Who am I? Isn’t that the life-long question we all face over and over again and in myriad ways? I do. I know, I’m Linda –whoever that is. Star stuff, for sure! Same as the elements that make up the trees and grasses outside my window. But as for who others think I am, well, I can’t control that, much. I can write up my bio declaring that I’m this and that, and I can somewhat arrange how people perceive me simply by what I decide to post about myself on Facebook! But, I don’t fool myself by my posts — I am still the person who wakes up each day knowing I am still becoming who I am.
But, one thing I am clear about is that I am a woman, in a woman’s body, and I am self-defining and self-identifying what this means to me all the time. I’ve learned over the span of my 64 years that my body does not lie. If I feel it in my body, it’s my truth. This knowing is one of the most important aspects of my being. It informs every decision I make, as long as I’m listening to myself.
It takes courage to listen to oneself, and to be true to oneself, to be honest first and foremost with oneself. My mama quoted Shakespear often when I was growing up. “To Thine Own Self Be True.” It takes courage to dig deep and figure out who we are and who we want to be. It also takes courage to let go of being someone that we know we’re not — or to let go of continuing to do something that no longer fulfills us. To change takes such courage.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be” Lao Tzu said that…
Seth T. Pardo is a man of courage. I met Seth at the secret waterfall in Mexico we go to every year with our women’s retreats. He and his partner, a clinical psychologist, and a couple other friends of theirs joined us for the hike through the jungle where at the end of the trail most of us stripped down naked and dove into the water. I’d met Seth the day prior to our jungle adventure, when he came by our Palapa to talk about the trip. I learned then that he lived in San Francisco, and was teaching at a university there. I had no idea then that he did his doctoral studies in the Department of Human Development at Cornell, with concentrations in Cognitive and Developmental Psychology and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, or that he was a Lead Evaluator at the San Francisco Department of Public Health or an Adjunct Instructor at Alliant International University. All I knew was that he was a nice guy with a beautiful partner and seemed really cool.
At the waterfall, the next day, I noticed that he didn’t seem comfortable to take off his all his clothes. I notice those kinds of things because I guess I don’t want to be the only one going naked and I’m just not willing to wear a bathing suit at a place like the secret waterfall! But, when he took off his shirt I was standing next to him and saw he had two scars across his chest. I blurted out, “what happened?” thinking he had an accident or something. He said, “I had an operation.” I can only explain that it was something like cognitive dissonance for me, because I still had not put it together that Seth was a guy, who was a girl in the past. He must have liked me and felt that I was truly being authentic and naive, because at that point, Seth decided to explain things to me. And suddenly, I felt like a complete idiot. BUT, OF COURSE! Oh… I get it. Duh!
But, did I really get it. No! It was the first time I ever saw the scars of an operation that someone chose to have, to remove their breasts. Cancer causes, I understood…but by choice? Inside, even though I still related to Seth as a guy, and what a beautiful guy at that, underneath I kept thinking, but why take such a drastic course — surgically modifying one’s body. Ouch! So, I was thrilled when I got a chance to interview Seth a couple weeks ago. I had a lot of questions I’d never had anyone to ask.
I highly recommend you repost this interview because it is so important, and also read Seth’s study, Research, Facts and Findings: Growing up Transgender by clicking the above link. Thanks to Seth for agreeing to do this Skype interview for Teen Talking Circles, and thanks to Lilly for transcribing. Lilly came to work today saying she had just finished reading Middlesex, and wished it had not ended. She was thrilled to be able to work on this transcription.
So…Welcome to June everyone.
Linda Wolf: When we met, I thought you were a guy, Seth.
Seth Pardo: I am.
LW: I mean I thought you were born a guy. I never imagined that you might have been born a female. Does this happen to you a lot, perhaps it’s something you enjoy—that people don’t know?
SP: Yes, it’s definitely something that I enjoy, that I have the option to come out if I want to. However, there are plenty of individuals within and around the trans community who make it a point to always be out. They wear their trans history and their narrative on their skin, out loud, and up front. I do that in certain contexts; I don’t do that in every context. Within the community its called “going stealth.” What it means is, somebody doesn’t have to be outed or out their trans history if they don’t want to– they can roam around in this world and no one will ever know. Their partners might not even know, though that’s rare these days. Some of their friends don’t know. Some of my friends don’t know. It is important to me, though, that people know what it means to be trans and that I am trans, that I have a trans history, and my history informs what I know about gender, and it informs what I know about being a man, and it informs what I know about being in a female body.
I’m picky about who I disclose to because there is a lot of discrimination. People lose their lives because they’re trans. Human beings can do such cruel things to each other based on things like gender.
LW: It seems to me like you have a very unusual capacity for compassion and understanding of both genders, having lived in two skins, so to speak.
“How unhappy is unhappy enough before we do something about it?”
SP: Yes, I lived twenty-eight years of my life in a female body and I tried for a very long time to explore my identity and my experience in that body. But, I was depressed and unhappy — not to the point where it interfered with my life—I was in graduate school, had completed a master’s degree, and was on my way to getting a doctorate in developmental psychology. I’d graduated top of my class in high school—I was high functioning. But, I thought to myself, how unhappy is unhappy enough before I would do something about it? When I imagined the future, I could not imagine having the rest of my life in the body I then lived in. It was like I was constantly waiting for it to change on its own. But, I’m a developmental psychologist! I know that’s not going to happen. I went through puberty already and that was it. The decision to transition was a very difficult one and also a monumental one.
Before I transitioned, I went through a deep exploration of Self in a female body, really trying to make it work, really challenging myself to see if this was a way I could envision my future and having the answer always come back “No.” I started seeing a therapist when I was fifteen—that was encouraged in my family—and I have been seeing different therapists ever since. Those conversations allowed me to do the kind of exploration, the kind of soul searching, the kind of work that is required, as a human being, to have that empathy and self insight and self-awareness that you’re talking about — empathic and insightful and emotionally intelligent. I’ve had those skills my whole life; being trans is not what made that so. But it is having those qualities and having a trans-lived experienced that makes me able to communicate to others. It matters to me that I was in female body for twenty-eight years, but it also matters to me that I am seen as male in society, today. That is how I feel most comfortable and consistent with myself. I spent so much time trying to inhabit my life in a female body. It wasn’t that long ago. I deeply appreciate how supportive my family was and is, and am grateful for what I was able to learn about communication, interpersonal relating, over the course of my life. I don’t ignore my history in the female body. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I was not who I was then.
LW: So, you must have more compassion for men, and a more complex understanding of the pros and cons of being male, in a still male-dominant world? It’s clearly changing, but not fast enough…
SP: Patriarchy and male dominance really did a number on our society and throughout the world, when a system run by men declared women a piece of property, and as such devalued the authentic contributions of women to our society…
LW: …Riane Eisler identified it as dominance verses partnership or power-over instead of power-with – the violence towards women and girls, which continues and continues today, and the power differential that harms everyone, nature, even the health of our planet… So, I’m wondering if you feel you have more personal power as a male now, than you would have if you were perceived as a female?
SP: Yes, in our society, in the world, the way it’s set up, absolutely. As someone who is recognized in society as a white male, I have perhaps the pinnacle of privilege. It’s the recognition of that privilege that allows me to wield it smartly, or gently, for things that I believe will do good and not harm. I have experienced acting from a place of privilege myself, but I learned from those experiences and try not to repeat them. I try to increase my humility at every opportunity I get. I’ve experienced my share of violent affronts.
Before my transition was complete, before my voice dropped into a normal male range, before I had facial hair, I could pass as a young teenage boy. But when you get to graduate school, it’s unusual that a seventeen year old is in a master’s degree program, you know? Whenever I opened my mouth, people knew I wasn’t male. I had people yell at me things like, “Dyke” as well as “Fag” or various expressions of derogation that were meant to hurt and discriminate. I learned to ignore it. If I were going to bathroom and people were following me, yelling at me that I was in the wrong bathroom, despite having just called me a dyke, that felt very threatening, and unsafe. It happens every day to people, sometimes all the time, at school, even at home, on the sidewalk, at parties, and if I had that experience all the time, that would be traumatic. But I don’t.
LW: I heard the suicide rate for transgendered people is nine times higher than the rate for non-trans people. Do you see that as well?
SP: Yes, they’re disproportionately higher. If you take a group of individuals that are already upset, depressed, anxious, struggling with something so fundamental as a sense of self, and you throw on top of that stigma and discrimination, and you throw on top of that public health issues like HIV or hepatitis-C, and you throw on top of that socioeconomic issues, like getting kicked out of the house at a young age, not being able to get a job because you’re different, having to work on the streets just to make ends meet, getting wrapped up in drugs or having to sell your body, doing whatever you can to achieve the body that you think is going to solve your problems…you’ve now compounded many of the world’s biggest public health, socioeconomic and mental health issues at once.
LW: You had breast removal surgery, I’m wondering if you have ever regretted it? Do you know people who regret it later?
SP: Absolutely not, for myself. The only tales of regret I’m familiar with are case studies in academic literature. Amongst my friends I don’t know a single person who regrets embarking on their transition. I will say that one of the growing considerations amongst the trans community, though, are issues of fertility. A lot of doctors don’t talk to them about their fertility options, like freezing eggs or sperm, in case someone fifteen years, twenty years later, is like, “Wait a second, what if I want to have a family with my own kids?” I think fertility consultation is one of the most important conversations that needs to happen for someone who is considering transition.
LW: Did you opt to surgically change your genitals? You don’t need to answer if you don’t want to reveal that.
SP: It’s ok – No, I have not had any surgery below the belt. That’s a personal choice I made. In my personal opinion, the technology is not where I’d like it to be for me to feel safe volunteering my genitals to that kind of procedure. I’m not judging anyone else’s decision. This is the way I view it for myself. Each of us is very different.
LW: Right, there is no one transgendered person who speaks for all transgendered people.
SP: Right, I’m very grateful to the medical community for inventing those techniques and the doctors and surgeons for improving those techniques, and for the benefits that those medical advances have afforded my trans brothers. But it’s complicated, it’s expensive, it’s painful, and I have a very loving partner and our lives work the way it does. Right now I don’t feel the need to do that to be happy and healthy.
Also, I did not have a hysterectomy. For me, it’s healthier to keep the reproductive system than it is to get rid of it. I still have to go to the doctor’s to get regular pap smears. As long as a transman still has his uterus, and a transwoman has her prostate, we’ve got to get checked. It’s awkward sitting in the OBGYN office as a man and having them call my name.
LW: That must be awkward.
SP: I always get anxious when I’m sitting there with the lab tech and that person is about to do the pap, or the exam. I dread having to go to the doctor. I still get a little uncomfortable when I walk around in my speedo. I still don’t like to get naked in public. If I go to a hot spring or a massage or a sauna I don’t walk around naked, I don’t feel comfortable.
LW: After you transitioned, starting taking hormones, and had breast surgery, did you feel differently sexually? Did what turns you on change?
SP: Sexuality is far more complicated and far more diverse and far more complex than we assume – Same with gender. I published a research study with a colleague where we found that following gender transition, even three to six months into a transition, partner preferences changed. Yet, what our data show is not that the transition causes sexuality changes; some people switch and others don’t. Part of me thinks, and this is a hypothesis I need to test, that when a person is finally able to self-authenticate and live their life fully in their own skin, they stop restricting themselves, and they go through a second developmental exploration process—[pioneering sexologist], Aaron Devor said this. There’s a second puberty, a second hormone surge, a second emotional rush, a heightened sexual appetite. A lot more things become possible, because you’re starting to figure out “Who am I now? And who am I now? And who am I now? And what do I like now?” We are such diverse, sentient beings. It would be a shame for us to limit ourselves to boxes.
LW: We have a teenage family friend who identifies as male. He’s not yet eighteen yet but is clear he wants to transition physically. He wants to go from female to male, and has been identifying as male for about five years. What advice would you suggest for the parents as well as the youth?
SP: Well, given that this person has been identifying as male for that many years, he has made it very clear what his identity is. I don’t know this individual and I’m not a clinical psychologist, so I’m not in position to advise, but I think that this is teen is old enough to know who he is for himself. I think this person is also brave, really brave, for coming out and telling his family about how he feels. The fact that the parents are willing to listen is huge. It’s a scary thing whenever a family member, especially a child, comes out and says, “I am trans. This is what I’m going to do.” It’s a scary process, and there’s a usually a grieving process when that happens. Parents are going to grieve the loss of their daughter. I came out to my parents, that I was trans, when I was fifteen. I told them that I wish I had been born a boy, and that I would rather live my life as male.
An important resource for parents and concerned adults who want more information from a supportive network of families of transyouth is the TransYouth Allies website. I’m part of their research team.
LW: This young man is very lucky. His parents are very supportive and very understanding.
SP: I suggest having a supportive therapist to talk to. If he wants to transition medically, find a therapist who will help guide him through the administrative process of getting a letter, finding a doctor who will prescribe hormones, making sure he has his labs are checked regularly, and that his body is responding well to the hormones. This is no different from a patient with pre-diabetes going to his or her doctor and talking about changes in diet or medicine. This is someone saying, “I need to do this to be a well-balanced individual.” It’s like identifying a health issue, a medical issue, and it needs to be addressed. You have conversations [with your doctor] to make sure that you’re informed of all of your options for treatment, and for moving on with one’s life, and go with the best option for you. Everybody’s different.
There’s a quote by Hillel — personally, if I were brave enough to get a tattoo I’d probably tattoo it on my body somewhere — its, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I?” I think about this quote often. It reminds me to practice self-love, it reminds me to have love for my neighbor, it reminds me to remain compassionate for others, especially those who are different from me and who make different choices than I do.
LW: Do you want ever want to have children?
SP: I’m not interested in birthing a child. I could physically still, but I’m not interested. In general, if a trans-man has a uterus, and their genitals have not been surgically modified, that person can come off testosterone, wait six months after starting their menstrual cycle again and yes, get pregnant and carry the baby to term and have a healthy, happy child!
LW: Seth, I really thank you for the work you do and for speaking so openly and honestly with me today. Thank you for who you are, thank you for being in the public realm, for being in school systems, for being so bright, intelligent, aware, educated, deep…I’m so glad you are a spokesperson in the world.
SP: It’s a pleasure, and anything I can do to educate the world about trans people, to show that we’re just like everybody else, is a privilege.
Measures of Clinical Health among Female-to-Male Transgender Persons as a Function of Sexual Orientation: S. Colton Meier, Seth T Pardo, Christine Labuski & Julia Babcock
Transgender Experience and Identity: Lisa M. Diamond, Seth T. Pardo and Molly R. Butterworth, Handbook of Identity Theory and Research
The Genderbread Person v2.0, It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, a one-man comedy
The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender, Sam Killermann