my sense of self on the outside and my sense of self on the inside."

He knows the legal, medical and social challenges sexual transitioning poses, especially to people who are extremely fragile emotionally and mentally by the time they decide to take the leap.

"It's not like there's a manual that says here's how to do this really fucking hard thing," he said frankly. "We are trying to navigate this world that is overwhelmingly not seeing us and overwhelmingly is not safe."

To understand Aydin's world, one must first understand the importance of language and terminology. The terms "transgender" and "transsexual" take on different meanings, depending on the individual. Aydin uses both terms to identify himself.

"Transgender" is an umbrella term that encompasses any behavior that deviates from normative gender roles, including those who transition from female-to-male or male-to-female medically or socially, transvestites, drag queens and kings, and cross-dressers. The term also applies to anyone who simply does not behave, appear or experience gender in the ways society expects.

The number of transsexuals (individuals who have undergone surgery, by some definitions) is determined by those who seek medical treatment, but neglects to account for individuals who consider themselves transsexuals but do not seek treatment.

Some argue that the reason why statistics are scarce is because of a long legacy of medicalizing the transgender condition, a "what's wrong with you?" stigma that causes many transgender and transsexual individuals to shy away from research studies, Aydin explained.

"When you're trying to explain somebody, it's different than observing them," he said. He noted most medical research is based on assumptions that neglect to account for factors that complicate the experience of being trans, such as unequal access and opportunities.

He experienced that unequal access to medical care when he was required to travel to the San Francisco Bay Area for psychological and medical treatment that specialized in gender identity, services that are not available in Chico. Even when he did find doctors, getting permission to take testosterone and have chest reconstructive surgery was demeaning because it required his therapist to confirm he was mentally competent enough to be diagnosed with gender identity disorder, a condition listed in the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

"Now I have to carry that diagnosis around with me my entire life," he said. "For her to write that on a paper and verify that was a very frustrating experience for me."

He often felt he was educating the very doctors he needed help from.

"It's like you're this kid with a bowl going around begging people to put soup in it," he said, noting that many doctors' offices are not designed to make trans individuals feel safe and comfortable, from offering noninclusive forms (male, female or "other") to employing staff that have more questions than answers about the trans condition.


Aydin was most comfortable playing sports as a child. From top to bottom, Aydin in elementary school, sixth grade and senior year of high school.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF AYDIN KENNEDY

Aydin's relationship with Christia budded at Chico State,where they were in the same cohort of the social-work program. She entered his life before the months when he began testosterone injections, an emotionally trying five-month period in which the introduction of testosterone and the suppression of estrogen caused Aydin to experience menopause and puberty simultaneously.

"I was crabby, upset, irritable, and horny, all at the same time, with no framework for how to deal with it," he said.

Christia, who identifies as "queer" because she is attracted to individuals all along the gender scale, supported him through the process, including when he had his chest reconstructive surgery.

"She just arrived with this amazing set of tools," Aydin said. "She went through this process with me and was this advocate."

When they met, in 2007, Aydin was still presenting as a female and went by his birth name. He was in a relationship with a woman, as was Christia, but Christia was immediately drawn to her new friend.

Christia smiled on a recent sunny Monday morning while sitting in the couple's living room as she recalled her two classes with Aydin, when she'd sit near him because he looked "queer" like her.

"I would talk really loudly with my friend about gay stuff," she said with a laugh. "But knowing him now, that was not the way to get him to be my friend."

Aydin recalled the period shortly after he legally changed his name, when he had to "come out" in ways he hadn't anticipated. Christia was in the one class in which the instructor used his new name freely. She approached him after class one day and asked why the instructor was calling him by a new name.

"She came right up to me and asked why. And I told her I was transitioning, and she said, 'Oh! OK,'" Aydin said, smiling while impersonating Christia's perky personality. "And then, a second later, she said, 'Um, excuse me, what does that mean?' "

The two were "just friends" for a while, but their friendship took a turn when Aydin watched footage of an event in which he, Christia and two friends were setting up tombstones at Chico State during Transgender Day of Remembrance, a worldwide annual event that honors those who have been killed due to prejudice. (About 180 trans individuals were murdered in 2010, according to Europe's Trans Murder Monitoring Project.)

"I realized I was watching this person who was completely in love with this other person," he said, referring to himself looking at Christia in the video.

Aydin panicked and deleted the video, but confessed to Christia while driving her home from the airport after Thanksgiving.

"It just felt good, it felt right," she recalled while sitting with Olivia, a Chihuahua, resting on her lap. "But it also took me a while. I didn't want to lose my closest friend."

The two married in the summer of 2010 at Eagle's Point overlooking San Francisco Bay, at a ceremony that included 30 of their closest friends and family members.

Because Aydin's surgery allowed him to legally change his gender, the couple are legally married. They hope to become "Mom" and "Dad" someday soon, and Christia wants to carry a baby. Although he still has his female reproductive parts, Aydin is not interested in carrying a child.

"That just doesn't line up with how I see myself," he said.


Aydin and Christia were married in June 2010 at a ceremony overlooking the San Francisco Bay. They were surrounded by 30 of their closest family members and friends.
PHOTO COURTESY OF AYDIN KENNEDY

Aydin was raised in a small town in southern Oregon, where he lived a good life, he said, that included playing catch with his dad—a quiet and caring man—and his brother in the evenings. He was also very attached to his mother, a strong and outspoken woman who coveted his long, curly brown hair but accepted his decision to wear boy's clothing.

His female birth name is the one detail he will not divulge to the public (or this reporter), he said, because it does not embody who he is today.

"I was active, but I never fit in. I struggled in school, did things like made myself sick so I wouldn't have to go, and I struggled socially," he said. "I was just preoccupied with life, and I was sensitively emotional."

His sensitive nature, coupled with his inability to describe how he was feeling about his body, caused him to feel ostracized from an early age. He distinctly remembers his first day of first grade, when students in his class were divided into "male" and "female" queues to use the restroom.

"I knew I didn't belong on the one side, but apparently my [female] name indicated that I did. And I knew if I went to the other side [the boys' side], the consequences would be severe," he said. "I didn't understand why I was being categorized. I thought, 'Why is this happening? Why is this name making me stand on that side of the room?'"

(From that point until he was 30 years old, he avoided public restrooms, partly because he did not identify with either sign on the door, and partly because a restroom is one place where he's been threatened.)

The lack of language he had to describe how he felt resonated throughout his teenage years, when he hadn't heard of gender identity and saw few to no models of transgender people depicted in the media or in his own world.

"The only language I had was around sexuality, not gender," he said. Transvestites featured on the exploitative Jerry Springer talk show were the only representation he saw of "trans," but the shows were always under a "fooled you" pretense, he said.

"I had a sense that those were my people. I identified with them, but I didn't know why," he said, recalling staying up until 2 a.m., when the show aired on cable. "But they were unhappy, unsuccessful. They were beating each other up, and I didn't identify with that."

He clearly remembers a moment when he stood in front of a mirror at age 16, a time when he was suffering from a bout of crippling depression. He tucked his long, brown curly hair under a baseball cap and took an intentional look at himself.

"I started to have a conversation with this person who I knew was on the inside. It was almost like [the two of me] shook hands with each other," he said, recalling the intense moment. "This place, I stepped into it a little bit and I got super freaked out. And I stepped back real quick."

He attempted suicide for the first time shortly afterward, but his cry for help went largely unnoticed by family and friends.

At that time, conservative Christians in his home state were pushing for anti-gay legislation. Most of it was defeated, but Aydin absorbed the anti-gay messages circulating in his conservative community.

By the time college rolled around, he was eager to move away and reinvent himself, but when he arrived in West Texas in 1994 on a basketball scholarship, he experienced overt discrimination for the first time. His coach entered the locker room and addressed the team: "If there's any dykes on this team you better get the fuck out of this locker room right now," Aydin recalled him saying.

"Now I know what they mean by going from the frying pan to the fire," he said.

Soon after, he started dating a woman from a rival team who was African-American, to boot.

"I was transcending gender, sexuality and racial expectations," he said.

His coach told him to remain closeted, but he refused. He noticed his phone calls and mail being monitored, and he was prohibited from leaving campus. His scholarship was eventually revoked, the result of his coach's ploy to fail him in his public-speaking class (today, as a public speaker, Aydin appreciates the irony).

He left Texas and found himself in Chico in January 1995.


The first 12 months of testosterone: Aydin documented every step of his transition with YouTube video blogs, raw videos that feature him talking earnestly into the camera about emotional and physical changes during the first 12 months of his bodily transition. These screenshots were captured from those videos. Today, 138 videos remain on the site and Aydin continues to document his experiences. To view them all, visit his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/33aydin.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF AYDIN KENNEDY

When Aydin decided to transition four years ago, he started by attending his first therapy session in the Bay Area. He continued to attend those $200 hour-and-a-half sessions, during which he was forced to regurgitate every life memory he could conjure up, every weekend for three months.

During a routine drive, he occupied his time by changing his name on his voicemail greeting, and then playing it back to hear what it sounded like. He was somewhere near Emeryville when it clicked.

"'Aydin' was like these two separate beings melded into one," he said. "And it felt like home to me."

When he changed his name, he was not yet ready to tell his family about his impending transition. He avoided calling them for several months so his new name would not pop up on their caller-ID.

But just days before his first testosterone injection, he had to travel home for a cousin's wedding.

"I went up there knowing I might be saying goodbye to people I might never see again," he said. "I was stepping back into the past up there."

He sat his parents down after the festivities and read them a letter outlining his experiences. He inserted the line, "I am here to tell you that I am your son."

His parents sobbed.

"The first thing my dad asked was, 'Does this mean we can't call you Sis anymore?'" Aydin said, referring to his dad's affinity for his childhood nickname. His father went to retrieve a tissue, and while he was gone Aydin's mother said she had "thought this might happen one day," an acknowledgement she refused to discuss further when his father re-entered the room.

"I instantaneously threw them into a cycle of grief with no support," he said. His parents began attending therapy soon afterward, and the family unit lost touch for a few months, until his mother invited him on a trip to Disneyland with his grandmother. The three spent the weekend together, and Aydin and his mother began to reconnect.

"They saw that the essence of who I was was still there," he said. His family, with the exception of his older brother, continues to support him, and he acknowledges the impact his transition continues to have on them.

"My family has struggled as much as I have struggled. My family has journeyed as far as I have journeyed. And my family has hurt as much as I have hurt," he said.

Christia's family has welcomed Aydin with open arms—including marching with him during the San Francisco Trans March last June—and was aware he had transitioned, but never knew him as a female.

"We just came from this place of knowing that we're loved," he said, referring to his and Christia's wedding day, when their families came together to support them.


Aydin documented every step of his transition on YouTube, a journey that started as a "watch me change" project and ended up becoming much more. In one of his early videos, in March 2008, he quips about his upcoming "super transgender weekend," a four-day period in April 2008 when he finalized his name-change in court, had his last appointment with his therapist, and had his surgical consultation.

"I have been aware of my male identity for a long time, although I never really put words to it," he says in the video. He goes on to say he was active in the gay community for a while, "but all of the sudden it just wasn't working anymore. So I'm ready to do something about it, and I'm really excited about it. I'm really scared too, obviously."

Aydin's videos, which feature him talking sincerely to the camera, are raw.

"They're real, honest and vulnerable. I leave them up because they created an opportunity for me to step into the darkest corners of my being and have a conversation with myself," he said, calling the videos a sort of "published journal."

As the videos progress, he has his chest surgery, and, lying on the hospital bed with a contented look of exhaustion in his eyes, the camera captures the first time his mirrored reflection depicted who he was on the inside.

As time goes by, his soft facial features become more pronounced. He sits in front of the camera, shirtless and unabashedly showing his scars as well as new facial hair. He also marks the journey with a few new tattoos, including one on his abdomen that reads, "LIVE WITH INTENTION."

In the videos, he candidly talks about the physical and emotional changes he's endured. As his testosterone injections progress, he notes emotional changes, how he "didn't care about stuff in the same way" and didn't know whether it was the hormones or simply life experience that caused those changes.

Today, more than 130 of Aydin's videos remain on YouTube. They're just a few of the millions of videos transgender individuals from around the nation have uploaded to document their experiences.

The Internet provided Aydin with 100 percent of his information, including how to locate doctors and navigate his transition emotionally and physically. The online transgender community also proved to be an integral source of support.

"It was the only place where we could find each other," he said. "It was a secret way I could connect and get resources, and I didn't have to include anyone else in that process."


In late April, Aydin will celebrate the three-year anniversary of his first testosterone injection. He will be required to inject the hormone for the rest of his life.

So far, his medical bills have exceeded $20,000, none of which are covered by his insurance. The struggle to pay them is a constant reminder that he has been marginalized by the medical community.

He is still learning social skills, especially with straight men, the same people he saw as his oppressors for so many years. He also struggles with his lack of place in the gay community.

To help make sense of it all, Aydin leads a bimonthly transgender-support group at the Stonewall Alliance Center, among other efforts, and regularly speaks publicly in the Chico community about transgender issues.

In retrospect, Chico was a relatively tolerant place to transition, but Aydin remains vigilant about his safety. Eventually, he would like to open a therapeutic practice that specializes in gender-specific and trans-related services, an area that he sees lacking in Chico. He's also working with a local doctor who recently decided to take steps to begin offering hormone treatments to trans individuals, a sign that Chico's climate is warming.

Today, Aydin's appearance leads society to treat him as a man. It's been a big adjustment for him and the people he loves, and he still grieves the life he never lived—the children he will never biologically father, the boyhood he never had.

"He said he considers it a gift that he has the opportunity to educate his peers—including his supporters and doctors—about the complicated experience of being transsexual.

And while he considers his transition to still be a work in progress, he insists the decision saved his life.

"[That's] because I am a man," he said. "I've always been male; my body just didn't tell you that story.


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