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All woman: Natalie’s story

Natalie Turner, minutes before gender reassignment surgery

Natalie Turner, minutes before gender reassignment surgery

Published in the Age on January 27, 2018.

Natalie Turner first realised “something wasn’t quite right” with her when she was three or four years old. In her earliest memory, it’s winter, and her mother is dancing around her in the living room, goading her to join in. She drops the blanket she’s wrapped in, revealing the dress and tights underneath, and her mum freezes in mid-step, no longer so playful.

She wasn’t Natalie then. When she tells her story, she usually keeps her “dead name” to herself. The boy in the picture, youngest of seven, born to loving but uncomprehending parents in Rochester, New York, in 1992, is “so-and-so,” not Christopher.

He tries to tell them, many times, always saying “I want to be a girl,” not “I am a girl,” because that doesn’t seem possible, and in reply is told it’s just a phase, that he’s confused, and that he wouldn’t like being a woman because women are weak.

He gets misdiagnosed with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and put on drugs, and although he’s basically a happy, active kid, becomes depressed enough to make a noose for himself and hold a knife to his chest. He figures no-one will ever listen, or believe what he knows to be true: he is a girl.

I met Natalie in December 2017, at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Centre for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in Manhattan, an hour before she was due in theatre for gender reassignment surgery: a vaginoplasty, in which the penis is essentially turned inside out to become a vagina, plus breast implants, and a tracheal shave, to reduce the size of her Adam’s apple.

As the anaesthetist told her what to expect, I chatted with surgeon Dr Jess Ting, his mentor Dr Marci Bowers, visiting from California, and Dr Bella Avanessian, a surgery fellow who had been studying at Ting’s side for six months. Ting described Bowers as the centre’s “spiritual leader” and “probably the most experienced vaginoplasty surgeon in the United States.” When she demurred, he asked how many of the operations she had performed. “That’s seventeen hundred lives you’ve saved.”

Two years ago, Ting was “a regular plastic surgeon,” and he retains an evangelical devotion to his new vocation. “I’m frequently on the verge of tears talking to patients,” he told me. “Our oldest patient was seventy-seven years old. She came in for a post-op check, we gave her a mirror, she saw herself for the first time and she cried. She said she had waited since she was five years old for this operation and it finally felt like she was herself.”

Natalie, pre-transition

Natalie, pre-transition

For Natalie, early manhood was the hardest time. She was an overtly masculine adolescent: a lifeguard and Eagle Scout who enjoyed hang-gliding and rock climbing. Alone at home, she dressed in her mother’s clothes. “It was as if I was trying to fill this void with something that wasn’t fitting… I suppressed it all. It was like knowing something but actively trying to ignore it,” she said.

At State University of New York, Geneseo, in her early twenties, she began to ‘present’ as a woman for the first time. To summon up the nerve to tell her parents, and help them understand, she filled an encrypted USB flash drive with information about transgenderism and links to parental support groups, then wrote the password on a post-it note and handed it to her dad. No going back.

An endocrinologist prescribed testosterone blockers and oestrogen injections, and although she cried every time she inserted the needle deep into a muscle, after three months she could feel her body beginning to change.

The Centre for Transgender Medicine and Surgery opened in March 2016, in response to new regulations requiring medical insurance plans to cover gender reassignment in New York. As this included Medicaid, the state-run programme for the most needy, hundreds of people who could not previously afford the operations were suddenly eligible.

Zil Goldstein, a nurse specialising in HIV treatment and hormone therapy who is herself transgender, was appointed director. “I had patients who were forcing themselves to live in poverty so they could save up the money to get these surgeries,” she told me. Although the centre didn’t advertise, within two months there were a hundred people on the waiting list (there are now more than four hundred).

Penile inversion vaginoplasty was pioneered by Dr Georges Burou in 1958, but until fairly recently in the USA, it was only offered by a handful of surgeons, for cash. “If you didn’t have the means, then you didn’t have the surgery,” Ting said. “You would go to an unlicensed provider and have them inject your body full of silicone to maybe make yourself a little more feminine, and suffer the consequences of those botched operations.” Now, nineteen states require insurers to cover gender reassignment surgery, and most corporations include it in their health plans.

Natalie, in the operating room at Mount Sinai's transgender clinic

Natalie, in the operating room at Mount Sinai’s transgender clinic

It is still far from easy to get. In New York, patients qualify once they have been receiving hormone therapy and ‘presenting’ in their preferred gender for a year, and must provide letters from two mental health professionals confirming a “persistent and well-documented case of gender dysphoria” – the official term from the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association.

The previous edition of DSM referred to “gender identity disorder,” a term many found pathologising, and it remains controversial that the distress felt by people who feel trapped in the wrong body is listed as a disorder at all. “Does this thing called gender dysphoria exist? The question is ongoing in the community right now,” Goldstein said, “but we do know that 40% of transgender people attempt suicide. It’s not a stretch that these are life-saving procedures.”

Dr Ting at work

Dr Ting at work

Mahogany Phillips, a former male model who had a vaginoplasty and breast augmentation at forty-seven years old, described gender dysphoria as “a trial and a tragedy, every day…You feel so incomplete. It’s a struggle just to get dressed. Physically, you’re trying to tuck and you’re trying to bind all these parts into smaller undergarments, and then you have to go out and face the rest of the world that wants to put you down.”

In December 2016, she successfully sued New York state, winning the right to get facial feminisation surgery to remove a masculine bump on her forehead, a procedure Medicaid administrators had deemed cosmetic. She has since had surgery on her vocal cords, too, to make her voice more feminine. “People say ‘wasn’t having the surgery a lot of pain?’ It can never amount to the pain that a transgender person feels every day,” she told me.

The next time I saw Natalie, she was unconscious in the operating theatre, on her back with her legs in stirrups, like a woman about to give birth. It occurred to me that she was being reborn: the chill and the bright lights reminded me of when I last wore hospital scrubs, to see my youngest son delivered by caesarian section.

Bowers took the lead, assisted by Ting, Avanessian and two other surgeons. To create a vagina, the shaft of the penis is inverted and used to line the cavity created in the perineum. The urethra is shortened and repositioned. A clitoris is fashioned from the glans of the penis, and the foreskin becomes the labia.

Ting spent a long time trimming fat from the scrotum, then sewing the skin into the shape of a windsock, to become the deepest part of the vagina. He counselled the surgeon working up top to use the 470cc breast implants: “not too big, not too small,” being Natalie’s request. The smell of burning flesh filled the room, as surgeons cauterised blood vessels and made laser incisions.

Pop hits played quietly from a speaker in the corner, occasionally causing the nurses to shuffle as they worked. When My Humps by Black Eyed Peas came on – “my lovely lady lumps” – I laughed out loud into my surgical mask. Mostly, I was awestruck by what modern medical science is capable of, and by the transformation being wrought.

After a little over three hours, Bowers and Ting left the junior surgeons to put in the final sutures. A hospital videographer was filming the procedure, for a clip to accompany this article, and Avanessian wondered if the footage would be too graphic, even now the skin had been sewn up, and most of the blood drained and wiped away. “It’s a vagina,” she pointed out.

Mahogany Phillips

Mahogany Phillips

Since the procedure was made available on Medicaid, there has been an explosion of interest from surgeons and clinics seeking a share of the profits. A vaginoplasty that used to cost $11,000 in cash runs to around $29,000 now insurers are on the hook. “Every week I hear about hospital X, hospital Y, everybody wants to start a transgender surgery programme. And having been through it myself, learning these operations, I know how difficult they are,” Ting said.

“So many people are jumping on the block with little or no training, knowing that they’re going to get paid, but leaving the patients basically experimented upon,” added Bowers. “We’re seeing a decline in the quality of the outcomes overall. And then for those of us who are qualified, the waiting lists are so long.” Natalie was lucky: her surgery was booked for September 2019, and only happened sooner because it could double as a masterclass while Bowers was in New York.

Ting has recently developed a new phalloplasty technique that he says has the potential to revolutionise female to male transitions, creating a fully-functional penis, something that hasn’t been possible until now, but having only performed three of the operations, he remains cautious about the long term results.

Earlier this year, researchers at the Mayo Clinic surveyed four hundred endocrinologists, and discovered that only one in five had received training in how to treat transgender patients. In a National Center for Transgender Equality poll, 24% of trans respondents said they sometimes have to educate their own doctor (and 23% said they avoid seeking health care at all, because of ignorance and prejudice they have encountered in the past).

Goldstein noted that when surgeons replace a mitral heart valve, there is an acceptable rate of complications. For the relatively untested operations required for gender reassignment, there is no agreed upon quality metric yet. “There are also more trans people than there used to be, and the medical industry, right now, doesn’t have the capacity to take care of everyone,” she said.

Today’s trans teenagers have vastly more resources at their disposal than Natalie did a decade ago. There are transgender characters in several major television shows, and countless YouTube channels following the transition process (including Natalie’s). But there is also fierce cultural resistance to transgender rights, particularly in red states: in a recent Pew poll, eight in ten Republicans said whether someone is a man or woman is determined at birth.

“There’s much more acceptance. There’s much more integration. People are much less likely to be fired from their jobs,” Bowers said. “So in that sense, there’s been a bit of an emancipation. But there are places where violence is essentially sanctioned against transgender persons.” At least twenty-eight trans people were violently killed in the USA in 2017, the most on record.

At college, Natalie was raped in an alley by a gay man she thought was her friend, and later chased by a pack of drunk male students intent on making her “prove” she was a woman, after a barman at a Hallowe’en party questioned her gender for laughs. Whether she uses the gents or the ladies toilets, she is liable to be told “you can’t be here” – prejudice she will still encounter despite her newly feminine appearance.

Dr Marci Bowers' waiting list for a vaginoplasty is more than two years long

Dr Marci Bowers’ waiting list for a vaginoplasty is more than two years long

Sometimes, strangers congratulate her on her transition, “to prove their own openness,” and although it feels a lot better than being hated or ostracised, that can grate a bit, too. “I try not to view myself as transgender,” she said. “By scientific definition, I guess, I would be considered a trans woman, but in my own identity, I just consider myself a woman.”

In the weeks leading up to her surgery, she often dreamed about it, so vividly she would check her body when she woke up. Regaining consciousness as the anaesthetic wore off, she knew this time was different. “When I looked down at my body… I felt as if it was all completed. As if everything was done. It was a sense of relief.”

Eleven days after the operation, she was still getting used to having a vagina. “It’s a new apparatus. I joke about wanting a user’s manual, because I keep running into new, unseen territory and sensations,” she told me, adding that her clitoris felt “fricking amazing” but she was wary of touching it.

When she has recuperated, and been cleared to return to work as a flight attendant, she will do so as a woman in ways that, growing up, she didn’t believe possible. “I never thought it was going to come true, and then it did come true,” she said. “You see it, and it’s not just a dream: it’s reality.”