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Facing changes by changing faces
People find serenity in the decision to change their gender

by Chris Swingle
Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronical Reprint Permission
David Guy Rosen, once a champion wrestler and Pittsford, N.Y., businessman, gave up his marriage and spent $70,000 in surgery and expenses for electrolysis, hormones and counseling to become Donna Rosen.

The Rev. Ken Fox shocked a community that respected his 25-year career helping the homeless by speaking publicly about now living life as Kaye.

Linda Nichols persistently felt something wasn’t “right” and believed for more than 20 years that she must be a lesbian. Ultimately she determined the problem was her gender. She became Tyler Carver.

Most people don’t understand why someone would want to change their gender. Some reject the whole idea as freakish or sinful.

People who are transsexual — who want to live permanently as the opposite sex from their sex at birth — risk losing everything: family, friends, career, reputation. They face judgment and ridicule from loved ones and strangers, and often must defend such an intimate decision. The essence of who they are comes into question.

“I’m the same person I always was,” says Fox. “It’s just presented differently. I still care about people. I still love to help people and things of that nature. I’m still the outgoing person I always was. I just no longer have to be on guard the whole time.”

Getting to that point can be a long, dark battle. “The physical change of changing clothes is very simple, and that’s what people see,” says Fox. “It’s the inner person that’s where the struggle is, because there’s so much prejudice ... against this kind of thing. I wouldn’t want to wish it on anybody.”

Yet they say that living as the gender that matches the core of their being is the only way they can be at peace.

Kaye Fox is now experiencing a more comfortable life, as opposed to the painful existence as Ken (inset) prior to beginning gender reassignment.
Becoming Kaye
Fox no longer has contact with most of her six children and seven grandchildren. Her gifts are returned unopened; one daughter instead had a brother walk her down the aisle at her wedding.

Transsexuals are treated like modern-day lepers, says Fox, who first talked publicly about her gender transformation in 2002 in local television interviews. “I lost everything,” she says. As much pain as the decision has caused, Fox says, “Would I do it again? You bet. I’d do it earlier.”

Fox, 60, began life as Kaye about 18 months ago. Hormone pills redistributed fat, triggered breast development, made her skin smoother and caused hot flashes and night sweats.

A wig — usually one with long brown hair and bangs — covers what used to be Ken Fox’s bald head. Nail polish, rings, light makeup and women’s clothes complete the look. She now helps lead Rochester Transgender Group, a peer support group, and considers herself a gender activist.

Ken Fox knew since the age of eight that he was different. At 11 or 12, he won a Halloween costume contest dressed as a girl: “I think that was one of the defining experiences for me. It felt so natural and it felt so real.”

In his 20s — married and working in Rochester — he felt that something was drastically wrong. He tried filling his life with other things. He volunteered at the Open Door Mission, serving the hungry and the homeless. He became a part-time minister, then took over the Mission, transforming it over 25 years from a one-employee, $11,700 operation to a $3.5 million enterprise with 40 staffers.

“I maintained that facade, that Ken Fox facade, and inside of me was all turmoil,” says Fox, who struggled through years of alcohol abuse.

He had been crossdressing in secret since his teens. In his 40s, he would buy and wear women’s clothes while driving to and from business conferences out of state.
That continued until 1997, when his wife found women’s clothes in his suitcase. The family confronted him. Except for his 90-year-old mother, Hazel Stevens of Greece, they viewed his behavior as sinful and wanted nothing to do with Ken or Kaye Fox. “We’re all God’s children,” Stevens says. “And since he’s relieved and happy after many years of anxiety about himself, I feel I agree with him, as he’s thoroughly looked into it with doctors. He’s still the same thoughtful, intelligent person.”

Fox hopes to reunite with other family members someday. Fox sought therapy, took psychological tests and was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the term preferred by transsexuals and some psychological professionals for a confusion or discomfort about birth gender. The reasons for such confusion remain unclear, but scientific theories point to genetic, physical and hormonal factors.

“Finally, it had a name,” Fox says.
The American Psychiatric Association says an overwhelming desire to be, or even an insistence that one is, the other sex marks gender identity disorder. People with this condition are persistently distressed by their birth sex.

Fox’s experience is common, says Pam Walter, a clinical social worker in Perinton, N.Y., who’s worked over the past 28 years with hundreds of clients with gender identity issues.

“If they could just live with it, they would,” Walter says. But the depression, shame and guilt become excruciating. “You can just hold it in for so long, and eventually you have to deal with it.”

Walter’s clients also see a psychologist and a medical doctor. Transsexuals typically spend a year living as the new gender before they can pursue sex-reassignment surgery.
Not all transsexuals seek surgery, however. It — like the counseling and hormones — is not covered by health insurance, so it’s not affordable for many.

Data from some European countries suggest that 1 in 30,000 adult males and 1 in 100,000 adult females have sex-reassignment surgery. Some researchers contend that as many as five to 10 times as many people experience gender dysphoria as undergo the surgery.

Trying to blend in

Once known as Linda Nichols, Tyler Carver underwent gender reassignment surgery at the age of 39.
Statistics show that more men than women have been treated for gender disorder, but that may be because it’s easier for women to look and act like men in our society.
As a child growing up in Irondequoit, N.Y., Linda Nichols played football with boys, liked toy trucks and hated dresses. But a skirt, vest and knee socks were part of the required uniform at Catholic school.

For Linda, who graduated from the all-girl Mercy High School in 1973, puberty was revolting. Until then, “I didn’t know I wasn’t a boy.”
As an adult, the carpenter and painter wore loose-fitting clothes and was often taken for a man. Other women in public restrooms would sometimes say angrily, “You’re in the wrong place.”

At the age of 39, Linda became Tyler Carver.
Hormones — which he’ll need to take for the rest of his life — make his voice deeper, his hips smaller and his muscles bigger. Carver grew lots of body hair and the hair on his head thinned. “Shaving (my face) for the first time was an awesome experience,” says Carver, who now has a beard.

He wore an uncomfortable elastic strap to bind his breasts, when he underwent a mastectomy and hysterectomy.

Another series of surgeries, called phalloplasty, could create male genitalia. But, Carver says, “After working so hard to be authentic and genuine, I didn’t want to add artificial things to my body. What makes me male is the internal essence that I have.”
Gender vs. orientation

Boys who play with dolls and girls who play with toy trucks won’t necessarily grow up to be gay, lesbian or transgender, says Dennis Foley, a psychologist at University of Rochester Medical Center. He specializes in gender and sexual orientation issues and is quick to point out that those are two separate issues. Transsexuals can be heterosexual, gay or bisexual; that sexual orientation typically doesn’t change.

His advice to parents and grandparents is to let children be who they are: “I think children need to be supported in whatever ways they express themselves — as long as they’re safe and not harming anyone.”

Tanya Smolinsky, program director at the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley, talks about gender as a continuum. Look around at your friends or co-workers and you’ll see a range of ways that people express their femininity or masculinity, she says.

For some people, expressing their gender causes anxiety. Linda’s distress was so severe she had suicidal thoughts.

As a teenager, she met some lesbians and wondered, “Maybe this is what it is I am.” But finally, in her late 30s, when a 14-year relationship with another woman ended, Linda underwent extensive counseling and decided that she had to make the change or she would die.

“I feel like I aligned my outer appearance with my inner spirit and essence. You’re not losing the person...you’re actually gaining a more whole person.”

Life is good now for Carver, but he still is careful. He wears workout clothes to and from the gym to avoid changing in the locker room.

Although he has had excellent medical care, he fears what might happen if he were ever unconscious and needed medical attention.

In 1995, Tyrone “Tyra” Hunter — a transsexual dressed as a woman but who had male genitalia — was denied lifesaving treatment and mocked by firefighters in Washington, D.C., after she was rendered unconscious in a car accident. The subsequent discrimination suit was settled in court.

Feelings won’t go away
Growing up in the Buffalo suburb of Kenmore, Dave Rosen sometimes experimented secretly with his mother’s cosmetics in the house’s one bathroom while everyone else slept. It was exhilarating, scary and confusing.

But to everyone else Dave seemed all guy. High school linebacker. Champion wrestler.
He mostly resisted the urges to explore his feminine side. After college, Rosen married and settled in Pittsford from 1981 to 1996. He became a successful computer consultant and ran a video production company, Advanced Video Design at Schoen Place in Pittsford.

Yet it was as if Rosen was trying to ignore a strange lump in his body. He hoped it would go away. “I had this ache, this feeling, this pain, this discomfort, this frustration.... Eventually you get to a point where you say, ‘I need to go to a doctor.’”

He flew to see a New Jersey psychologist specializing in gender issues, who listened to Rosen’s story and told him he was transsexual.

“He went on to warn that this was not something that would go away,” Rosen recalls.
When Rosen told his wife his secret, “I think she got more sad than anything. In the ensuing days she indicated that this had no part in our lives together and that I needed to do whatever it took to fight it.”

But that approach didn’t last. After the family moved to Arizona in 1996, Rosen began hormone treatment and alerted his new employer.

The company, which could have fired him because there was no protection for transsexuals, instead decided to bring in a consultant from California to help figure out how and when to present the issue to employees.

The consultant called for a three-month preparation. More than 200 hours of painful facial electrolysis, at $55 an hour, took care of Rosen’s beard. Meanwhile, Rosen was separated from his wife and son and overwhelmed by this major life transition.

The day before the scheduled announcement at work, Rosen canceled the plans and called his wife. “I went home and tried to be a guy again,” Rosen says. Ultimately he concluded the real problem was that he’d let other people be in charge of the transition.
Rosen hired a female image consultant — who’d never helped a transsexual before — to help him learn how to walk, dress and act like a woman. Rosen learned to deliberately speak in an upper register.

In February 1999, Rosen went to a mall dressed as a woman for a day of firsts. “You have no clue how scary it is,” says Rosen, who was then 40. “I went into the ladies room for the first time. I felt so self-conscious and awkward and uncomfortable at first.” But the day went smoothly.

Donna Rosen, above, after sex-reassignment, sharply contrasts with the championship wrestler from high school days when she was Dave Rosen.
After that, her face was reconstructed by a surgeon in San Francisco. Rosen changed her name to Donna on her driver’s license and other paperwork, even her school records.
After her sex-reassignment surgery in 2000, she was able to change the gender on her passport and Social Security card.

Returning to work was incredibly awkward. Colleagues nonchalantly paraded by her cubicle. They whispered, “Rosen’s wearing makeup.”

Co-workers were particularly concerned about which bathroom Rosen would use, so she traveled to one two floors away, at the other end of the complex.

Eventually the work climate became so uncomfortable that Rosen quit. She now lives in Texas.

Rosen’s sister, Judy Rosen of Brighton, N.Y., was initially shocked but now accepts that her oldest brother is now Donna.

“It didn’t hurt me or my children,” Judy says. “All that was required was for me to learn about it, to try to understand. I would describe it as a birth defect that you can’t see.”
But it was more complicated for Donna’s son, Andy, who moved in with Donna in 2002. At 16 and at a new school, he didn’t tell classmates that the female parent he lived with was once Dad.

“At first, it was kind of hard to get used to it. I didn’t talk to her for seven months,” says Andy, who felt like he’d lost his dad. His parents were divorced lin 2001.
Andy saw that Donna was happier and that she lived a regular life.
He looks at transsexuals differently: “It’s not their fault. They can’t help it.”

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