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Guest Opinion: A trans man's quest for happiness

by Ryan K. Sallans

Ryan K. Sallans
Ryan K. Sallans  

Is there a point in a transition where one reaches pure happiness?

It is a question that I am frequently asked by anxious individuals who are considering or who have already started their transition. It is a question asked by concerned family members and friends who want their child, sibling, or partner to finally feel peace within their body. It is a question asked by ambitious professionals who serve the transgender community, professionals who are seeking knowledge that will make them better providers. It is a question that I ask myself, and one that I still cannot concretely answer.

When a person first begins to think about transitioning, there are a thousand different questions, fears, uncertainties, and elations that roll through the body. As you come to the decision that you will officially be moving forward, there is a calm before another storm of emotions. In between the moments of sheer panic and joyful hope for the future, you just keep putting one foot ahead of the other, while researching everything possible about the physical transition and how people navigate the world in those beginning steps.

While everyone's timeline is different, there typically comes a point in a transgender person's life where they are done with their "physical transition," and are able to walk through society living as the gender they wish they had been assigned at birth. We'd all like to think that when people reach this point, they feel whole, at peace, and satisfied with both their internal and external layers. We pin this hope onto the word "happiness," as if this emotion can drive out — and keep out — all the uncomfortable feelings that lie within us.

We are on that quest to achieve happiness, but how does it happen and how is it measured? Do you just wake up one morning and swing your feet out of bed, place them on the ground, and then say, "Wow, I am happy, I am content?" Or is it that one moment where you are standing naked and looking at your reflection in the mirror, and you don't have the urge to either put on clothes or cover up with a towel and instead think, okay, I am happy ... ?

After completing several stages in my life where I think I have hit that point where I will finally be happy, I've had negative emotions — fear, anxiety, depression, or anger — pull me into their web. I am now learning that happiness cannot be measured by where people may be in their transition; in fact, the transition creates new conflicts that take a lot of insight to work through. While you now feel comfortable in your gender, there is a strange shift in how you are treated and seen within both the transgender community and society as a whole. Through my different experiences, I've discovered that people still do not see you, nor do they understand truly what you have been through and what you navigate with an identity now hidden behind the words "man" or "woman."

"I'd never know ..." The drawn-out statement came from a seemingly impressed woman standing in front of me in an auditorium. I had just finished another talk about my transition and was getting ready to walk over to my book-signing table.

"You'd never know what?" I asked, even though I already knew what the rest of the line would be.

"If I hadn't heard your story, I'd never know that you were transgender." She continued to stand there, looking at my face while slowly moving her head from side to side, as if she were looking into a campfire. However, instead of being mesmerized by the different shapes and patterns of the flames, she was trying to get a glimpse at the wood underneath.

"Uh, ... thanks," I awkwardly replied.

Over the years, my feelings around hearing this statement have shifted. When I first started my transition, this comment would have been one of encouragement. To me, it signaled that I had officially moved out of that pubescent stage where sometimes I would "pass" as male, and other times people would stare a little longer to try and figure out my gender. Now, the "never know you were transgender" statement feels like a compliment rolled up into a backhand slap to the transgender community. It makes me wonder, what do people think being transgender looks like? Are we just supposed to stay stuck in that awkward adolescent stage of a transition so people can say, "Yep, that's a transgender person right there"?

"Just amazing," she said with a big smile on her face before turning around to exit the room.

I knew her comments were not intended to be an insult. However, I feel anytime we say something about a person's physical appearance, it can make the receiver of the statement feel more insecure. For someone who is transgender, what makes comments about physical appearances even harder to take in is that it reinforces this feeling of people running a visual inventory of you, and then interacting with you based on those assumptions about your identity. How would she have treated me if she thought I was "just a gay guy"? How would she have felt about me if I had walked past her on the sidewalk and all she saw in that moment was a white man?

This is an excerpt from Ryan K. Sallans' book "Transforming Manhood: A trans man's quest to build bridges and knock down walls." For more information, visit https://www.ryansallans.com/

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