At first glance, Henry Shawcross is just another young gay man.
This 26 year old cricket-loving greenie is writing his Australia PhD titled “Self-made men: the masculinity of FTMs”. It is anything but just academic research for this bookish intellectual. Realising that there was such a thing as transsexualism when he was a teenage both reassured this post-graduate research and scared him.
‘I finally knew why I felt like I did, but it seemed like I would have to go through so much just to be me,” says Henry.
Like his subjects, Henry traces a sense of difference between his sense of self and other people’s perceptions of himself back to early childhood.
“I started to play with other children as a toddler and felt myself identifying with other boys, but would be referred to as a girl.” It wasn’t until halfway through primary school, he describes a feeling present most of the time, of being ‘weighed down by expectations that would behave like a girl’.
When he was three years old, Henry’s parents separated – an event he remembers with only a sense of isolation. While his father moved to Sydney, his mother raised him on her own in Perth. As a child and a teenage, Henry was a ‘shy and secretive’ child. “I seemed to prefer getting through life alone.”
When Henry was in his teens, his father returned to Perth helping him through “some rough times at high school.” At eighteen he met his sister for the first time, who was raised by adoptive parents. “Even though we were raised apart, we really do feel a sibling bond between us, and more than that, we’re great friends as well.” Even since meeting her, Henry says, “she has been the most important part of my family. She has always been supportive of whatever decision I have made about transitioning and often been the only family member I’ve felt really understood me.”
Transition – Almost
After turning eighteen, Henry took the plunge and sought medical assistance from an endocrinologist as well as undergoing two psychiatric assessments – the usual medical routine to start sex affirmation treatment. Once cleared of any psychiatric basis to his gender dysphoria, Henry was prescribed testosterone to enable him to being transition. And then – he put the brakes on. Henry Shawcross never had that testosterone script filled.
He explains the reasons behind this decision: “the negativity of being trans* overwhelmed me so much that at twenty, even though I had just got my first ever T script, I felt I couldn’t’ live that way.” For the next four years, Henry worked hard to “accept living as female,” immersing himself in femininity – skirts, heels and dresses – dating men and women, even getting engaged at one point.
“I have to admit (although I don’t feel very proud about it), that it just seemed “easier” to say female, and I thought that, well if I could survive being in my XX body and all the associated societal normal that come with such a body, maybe it was for the best. And that’s what happened.” Henry describes his personal identity at this time, “as a lot of things, or nothing…” Throughout these next four years, Henry continued to live at home.
He describes his interaction with friends as a mostly negative influence on his early experiences. “My tomboyish behaviour and early attraction to girls sparked homophobic reactions with teachers did little to reduce.”
“My sexuality has been the major influence on my life, from attempted teenage flings with girls because that was what boys did, to gradually realising I was actually attracted to men and then fluctuating between being a bi-femme…and a bi guy before realising just last year that I’m really gay.”
“The other major influence is my education, which has determined my income and my independence,” acknowledges Henry. After brief flirtations with Computer and Math Science, then Commerce Studies, a B.Arts at UWA awakened his talent in History.
It was his honours project in 2002 – “The Playboy of Camelot: John F. Kennedy’s Sexual History and Masculinity,” that Henry says “played quite a part in my transsexuality catching up with me and my decision to resume a male role. I realised that I couldn’t escape my masculinity…but I could escape stereotypes of trans* people as having small and sad lives solely concerned with their bodies. I’d actually be far happier accepting myself as male despite my physical nature,” declares Henry.
Never having shared his personal gender issues and conflicts with his father, Henry’s revelation to resume his transition appeared to be a sudden decision. Despite his newfound resolution, friends and family found it difficult to come to terms with his masculinity, especially those who were aware of his history eight years earlier. “I was challenged by some friends and family who knew about me living as male before and wondered if I’d change my mind yet again later on.”
Even today, Henry admits, “in some ways I would say, I still haven’t quite ‘transitioned’ fully with some of my closest friends and family, in that I knew they are finding it difficult to accept me as male. I put this down to them knowing me in a female role in the past.”
At university and with people who have no history of him living as female, “transitioning has been much easier. I ‘pass’ 90% or more of the time now, even though my voice hasn’t broken completely, and I go through daily life pretty much like any other man does – something I thought would be almost impossible a few years ago.”
“The worst part of transitioning has been discovering exactly what people closest to me really value about me, and realising that not everyone I thought I could depend upon cares enough to understand why I’m doing this. I often feel they are judging my masculinity by standards far harsher than they would apply to a non-transman, and that they feel it isn’t enough just for me to claim to be male for them to treat me as a man.”
It has been through leaving home and living separately to his family, that he believes his relationship with his parents have improved. “Both my parents have found it difficult to come to terms with my masculinity but I think being able to live independently in society as a man, and seeing how much more at ease with myself I am now, has helped them realise it was the best thing I could do. My family relationships have changed quite a bit.
Transition and Testosterone
Given his previous decision eight years ago – this year, 19 February “T” day has been an important milestone for Henry. “Changing my name legally was the best part of transitioning – I just felt so much better to have all my paperwork and ID in the name I’ve been calling myself since childhood.”
Henry’s endocrinologist favoured the ‘ramping up’ method to start him on testosterone. Introducing the new hormone into his body gradually with the use of testosterone ‘patches (Androderm) to ‘ease into’ the physical changes”. “Unfortunately, I had an allergic reaction to the adhesive. I was then on capsules (Andriol) until about a month or so ago. At the T in these is supposed to bypass the liver and they are more convenient to take them than shots, again I was amiable to trying them out.”
Even with the switch to oral capsules, Henry says, “a couple of months ago I began to feel extremely tired and blood-tests revealed my T-levels had fallen, so my GP switched me over to the shots (Sustanon). I do think the shots are accelerating the physical changes somewhat and it is good not to have to worry about forgetting to take the capsules, but I can see how a visit to the GP every couple of weeks might get tiresome after a while. Still, at this stage from what I’ve read, they are better than pellets, since I haven’t had a hysterectomy.”
Most, if not all men require chest reconstructive surgery. Henry looks forward to this surgery. “I’m hoping to have my chest surgery done perhaps around the end of next year or after that: if I can’t have it done on Medicare then I would need much more money than I have now.
Legal recognition for transsexual men as men in Australia, currently requires them to undergo an irreversible surgical procedure to restrict them reproduction as female. Surgery of any kind, for some transsexual men poses problems. Henry explains, “I will have organs removed only if I absolutely have to – my dislike of surgery outweigh my dislike of having any “female” body parts. Again, lower surgery options pose similar concerns for Henry. He judges the financial and health costs to offset and completely overshadow the likelihood of surgery.
“I’m not really happy with phalloplasty procedures as they are now, but a metoidioplasty does appeal; although again it’s a question of funding. I am hoping that there might be some surgical advances in lower surgery in my lifetime that I can make use of. For me, the most difficult part hasn’t actually been the physical transition, but letting people know that I identify as male so that I can live as a man in society.”
Masculinity and Manhood
Now after acting on his decision to transition medically. Henry observes a change in the perceptions of society generally. “Although I have been living as male on and off throughout my life, it’s only for about the past year or so that I have been doing it day in and day out and living as if I were raised male.”
Henry notices differences in people’s expectations towards him. “Now that I am regarded by others as male – I feel a different set of expectations has been placed on my behaviour. It’s easy to point out all the superficial differences and it’s also easy to put them down to society/upbringing/culture, but I do think there are deeper physiological, beyond sex characteristics.”
“While at one stage I used to believe that my masculinity was just a superficial preference I could control, the more I delved into the masculinity of other (non-trans) men I realised I had a lot more in common with them than I’d thought.” Henry relies less on the differences between the sexes and more on the similarities between himself, a man of transsexual experience, and other XY men. “What has been more surprising for me is how little my outlook on masculinity has had to change – and to realise how many other men, trans or otherwise, have to go through similar trials to express their own particular sense of being male.”
“I now consider myself a man without any qualifiers,” Henry concludes, “I’m not even sure that my XX sex chromosomes are enough to differentiate me from other men. I feel certain there is physiological explanation for my ‘transsexuality’. It might seem easier on the face of it to lead a ‘normal’ life, but I don’t think you can really be happy denying your own true self.”
Henry’s personal journey has digress many times. It’s a journey, which so far, has led him to a sounder sense of self. “I feel now that I am much more true to myself and I force myself to face up to any emotional issues that I’m experiencing as a result. I do have problems with depression and anxiety, which are not entirely related to transsexualism. Previously I (and the other psychiatrists I’d seen) assumed it was just part of gender dysphoria, but I now know, and am treating these issues as something separate.”
Today, Henry encourages others who have embarked on this journey, “Just be yourself. It sounds trite, but it’s a difficult thing to face up to who you really are. I think it’s far more important to focus on how you can best live your life than to worry about what other people are going to say or whether you fit into preconceived notions of how men/ ftms/ trans* people behave.”
While he’s not exactly sure where to after the PhD, Henry hopes to move into the interdisciplinary area of gender and cultural studies. “It’s hard for me to imagine myself doing anything other than academic research – ideally I’d just like to write all day. It’s very likely that I’ll end up doing something in academia – teaching or research.”
Shutterstock photo used for illustrative purpose only.