Oct 182005
Authors: Caroline Welch

At age 21, Avery had an epiphany.

"I realized that the body I had didn't fit my identity," said Avery Fisher, a marriage and family therapy graduate student.

As a young girl, Fisher recalls being a "tomboy" and identifying with stereotypical boy activities, like playing outside. At 16, Fisher came out as a bisexual.

"I was perceived as a butch lesbian," Fisher said. "In undergrad, I loved being a butch lesbian. I liked this identity and being in the lesbian community because I was safer to be fluid with my gender expression then I was in the straight community.

"And I also knew I liked women, a lot, and lesbians were the ones who were attracted to me at the time."

But, at the same time, Fisher said, "I was also very androgynous."

At 21, nearing the end of his undergraduate education at CSU, Fisher realized the female body he had didn't fit his male identity and began thinking about a transition.

While attending a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) "Safe Zone Training" session meant to educate students on GLBT issues, Fisher said he realized he fit the identity of a transsexual student and wanted to transition from female to male.

"I always knew I had gender issues," Fisher said. "I knew I had both maleness and femaleness."

After the "Safe Zone Training," Fisher started to learn everything about the transsexual identity, spending many hours online and in the library doing research.

"Transgender is an umbrella term that includes anyone for whom gender bends," said Randy McCrillis, director of GLBT Student Services (GLBTSS). "Transsexuals can clearly state 'I was born in the wrong gender.'"

In February 2004, Fisher came out to his partner, and two months later the couple broke up.

"The break-up was difficult. We were together for almost two years," Fisher said. "But my transitioning was only part of what caused us to break-up. I was starting graduate school and not around as much, plus I don't really think we were right for each other anyway."

Meanwhile, in September 2004, Fisher started taking Testosterone, the first step in transitioning from female to male. To start testosterone treatments, Fisher required a letter from his therapist.

To obtain this recommendation letter, a person must be diagnosed with a mental disorder called "gender dysphoria," which describes people who are uncomfortable with their birth gender, according to the GLBTSS Web site.

In October 2004, Fisher came out to his co-workers in marriage and family therapy.

"They were amazing," Fisher said. "They even threw me a surprise party. They are phenomenally amazing people."

After three months of taking Testosterone, Fisher noticed a subtle change in his face and hips and a redistribution of weight.

"I gained a little muscle mass, but mostly my body fat just redistributed from my butt and hips to my stomach," Fisher said.

To others, the physical change was more dramatic, Fisher said. His face shape became more round, check bones less defined, but without facial hair.

"I passed as male 25 percent of the time before I started taking hormones," Fisher said. "After two to three months (of hormones) I am passing as male."

Fisher now lives full time in the identity he says makes him most comfortable, and he couldn't ask for anything more.

"People 'he'd' and 'sir'ed' me," Fisher said. "It was very validating and comforting. People were treating me with more respect as a male than as a female."

But Fisher cautions he was never after respect in a male-dominated world. The perception, he said, is that people who transition from female to male are seeking male privilege, but for those who make the transition, comfort and confidence are key.

"For transsexuals, it comes down to having a body that fits you," Fisher said.

The next step towards comfort for Fisher is a physical change through surgery. Over spring break, while many college students are on vacation, Fisher will be in a San Francisco hospital undergoing top surgery, a reconstructive process to create a "male-looking chest," according to the GLBTSS Web site.

The surgery costs about $8,000 and will be paid for by his student loans.

"I will be paying it off for awhile," Fisher said. "But it will be worth it. It is essential for my well being in school and to my life. It is as important to my success in life as text books and classes."

Fisher used the letter that helped him get Testosterone to schedule surgery. Both letters are required under the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, which outlines professional standards for management of gender identity disorders.

"Hormones are powerful drugs to put in our bodies without the Standards of Care," McCrillis said.

Another option for transsexuals, as outlined in the Standards of Care, is bottom surgery. For Fisher, this could mean either metoplasty or phalloplasty.

A metoplasty uses material from clitoral growth resulting from hormone treatment to construct a penis and allows a person to pee standing up and have sexual intercourse. A phalloplasty is more complicated and means taking tissue from the inner thigh or arm to construct a penis, but without ability for an erection without a devise. To get irreversible bottom surgery, Fisher will need a second letter.

Post-operation recovery for top surgery takes three weeks, and like any other surgery, this procedure limits what Fisher can do, like working and driving.

But he won't go through it alone.

Fisher's partner, Joanna Pepin, also a second year marriage and family therapy graduate student, will be at his side.

The couple met as first year graduate students, although Pepin said Fisher remembered her from their undergraduate work in human development and family studies at CSU.

"We started the (graduate) program together," Pepin said. "We went though the interviews together, but we didn't hang out a lot."

However, in a small program like marriage and family therapy, with only eight students per class, it is hard not to form bonds that go beyond the books.

A trip to Club Static, the GLBT club in Fort Collins, was the first time Pepin and Fisher spent time together outside of class, but the line was friendship.

Pepin and Fisher became closer friends, but the start of a romantic relationship was slow.

And Pepin had to sort out those feelings for herself.

"Before he came out, I was attracted to him," Pepin said. "But that was weird for me. I have never identified as a lesbian. When he came out to me, it made sense to me. "

Pepin, who has always identified as straight, said she confided in a professor and they talked about what it meant to be attracted to Fisher

"It calls into question all sexual orientations," Pepin said. "I have always dated men."

The couple has been together for seven months, and this relationship is very different for Pepin compared to her previous relationships. When she and Fisher are out together, Pepin says they are treated differently and their identities are called into question, which is something she has never experienced as part of the majority.

"It is complicated because I want to be seen as my identity," Pepin said. "But I also want to validate the relationship."

It is very obvious when they are read as lesbian, Pepin said, because they are treated differently – with less respect and less privilege. Things like getting served later or wondering looks at Water World make the couple feel different.

"As a couple (at Water World) people had to figure out what was going on," Pepin said. "Sometimes we are read as straight and sometimes we are read as lesbian, you have to be flexible."

In this "balancing act," however, Pepin said it is more important for Fisher's identity to be clear.

"It is more important for Avery to be seen as what he wants, than for me to be seen as straight," Pepin said. "Identifying as white and straight has a lot more privilege to it."

But this importance does not always make misperceptions of Pepin's identity easy.

"We all have a little homophobia in us," Pepin said. "Every time I am perceived as lesbian, it speaks to the small amount of homophobia I have."

Which is why Pepin said she values her experience and the similarities it has to a GLBT coming out story.

Pepin, too had to come out to her parents, but in a different way – as a straight person in a transgender relationship,

"This experience is new to me," Pepin said. "I feel privileged that I've had the experience. Others don't get to experience what it is like in the GLBT community. But I still don't know what it is like to come out as transgender to my parents."

Pepin said her parents were supportive and understanding. Fisher, however, didn't get the same support.

"My family had a really tough time with it," Fisher said. "My mom thinks it is her fault, like she didn't give me enough Barbies. We don't really talk and we don't really get along."

Fisher said he and his dad had a really long talk, and his father is okay with Fisher's identity.

"He is slowly getting my name and pronouns," Fisher said. "When he said 'oh, so you're my son now,' it was a major breakthrough and it meant a great deal to me."

The pronouns used in society shed light on a world that is gender-based.

"Culture has so much gender around it," Fisher said. "It gets complicated."

But to many, gender is a continuum, not a polarized choice between male and female.

"Sexual orientation and gender identity is on a continuum," Pepin said. "You can't always put people in a box."

Fisher said there is nothing abnormal about being outside of the box.

"Be kind to yourself. It is absolutely okay to be anywhere on the gender spectrum," Fisher said. "We all have gender identities. Don't be afraid to talk about it."





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