Living as a Transgender Woman: Surgeries, Stigma, and Struggle

The author shares her journey through emotional and physical pain as she transitioned, ultimately forging a path in medicine and advocacy.

I am a 28-year-old woman who has struggled with gender identity my whole life. Normally, an individual is assigned the label of “male” or “female” at birth and that term dictates the person’s future. Despite being labeled as a male, I never truly felt right in that role. I was diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder at age 7. Back then, I was still known as Daniel, the lone male in a set of triplets.

Despite looking okay on the outside, I struggled throughout my early schooling years, hiding my true identity inside. To classmates, teachers, and parents, I was a "he." To me, something deep down inside told me that was not exactly right. My questions and problems, including constantly being teased, increased as I saw everyone else’s life progress forward; I felt like an outsider, an observer. Whenever I tried to show my true self, the bullying became more severe. One of the first harassing incidents I recall occurred when I wore a princess outfit to an elementary school parade.

The author, around age 7, dressed in a princess costume during an elementary school parade. “This was the first time that I expressed myself as a ‘girl’ and the first time I felt comfortable,” she says.

Traumatized by the experience, I hid my true self for years. I spent a lot of time thinking about labels.  People tend to use labels to process information into formatted terms and groups, essentially, to simplify life. However, I believe there is much more to labels than organization. Labels can carry stigmas that may bias another’s opinion. As a transgender woman, I have often overheard “man in a dress,” been the subject of staring, and been ignored. I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Nowadays, I am used to the rejection, specifically in the dating realm. But before I came to grips with who I am, this social cycle led me down a deep dark hole into depression.

 I continued circling this mental whirlpool until my college career, only to face more social isolation. Rather than focus on the struggles in my personal life, I decided to focus on academics as an outlet and an attempt to be happy. This determination led me along the path to medical school. It was during this time that I also decided to pursue my dream of becoming a woman, and I turned to surgery to achieve that goal.

Throughout medical school and the years following, I underwent several surgical procedures, some of which helped me to physically transition from male to female and others to correct complications from those surgeries. During this time, I continued to face discrimination in medical school as many classmates did not understand my overall transition. Rumors about me were circulating, further leaving me in a state of vulnerability and loneliness. There was no formal training at my medical school regarding transgender individuals, their personal battles, or the unique issues faced by them in the medical community.

I grew afraid to see medical providers for my growing number of problems. I was too fearful of more rejection or discrimination. Complications from my surgeries have ranged from getting burned to neck pain to nose pain, including having difficulty breathing. My nose was and continues to be painful anytime I sneeze or attempt to blow. In addition, I developed sharp pain for many months, especially pronounced while dilating my new genitals. To this day, I continue to struggle with pain and embarrassment of these areas. In fact, due to these surgical complications, especially involving my nasal issues, I abandoned any aspirations of becoming a surgeon, perhaps a blessing in disguise, and pursued psychiatry instead.

In this field, I am able to connect with people considering gender reassignment surgery on a closer level. I can help them through any depression and anxiety they may be dealing with, and offer them tools to help manage the continuous provoking stressors they may face. Psychotherapy is just one component of interdisciplinary care but for individuals facing both gender dysphoria and chronic pain, the latter often caused by transition surgeries, I feel that therapy is truly crucial to their long-term care. I am proud to be halfway through my psychiatric residency where I can help to make a positive difference in the lives of transgender individuals through the field of medicine and through my personal advocacy efforts.

I hope that my experience can serve as a cautionary tale for those seeking reassignment surgeries. Things may not go as smoothly as one would hope, so it is important to be ready for that possibility. Before undergoing these surgeries, careful and well-thought-out consideration should be given to a large number of factors. The social aspects of changing gender may include discrimination, dating struggles, and the overall redirection of being in a different body. Practical aspects include choosing the right procedures by the right surgeon, and then dealing with the aspects of potential follow-up surgeries and their consequences.  As with any challenging situation in life, having the support of friends, family, and coworkers is key. In my case, I was fortunate to have total support, both emotionally and financially, from my parents and siblings. My advice: take your time as you make the best decisions for you, be strategic about problem-solving, and set your mind to keep going.

The author at medical school graduation. “This was the first step on my pathway toward becoming a psychiatrist, a goal which I obtained while transitioning at the same time,” she says.

Since completing my transition to a woman, I no longer hear the words “man in a dress.” I believe this is because, before my transition, I was labeled based on my physical attributes and my internal-external body mismatch. Today, those attributes are significantly harder to detect, placing me into different categories. I changed my label into something that was more appropriate for me than what others were dictating. Unfortunately, labels can be hurtful and are often based on superficial measures. Fighting this type of judgment is a constant challenge among those in the transgender community, as well as those living with invisible conditions, such as mental health disorders and chronic pain. Always be true to who you are and guide your actions by that principle, with the hope of being seen by others in the best way you see fit.

Everyone struggles with something—that is just part of life. I believe, however, that it’s not the struggles that determine your character, but rather, how you respond to them. To all those who struggle, know that you are not alone. I was able to complete medical school and transform everything about myself at the same time. If I can do it, so can you. While I know that new barriers will arise,  I also know that I will overcome them.


Updated on: 06/04/21
Continue Reading:
Communicating What You Need in the Emergency Department