Transgender men, women search for normalcy in transition

Posted June 9

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— The slight strain in Sharon Westfall’s voice is still noticeable—her vocal chords are still recovering from surgery.

Last year, she had surgery on her jaw and chin, her eyebrows and nose, her cheeks and her lips to look more like a woman. Her face now, she admits, shows a stark difference from what she used to look like.

The process was time consuming and expensive, but at 55 years old, Westfall is finally finding what she feels is her true voice.

“The facial feminization surgery, for me, was the number one most important thing to help me feel better about who I am and see the person I am on the inside reflect on the outside,” Westfall said.

Sharon Westfall was born Scott Douglas Westfall and lived as him until last year, but now she is part of the estimated .3 percent of American adults who are transgender. The transition, which included the multiple surgeries, shattered Westfall’s life—she now spends much of her day online, looking for work.

“Transition threw a hand grenade in my life,” Westfall said. “I’m trying to reassemble my life. I’m trying to find work. I’m trying to mend my relationship with my wife to make sure that continues.

“And it’s frustrating and frightening.”

Westfall has been married to her wife for 32 years. It was five years into their marriage that she told her wife she was transgender because she didn’t want her to find out by accident.

“I’m married to a woman,” Westfall said. “She did not know I was trans when I got married, and I’m still very attracted to her and very much in love with her. But it’s become complicated for her because she did not marry a woman and is not attracted to women.”

‘It was really a life or death situation’

A weekly shot of hormones injected into EJ Greaves’ thigh helps give him more masculine features, and chest surgery reduced the amount of breast tissue he has.

He could have a hysterectomy to remove his uterus, and then he could reduce the dosage of hormones he’s taking. But he said he would still need to continue the injection.

Greaves, 35, began transitioning about a decade ago. But he knew something was wrong when he was a teenager and confusion, depression and thoughts of suicide began creeping in.

“For me, it was really a life or death situation,” Greaves said. “I don’t think if I wouldn’t have transitioned I would still be here today. I wasn’t happy with the person that I was—at some points in my life as a teenager, I was definitely suicidal.”

Suicidal thoughts and actions are not unique to Greaves. In the face of rejection, discrimination and abuse, 41 percent of transgender Americans have attempted suicide—the overall rate of suicide attempts in the U.S. is 4.6 percent, according to the World Health Organization.

Westfall shared the same dark thoughts as Greaves. She said living as Scott was something that was acceptable: It wasn’t terrible, but it never felt genuine.

As she got older, Westfall would dress as Sharon to go out at night and drive to Greensboro to avoid seeing anyone who knew her. Then she would come home and live and work as Scott. Eventually, the double life became too much.

“Feelings of suicide were part of what prompted my transition,” Westfall said. “I could not take living as a divided person.”

Both Westfall and Greaves felt like they found their identities in transition and, in turn, saved their lives.

“I basically found myself and found my happiness through my transition,” Greaves said. “I’m a much happier person. I’m a more confident person. I’m a much more whole person.”

House Bill 2

Even before the North Carolina legislature passed House Bill 2, figuring out which bathroom to use was a complex situation for transgender people.

The law requires people to use the public bathrooms that match their birth gender and excludes gay and transgender people from discrimination protections. Since its adoption, musicians have cited the bill as the reason for cancelled concerts; businesses have called off expansion plans in the state; and it has drawn criticism from North Carolina cities.

Lawmakers hustled the bill through the legislative process in March, and it’s now locked in litigation with the federal government. But when national talk shows and press conference end, people like Westfall and Greaves find themselves trying to navigate the law at home.

“I wonder every time I go to the restroom,” Westfall said. “I look at the two choices. I honestly look at those choices and wonder not which one is appropriate for me, but which (restroom) am I less likely to get beat up for using.”

When Westfall and others with Equality NC’s Day of Advocacy met with state lawmakers to push for a repeal of the bill, she said she followed the state law despite feeling out of place. For Greaves, though, the law doesn’t deter him from using the men’s room.

“If I walked into the women’s restroom, I mean, think about the kind of uproar and discomfort that would make women feel,” Greaves said. “I wouldn’t want to do that to them in a place that they’re supposed to feel safe and secure.”

To help explain why a transgender woman is in the men’s bathroom, Westfall carries a handout, which is about the size of a business card.

It reads, in part: “I apologize for any awkwardness caused by my presence in the men’s room, but HB2 requires me to use the men’s room on any government property.”

‘Not a choice’

Kimball Sargent is a therapist who has worked with transgender men and women in the Triangle for 20 years. Her oldest patient is 82, and her youngest is just 2.

Gender dysphoria, the medical definition for being transgender, is complicated, Kimball said. Sexuality, or who a person is attracted to, is different than gender, which defines who a person is.

“This is not a choice,” Kimball said. “This is a way that you’re born. It’s a birth difference—a birth defect—however you want to look at it.”

For Westfall, Kimball’s words ring true.

“There’s nothing about being trans that I would have chosen this,” Westfall said. “It has been the single biggest struggle of my life, has complicated my relationships with everyone I know. … As a child, I prayed and prayed and prayed: ‘God, make me a girl, or make me not want these things. Make me just like the other boys who are happy—happy to be who they were born (to be).’

“And it was agony my whole life.”

Transitioning can affect personal relationships, but professional relationships are also difficult. Transgender people are twice as likely as the general population to be unemployed, according to the nonprofit Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

Greaves recently started a new job that doesn’t know about his background or transition. He said he’s not hiding anything, but the fact that he’s transgender wouldn’t matter to the company, anyway.

“I do feel very lucky to work for the company that I work for because they are very welcoming of diversity,” Greaves said. “Even in the discrimination clause, they have transgender in there.”

Westfall is still on the job hunt. But in her search for a new position, she’s upfront about who she is now and who she was for most of her life—Scott. Photos of Sharon Westfall and Scott Westfall are both displayed on her LinkedIn profile.

The dual photos and names are a part of rebuilding her life.

“I tell people the struggle in my life, the great struggle, has not been to find acceptance from others,” Westfall said. “It has been to find acceptance from myself because I grew up in the society programmed with the messages that tell me that what I want and what I feel makes me a bad person, and it’s really hard to rise above those feelings.”


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