When Eli Grossman looks in the mirror, he sees a completely different person staring back than he did two years ago.
If you passed the 22 year-old on the street, you wouldn’t think twice about him. But appearances can be deceiving.
Rewind two years back, however, and you would have seen Tami — a sociology student who graduated from Virginia Tech in 2011.
Grossman is transgender — he was born a female, but associates more with the male gender. He has been transitioning for the past 18 months.
Tami first came out as a lesbian when she was 16, but something didn’t feel right. It wasn’t until she was in college and performed in the LGBTA’s annual drag show on campus that she decided to make the change.
“It all kinda clicked. I feel way more comfortable like this,” he said.
Suddenly, the option Grossman never considered became crystal clear — he identified more as a man than a woman. But he didn’t know where to start, and spent a summer obsessively researching transitioning and the processes involved in making the drastic change.
“Transitioning” is the process of changing sexes from male to female or female to male, and usually involves taking hormones and potentially undergoing surgery to change the physicalities of sex organs.
Grossman has been transitioning for the past 18 months by taking testosterone. Later this month, Grossman will complete his transition with a bilateral mastectomy: the removal of both his breasts.
Transitioning from one gender to another begins with gender therapy before hormones are even prescribed. Gender therapy is a type of counseling that helps break down the process of transitioning so patients know what to expect and can discuss anxieties or questions before beginning hormone therapy.
Being transgender has been labeled as a mental disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) since 1980. The manual has included “gender identity disorder” in every version of its publication until this year — with 2013 being the first year that the DSM won’t list it as a disorder, but instead replace it with a more neutral label of “gender dysphoria.”
“Having it in the DSM is a good thing because people who are trans can say, ‘Look, you have to help me transition because this book says so,’” says Catherine Cotrupi, LGBTA coordinator at Tech.
With it listed in the book, transgender individuals can seek out help for their condition.
“It’s also a bad thing it’s in the DSM because doctors and psychiatrists can say ‘Look, it’s in this book, which means there is something wrong with you that we can fix,’” she said.
Grossman went to see the only gender therapist in Southwest Virginia, Andy Matzner, who operates out of Roanoke. Matzner, a licensed clinical social worker and life coach, sees people who come from hours away for approval to begin hormones. Though it is recommended they go through three months of gender therapy, Matzner believes that such an extensive therapy treatment isn’t necessary.
“Usually people know from a very young age that they’re transgender. It’s just a matter of when they want to begin the transition,” Matzner said. “I hate to make people jump through those hoops if they don’t have to.”
Matzner said that no one he ever treated has expressed regret over the transition. However the thing most commonly addressed is the anxiety of passing as the opposite gender.
“Once you start living as the opposite gender, it can be scary. What happens if I have to use the bathroom? What happens if someone figures me out?” Matzner said.
Grossman typically passes as a man thanks to a binder that restricts his chest and facial hair from hormone replacement therapy he’s been receiving for the last year and a half. However, when speaking on the phone with clients, it’s not uncommon for the voice at the end of the line to mistake him for a woman.
The testosterone is administered in the form of an injection once every two weeks, and Grossman will have to continue with the testosterone for the rest of his life.