Transgender Men and Women Who Got Surgery and How It Changed Their Lives

Elisabeth Kramer on 12 Mar 2015 at 5:00pm

Tanya Charbury
Tanya Charbury began transitioning to life as a woman in her mid-40s.

We hope this is obvious but we’re going to say it anyway: Surgery isn’t the only way to express gender.

In fact, only 33% of transgender people report undergoing some form of gender-confirming surgery, according to a 2011 study by The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. (That percent, the report notes, might be higher in a world where surgery is more affordable.)

In recent years, transgender celebrities like Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox have opened up a dialogue about trans issues while the internet has helped grow a community that includes more than 700,000 Americans. “People are talking about [being transgender], acknowledging its existence,” explains Dr. Chris Donaghue, clinical therapist and star of WE Tv's extreme couple’s counseling series, Sex Box. “That’s a helpful first step.”

RELATEDGet tips from RealSelf doctors about gender reassignment surgery and FFS

This “transgender tipping point,” as Time put it when Cox graced the cover in June 2014, helps explain why RealSelf doctors say they’re seeing more and more trans men and women in their offices. We’ve noticed this spike in popularity on RealSelf as well. Interest in gender reassignment surgery grew 191% between 2013 and 2014, while our doctors say they’ve gone from being solo artists to leaders in an ever-growing field of interest. “If I wanted to, I could just operate on transgender patients,” one doctor told us about how popular gender-confirming surgeries have become at his practice.

Of course, facial feminization surgery (FFS), mastectomies, and the myriad of other available surgery options remain just that — options. For those transgender individuals who do undergo surgery, however, the process can change how the world views them and, exponentially more important, how they view themselves.

Aligning how you’re seen and how you feel is a powerful combination, explains Dr. Donaghue. “There’s a lot of comfort in that,” he says of showing the world how you personally identify. “There’s beauty, there’s peace … in the options and in the exploration.”

What follows are three stories from trans men and women who are members of RealSelf. They offer their narratives as an opportunity for those seeking to learn about the trans community or who are trans themselves. For these three, surgery was a crucial part of their individual journeys. Why? We’ll let them explain.

“I Used to Think I Was Deluded”
Tanya Charbury always knew she was a female. Growing up in apartheid South Africa, though, her focus was on survival, not transition.

“I used to think I was deluded and that I just needed to get a grip and try harder, be more macho and then everything would be fine,” she recalls. “I would lie in the sun to destroy my skin and get skin like an old sailor because that’s more manly and then maybe I’d finally be like a guy.”

Tanya knew she wasn’t male but it took decades for her to address how she felt. “Most people figure themselves out a lot sooner,” she says, pointing to one night that changed her perspective on how she viewed her identity. A friend encouraged her to dress up and put on makeup before going out for the night. “For the first time, I felt comfortable in my own skin,” Tanya recalls. “I liked it so much. I was like, ‘This is where I belong.’”
Transgender Pull Quote 1
Tanya decided to physically transition in her mid-40s and began seeking out surgical options, a choice she made because, she says, “as humans, we crave integrity. We like to live in a way consistent with who we are. So being a girl means there’s the desire to look like one.”

Looking the way she feels isn’t simply a “want,” she adds. “It’s a need, a hunger, a desperation … If I could afford more, I’d be making that appointment for surgery today.”

Unfortunately, as is too often the case for many trans men and women, Tanya has faced criticism from those closest to her throughout her transition. “My mom basically lost it,” she says of coming out to her family as trans. “For any parent, it’s difficult because it’s not like you’re losing a son and gaining a daughter … You’ve never had a son. You’ve always had a daughter and she wasn’t a very happy daughter either.”

Tanya and her mother have since reconciled but she still finds herself having to explain the finer points of what some view as a “fad” or a “game.” She’ll often tell loved ones, “I’m glad you’re open-minded, but I don’t want to be humored. I need you to understand … I really am this person.”

RELATEDFacial Feminization Surgery: Hear What Gigi Gorgeous Recommends

On her blog, Tanya chronicles her experiences with FFS. The series of surgeries depends on a woman’s specific wishes and includes a range of different techniques to soften and feminize the features. To date, Tanya has had an Adam’s apple reduction, eyelid surgery, and a nose job. She says the results have completely changed how she interacts with the world.

“It’s like night and day,” she says of life before and after surgery. “I understand people say surgery is superficial but it’s not. It’s really not. The effect psychologically it’s had on me is very real.”

“The World Will Find a Way to Make It Happen For You”
To this day, Mark’s father has yet to acknowledge he had double mastectomy surgery. It was spring 2013, and Mark was 19. He’d spent the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of college going to doctor consultation after consultation for what is commonly referred to as “top surgery.” His goal: Remove his breasts before graduation.

“I wasn’t nervous for surgery,” says Mark, who came out as trans at 14. “It just felt right ... I had been waiting for so long.”

Transgender Pull Quote 2After his operation, Mark recovered at his parents’ home. His father avoided him.

“I was sitting in my room with a compression vest and tubes coming out of my sides and he would walk by and not even look in,” Mark recalls. “My family and girlfriend and friends are extremely supportive. He’s the last one to hop the train, but I don’t think he ever will.”

Online communities like YouTube and RealSelf helped Mark connect with others going through similar situations. “There are a lot of people who have gone through this and have advice,” he says. “All you have to do is ask for it and they would be happy to give it.”

His own advice for those looking to transition? “I would just encourage people to not be scared to get a surgery date or look at a doctor for hormone therapy because if you want something bad enough, the world will find a way to make it happen for you.”

“Just Like Anyone Else Would”
By the end of this year, Skyler hopes to be a father. A handful of years ago, he thought he’d never get the chance because back then, the world saw Skyler as a woman.

Skyler was born into a body he never felt was his own. He was 24 when he started transitioning to life as a man after decades spent coming to the conclusion that his female self wasn’t really him. After seeing a therapist and beginning hormones, Skyler decided to have a mastectomy.

“With the exception of meeting my wife and marrying her, I would say top surgery is probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “[Having breasts was] like having a tumor.”

In December 2011, Skyler woke up from surgery feeling free in a way he'd never experienced before.

RELATED: Learn more about gender reassignment surgery

Last September, Skyler was back in the hospital — this time, for a hysterectomy. His period had never come back after starting testosterone but severe cramps still wracked his body, a painful reminder of a question that plagued him: Would transition mean never having biological children?

Now, thanks to a local fertility clinic, Skyler and his wife are on the brink of parenthood. In a few short weeks, he’ll have his eggs extracted, fertilized by donor sperm, and implanted in his wife. She’ll carry the embryo that, if all goes well, will join the family in nine months’ time. It’s an exciting new chapter, Skyler says, as it would be for any man.

“I just want to live my own life,” he says of the future, “just like anyone else would.”

Wherever your journey may take you, RealSelf is here to help. Talk with thousands of board-certified doctors, watch expert videos, and read more stories like Tanya, Mark, and Skyler’s.

Photo credit: Tanya Charbury