By Jameson O'Hanlon
When I was 16 years old, I thought for sure I was a lesbian, and I came out of the closet. Now, I’m 48, and it’s been almost a year since I came out for the second time. But this time, I came out as trans. How many people can say they’ve come out twice? It wasn’t until I spent an evening scrolling through my phone last November that I found myself Googling the word “transgender.” Finally, I was solving the enigma that was me, my identity: I was a man.
Immediately, I chose a therapist, emailed her, and set up an appointment. During the first 30 seconds of our first session, I declared my intention to have top surgery, but choked on my water when she told me it cost around $8,000. “Most surgeons won’t take insurance,” she advised.
In our next session, my therapist asked me if I knew about binders, since it was obvious I wasn’t wearing one. As soon as I put one on and saw my flattened chest in the mirror, a giant wave of relief washed over me. I wore the binder to work the next day and looked around nervously, waiting for someone to gawk at the missing set of melons. No one noticed. I bought a white binder, then a green one, then a gray one. I’ve been bump-free ever since.
But the summer was treacherous. The combination of the binder, my new testosterone shots and the old hot flashes made me perpetually sweaty. However, not wearing the binder was intolerable for me psychologically. I couldn’t be without it, even at home.
I began thinking about a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for surgery. I asked two good friends of ours, Joan and Melissa, a couple, to give me some advice. I talked to Joan about my transition and told her I was thinking about offering my homemade sauces and pizza dough along with local beer as gifts to donors. My wife Jules and I had made them pizza at their home months prior. We went back and forth with some ideas for the campaign.
Over the past six months, I’ve had several appointments for top surgery, starting with one in June. I knew that I wouldn’t have the money that soon—but I couldn’t bear not having an appointment scheduled. I scrimped and saved, postponing surgery until August, and then again until October. Now.
Two weeks ago, I wrote in trans.cafe that my insurance company, which refused to cover the procedure in any way before July, said suddenly it would now be covered. My first miracle! I called my surgeon’s office to gush about the news. When one of the office assistants told me I would still have to pay up front, I hung up the phone, disheartened. I decided to write them a letter and beg them to try to preauthorize through my insurance.
Before I could finish the letter, a different office assistant from my surgeon’s office called to say that they wanted to work with me, and give my insurance a chance. However, she chose her words carefully. “Just because your insurance company said on the phone they would cover it doesn’t mean they will. The last person who tried to get it covered was denied at first, and she was very persistent. She waited five months for the preauthorization. And we waited five months more for the insurance company to pay us.” The office assistant said she would file the claim and do whatever she could to help, but warned me that the surgery was unlikely to be authorized for October.
Again, the obstacles felt infinite.
But the next day after work, my wife Jules got a text message. As she squinted at her phone, her mouth dropped open.
“Oh my God,” she said, looking incredulously at me. “What? What?” I asked. She showed me the message.
Joan and Melissa told Jules that they wanted to help pay for my surgery in exchange for pizza, my specialty. On Sunday night, I brought my dough and toppings over. As we ate pizza together, Melissa said, “OK! Now let’s talk tatas.”
She looked into my eyes and said, “Every year at this time, we pay it forward by helping someone. This year, we want to do this for you. I read your trans.cafe piece, and we’re proud of you for becoming who you really are. We know you need this surgery to feel complete.” My wife began sobbing. Melissa went on to say that if I was ever reimbursed by insurance, I should buy myself a pizza oven, or invest in a pizza truck. Late into the evening, they sent us home with big hugs and a check.
It’s the next day, and it still doesn’t feel real. I don’t know how I will ever repay such an astonishing act of generosity. This surgery will help me become who I am. This gift of new life is a true miracle. But the process has made me realize how urgent transgender education is for doctors, health insurance companies, employers, family members, friends, non-profit organizations and government institutions.
Even though it shouldn’t be this way, most people like me will struggle mightily to come up with the money for life-saving surgeries. My own is scheduled for October 27, 2016. I hope that talking about this openly will help more people to understand that we go through so much just to be free.
(From trans.cafe to Joan and Melissa: Thank you for your remarkable act, you are a complete inspiration to us, our readers, and to the whole movement. It should be noted that you made the editorial team tear up from your profound generosity.)
Jameson O'Hanlon is an Asheville, North Carolina-based writer who has spent the majority of his career in the hospitality industry. His obsessions include pizza, local breweries everywhere, baseball, and writing about the trans experience. Follow him on Twitter @brewkitchen86, or his blog on Tumblr, genderpirate.tumblr.com.