T ransgender A merican
V eterans A ssociation

Transgendered Air Force veteran helps others with sex identity issues

Monday, July 31, 2006
By Juan Pablo Lopera TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the hormones, my voice changed and I grew a full beard, and even though I blended in with other males before my top surgery, it is only now that I am so much more comfortable with my own body.

MICHAEL WEST,
TRANSGENDERED VETERAN

WORCESTER— For Michael West, joining the military in 1986 meant getting out of Blackstone Valley and seeing the world. Aside from providing life experience, he hoped the Air Force would rid him of the phantoms left behind by a life of denial.

Now, years after being honorably discharged, Mr. West has successfully buried many of the fears and issues that have come along with his gender identity disorder and has vowed to help others through their battles with GID.

According to Mr. West, who served in the Air Force as a woman, when he came home from Montgomery, Ala., his last post, he plunged into a deep depression. After having spent eight years away from home, he was now back in the Worcester area with a festering dilemma that had not been alleviated by the time away. Mr. West, born a female, struggled with his innate desire to live life as a man, all the while keeping this secret to himself.

It was not until March 2001, when he hit rock bottom and even contemplated taking his life, that he knew it was time to do something.

“I told my youngest sister, LeAnn, that I was depressed and thinking of suicide. To say the least, she drove me to the UMass hospital,” he said.

While at the hospital, Mr. West realized it was time to confront his worst fears and deal with the ghosts he had avoided for so long. It was then he started seeing a medical professional about gender identity disorder and decided to start hormone therapy. For the next two years, Mr. West underwent what he refers to as a second puberty. He watched as his body changed, his voice thickened and his appearance became more masculine.

But it wasn’t until he underwent “top surgery,” a term for the breast reduction procedure used with female-to-male transgendered individuals, in May 2005 that he was the closest to being the man he had always wanted to be. Since then Mr. West has opted to leave behind his female identity in order to embrace his newfound self. He currently prefers not to speak in detail about who he once was or what his given name used to be.

“After the hormones, my voice changed and I grew a full beard, and even though I blended in with other males before my top surgery, it is only now that I am so much more comfortable with my own body,” he said. “I am confident and don’t have to worry about binding a chest I never wanted. No one has ever known of my journey, unless I have felt comfortable enough to tell them. I love my life now.”

“The fundamental identity issue which transgendered people struggle with is that their body doesn’t match their gender, or how they feel,” said Diane Ellaborn, one of the few therapists specializing in transgender issues in Massachusetts. “Our sex and gender are intertwined, and if those don’t coincide, there is a great deal of anxiety and depression. You can say these people are born with a birth defect. In order to deal with this condition, these individuals must undergo physical changes before they can lead functional lives.”

Since his transformation, Mr. West has tapped into a newfound confidence that has allowed him to become involved with transgender issues at home and on the Internet he said. In 2005, he launched a transgender discussion list on yahoo.com, meant to connect, educate and support other transgendered people, their families and friends. He is also involved in trying to help military veterans who, like himself, have struggled with GID.

This new path has led Mr. West to become the webmaster of Transgender American Veterans Association, an organization that focuses on creating awareness of transgender issues, a topic rarely spoken about in the military. According to Mr. West, TAVA’s emphasis is creating a community for transgender people where they can form bonds for life. The organization is also focused on letting its members know how to go about receiving support from VA centers and hospitals. TAVA is like other veterans organizations giving individuals a group to belong to that recognizes their service to our country and looks out for their own needs, according to Mr. West.

Even though the military prohibits what it calls gender alteration, gender reorientation or genital identity revision, there is support for these veterans. Some of these transgendered individuals have been able to go to their local VA centers and hospitals for assistance with therapy, hormones and medical attention to complement their treatments. However, according to Mr. West, there is still much disparity in the support provided by VA centers and hospitals from one state to the next.

“The VA centers let you know that they will talk to you about your issues, but they won’t talk about gender,” he said.

The support and attention individuals receive depends on the local VA center’s view and exposure to transgender issues and how they themselves broach the subject with their physicians, Mr. West added.

Mr. West said he hopes to be instrumental in launching a Massachusetts chapter of TAVA. There are currently a few people affiliated with the organization locally. Nationwide, TAVA has grown from the two persons who founded the group in the South back in 2003 to more than 200 members. The kickoff for the local TAVA chapter is expected to take place during the fifth annual Transcending Boundaries, PFLAG Northeast Conference Oct. 27-29 at the DCU Center. Lesbian, gay, transgendered and bisexual people from the area, their supporters, friends and families will meet in an effort to overcome issues they face.

Mr. West intends to undergo more surgery and complete his transition from female to male once he has enough money. He is in a happy relationship with a male-to-female transgendered woman, he said.

More information about TAVA can be obtained at www.tavausa.org, or by e-mailing info@tavausa.org. Mr. West also hosts a discussion site on Yahoo!,  http://groups.yahoo.com/group/TheTransgenderedPlanet/

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© 2006 Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp.


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