“Elective surgery.” It’s a term that makes people think of botox injections and liposuction. Maybe facelifts. Breast implants, too. Well, purely cosmetic breast implants; never the implants given to people who’ve endured cancer and mastectomy. “Elective surgery” is too pejorative a term to describe the procedures undergone by those who’ve suffered. It seems suffering is a requirement for the surgeries to avoid having a negative social stigma. That same suffering determines the insurance companies’ willingness to pay for the procedures, too. When you realize they’re the ones who determine who’s suffered, then you can see there’s a problem.
My husband’s name is Brian. From the moment he was capable of self-reflection, he knew he was a man. He had to keep this knowledge to himself. It took 20 torturous years before he could safely declare himself to be the person he knew he was. When we met in 2010, Brian was four years into hormone therapy. I fell in love with him during our first conversation. He was extremely open about his transition, but I worried he felt he needed to explain himself to me, which wasn’t the case. I got the impression he’d been hurt in the past.
Fast-forward three years. Brian and I are married and we share a small apartment. Like every relationship, we’ve had our ups and downs. I’ve been growing concerned, though, because the downs seem to be coming more and more frequently. Much of it stems from Brian’s depression. I do my best to comfort him during the deepest valleys of his sadness, but it’s hard for me to understand how he feels. He’s experienced so much pain. On an intellectual level, yes, I recognize the feelings he has. I know they’re valid and devastatingly real to him. But I can’t truly empathize. And I feel horrible about it.
The dysphoria he’d felt prior to his hormone treatments was debilitating. He felt trapped inside a body that belonged to someone else; a woman who mimicked his movements and gestures but falsified his identity. Once he began the therapy, his outlook improved dramatically. The changes he saw in himself were real. The facial hair, the muscle mass, the deeper voice; all were tangible manifestations of the identity he’d been denied his entire life. He felt like a real person.
The feeling didn’t last. The physical changes plateaued. Brian was left with a body that was much more like what he believed was his, but there remained aspects of his former prison that taunted him with their presence. While he wasn’t fond of his genitals and planned to have them surgically re-assigned someday, he was able to cope with them. His breasts, on the other hand, were obvious relics of a past he wished to forget.
When Brian and I met, I’d noticed his chest was somewhat larger than average, but it didn’t bother me in the slightest. As I got to know him, I learned it was the biggest source of his many insecurities. For the first two years of our relationship, he wouldn’t let me see him shirtless. Whether at the beach or during sex or even in our infrequent showers together, he’d always kept his chest covered with at least a t-shirt. It was only after I offered to help wrap him with the thin, elasticized gauze to help lessen the protrusion of his breasts that he finally allowed me to see. He was, and is, intensely beautiful.
One morning before work, we were standing in front of our full-length mirror as I helped him wrap his chest. I was behind him, admiring the musculature of his shoulders and upper back as I pulled the wrapping tight against his skin and secured it. He’d been hitting the gym hard for the last six months and the results were really showing. I complimented him on it, which yielded a rare smile of self-satisfaction. I hoped it would stay with him for the rest of the day.
Brian came home early in the afternoon – about four hours ahead of schedule. The restaurant where he’d worked for eight years had gone out of business. The owners hadn’t told anyone there were financial troubles until that day. He was cut off with no safety net. There was a dead look in his eyes. It was as if all hope had been stripped away and there was no chance to get it back. He sobbed in my arms until I thought he’d pass out.
Money’s always been tight in our home. I work at a university bookstore for nearly minimum wage and piss-poor benefits. None of the benefits extend to my husband. Brian’s job loss meant he had no insurance. No insurance meant an interruption in his HRT unless we figured something out. Our state didn’t have laws requiring insurance companies to cover that type of therapy, so even if he found a job, there was no guarantee the insurance would offer what he needed. The policy he had through the restaurant did, but it was gone.
We scrambled over the next couple days and determined we had enough saved up to pay the retail cost of his injections for six months. After that, we’d be tapped out. I was fairly sure he’d find a job by then, but he was less optimistic. As the months went by, Brian worked harder than I’d ever seen. He scoured the city for employment, made follow-up calls, went to interviews, and everything else. Eventually, he secured a position as a secretary in an accounting firm. The pay was low, but the benefits included insurance that would cover his HRT.
For a little while, things were okay. Our relationship was strong and Brian was busy enough for some of his insecurities to be replaced by good old-fashioned work stress. On one of the rare days we were both off, we’d planned to go to the zoo together. When I woke up, Brian was quietly sobbing next to me. When I asked what was wrong, he handed me his phone. Overnight, he’d received a series of anonymous messages on his photography blog. Each one addressed him as Elizabeth – the name he’d shed the moment he was able. For as long as we’d been together, I’d never heard anyone call him Elizabeth. No piece of mail we received had his old name on it, either. Legally, his name was Brian. Whoever sent the messages knew him. And they knew exactly what to say that would cause the worst pain.
The majority of the messages insulted his appearance. Some called him an ugly girl. Some claimed he was sick and perverted. A few specifically targeted the biggest aspect of his insecurity: his chest. Those messages hurt him the most. It also gave him an idea of who might have sent them. He’d dated quite a few women before meeting me, and one in particular had a strongly negative reaction when she learned he didn’t possess the physical attributes she’d apparently needed in a partner. She abused him online for nearly a year before she stopped. These messages were certainly her style, but without proof, he wasn’t willing to confront her. Not that he would have anyway.
Brian’s self-loathing returned with a vengeance. He began walking with his back hunched and his shoulders forward in an attempt to hide his breasts. When I helped him wrap in the morning, he’d get frustrated with me that it wasn’t tight enough; that too much was still visible. He’d call himself disgusting and I started to see claw marks across his chest from him scratching at the flesh with hatred.
He couldn’t afford to see a therapist. The only thing that gave him the slightest hint of hope was the prospect of getting top surgery. Until his breasts were removed, he wouldn’t be able to see himself as anything other than an object of disgust and derision. No matter how often I told him how beautiful he was, and meaning it from the bottom of my heart, he simply couldn’t hear me. He was lost in a sea of self-loathing.
When Brian got his secretarial job, he went over the insurance carefully to make sure they covered his HRT. Insurance would not, however, cover the removal of his breasts. The company called it “elective surgery.” They made it sound like he was doing it out of vanity rather than survival. At the time, despite being disappointed, Brian just said he looked forward to getting a job someday that’ll cover it. Maybe even the bottom surgery, too. But that was that.
Now, though, he was devastated. It pained me enormously to see him suffer. I felt helpless. Useless. There was no way either of us could pay for the procedure out of pocket. The cheapest quote he’d gotten was over $7000 – and that didn’t even include consultation fees. It was impossible.
I was desperate to help my husband. And in that desperation – in that blind need to see the person I love experience the happiness that had been denied to him for his entire life – I changed. Rage filled me. I knew how to fix this for him. For us.
It wasn’t difficult for me to find out about the woman who’d abused Brian in those messages. He told me her name that morning, and thanks to Facebook, I learned where she worked. Claudia Denise Reynolds, corporate account manager at Credit Suisse. Brian had mentioned she was well-off and before she turned on him, she’d lavished him with gifts and expensive dinners. Most importantly, on the night before she revealed herself to be the hateful creature she is, she led him into the bedroom where she opened a small safe and pulled out a watch to give him. He told me there was cash in the safe. At the time, I didn’t think much of it. Now, though, it was how I would help my husband get his life back.
I have to admit – I never realized how easy it is to sneak up behind someone as they’re walking up the front steps of their apartment, put something sharp against their back, and demand entry into their home. I thought there’d be a lot more struggling than there was. But no – I just followed her home from work and a few minutes later, I was standing behind Claudia in her bedroom. The ski mask I wore was hot and I was sweating like crazy. I studied the woman as she bent down to unlock the safe. Blonde. Slight. Maybe five feet tall on a good day. A weak little nothing. I was amazed by how someone so small could cause so much damage. My rage grew as she pulled a stack of cash from the safe and handed it to me. Her tears caused her makeup to run down her high cheekbones. As she begged me to leave and I heard her high, sharp voice, I imagined the terrible words coming out of her mouth. Words said with no purpose other than to inflict pain on the gentle, innocent man I love.
I slashed the knife across Claudia’s face twice and my other hand reached out and pressed against her mouth to muffle her scream. I held the knife to her throat as her face bled. I could see the second slash had sliced through her left eye. Tears flooded from it and mixed with the blood on her shredded cheeks. “Ugly girl,” I whispered.
At that moment, I knew I’d made a mistake. I pushed Claudia away as hard as I could. She fell backward, striking her head on the bedside table. She didn’t move. For a moment, I thought I’d killed her. I saw her chest rise and fall with shallow breaths. I left the apartment quickly; the stack of money feeling heavy in my jacket pocket.
When I got home, Brian was asleep. I took threw my bloody clothes in the laundry and took a shower. I was panicking. I knew it was only a matter of time before Claudia made the connection. Not knowing what to do, I hid the money under the sink – but not before I’d counted it. $5000. In a few months, we’d be able to afford to get Brian the surgery. I was terrified I’d be arrested before then. They’d take the money.
But the police never came. A couple days went by and Brian kept asking why I was so sad and stressed out. I lied to him for the first time, saying I’d been thinking about my mom a lot lately. She’d died suddenly the year before and I took it really badly. Brian had no reason to question it. He was as lovely and supportive as ever.
The police report in the local paper came out talking about how a woman was robbed and assaulted and they were looking for another woman, approximately 5’6”. Brown hair. I’m 5’8”. My hair is red.
Weeks passed. Then months. Brian had no idea about the money I’d hidden away. In the meantime, we’d saved $2000. His depression was no better. He still thought there were many, many thousands to go before he could get his surgery.
Six months after the incident with Claudia, I was fairly certain I’d gotten away with disfiguring her. I felt no guilt, either. Every day, I watched my husband suffer. Every day, I hoped she was suffering too. I decided it was time to tell Brian about the money. I had an explanation ready, too: it was the remainder of my mom’s estate that had gotten tied up in some bank error. After she’d passed, the bank did a terrible job managing her assets; it would be an entirely plausible lie. Still, I hating not being able to tell him the truth.
The joy on Brian’s face when he learned about the money was worth every second of stress and terror I’d felt during and after I’d obtained it. The next week, he was evaluated for his surgery. Three weeks later, it was done. Finally. His recovery was long and painful, but the glimmer of hope in his eyes had returned. I’d missed it so, so much.
It’s been a year since his surgery. Brian tells me over and over how he actually feels like himself. I could tell. His happiness is genuine. While he still has his bouts of sadness and self-deprecation, he walks around with a confidence I’ve never seen before. It’s beautiful to see.
On the night of our anniversary, following a wonderful, homemade meal, we were getting ready for bed. Brian was doing some blog stuff on his laptop and I was cursing at a stupid game on my phone. I heard an email come through the speakers on his computer. After a minute, Brian simply muttered, “wow” and passed the laptop to me. I read the message.
A while back I sent you some anonymous messages that were demeaning, abusive, and hurtful. I know they were inexcusable, but I feel I need to explain myself. During the worst time of my life, when my depression and alcoholism were beyond anything I can comprehend now that I’m sober, I lashed out at people. Once my restaurant failed, there was no one to blame but myself. I refused to accept that, so I chose to attack you – someone who’d confided in me and put his trust in me. Like I said, this is no excuse. I don’t expect you to write back and I don’t expect forgiveness. I don’t deserve it. I just need you to know, despite the cowardly attacks I unleashed on you, you’re one of the best men I’ve ever known. I hope your life is filled with joy and success.