Flesh is not final: How a transgender student found his form

Mea Tavares.

Editor’s note: This is the second piece in a two-part series about Mea Tavares’ experiences as a transgender person in Maine.

For Mea Tavares, 28, being transgender has often caught people and institutions, well-meaning or not, unprepared. The lack of awareness is why Mea shared his story, to emphasize the complexities of gender and to urge understanding.

To humanize those who feel a persistent difference between their assigned sex and understanding of their own gender, Mea talked recently about some of the most personal details of his life: fear for his safety in college, how hormone treatments could have given him cancer, the horror of the operating table when he got a double mastectomy.

After graduating high school in 2001, he was accepted to the University of Southern Maine in Portland where he discovered there was no clear place to live.

Tavares, who was born biologically female, roomed with another person whose assigned sex and gender identity differed, and they had their own bathroom. In theory it should have been a safe place.

But the other students on the floor talked about them in derogatory ways. One day they found the cork board on the front of their door snapped in half. Then someone damaged Mea’s car.

Administrators at USM had worked hard to get them housing with individual bathrooms, but everyone agreed that if they didn’t feel safe, they should find another arrangement. So Mea moved into “emergency” housing, which consisted of a student lounge with a folding wall, located between men’s and women’s floors.

He could hear people walking by his head as he slept at night. “It was kind of like living in a hallway,” he said.

Worse, every morning he had to choose in which direction to walk to take a shower. By that time he was passing as a male, so he didn’t want to use the women’s shower. But he knew he could be in danger if he met certain men in the males’ bathroom.

At the same time, Mea was taking classes, trying to earn a major in theater. But because he was transitioning, he no longer fit traditional roles. He couldn’t play female or male leads.

He’s now back at USM and has been in the pre-med program for two years. But back then, he dropped out.

As he continued his transition within, he also adjusted to the transitions of his life in Portland. He found work with Outright, an organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth. During the coming years he worked as a personal care assistant and then with AmeriCorps. For three years, he took testosterone treatments.

“Every day I felt more myself, and I felt more at home in my body,” he said.

He watched his body and emotions change as the hormones took effect. Instead of feeling anger in his belly, he felt it like lightening in his chest. Instead of thinking in words, he began to think in images. His shoulders started clipping doors because he wasn’t used to their size. He was surprised by the smallness of his hips. His voice changed. He grew facial hair.

But one night he woke up, looked in the mirror in the dark and didn’t recognize himself. “I realized for me, the place I lived was somewhere in the middle. Just as fully female I couldn’t see myself, I had transitioned to the point where I was starting to move away from my truth,” Mea said.

He had spent so much energy, time and money to transition toward a gender identity that was more male, “so the thought that I might not know was terrifying,” he said.

Around the same time, he also started feeling blinding pain in his lower abdomen. He was incredibly tired — to the point where he couldn’t hold conversations because his brain couldn’t focus.

But, just as higher education was not entirely prepared for a transgender student, medical professionals were often not ready for a transgender patient.

His doctor sent him to get an endometrial biopsy and ovary screening at a hospital. “I walked in, and they must have been tipped off to the fact I was coming,” Mea said. They didn’t ask him his name, just led him away from the waiting area, into a small room, and gave him a pink hospital gown.

After he had the biopsy, they recommended an internal ultrasound, for which they would need an ultrasound technician. Mea thought to ask whether the technician would be friendly to transgender people, to which a hospital employee said, “Let me get you another tech.”

Mea stood by as the hospital employee made a phone call to request another technician. “It’s having an ultra sound,” the woman said into the phone. “It’s the transgender.”

Reduced to an “it,” Mea later learned what he had feared. Having not had a menstrual cycle in three years, cysts had formed. Mea had endometrial hyperplasia, a precancerous condition. If he stopped taking testosterone, he would halt his transition. If he didn’t, he could get cancer. The likely course of care for 22-year-old Mea was a hysterectomy.

It was an option Mea couldn’t accept, and he had questions about the long-term effects. That, coupled with the fact that he felt his identity disappearing with the effects of the testosterone, led him to simply let his prescription run out. He stopped transitioning toward a more male identity.

It was the best choice for him, he said. He found he felt most complete in a state of transition. Though he is biologically female, he identifies his gender as encompassing aspects both male and female. His gender is transgender. It took time to learn exactly what outside presentation best represented his identity.

“I’m really glad to be here,” he said. “I never thought I would land in this permanent androgynous body.”

Achieving that androgynous body leads us to a final story about Mea — one of horror and strength.

It was November 2003, and Mea, who had been binding his chest for a couple years, wanted a double mastectomy. But the removal of the breasts of a transgender patient is considered an elective procedure, and he had practically no money. So he used all of his resources, took out a personal loan and looked to Canada, which had a good exchange rate. He found a plastic surgeon in Mississauga, Ontario.

So began one of the most memorable experiences of his life, shared with several friends. They drove to Canada and planned to stay for a couple weeks because Mea would need follow-up after his surgery.

They found the surgeon’s office in the middle of a shopping mall. There they sat, Mea said, “gender ambiguous queers … among well-to-do women waiting to touch up their Botox.”

In a hospital, people are usually sedated first or brought into a surgery room on a gurney. But Mea walked from a warm, pleasant intake room into a stark, cold operating room. There was a chair with thick straps, a tray of knives and people washing their hands and arms.

The surgeon said to “hop up.” Mea had to walk about eight steps to get to the chair, and he said he remembers feeling dizzy, the room blurring. The two-foot jump up onto the chair felt like falling off a cliff.

Mea had experienced a lot before that point. He had endured a year of therapy before being granted a prescription for hormone treatments. He had lost the support of some extended family members and friends for his differences. He and those who supported him had suffered harassment. He had graduated high school early to avoid the hate.

But putting himself in that chair was one of the most difficult steps yet.

Once in the chair, the medical personnel took his arms, pulled them apart and strapped them into the swinging arm supports. They pulled up the supports until his arms were extended in a crucifixion position. Bright lights shone on his face.

“For me gender is so spiritual. I was like, this is a death. This is the place where I die. And then I wake up new,” Mea said.

He did wake up new — and with intense pain. His friends borrowed a wheelchair to get him to the nearby hotel. The surgeon had placed drains in his sides, to let any liquid flow out, so Mea simply sat in bed in a hotel in a shopping mall in Canada and tried to heal.

Instead of the usual 10 days, he healed in 22 hours. The drains came out the day after the surgery. It was as if his body had been expecting the changes.

It’s always been this way, with his body waiting for Mea to find its most comfortable form. Mea is most himself as both male and female. He is in the balance.

A few days before his double mastectomy, Mea and his friends went to the beach and watched the waves. It was warm for November. He looked at his friend, who said, “I’ll go if you go.”

They took off their clothes, ran into the waves and then turned toward the shore. Their three other transgender friends were running toward them in their boxer shorts and chest bindings. Those five friends, who grew up not feeling whole in their bodies, not feeling safe in the world, let alone swimming, gave themselves up to the water. They swam freely.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.