Caitlyn Jenner has arrived with a splash! Granted, Jenner is not your ordinary trans person, even before she told people of her wish to live in the body her soul fit. Jenner was an Olympic champion; she had countless endorsements and later in life, she was a part of the smash hit: “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.” Jenner isn’t struggling financially, and her transition was a lot easier on the pocket book than most people who are transitioning. Having said that, I admire Jenner’s courage; I’m happy that she can live the life she has always wanted to.
Throughout my writing career, I have met many trans people and their struggle is real. One of my first articles was about the tragic and senseless murder of Brandy Martell in Oakland. It was in covering that story that I began to understand the bleak statistics of the trans community: not only do trans people have a disturbingly high suicide rate, but one in twelve trans women is murdered. While society is embracing some members of the trans community, like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock these trans women are the exception, not the rule. Society isn’t always kind, and not all of us have unlimited funds and millions of fans.
As a trans person, finding a job is not the easiest thing to do. Some employers won’t hire you because your aesthetic makes them uncomfortable. Some trans folks are forced to do survival sex work just to pay the bills. And boy are there a lot of bills. The hormones, the surgeries, doctor visits, psychiatrist appointments, medications, the list goes on and on. What Caitlyn Jenner did for trans people and the trans struggle, is that she brought that struggle into every single person’s living room using Diane Sawyer and ABC. After that interview, millions of people can say they do know a trans person, even if it’s just through watching them on TV.
I decided to interview Alex S. Morgan, who is a trans man, and ask him how transitioning has been for him. Morgan was assigned female at birth, but he knew from a very young age that he wasn’t like all the other children, “My sense of myself was never as a boy or as a girl. I realized when I was 5 that not a lot of people felt that way. I was also very comfortable in long hair and dresses, because it wasn’t that I wasn’t a girl; there was just more to the story. When I was probably about 19, I was doing some reading online about being genderqueer and at that time, that title fit.” After that Morgan began doing more reading about transition and he realized how much it would involve—hormones, surgeries, and a lot of medical care. So, when he first began to experiment with his appearance, he went another route.
Morgan began to dress androgynously, binding down his chest and wearing a packer (a prosthetic designed to look like a soft penis under clothing). “Because of the way my body was, it just didn’t work and so I was very depressed. I realized that I was always going to be femme and 5’3; I’m not masculine and I have these really broad hips. I thought, ‘I’ll never be acceptable as a man.’” At that point Morgan pretty much resigned himself that transitioning was not an option for him, “I was out as genderqueer, while presenting as femme, but people didn’t really give a lot of thought to me as any other gender, unless they spent a lot of time with me. Most people’s relationship to somebody’s gender is about gender presentation.
“Society has a lot of anxiety when it comes to trans people; so much of how we interact with people socially is gendered. So people know how to interact with a man, they know how to interact with a woman, but when you visually don’t know what gender someone is, people usually lose their social scripts and often respond by not interacting.”
Before Morgan’s transition he was a sex worker. His gender was not just his presentation, but how he made a living, and a lucrative one at that. “I was doing a lot of sex work and I’d never dissociated while doing that work; I was always present and in my body because I was doing work I enjoyed. When I started having this really distressing feeling from my body during work, it really threw me, and it started to become a big issue for me. I think a lot of people in different work situations can kind of play with presentation and take their time and figure it out. But because of the way that I was presenting for work, once I made the decision, I didn’t really have any room to experiment, appearance-wise, because part of my work involved my gender presentation.”
It took about a year from the time Morgan decided to transition before he made any changes. “The first thing I did was try testosterone and see how that felt. My body responded very well to that. I felt calmer than I had in years, and so it was this really quick ‘Yes, this is the right thing to do.’ It took me a lot of thinking before I decided on top surgery. Honestly, I wish it was easier to not have to pick a or b, to live outside the gender binary… because I was so femme before, I had to swing really hard in the opposite direction in order for people to get it. I spent many years only being able to tell one story and so now I am making up for lost time.”
Beyond the testosterone and top surgery, I asked Morgan what other expenses are incurred during the transition process. “It’s definitely easier than it used to be. There are still hoops you have to jump through, going through multiple practitioners, often seeking new therapists and primary caregivers. As soon as you’re trans, a lot of doctors will throw up their hands and just freak out. It’s like we’re still too complicated; it’s been interesting to run into that. Aside from the medical issue, the main problem has been paperwork—a lot of times when people will need to see ID it’s stressful… whether your legal name doesn’t match your chosen name, or your preferred name doesn’t yet match your appearance. Changing your name is not as straightforward as you’d think and in the state of California, it’s very costly.” Morgan still has not legally changed his name.
I asked Morgan if having medical insurance makes transitioning easier. “In terms of the insurance situation, in the state of California—and it varies by state—top surgery (having breast reduction surgery or a mastectomy and then contouring a male chest) is at least partially covered by your insurance. (Medi-Cal does cover top surgery and genital surgeries.) But you are responsible for the rest, and that is not counting the amount of work you miss from having surgery and medical procedures.”
Beyond the cost, I asked Morgan how transitioning has been challenging, emotionally and safety-wise. “I started to experience people in my personal life backing off… when you are in transition it’s a really big process emotionally and logistically, and typically when you go through these crisis points in life, you lose a lot of people. There were some people that realized they were more attracted to the presentation that I had than to me as a person. All of a sudden straight women liked me when I became visibly more masculine. When I cut my hair, lesbians liked me more, and it was ironic because I was doing this to inhabit a more male role and now more gay women were attracted to me. I was getting read as a trans woman a lot during this time, in part because of the slow impact of testosterone on my features. I was still dressing very femme, I still had breasts, so people treated me with a lot of hostility: people in general—straight men especially, strangers on the street, as well as online. People yelled awful things at me while I was walking; I had a guy chase me several blocks in San Francisco, things like that. I’m sure I’m not the only trans person who has received this treatment, it was demoralizing and humiliating and it was something that happened regularly and still happens both to me and others.”
I asked Morgan, is being a trans man in some ways harder or different than being a trans woman? “In terms of the media, there is more of a fascination with trans women. That’s partially because in our culture, women are an object of fascination and that applies to trans women as well. When it comes to trans men, there’s been this period of making up for lost time—there has been this rush to publish books—so now there is this element of push-back, because trans men are taking up a lot of room. This barely trickles into mainstream media, partially because trans men tend to blend better than trans women. A lot of trans men find that the influence testosterone has on their body is enough to have them read as male. Myself personally, I am not yet read as a cis man (cis, or cisgender, refers to someone who is not trans, or transgender), so I am always read as trans and/or genderqueer and that’s just how it is. I do think we will see more trans men in media in the future. I have a lot of gratitude for the trans women who have shouldered the burden for decades and took on all of the hate, fear, and blame that comes with it.”
I asked Morgan if he worries more for his safety as a trans man. “I worry differently. I’ve been queer bashed in San Francisco, of all places. I’ve had people swearing at me, calling me a fag; I’m not read as a straight man, so there is the fear that goes with that. I’m able to do things now I wasn’t before: walking down the street at night with my headphones in, that felt good.”
So after everything he has been through, I asked Morgan if it was worth it. “I’m not sure yet; it’s been such a mixed bag. I have given up a lot of things that were important to me. My work, that has been a bad thing to lose. I’ve had things change with my family and lovers. When people interact with your gender, they are not so much interacting with the person inside, so when somebody changes their gender, it almost feels like they are dying to others. I don’t know if it’s worth it, but I do know that I transitioned because I didn’t have a choice anymore. There have also been a lot of gains. It’s a difficult but profound journey.”
Prior to Morgan transitioning, his job consisted of being a sex worker and a sex educator. Transitioning didn’t just affect him physically and emotionally, it also affected him financially. Thankfully, due to Morgan’s popularity as an educator, speaker, coach, and workshop host, he was still able to keep some of his clients and find new ones. If you would like to find out more about Alex S. Morgan, please visit him at AlexSMorgan.com; and if you want to attend his workshops or hire him for trans sensitivity training, you can reach him here.
Thank you Alex for sharing an intensely personal struggle that has had lots of ups and downs. I wish you the best and I hope that the world becomes a better place for every person. We are all different and no one deserves the hatred, harassment, and other horrible things that come from being trans. We are all human beings and we should all treat one another with respect.
Photographs by Isabel Dresler