What if you were cast as the wrong character in the story of your life? Would you be brave enough to re-write the script as Nicole is doing?
Biology is not destiny, although most cultures would have us believe that it is. The chromosomes and anatomy that render us biologically male or female carry with them gender norms that feel to some like prisons from which they long to escape, even to the point of ending their lives because the pain of living a lie is sometimes unbearable. One such person is Nicole Bray who shares her poignant and powerful journey from born male to transformed female. She is creating a film that highlights her metamorphosis as well as the steadfast love of her wife Lori.
How would you define the words Transgender and Gender Dysphoria?
Transgender is when a person’s gender identity and/or gender expression does not match up or conform to one’s assigned sex. Transgender individuals are anatomically born one sex, whereas their brain identifies as the opposite sex. For example, a person assigned male at birth identifies as the female gender. Their gender identity or gender expression does not match their assigned biological sex. Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being a man or a woman, or a boy or a girl. Gender expression is a person’s demonstration of their gender identity to others through clothing choices, hairstyles, behaviors, gestures, word choice, etc.
Like other people, Transgender individuals can identify their sexual orientation as heterosexual or homosexual or bisexual. In other words, Transgender people are attracted to, or sexually oriented toward, the opposite sex or the same sex or both sexes, as emotional gender identity does not match their anatomical sex. Gender Dysphoria causes significant depression in many Transgender individuals since they continuously experience a mismatch between their minds and their bodies.
At what point in your life were you aware that you were, as you have said, “cast as the wrong character in the story of your life”?
Around age 4, I recognized that something didn’t feel right within me. My parents kept referring to me as a boy but my brain kept insisting that I was a girl. This left me in a state of perpetual confusion. As a child, you want to please your parents and do as they tell you, but I kept wanting something very different from what they expected. They provided me with toys that were “gender-marked” for boys, but I wanted to play with dolls, play dress-up, and jump rope like the other girls were doing.
Around age 5 or 6, guest speakers came into the classroom at school to speak about jobs we could have in the medical profession. Specifically, they spoke of nurses and doctors. However, the guest speakers said that boys become doctors and girls become nurses. Then, they passed out doctor hats with the mirror on it and blue masks to all of the boys and nurse caps and pink masks to all of the girls. I eagerly anticipated the nurse cap and pink mask and was crushed when I was given the doctor hat and blue mask. I threw a little temper tantrum and requested the nurse cap and pink mask until they relented and gave me what I asked for. Everything felt “right” again when I had these items.
I remember crying a lot when I was little because things just didn’t feel right. I knew I was a girl even though everyone else kept telling me I was a boy. Every night, when I went to sleep, I prayed that I would wake up as a girl. I was disappointed every morning to find that my prayers were not answered. My birthday wishes also were to wake up the next morning as a girl, but that never happened either.
Were your parents aware of your struggle as you were growing up?
My parents weren’t aware of anything specific at the time. They did notice that I was stubborn, had to have things my way, and that I was in trouble frequently for small things. Occasionally, they corrected me on my feminine gestures and/or interests, but they didn’t think anything of it.
Looking back, my mom noticed that some of my behaviors were very different from my two brothers. I always wanted to spend time with my mom, following her around in the kitchen, desiring to be just like her! Meanwhile, my brothers were modeling my dad’s behaviors, in which I had no interest!
My mom also recalls how gentle I was with my little toy cars. She said that I would line them up perfectly and would pick them up one at a time and sail them through the air in a soft way. Furthermore, following a trip to Sea World, my mom recalls that I called her to my room because I needed to show her something. I presented to her a puppet show using some of my stuffed animals I had collected from Sea World. This happened on a few separate occasions. Finally, I remember being broken-hearted when my mom told me I was too old to continue having stuffed animals. This was around the age of 12, I suppose. Looking at gender norms, boys do tend to give up stuffed animals at an earlier age, but girls hold onto their stuffed animals for years.
Was there an attempt to keep you in emotional alignment with your physical form, with all of the cultural norms and expectations for what it meant to ‘be a man’?
Several attempts were made on my part to avoid detection from others. One of my greatest fears was having others discover that I was a female, so I made several valiant efforts to hide my feminine identity from others. For example, one of the most common organizations that Transgender Male-to-Females will join is the military. I was no different. I joined the U.S. Coast Guard in an attempt to prove my manhood to myself and everyone else around me. The cutter (type of ship) that I was on was an all-male ship, filled with Type A testosterone-loaded male personalities. There were no females with whom I could interact and, as a result, I felt as if I couldn’t relate to anyone. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my female gender identity persisted and that I could not get away from it, no matter how much I immersed myself in Coast Guard/military culture.
Additionally, I engaged in high-risk, high testosterone activities such as skydiving and extreme biking. I took my mountain bike out on the toughest of trails, which included very narrow trails with a steep drop off. This was another attempt to prove my manhood to myself and others.
When I wasn’t immersed in stereotypical male activities, I observed the behaviors, gestures, mannerisms, word choice, and so forth of men so that I could model them appropriately so that others wouldn’t know what I was really experiencing. Meanwhile, my brain naturally moved me to walk gently, choose softer catch phrases, and gesture frequently as women often do. I noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult to suppress the natural feminine behaviors and to behave according to male gender norms. Yet, I continued to play the part of “guy”.
The primary reason why I followed cultural norms and expectations for men was due to the numerous corrections from parents and other authority figures, in addition to being made fun of by peers and siblings. I wanted very little attention called to me, especially when I inadvertently reverted back to the natural feminine behaviors. My goal was to fly under the radar so people wouldn’t know that I was truly a female, even though they labeled me as male. I didn’t want to be subjected to any more bullying during my childhood years or being ostracized by my fellow shipmates in the Coast Guard or other colleagues on the job. Against my better judgment, I conformed to what society said I was as opposed to what my brain told me I am.
What were some of the personal challenges you faced as a result of your awareness that all of the puzzle pieces didn’t quite fit?
As a child, I was bullied a lot in school, especially in Middle School. I was repeatedly harassed for doing things “like a girl”. One specific instance that I remember was joining the basketball team and quitting within a couple of days after being ridiculed by many team members, “You run like a girl!”. After school, I would go to my room and snuggle with my dog as I cried. I felt as if my dog was the only one who truly loved me for the authentic person that I was. She helped me through countless rough patches in my life. I hid the bullying from my parents because I didn’t know how to tell them what was really going on. If I told them about the bullying, then I would have to tell them my secret too, and I couldn’t bear to have that happen. Truth be told, I thought something was significantly wrong with me and I felt like a pervert. In my mind, my family would be so ashamed if they found out.
It is worth noting that 41% of Transgender people attempt suicide. I must admit that I fit into the 41% and actually have attempted suicide multiple times throughout my life and have thought about suicide more times than I can count.
Where are you in the process of physically becoming female? Are you feeling more at peace as a result?
There is one more significant surgery before I physically become female and that is the Gender Confirmation Surgery and Breast Augmentation. Up until now, I have undergone seven rounds of full facial electrolysis, 1 ½ years of Hormone Replacement Therapy, four months of voice therapy, Facial Feminization Surgery (hairline advancement, eyebrow lift, forehead/orbital rim contouring, rhinoplasty, cheek implants, chin implant, and a tracheal shave), and 3 rounds of genital electrolysis. Facial Feminization Surgery is necessary for many Male-to-Female Transgender individuals as it allows them to more easily fit into female culture. There are structural bone differences in the faces of males and females. People notice these differences and assign a gender to a person because of the structure. Therefore, Male-to-Female individuals with masculine bone structures often require Facial Feminization Surgery to make it easier to blend into society.
All of these procedures have taken place in addition to two years of counseling, legal name and gender marker change, coming out to family, friends, healthcare professionals, and colleagues, not to mention acquiring an entirely new wardrobe. One overlooks how many items are included in a women’s wardrobe: shoes (dress boots, casual boots, winter boots, dress shoes, casual shoes, tennis shoes, sandals), pants (jeans, dress pants of all colors, leggings, capris), skirts, dresses, tops (long-sleeve, short-sleeve, sleeveless, sweaters, tank tops, fleeces, sweatshirts), undergarments (underwear, bras, camisoles, nylons, socks), coats (dress coats, casual coats for every season), jewelry (necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings, watches), and other items that women prefer (make-up, nail polish, hair supplies, hygiene supplies, etc.). These are items that most women accumulate over a lifetime and I needed to accumulate these items over the course of two years. Two years is about the fastest one can transition according to the standards of care set forth by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. My Gender Dysphoria is significantly severe pushing me to take the “fast track” to transition.
I never thought the day would happen when I would actually feel happy, genuine, and at peace with myself. It was always a dream to me, albeit a far-reaching dream. With every forward step I take through transition, I feel as if the person I was always meant to be is finally gaining life. The shame I felt for so many years is finally lifting. No longer do I have to live a lie by pretending to be somebody I’m not, and now I can just allow myself to engage in situations authentically rather than constantly second-guessing whether I’m fitting in with gender norms. For the first time in 39 years, I am living an authentic life!
The most pivotal moment in my transition was the day I went “Fulltime”. Interestingly enough, I didn’t even plan to go Fulltime that day. It just happened! During transition, most Transgender individuals go “Part-time” which means that sometimes they are living their life according to the gender norms associated with their anatomical sex and other times they are living their life and practicing the gender norms associated with their identified gender. When Transgender individuals transition, they usually spend a good period of time practicing makeup, walking and sitting, experimenting with clothing styles, etc., usually in the comfort of their own home and will go out in public for short periods of time. Part-time can last for months or even years. For me, I went Part-time for 4 days before going Fulltime! On August 10, 2013, I decided to go out in public presenting as Nicole, believing that this would be one aspect of my part-time experience. Everywhere I went, which included the grocery story, a restaurant, and boutiques at the mall, I was addressed as “lady”, “miss”, or ma’am”. Hearing those words, “lady”, “miss”, and “ma’am”, was the best feeling in the world! It was that very moment when I went fulltime and I haven’t looked back since!
Please speak about your wife Lori and her support of your transformation.
My wife, Lori is an amazing woman. Her support and acceptance and love of me and my transition is nothing short of miraculous! Never in a million years did I see things working out this way. For months before coming out, I feared that I was going to lose the love of my life. All of the other stories I read were heartbreaking as spouse after spouse left their Transgender partners. In fact, one of the statistics out there is that a mere 20% of marriages survive transition. I couldn’t even imagine that Lori would stay in the marriage after I came out. But, Lori never wavered for a second and she never considered leaving me. Furthermore, not only did she stay in the marriage, but she’s also my greatest supporter, cheerleader, and advocate! Our marriage is the strongest it’s ever been and I know in my heart of hearts that I couldn’t have gone through this transition without her. In fact, I’m not even sure I would still be alive if it had not been for her sticking by my side.
Besides my therapist, Lori was the first person to whom I came out. From that moment on, Lori has consistently demonstrated her ongoing support, love, and acceptance of me through verbal confessions of loving me for everything that I am and that the gender didn’t matter. Her perspective is that she fell in love with the person, the personality, the heart, and the soul and those pieces do not change through transition. The gender itself does not matter to her because the person she fell in love with is still there. Furthermore, Lori’s actions illustrate her support for me. She stood by my side and was very much a part of the coming out process to friends, family, and health care professionals, accompanying me to every appointment or consultation that I have ever had, including all the rounds of electrolysis, HRT consultation and follow-ups, FFS consultation, pre- and post-surgery and follow-ups, and will do the same with my upcoming Gender Confirmation Surgery. Furthermore, she has documented every pertinent moment of transition so that she can share our story with other families and marriages going through transition. Lori, who is a Licensed Psychologist, has developed an LGBT Counseling Center to provide counseling services to this underserved population. Before my coming out, she was already developing this program, but following my coming out, she has advanced her focus on the Transgender population and their families. She will be a great asset to the LGBT population given that she lives, breathes, and participates in my transition each and everyday! Additionally, it’s been said that when the Transgender person transitions, the partner goes through their own transition as well.
Lori truly demonstrates the definition of unconditional love and acceptance!
What have you encountered by way of both support and protest to your choices?
The only choice I’ve had in this whole experience is HOW I want to transition and whether or not I need to transition. Having this condition is not something I chose, nor is something I want. However, the severity of my condition, of my Gender Dysphoria, warrants that I transition or live miserably for the rest of my life.
All of that being said, I received tremendous support from family and friends. My parents, brothers and their families, and my friends have remained in my life and are putting forth the effort to understand more about Transgender and Gender Dysphoria. My wife’s parents, brother and his family, and her friends stand by her side and support me in my transition. Everyone uses the correct name and pronouns and check in with me often to see how I am doing. I feel very fortunate to have such great support from my family and friends. I am very much aware that my experience is definitely not the norm for most Transgender people.
The only protest that I encountered was from a distant family member on my wife’s side of the family. A few other extended family members, in turn, followed the protest. However, I was never close to those family members; therefore, the loss had minimal impact. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that there continues to be a significant portion of people in the world who judge a condition and the person who has the condition before they know anything about it.
Please talk about the documentary and how people can support you in it.
The documentary is currently titled, “Untitled Documentary – Nicole’s Story”. For now, there is an unspecific title since we are looking to have a Director/Producer team sign on to lead the development and overall direction of the documentary. Once this team signs on, we will work together to develop a powerful title for the documentary.
From the very moment that I came out, I knew I wanted to create a documentary about my transition journey. At the time, I had no idea what direction I would take it especially since I wasn’t sure how people would react to my transition. Once I saw that my transition experience was actually quite positive, I knew that I needed to share my story with others. There are too many stories out there about the misfortune that Transgender people face. While I understand that is the current reality, I also know there is potential for Transgender people to have positive experiences. Unfortunately, we just don’t hear those stories, which likely perpetuates the negative perspectives much of society has about Transgender people.
The purpose of the documentary is to demonstrate to the general public, Transgender people, their families and friends, and medical and mental health professionals the multiple layers involved in transition. The documentary will provide education on theories behind causes of Transgender, what Transgender is and is not, options for transition paths, an interview with me regarding the ups and downs of my transition, interviews with my wife, family members and friends regarding their experiences of my transition, and so forth.
People can support the documentary in two different ways. First, if people are on Facebook, they can visit the Facebook page for “Untitled Documentary – Nicole’s Story” and click “LIKE” to demonstrate their support for the documentary. Currently, there are 328 supporters of the documentary page and we hope to accumulate a substantial following. Second, a fundraiser will be launched in the coming week to raise the money necessary to assist with the preproduction costs of the documentary. The fundraiser will be listed on www.indiegogo.com and is called “Untitled Documentary – Nicole’s Story”. Preproduction costs are currently estimated at $30,000. There are perks available for those who donate! Donators should consider themselves as contributors to a documentary that can truly change the lives of Transgender people and change perspectives of general society toward Transgender people.
Anything else to share?
One of the main things that I want to emphasize is that being Transgender is truly a medical condition and is NOT a choice. There are many theories out there about the causes of Transgender and one of the most significant ones goes back to problems with the hormonal washes while a fetus is in the womb. Organizations such as the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) already recognize Transgender as being a medical condition. These organizations have even sent out mission statements to the insurance companies to recognize Transgender as being a medical condition. However, not only are insurance companies allowed to blatantly discriminate against Transgender people, but they also use outdated information from as far back as the 1970s to justify their discrimination. The insurance companies even deem this medically necessary surgery to be “cosmetic” and “elective”. If only that were true! Really, who would choose to have these surgeries if it wasn’t necessary?
Furthermore, much of society comments that Transgender people must be “crazy” or “out of their mind” to WANT to change from one gender to another. As indicated earlier, being Transgender is NOT a choice, but the path one chooses to resolve their Gender Dysphoria is. The manner in which a person manages the Gender Dysphoria varies from person to person. However, it should be noted that Transgender people have to undergo a through evaluation as required by WPATH to make sure they are psychologically sound and that there are no other psychological conditions present. Additionally, a Transgender individual must receive a letter from their therapist recommending surgery before surgery can even take place, if that is the path a Transgender person chooses. Finally, a person must live for one year Fulltime (24/7) according to their identified gender to ensure that they can adjust to the appropriate gender norms. Therefore, parameters are in place to make sure a Transgender person is “well-adjusted” as they go through transition.
Photo Credit: Nicole Bray