Journeys through Transition

111photoErik von Gutenberg recommends the article from Marissa Martinez, the winner of the Marquis Fetish Ball photo contest in July 09.

Marissa Martinez felt out of place most of her life because she was born in a man’s body. Her discomfort did not stem from some sexual attraction to males. Instead, she truly felt she was meant to be a woman. Growing up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, she first identified with femininity during puberty when the changes her body went through, as a boy, did not seem to fit. She had fantasies about being a woman, would wear her mom’s clothes, and shaved only her upper thighs so she would not get teased during gym class.

Despite the intensity of her need to be female, Martinez never told anyone. For almost thirty years, she naively held the common opinion that “whatever genitalia a person is born with determines their sex.”

The most misunderstood aspect of gender transition is the motivation, because the catalyst is not defined by want. On the contrary, the feeling, absent of casual desire, is a need to correct a mistake. “It’s something you can’t escape and no matter how hard you try to suppress it, it won’t go away,” explains Martinez, who completed her surgical transition from male to female three months ago.

Prior to transition, Martinez suppressed her femininity and assumed an “ultimate expression” of masculinity by immersing herself in the grindcore metal scene. “I loved how extreme it was. That it didn’t hold back and was like the ultimate in speed and aggression and over the top lyrics.” She had problems with other kids bullying her in school, until she became a “burly, death metal dude.”

“I would literally walk down the middle of the halls in my black leather jacket, with long black hair in my face, looking like the proverbial, Satan worshiping, metal maniac, and crowds of people would part to get out of my way. That was a big deal to me at the time. I was dedicated to the idea that I had to be a man.”

Martinez attended the Heald Institute of Technology, obtaining an Associate of Sciences in software technologies. “I went there because I really wanted to be able to provide for my girlfriend, who eventually became my wife.”

“She had a lot of strong opinions about how men and women were and some of them seemed stereotypical,” says John von Eichhorn, who has worked with Martinez in software development for ten years at Lucasfilm, producer of Star Wars. “We worked long hours together and were each other’s confidants about work and marriage.” But Martinez’ never discussed her gender identity issues. “There was just a general dissatisfaction with life that she had when she was a man. And that was something that fed into her music.”

Unlike Martinez, Dean Bonilla, never suppressed his male identity or assumed a generic gender role. As a child, he expected to endure male puberty, but became androgynous once he experienced feminine changes instead. “I felt really confused and didn’t know what to call myself. But I knew I did not like being called a girl. I was playing football in the mud and not brushing my hair.”

Bonilla could not relate to the female concern about body image or why his single mother thought she needed a man to raise him properly. Identifying with men was difficult because he could not understand the misogyny, emotional suppression or the concern over maintaining a tough persona that he saw in many of the men around him. “I always felt like I had to act tough to get any kind of respect, but eventually I decided this was dumb.” Bonilla has lived as a man for over three years and is comfortable expressing his emotions. “I’m okay with whatever feminine qualities I have because I am comfortable with my masculinity,” he says. “Why does there have to be some type of gender role?”

Bonilla grew up in the southern Baptist city of Jacksonville, Florida, where coming out, even as gay, was intimidating. He did not know about trans men until he met two at a queer youth center when he was sixteen. “I watched them both transition from female to male physically and it all just came together,” he remembers. Three years later he asked his grandmother if he could assume his middle name, Dean, simply to see how she would react. She had no qualms, so Bonilla explained everything in a letter. “She told me she always knew I’d come out to her.”

During this time, Bonilla was living with a lesbian couple. One of the women wished he could be a stronger female, but his transition had nothing to do with his sexual orientation or a dislike of women. “Just because I transitioned as male doesn’t mean I’m not a feminist,” he says. Bonilla’s mother is still trying to accept his male identity because she was not close to him when he first came out. “It seems like she’s trying to have a mother-daughter relationship that we never really had,” he says.

Martinez’ suppression of her true self made her road to transition much longer. For ten years she sought satisfaction in helping her wife pick out sexy outfits and attempted to incorporate her female identity into their sexual relations. But her partner was completely heterosexual and did not enjoy this approach, which Martinez would “explain away” as simply an unbridled fantasy she could forget.

“No matter how hard I tried to be like my father when I was younger, be a good husband or just a cool dude, I could never escape these feelings telling me, ‘This isn’t right. You should be a girl.'”

Explaining this to her wife was unnerving. “I knew this was going to put the nail in the coffin of our relationship.” But to Martinez’ surprise her wife wanted to maintain the relationship because she believed the core person with whom she fell in love would always remain the same. She tried to adjust to having a wife and Martinez began cross dressing, but these efforts remained futile in that they only allowed Martinez to skim the surface of who she truly needed to be. While sharing a cigarette after a game of pool one night, her wife admitted she had to leave her, because otherwise Martinez would always hold back.

Within the next year they sold their town house in Pacifica, her ex-wife found a new boyfriend, and Martinez moved to the city and began hormone replacement therapy. She would use her half of the money from the house to pay for various surgeries that would finally give her a body that matched her mentality.

Some transgender people do not need or want Gender Confirmation Surgery, explains Martinez, because they are comfortable with genitals that do not match their gender identity. Bonilla would like to have his breast tissue removed, but he does not need bottom surgery to be comfortable as a male. “I don’t feel like I have any dysphoria,” he says.

He has no problem with the surgery, understands the feeling of “missing something,” and admits he may want it some day, but he thinks many people – gay, straight, and transgender – wrongly categorize people based solely on their genitals. Bonilla has dated women and is also attracted to gay men, but fears he will never have the opportunity to date a man “because there is so much emphasis on having a penis to be a man in the first place.” He thinks surgery is pushed on trans women for the same reason and disagrees with the law requiring “bottom” GCS for a legal change of gender. “Gender and sex are totally different from each other and if you’re intersex -why does that matter?”

In Jacksonville, Bonilla was concerned about conforming to a masculine role because he dealt with constant harassment from his peers. He wore his hair short and often made a point of looking angry so people would not approach him. “I know it sounds crazy, but everyday I got stared down mostly by jock guys,” he says. “Seeing this female-bodied person being masculine messed with their whole world.”

Bonilla immersed himself in activism to compensate for the harassment. In high school, he lead class discussions about safe sex and sexual and gender orientation issues, lobbied for anti-bullying laws, and worked at the LGBT center while studying sociology at the University of Northern Florida.

Depressed by the prevalent harassment, he realized he needed to help himself before he could continue to help others. “Out of desperation,” Bonilla moved to San Francisco in January, one month after his best friend, Charles Thomy, who is also transgendered. “I just decided to pack two bags and leave everything because I knew this would be the best for me and it has been so far.” He left with little money, but he saw no career opportunities in Jacksonville aside from the LGBT center. “It made me annoyed to know that was the only option and that any other place would look down on me just for being me.”

After living with friends for a few months he obtained an apartment through the Castro Youth Housing Initiative, which aids low-income or unemployed youth. He is still trying to get settled financially, but hopes to return to college and work for a nonprofit.

Since he began taking testosterone four months ago, his voice has lowered and he has more facial hair, but he does not notice any significant changes in his mood, because he says he always felt masculine. Making documentaries, learning how to skateboard, and watching films are some favorite pastimes that he shares with Thomy. He always wanted to skate, but gave it up at a young age, because the pubescent boys he wanted to skate with were unwilling to play with a girl. Bonilla considers his relationship with Thomy a “‘bromance’ – we can be emotional with each other, but not have to be in a relationship,” he says, noting that, unlike other guys, their relationship has no tension related to proving their masculinity to each other.

Martinez understands Bonilla’s viewpoint on gender confirmation surgery, but she knew she could never feel comfortable with her male genitalia or the odd looks and comments such as, “That’s a dude,” from insolent passersby. “I never wanted to be a Tranny. I always needed to be a girl.”

After eight months of transitioning, Martinez was androgynous in her daily life and spending weekends as a woman. After one such weekend she was hanging out with a friend from work. “He said, ‘It’s going to be really weird not seeing you at work like this tomorrow.’ And it just sorta hit me,” she remembers. “I went to work the next day and saw my reflection in the glass (as a man) and said, ‘Oh my god, I can’t do this!'” She explained her situation to human relations and began living as a woman full time. Everyone has been completely supportive, including her coworkers, parents, and the members of her metal band, Cretin.

Martinez is currently working on the second album and says she sings the same as she did prior to her transition – in a loud, growling voice filled with angst. “You can’t change the vocalist. It kills the band,” she says, while eating lamb chops, using her fork and knife to gracefully remove the last slivers of meat from the bones.

Aside from these vocals, her demeanor is feminine. She taught herself how to walk, talk, and eat like a woman and even changed her handwriting. The estrogen injections softened her skin and made her more emotional, but to truly feel like a woman she needed surgery.

First, she underwent eleven hours of Facial Feminization Surgery, performed by world-renowned craniofacial surgeon Doctor Douglas Ousterhout. “For women, no matter the size of our bone structure, we still have certain curvature that indicates a female face,” explains Mira Coluccio, Dr. Ousterhout’s office manager who has extensive knowledge of his surgical procedures. Compared to females the male skull is much larger with deep-set eyes and bossing above the socket, a flat forehead and a square jaw. To make a face female Dr. Ousterhout removes and reshapes portions of the skull.

Prior to surgery, both Martinez’ friends and people she had just met would tell her she was already beautiful and did not need the procedure. “We are not talking about beauty. It’s the bone structure,” says Coluccio, pointing to numerous before and after photos on her computer. “As an outsider looking in (at these pictures) you see a brother and sister.” Coluccio says surgery gives people confidence, but transition involves self-exploration, which consumes many genetic women for most of their lives. “Every girl I know is still learning how to be a girl.”

Before facial feminization surgery, von Eichhorn continued to slip up on Martinez’ name and the proper pronouns, but the surgery removed the remnants of her formal self and he no longer saw her as a man. Martinez still had insecurities about “passing,” but her female face and the breast augmentation that followed energized her self-esteem and social life. She even entertained her dream to become a latex fetish model and won a casting call for a photo shoot with Marquis Magazine after they hosted a fetish ball in July. “It’s my opinion that latex is to clothing as chocolate is to food – pure decadent sex!”

“I’m way more social and outgoing than I used to be. Plus, I think differently because of the hormones,” she says. “Man or woman we’re all made out of the same goop, so if you swap the hormones we produce naturally then you’re going to get similar results.” Martinez was never attracted to men, until she began taking female hormones, which made her feel vulnerable – an emotion that she says is well served by men who innately have a protective disposition.

As a woman she is bisexual, but dating a guy requires less thought. “When I am with a woman I am very concerned about what my role is because that can either validate or invalidate my confidence in being a woman. Whereas when I am with a guy, it is very validating that I am his girl. That said I’m more attracted to women.”

One month after the fetish ball, Martinez travelled to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where her genitals would be transformed from male to female, through a surgical technique known as penile inversion. When she awoke after surgery, she thought the procedure was not complete. Once the doctors assured her the operation was finished, she began feeling the area with her mind. “I started crying because I was really happy. It felt very correct.” Initially, she thought her penis was still there, but then realized it was now inside her, aside from a small portion of the head used to form the clitoris.

Two months later she was still sore, but back to work, going out and having fun. Dilation is a big part of her day – every three hours she must insert a stint into her vagina and apply constant pressure for thirty minutes to increase its width and depth, and to avoid atrophy. She began this maintenance process immediately after surgery when she was still too swollen to walk. The tenderness remains three months later, but being content with her body was worth all the pain.

A noticeable weight has been lifted from her shoulders, says von Eichhorn. Martinez as a guy was “quiet and shy – in a lot of ways introspective and subdued. Now she’ll just strike up a conversation with strangers and puts herself at the epicenter of attention.” Prior to her transition, Martinez and von Eichhorn discussed the protective roles they assumed in their relationships with women. Now that dynamic is present between them, says von Eichhorn, who worries about Martinez walking home alone at night in attractive outfits. “I see her as my little sister at this point.”

Martinez has only lived as a woman for two years and even after the surgery does not consider her transition complete. “Honestly, one part of me is like “Phew! OK! The big scary unknown is over with.” But, there’s still a huge amount of healing and rediscovery left to go,” she says. “I think my big stuff to deal with is reconciling that I didn’t have a girl’s upbringing, and finding peace with the past I did live.”

She overcame several uncertainties throughout her transition, including doubting she was transgendered in any sense and worrying that her friends and family would not love her if she transitioned. Now her main concerns are passing as a woman and exploring her roles in relationships. “Even now, after all of the therapy, surgery, and retraining of my movements, mannerisms, and voice, I constantly think that people are recognizing me as something other than a natural woman.” She continues to tell people she is transsexual when they appear interested in dating her and, as a “realist,” concludes this discussion will always be necessary due to her male upbringing.

“Despite the challenges having a vagina feels amazing. I can’t really explain it, but it has really calmed some big anxieties that I’ve had. It just makes sense to me – to look down and not see a penis there. There’s no other way to put it.”

Bonilla also sees transition as an ongoing process. “There may be a point when I know I can completely pass as male, but I do not think there is going to be an end to (my transition) because I will constantly have to take testosterone in order to stay male-bodied.”

He no longer worries about passing, but hopes the public will become more educated on transgender issues. “If I wasn’t trans, instead of staring them down or making up my own ideas about how they are, I’d want to ask questions and make friends with them.”


by Linsay Barber

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