Memoirs and biographies of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances are big business. So big, in fact, that these compelling stories regularly represent the largest portion of the nonfiction book market, according to most New York Times Nonfiction Bestsellers lists. It seems we're interested in what makes people tick and to hear (or read) their stories.
So lucrative are these stories that many of them are partially or fully fictionalized with salacious and titillating details to help gain interview slots on TV talk shows and sell books. The fraudulent authors are eventually exposed, usually by Oprah. But Oprah won't have to do any finger-wagging at Myrtle Beach resident Chris Goldman, whose story of a recent sex change and transition from male-to-female seems epic in its scope, unbelievable to some, yet is quite true.
The poster (girl?) boy for sex changes in today's pop culture is Chaz (formerly Chastity) Bono, the only offspring of superstar celebrity couple Sonny and Cher, who is a female-to-male transsexual, a transgender advocate, and author. His most recent book "Transition: The Story Of How I Became A Man" was published in May and his story (with added celebrity status) in many ways mirrors Goldman's, whose recent sex change and return to Myrtle Beach from a 60-day medical trip to Thailand is also a story of transitioning for friends and family. They say she is still the same Chris they know and love - but he is now a she, and though unnerving at first blush, it's just something to get used to - like a friend with a new hairdo. Her story, which began as his story, is a look at the man who became a woman, or as Goldman says, a self-fulfilling journey of a person that "became the woman I always knew I was."
The tall, reserved and usually shy Goldman, 37, secretly traveled to Thailand in March, the world's leading location for gender reassignment surgery (GRS), and then slowly outed herself on Facebook . Goldman's story is not about cross-dressing, sexual orientation, or transvestism. At considerable personal expense, Goldman has become a fully-transitioned male-to-female transsexual woman. The highly technical surgery is performed tens of thousands of times annually around the world and is becoming more common each year, though reliable statistics are hard to come by. A widely quoted Dutch study says that those seeking treatment, including counseling, hormone therapy and/or surgery may be as high as 1 out of every 4,500 males and 1 out of every 8,000 females world-wide. Other studies suggest a much lower incidence. Regardless, many transsexuals are out and proud and less stigmatized than in the past - but it wasn't always that way.
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"I remember in high school reading about Caroline Cossey, known as Tula," said Goldman, who is originally from Washington, D.C. Tula was born Barry Cossey, and became urban folklore when it was discovered after the success of the 1981 James Bond flick "For Your Eyes Only," that the stunning 6-foot tall Bond girl had once been a man. Goldman knows these stories of the world's transsexual community inside and out. She's been studying their lives in secret since she was a teenager. "Before the Internet I had to go to out-of-town libraries and bookstores to read their books," she said. Throughout her post-adolescent life Goldman went through periods of denial and acceptance, serious depression, substance abuse, weight gain and loss, even bodybuilding in her attempt to reconcile an inner conflict most people couldn't begin to understand - the technical term is Gender Dysphoria, and though it's a psychiatric classification found in the mental disorder bible, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), transsexualism it is not generally considered a mental illness by most in the modern medical community, though there is plenty of debate.
The term transgender, as opposed to transsexual, is the broader classification used to describe a wide variety of gender identity and sexual orientation issues. "A lot of people do not understand that individuals who define themselves as [transsexual] believe that the gender they are is not reflected [physically] in their bodies," said Susan Marciano, Ph.D., a licensed clinical practitioner (therapist and counselor), based in Columbia who has worked with the transgender population for nearly a decade. "So there's an internal conflict that does not have anything to do with sexual orientation, it has nothing to do with sex at all, for that matter, but rather with the physical body. The issue is the ability to match the body with the inner perception of self. They really want others to see them as they see themselves."
The Early Struggle
Goldman was at ease talking with me recently in the living room of her large home in Myrtle Beach, where she lives with her three dogs, a cat, and operates a home office for an import distribution business. Our face-to-face conversations were my first in-person communications with Goldman, who I'd known casually for many years, having been introduced by a mutual friend five years ago. The young man I once knew, who was a long-time regular at Biminis Oyster Bar and Seafood Cafe in Myrtle Beach, was now a woman, and it took me all of two minutes to get over the initial shock of seeing my feminized formerly masculine acquaintance. She had had a recent haircut, manicure and pedicure, and was dressed casually in a close-fitting T-shirt top and shorts. "I'm happier than I've ever been in my life," she said, relaxing as we started to discuss in detail her physical and emotional transition from male-to-female. Her story began with her earliest recollections that something was wrong, very wrong.
"I remember as a child, maybe 2 or 3, being most comfortable in my sister's room - the pink colors - the surroundings of what a girl would want. From my earliest memories I knew I was in the wrong body - even before I knew what that meant. I didn't like what boys did, I was scared of boys, very risk averse. I didn't like the rough play. I was more communal. I knew that girls and women interacted differently with society." In addition to relating with and to females, Goldman began to feel strangely about his own body. "I never recognized the [male] genitalia. I hated it. It was before I knew what a vagina was, but I knew what I had wasn't supposed to be there." Goldman is describing gender dysphoria or body dysmorphic disorder, which is sometimes simply a general or specific extreme displeasure with certain aspects of one's body. It's estimated that up to two percent of the world's population may meet the diagnostic standards of body dysmorphic disorder, which is a close cousin to eating disorders, such as anorexia.
"I guess I was about 16 when I read Caroline Cossey's book 'My Story'," said Goldman. "I must have read it a thousand times. Before the Internet I couldn't even imagine transitioning. My only exposure to transsexuals was on 'The Jerry Springer Show,' and I certainly didn't and don't want to be a freak. We were - and still are - marginalized by the media, so I didn't want to come out." Popular culture regularly satirizes those with gender disorders; from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," to "South Park," little compassion is shown. Goldman learned to cope with his gender crisis, remained outwardly male, went through college, then law school in the D.C. area, deciding ultimately he didn't really want to practice law.
While in school and through travels back and forth to Myrtle Beach, where the family vacationed, Goldman met a young woman, the two fell in love, and decided to marry. Sometime around 2000, at Goldman's urging, the couple moved to Miami. "My plan was to transition there, and come out to her," she said, which is ultimately what occurred, with heartbreaking results for both. The failed relationship is a particularly sad chapter for Goldman, who says of her former fiancée "she was the love of my life. I hoped in vain she would stay with me." It's not uncommon for the partners of transsexuals to stay in relationships post-operation, but Goldman's fiancé did not, and could not reconcile the man she loved with what he was planning to do. She has since married and is raising a family, but Goldman has not spoken with her in years.
Straight Man, Gay Woman
Goldman as a man was not gay, never had gay relationships or experiences, and was always sexually attracted to women, which is still the case. "Now I'm a lesbian, I guess. I have no sexual interest in men." The sexual orientation of post-op (after the surgery) male-to-female transsexuals is uncertain, and malleable, with no clear trend, according to Milton Diamond, Ph.D. of the University of Hawaii, in his research published in 2003. Goldman agrees. "Some transsexual women find their [sexual] orientation changing after surgery," he said, "but most do not." Goldman has befriended many in the online transsexual community, and learns from their experiences. "Your sexual orientation before and after surgery usually remains the same." The presumed gay orientation of all transsexuals is one of the many myths Goldman is interested in dispelling. "There's a big difference between [transsexuals and] transvestite or gay or lesbian," says Marciano. "Not all transgender people feel supported in the LGBT [lesbian gay bi-sexual transgender] environment."
Goldman believes that science is getting closer to the answers of why some individuals are transsexual and thinks that it might begin with the similarities of the male and female while in utero. "All fetuses start out as female," she said, "and then something magical occurs where you either become a male, or stay female." Goldman is correct about the early stages of fetal development. During that process about half of pregnant mothers send a burst of estrogen into the embryonic fluid, which surrounds the fetus preventing it from developing into a male. If this doesn't happen the clitoris becomes a penis, other physical changes manifest themselves, and the fetus becomes male, thus accounting for the approximate equal male-to-female birth rates. But some scientists and researchers believe that something else occasionally happens, resulting in intersex children (formerly referred to as hermaphrodite) - a child born with both male and female genitalia - or something no less astonishing, a female brain developing in a male body, or conversely a male brain in a female body, leading to transsexualism. No one knows for sure and the topic is hotly debated. Many who identify as "trans" fit on a continuum from those who might only occasionally be interested in cross-dressing, to those who seek full gender reassignment surgery - and everywhere in between.
The long sought-after answer to the gay/straight nature/nurture question may be also found in this early fetal development, but science is a long way from understanding. "There's simply not enough research to determine if there's a genetic component to gender dysphoria," says Marciano. In post mortems of transsexuals, physiological differences have been found in the brain, supporting these theories, and this research is important to Goldman who studies the emerging science constantly. "It's important to me that science determines a physiological answer to 'why' because it would give us more respect," she said.
Life is not easy for the transgender and transsexual community, and it begins with respect, of which there is often little.
"We're not freaks," said Goldman. "And I don't want people who knew me to think I'd been working too hard, went crazy and got a sex change. That's the most important thing I want people to understand. Even though we're lumped in with the LGBT, we're not really well understood or represented. My transitioning has nothing to do with my sexual orientation, and that's true of many - if not most - transsexuals. I don't like being under the transgender umbrella, because it includes cross dressers, transvestites, drag queens - and I don't relate to any of that. The gay designations refer to sexual orientation, which is not what transsexualism is all about." In an irony not totally lost on Goldman, she realizes that as a woman attracted to women, she is now considered a lesbian, and is a part of the very community in which she feels no connection.
Under The Knife
Goldman says her transition will last a lifetime, but that the majority of the physical work is done. "I'd still like to have vocal feminization, a laryngoplasty," she said of a process to permanently help feminize the voice. Goldman still speaks with the masculine voice she's had since adulthood. "When I'm talking to people who know me, I just speak naturally," she said. "I don't want to be a phony - I'm not playing some role here. It just seems too weird to try to feminize my voice with people I know. But when I'm shopping, or meet new people I can speak with a more feminine voice, and that seems natural, too. The vocal feminization is really the last surgery - it's about $9,000. I've already spent close to $100,000 [including hormone treatments, therapy, and surgeries] so I have to wait for this."
The medical intervention for Goldman began some 10 years ago with the first course of hormone treatments and electrolysis to remove facial and body hair. Then came facial reconstruction surgery in 2005, which in essence breaks most of the facial bones, the brow bone of the skull, and realigns them and reshapes them in a more feminine way, with silicone cheek implants added to finish the look. She had her Adam's apple shaved down and had finished a course of mandatory pre-operative therapy and counseling before scheduling genital reconstructive surgery, called a Vaginoplasty, with a widely recognized GRS doctor in Thailand. With the GRS came breast augmentation, a time to heal, and her return to Myrtle Beach.
But can a man really be turned into a woman? The answer may surprise you.
The first frightening attempts at GRS date back to the 1920s with experimental surgery, and even cases of self-mutilation, but the modern surgical techniques are so convincing, so practiced and perfected (at least in the male-to-female reconstructions), that gynecologists are often fooled until they really look carefully. Earlier this year Goldman's GRS surgery required skin grafts, the complete reshaping of penile tissue and scrotal skin, the removal of the testes - the complete reworking of existing male genitalia - all to create convincing female genitalia, though obviously without reproductive potential. Internet image searches of completed similar vaginoplasty surgeries prove the artistic skill of the surgeons - the photos are quite convincing - but what about sex?
Portions of the sensitive nerve network of the genitalia remain unharmed, which can create reasonable sexual functioning and sexual pleasure for the transsexual patient. Over time and with continued hormone therapy the newly created faux female genitalia even self lubricates, in much the same way as naturally-born women might expect. Goldman faces more medical expenses down the road and now must see a gynecologist, as well as a primary care M.D. The slowly growing acceptance of medically indicated transsexual patients has led to interesting court cases, surgeries covered by major healthcare providers, and major corporations paying for all or part of the involved expenses. If you think GRS is rare, think again.
GRS In The Mainstream
According to a recent report on the Huffington Post, Campbell's Soup, Wells-Fargo, Coca-Cola and a growing number of large corporations are all covering the costs (often up to $75,000) of gender reassignment surgery in their employee health benefits. The American Medical Association and its counterparts around the world also see GRS as medically indicated, not elective, and more and more companies and health providers are following suit. Human Rights Campaign, the world's largest LGBT rights watchdog says that American Express, Kraft Foods, AT&T, Sears, and General Motors are also among nearly 100 large businesses that cover some of the procedures. This growing acceptance of transsexuals and gender reassignment surgeries comes at a cost and is fraught with legal pitfalls and challenges.
Some Weekly Surge readers may be too young to remember the first mainstream media transsexual, Christine Jorgensen, a young G.I. who in 1952 underwent GRS in Sweden to transform himself into a herself, and became the first world-famous personality behind the then-quite-rare surgery. Then in 1976 tennis player Renee Richards (born a male named Richard Raskind) made international headlines when the New York State Supreme Court upheld her right to compete in the U.S. Open as a woman, overturning a ban by the United States Tennis Association. The ruling in her favor became a landmark case affirming the rights of transsexuals to be legally recognized as their new gender.
Jorgensen, Richards, and Bono, are a few of the most famous transsexuals - there are many more transsexual men and woman in positions of power acting as corporate executives, civil servants, politicians, Hollywood elite, and those you would never suspect and will never know. The transsexual community transcends many socio-economic and racial barriers.
Law and Order
Recently in a Texas court Nikki Araguz, a post-op transsexual woman, was denied death benefits from her late husband's estate. Capt. Thomas Araguz was a firefighter killed in the line of duty last year, and recently a Texas judged ruled against Capt. Araguz's transsexual widow. Nikki Araguz will appeal the ruling saying that her marriage was honest and legal under Texas law. She was a post-op transsexual at the time of her marriage. Her late husband's family took her to court to deny her death benefits and the family has won the first round. "Texas is way behind most states, " said Goldman, who is already becoming an advocate for the transsexual community at large, and whose law degree and training gives her a qualified legal perspective. "The weird conundrum there is that by denying the legality of her marriage, because she was once a man, means that she could only legally get married to a women - because you can't tell someone they can't marry anyone - but since Texas does recognize her legally as a woman, then marriage to another woman would essentially legalize same-sex marriage in Texas." Goldman thinks the appeal will be successful, and that Nikki Araguz will receive the money due any spouse in a similar situation.
"We got sold out when the Americans With Disabilities act, singled out transsexuals from its protections. Homosexuals are protected by the ADA, and Federal Hate Crimes legislation." Goldman feels that despite the lumping in at the end of the LGBT acronym, that some in the gay community do not like transsexuals. "The distinction among gays, lesbians and bisexuals is their sexuality, a sexual motive, sexual orientation. That has nothing to do with transsexuality - it's a gender identity issue." The concepts are interesting, confusing, and divisive. But how will life as an out and proud transsexual in a small
Southern town, namely Myrtle Beach, be for Goldman? Only time will tell, but so far so good.
"My friends have all been so great, so far," says Goldman, especially of her gal pals. Courtney Tayloe, 31, has been a friend for many years. "We were really, really close," said Tayloe, "then I went off to college, but we reconnected about seven months ago on Facebook, and have been talking ever since. I had no clue [she was transitioning]. I was a little shocked, but I don't judge what makes people happy. Chris was my friend before transitioning and she's my friend now. She is still the same person. We talk every day - about everything - girl talk, shopping, hair and nails, and the life changes for her. I'm very proud of her - this is a big step, and new life for her. She's still hilarious, has the same personality, she hasn't changed at all except she's a happier Chris."
There is a tiny but growing transsexual community in Myrtle Beach, according to Goldman, but one she hasn't yet connected with. "I know of one other out TS (transsexual) in Myrtle Beach," she said. "We're supposed to have lunch next week."
Myrtle Beach's transsexual community may not yet be large enough for a support group, but down the coast in the Holy City, there's C.A.T.S., (Charleston Area Transgender Support) an organization whose Web site (www.transgender.org/cats/home) is filled with links to statewide support groups, gender law contacts, medical and hotline information and some glimmer of hope for a growing local awareness. But the goal of Goldman and most transsexual individuals is to live normal lives in the places they call home. "Life has been surprisingly normal," said Goldman. "I went to Victoria's Secret recently to buy a bra and clearly the girl measuring me had no clue about my transitioning. I spent about two hours shopping and didn't receive so much as a stare - so my goal of passing in Myrtle Beach has proven successful. My neighbors have been overwhelmingly supportive, all my friends I've seen in person - they have all been very positive. Sadly I think I may be an exception to the usual transitioning experience."
So her friends have been supportive - how about family?
"My dad took it great," said Goldman, "my mom, not as well. But we're all dealing." Goldman's father, a movie producer and screen writer in the 1970s and '80s, and now involved in foreign language film distribution, lives in Washington D.C. He wants what any good parent wants for their children - their safety and happiness.
"I love Chris dearly," said Goldman's father, Ronald Goldman. "We're still processing all this. It's not all that long ago that the change took place. Early on I knew Chris was unhappy, but he refused to talk to me about it. And it was about 10 years ago he came up to D.C. with a letter from a prominent doctor, who was referring to my then-son, as 'Miss.' I read the letter and he started to explain it. This was something programmed into his genes - she is a woman. I knew for years that the transitioning is what she wanted to do, but she kept me in the dark about going to Thailand, as she did everyone - she didn't want people chasing her down trying to talk her out of it, which I understand. You know, you only go through life once, and I wanted my child to happy, and if this helps her become happy, then great - I'm happy for the situation. My major concern was people [in Myrtle Beach] not understanding what she's gone through, and becoming violent - thank God that has not occurred to this point. I think that places like San Francisco or Miami would be more understanding, but so far everyone in Myrtle Beach has been great."
In speaking with Goldman, her friends, and family, it was difficult for all of us not to slip up and use the incorrect gender designation - he/her, she/him, etc. - when speaking of Goldman specifically, or any transsexual person. I caught myself on more than one occasion telling her "thanks, man," something I would never normally say to a woman. Goldman, too, made a few slips when referring to Chaz Bono or other transsexuals, but she never showed shock or anger, with the inevitable faux pas. As Goldman comes to grip with the reality of gender change, she also understands that those around her must get used to the idea that he is now a she, which is sometimes easier said than done. The transition is just as profound for those who now must relate to Goldman as a woman after knowing her as a man.
Goldman's father, a man who clearly loves his child, may have said it best, with some emotion in his voice: "Thank you for doing this story about my daughter. I want her to be happy, I love her dearly."