Adam is a man.
He is just 20 years old, though he’s had to endure more heartache and hardship than most his age.
He smiles almost constantly, with a playful, shit-eating grin, and when he does even his eyes smile, crinkling to show that it’s genuine. His eyes are blue, clear, and animated, like eddies of water. When he smokes, his hands move so quickly and smoothly to produce a puff of smoke that it’s like a magician’s sleight of hand, and when his hands aren’t occupied with a cigarette, they’re absentmindedly ruffling his choppy hair. His voice is something of a surfer dude drawl, boyish and scratchy like sun-baked sand, but it’s articulate. He is a gregarious and charismatic storyteller, an open book, and yet he weighs each word with care—even during his rants. His rants—about his dad, discrimination, and rights—are passionate and indignant, but he maintains a friendly and forgiving demeanor, frequently cracking sarcastic and lighthearted jokes. He laughs often too, with a mischievous snicker.
Adam is a man, but he was born female.
Growing up, he always fit in with the boys, comfortable with a video game controller or a basketball, like the rest of the guys. “But then puberty hit,” says Adam. “The boys liked the girls, and the girls liked the boys, and my body was changing to be like a girl, but I felt comfortable with the guys and I liked girls, so I kind of felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. My body, my family, society, everything was telling me that I was a girl.”
Wincing at the painful memory, he talks with his hands, exasperated yet eager to share and explain.
So Adam began dressing “more like a girl” and hanging out with those who shared the sex he was born with, in order to fit into a mould that society had formed long ago—a mould not shaped from the clay of the earth, as the old creation story goes, but from an outdated collection of conceptions and convictions about gender as a separator and a vice. For Adam, this only made matters worse.
“I still never felt comfortable or like myself,” he says. “There was something that wasn’t quite right, something holding me back from being happy—happier. It’s not like I was depressed, but I wasn’t being myself.”
Then, a revelation, the kind Hollywood movies bank on, but more honest and real. One of Adam’s friends began transitioning and confiding in him about the process.
“I had no idea what it was,” says Adam. “When I learned that people did that, that you could, I could feel… the outside could match the inside, I didn’t know that you could do that. I thought it was just girls and boys and that was it.”
So Adam began educating himself, learning the definitions of “transgender”—when the gender you identify with does not match your assigned sex—and “genderqueer”—when you fall outside of any distinct gender classification—and discovering a whole kaleidoscopic spectrum of gender. Suddenly, the world was not divided neatly and proportionately into pink and blue blocks of female and male, and a sea of confusion was parted. The world was now a vast iridescence of interplaying identities, and it was cracked wide open for Adam to explore.
“When I was about 15 or 16, I knew for sure, with the term, that I was transgendered,” he says. “I knew that I’m not a freak, and there are so many other people that feel the way I do. But I had always really known. I just couldn’t put a name to it before.”
Then, there was only one thing left for Adam to do. At age 18, at the crest of a tide of frustrations and ruminations, and with the end of his teenagedom on the shaky horizon, he began his transition from female to male. Beginning to dress more boyishly, he needed a new name to reflect his new perspective. From a list of prospective monikers drawn up by his girlfriend and him, the one that seemed to suit him the most was “Adam,” and it stuck. Like the knowledge that he was different, Adam doesn’t remember exactly when his new name emerged, but it’s his now, more than his birth name ever was. Adam does not want his last name disclosed, since he’s living “stealth,” meaning he does not want anyone to be able to link him to his female past.
Months after his decision, Adam got himself on a lengthy list for testosterone as part of hormone replacement therapy, which would deepen his voice, increase facial and body hair growth, stop menstruation, redistribute some of his muscle development and body fat, and cause other changes that would help him feel more masculine. He also started regularly using chest binders under his clothes. According to T-Kingdom, a company that sells binders, they are specially designed chest-flattening shirts that assist transgendered men in looking more masculine and “passing” as men in society. Adam learned about binding from watching trans men’s video blogs on www.youtube.com.
A telling indicator of the dawn of the Internet age is the fact that YouTube, not television, a magazine, a book, or a clinic, is where Adam discovered most of his information throughout his transition. Watching various video blogs by trans men like him, he gained insider wisdom on which chest binders worked better than others, which surgeons to go to, and where he could find a gender specialist, a therapist for those with gender identity issues.
He also grew to better understand and relate to the diverse global trans community by emotionally connecting with individual bloggers and the problems they faced with work, family, and girlfriends—problems that were becoming all the more familiar to Adam as he continued along the path of his own transition.
“That’s why I started video blogging,” he explains. “I figured that a lot of different people could pick out things from my transition that they could relate to and get info from. I got a lot of responses about how I’m helping people.”
Adam’s YouTube channel, under the username “somethingsmall5”, has 673 subscribers and 19,235 views to date, and one of the first comments on the channel’s page exemplifies the online community’s ultimately positive response to Adam’s story. The commenter, named Sarah, said, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you have no right to be happy,” and encouraged him to “just be you.”
The comments on Adam’s individual video blogs are mostly just as uplifting. On Adam’s fourteenth “vlog,” a viewer named Stacey said, “I think you are awesome and very brave,” while, on Adam’s twenty-first vlog, commenter Mikael said, “I really admire your strength and commitment in making people realize who you are and what you stand for.”
Nevertheless, as with any time that the masses are confronted with something that they don’t understand, there were a lot of discriminatory responses directed towards Adam as well, like, “You’re messed up,” and, “You’re a freak.”
“But those people are just ignorant,” Adam assures. “And those are the people that you’re also trying to help. You have to hope that at least one of those ignorant people that would watch your video and think you’re a freak, watches it from beginning to end and understands a little bit better.”
Adam is no stranger to people’s prejudice and insensitivity, but he’s learned to withstand it with a sense of aplomb beyond his years.
“When you’re trying to present as male, a lot of it is about your self-confidence,” he says. “So if I dressed exactly like how I’m dressed now [boy’s haircut, black men’s t-shirt, jeans], walked out the front door, and thought, ‘Everyone’s looking at me like I’m a girl, everyone knows,’ then people would notice and people would stare. And sometimes they would come up to me and say things like, ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ “When I wasn’t comfortable with myself, and people could pick up on it, it could be hard to deal with. But you just got to not let it affect you, because they don’t know shit.”
- - - - -
When I first met Adam, he was pre-transition, going by his birth name Stephanie, and we were both partaking in a memory game in a group orientation for a job at the local movie theatre. Catching his eye, I could tell he thought it was as silly as I did, and we sniggered together, mostly because we were both winning.
At the time, he had tawny, chin-length hair that would soon be cut and dyed jet black, a baggy sweatshirt that helped hide his breasts, a backpack with an LGBT flag and a Tegan and Sara patch sewn onto it, and “snake bite” lip piercings that made him appear slightly vampiric. All in all, it was a boldly androgynous look—so much so, that I had trouble figuring out his gender, which I actively did because, admittedly, I thought he was cute.
Still, when I sneakily glimpsed the scrawl reading “Stephanie” on his nametag sticker, which we were all begrudgingly wearing, I wasn’t much deterred from seeking Adam’s attention, as he seemed to be a person I should know. Over the next year or so of working together, he would prove to be just that.
He was always making his coworkers laugh, by claiming to be afraid of flour, even though part of his job was to make pizza, or by faking sudden seizures in the middle of the lobby—not that seizures are funny, but the absurdity of Adam’s prank was, on a slow day anyway.
It was near impossible to tell that underneath Adam’s sunny disposition, he was clouded with worry and doubt, being on the verge of moving away to Edmonton and on the verge of diving headfirst into his transition from female to male. His reason for moving to Edmonton wasn’t to transition, but being away from his family helped him to actually go for it, at a safe distance from his family’s repudiation and tears.
“I knew I could do it,” says Adam. “But I was always like, ‘No, maybe it’s just a phase, maybe it’ll go away.’ I knew it would be really hard on my parents and my siblings, and I didn’t want to do it for a really long time because I thought I would lose them. And I pretty much have.”
Adam’s family lives a province away, in Vancouver, and Adam hasn’t spoken to his dad in two years other than to say, “Happy Birthday,” or, “Merry Christmas.” He hasn’t talked to his little sister and two brothers in two years. He talks to his mom on the phone maybe once a week, if they’re on good terms.
Adam was living as a man and going by his new name for nearly a year before he told his parents about his trans identity. Hiding it was easy until then, since he didn’t go home to visit all that much and since he hadn’t started taking testosterone just yet. Knowing full well that they wouldn’t accept him for who he really was, Adam wrote his parents a letter, because an e-mail would be “too impersonal” and, on the phone, he “wouldn’t be able to say everything that [he] wanted to say.” About a month later, they paid Adam a visit.
“They sat me down in their hotel room and my dad preached to me, literally, for an hour about God bullshit—religion, religion, religion—when my dad’s really not that religious,” says Adam. “I don’t think he even took a breath, and he never even let me talk. He tore me to shreds. So I just got up and left.”
For a moment it seems like Adam is back in that hotel room, the air sucked out of him, stunned yet quietly enraged. His dad refuses to acknowledge his transition in any way. For instance, when sending Adam a text message, he makes a point of addressing him as his birth name, no matter how much Adam protests. When Adam asks him why, he says, “Because that would be a way of accepting your transition, and I don’t accept your choice.”
Adam drags the last word out, ruminating on the ignorance and cruelty of it.
“The other night,” says Adam, “he says, ‘Good night Stephanie, we’ll try again some other time.’ So I go, ‘You couldn’t have even just said good night,’ and I straight out tell him to fuck off.”
Adam laughs it off, but it’s bittersweet, and he shortly glances away.
“That’s probably the last time I’ll ever talk to my dad,” he admits. “I’m done trying with him, because all he’s doing is hurting me. He said it’s a choice, and that I’m being selfish, and that even though I’m happy, all I’m doing is causing every single other person pain and suffering by doing this.”
Adam’s abhorrence to his dad’s words reads plainly on his face, and when he later calls him “a prick,” it’s not hard to hear the hurt in his voice. His mom, who doesn’t agree with his transition either, is the more compassionate of the two and will at least listen to Adam and make an effort to understand, looking up videos, reading articles, and discussing it. “I think my mom will come around eventually,” says Adam, a glint of hesitant hope in his eyes.
“But my parents are both Christian, so it goes against what they believe. Like, everything my child is doing right now is against what I believe, but they’re my child and I’m supposed to support them, but how do I do that when everything they’re doing is against what I believe?”
According to Adam’s aunt, his mom caught a glimpse of his true self when he was just a kid, so young that he doesn’t even remember this story.
One day, his aunt walked into his room to find him pretending some phallic-like object was his nonexistent penis. Stephanie, as he was known to her at the time, promptly told her that he wanted one. When his aunt fetched his mom, not knowing what to do, Adam’s mom took the phallic object away and never said a word about it.
“I understand that it’s hard for them,” says Adam. “But for a long time it felt like my mom wasn’t even trying, so that was really hurtful. But she is trying now. It’s a lot of patience.”
As for his three siblings, Adam’s disclosure was received only slightly more kindly. His older brother reacted well to the news of his transition, even going so far as to offer him advice on natural testosterone-boosting supplements, knowing all about them from playing baseball. Adam’s younger brother on the other hand, who was sixteen when he learned that his sister was transgendered, did not take the news with such aplomb.
“He freaked out,” says Adam. “He seems to think that I’ve had all these surgeries and that I have a penis, when I haven’t had any done. He’s all torn up about it and I feel really bad, but I think it makes it easier for him with me being in Edmonton, ‘cause he doesn’t have to see me every day.”
“But then again, maybe it makes it harder, because then he can’t get used to it,” he adds, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “I don’t know!”
Adam’s fourteen-year-old sister’s reaction was what held him back from committing to his decision the most. If he started transitioning, then that would mean that she would have three older brothers instead of two brothers and a big sister to confide in.
“She wouldn’t feel like she has someone to talk to about her first boyfriend, or the first time she had sex, or, fuck, I don’t know, when she had her first period, or whatever else sisters use sisters for,” Adam laments. “And that crushed me and made me change my mind about it at first. But I can’t make everybody else happy and not be who I am.”
When Adam first moved to Edmonton with his girlfriend at the time, Deanna, he considering fully transitioning more seriously than he ever had before, but the distress from hurting his family was outweighing his personal ambition to match the outside to the inside. Then, after a couple of months, he got a security job, and the universe, as it usually does, provided a cruel twist to Adam’s story that would push him to his breaking point. After all, even those with all his resilience have one.
“I was working the night shift, and it was my second night shift alone,” he says, breathing deeply, seemingly to brace himself. “I had been with the company for two weeks, and I had just finished my training. And I was sexually assaulted by a nasty, forty-something, bald, fucking fruitcake.”
Shortly after, Adam began transitioning, his pain and rage granting him the courage to go through fire for his brass ring.
“I thought it was bullshit,” he says. “And if I was being who I was supposed to be the whole time, it would never have happened.”
The harsh life of a trans person is referred to by some as “The Hero’s Journey” for a reason. According to Luke Walther, Vancouver Coastal Health’s Transgender Health Program Coordinator, “Visibly trans people do what they have to do in order to go on, and for many, it’s do or die.” This is because, as Walther explains, the suicide rate among trans youth is so disturbingly high.
Although no concrete suicide rate can be pinned down because there are “too many variables” in the trans community, trans men and trans women often feel “that no one is listening” and find it exceedingly difficult to find help and resources. Also, as conveyed by a recent paper on trans well-being put out by the Gender Identity Research and Education Society, trans youth are often plagued by “patterns of worthlessness and shame” and “a chronic need to apologize for oneself.” As a result of this inner turmoil and the violence that so many are faced with in a discriminatory society, many young trans people struggle with relationship problems, depression, harassment, aggressive behaviour, anxiety, life on the streets, self-harm, and suicidal tendencies, as documented by the Transgender Health Program.
Adam is all too familiar with at least half of the above-mentioned problems, even with self-harm.
“I used to cut, because I had a lot of emotions and thoughts and I didn’t know where they were supposed to go,” he says. “I didn’t know where I was supposed to fit—I didn’t fit anywhere.
“I know if I didn’t transition, I would’ve done something stupid like start cutting again or try to commit suicide, like so many others do.”
Still, though society has hurt Adam, he hasn’t resorted to hurting himself again, and he is nearer than ever before to the conclusion of his transition. His first procedure under the gender reassignment surgery umbrella, a breast reduction, is, optimistically, coming up at the end of the summer, although a date has not yet been scheduled. His forthcoming hysterectomy and “bottom surgery”, or sex reassignment surgery, are unfortunately far into the future—mere specks on the other side of a vast valley.
“I’m still just waiting, waiting, and waiting, every single day for that phone call,” says Adam, with a tired smile and a sigh.
Luckily, the government of Alberta currently allows funding for gender reassignment surgeries under Medicare, and Adam’s first procedure will be free. If it wasn’t, he would be forced to cough up approximately $10,000 for the next phase of his transition.
Adam has never undergone any kind of surgery more serious than having his wisdom teeth pulled, and, understandably, he’s nervous.
“But I’m more nervous about what my results are going to look like,” he says. “I try not to think about it.”
Burdened with such an unfamiliar kind of stress and trepidation, Adam’s fortunate in that he has his circle of friends, including his live-in girlfriend Sam, who he’s been with for almost a year, to help him carry the weight. Although the majority of his close friends live in B.C., when Adam goes back to visit, they act like nothing’s changed besides his name—which is exactly what he wants.
“We still hang out like we used to, we still talk like we used to,” he says. “As long as I’m happy, which I am, then they’re fine with it. I’ve made my friends my family. We’ve been through so much together, and they’re still there for me.”
For example, when a bunch of Adam’s friends heard that he might have to pay for his surgery, they started saving their loonies and toonies, just in case.
“I know for a fact that they’d jump in front of a bullet for me, and I’d do the same for them,” says Adam fondly.
It will be a long while before he feels content with himself—before he can cross that rickety bridge of transition completely and walk freely, a new man with no fear about who he is or the way he is perceived by the world. But it seems the worst is already over.
“I’ve always lived life as a man, but just in a woman’s body,” says Adam, his features sincere and serene. “Now, I’ve transitioned into society, society sees me as male. And so I’m male.”