KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Tor des Roches is right in the middle of a long, life-changing process. It began years ago when he was a teenager. He was starting to have the feeling that he didn't identify as female, his sex at birth.
TOR DES ROCHES: I just always kept assuming that, oh, it's just a phase; it's just a phase. I didn't want to say I was transgender. It was just one of those things I was really hoping that would go away. It was a real struggle to come to terms with it.
MCEVERS: Eventually he did come to terms with it. He came out as trans to close friends and family. He wore men's clothes. He started going by Tor instead of the name he was given at birth. But the person Tor saw in the mirror didn't match the person he felt like. And he decided that this year, at age 24, he would have sex reassignment surgery and start hormone therapy. It's a big step, and Tor wanted someone to talk to about all the physical and emotional changes he was about to go through.
ROCHES: Hi, Julian.
JULIAN HARRIS: Hey, Tor. How are you?
ROCHES: I'm doing great, yourself?
HARRIS: I'm doing pretty well.
MCEVERS: Julian Harris went through a similar process eight years ago when he started his physical transition from female to male. Julian sat down to talk about it with Tor for our series Been There, connecting people at either end of a shared experience, and they both had challenges.
Tor's family was supportive, but he struggled with an eating disorder. He says it was partly because he didn't want to have a woman's figure. Julian, who was raised as a Jehovah's Witness, was worried about coming out to his family.
HARRIS: Well, I told my cousin first. And she was really awesome. I mean she didn't quite get it. But you know, she was supportive of me. But when I told my mom, I told her through a letter. And you know, she had a hard time accepting it. She basically told me that if I did this, then I was no longer her child. So in essence...
HARRIS: ...Yeah, I lost my immediate family. But I gained a lot of chosen family. I'm really glad to hear, though, that your parents are supportive because it's...
ROCHES: Yeah, me too.
HARRIS: ...Yeah, because it's a difficult thing.
ROCHES: It definitely took me a good while to get to this point. And I am pretty nervous about the surgery not because I don't feel it's right, but it's definitely a big change for me. And I'm kind of nervous about going on hormones myself. I heard some friends tell me that, oh, you know, once you start taking testosterone, you'll feel a lot more energized, and you'll feel great. But at the same time, it makes me nervous, wondering, is this going to make me a different person, or is my attitude going to change? I'm just - I guess I'm wondering how it - that's been like for you?
HARRIS: For me, it gave me a little more energy. It increased my sex drive. It changed my body. My hips are small. My shoulders are more broad.
HARRIS: I got a goatee in three months. You know, your voice starts to crack like you're 13.
HARRIS: You know, it's like a second puberty, but you're an adult. But yeah, the biggest thing, you know, for me, my personality - I didn't change. The interesting thing is, though, I stopped trying to overcompensate. And what I mean by that is, before I started my physical transition, I went overboard with my mannerisms. I had to be this kind of ultra-masculine presenting person - the way I walked, trying not to gesture too much. And once those changes took hold and I was being seen by the world as who I really was, I didn't have to do that anymore.
ROCHES: I definitely relate to that. When I catch myself putting my hand on my hip, I am just like, no, don't do that; don't do that.
ROCHES: I get nervous even now when I speak or I go out in public because I'm fairly androgynous, but I know that if I speak, I feel like my voice gives it away. So I tend to mumble, or I avoid talking because I'm so worried, like, what if I get found out? It feels like I'm fake and I'm just faking it, so I definitely relate to that.
HARRIS: Yeah, and it's hard. And some people will treat you that way.
HARRIS: But you're not faking it. I mean no one does this because, oh, this sounds like something that might be interesting to do. (Laughter) Once your exterior matches their interior, it doesn't become that big of a worry. But I think that it's also important to kind of be mindful of those triggers that can get you in that place of despair or suffering because the things that you might have some insecurities about now may still be there. And so...
HARRIS: ...You know - being able to take care of yourself to make sure that you'll be OK regardless.
ROCHES: Right. I guess I was also wondering, do you face any discrimination? I mean I know from personal experience, I remember being at a convention with my friends, and I just had to go to the bathroom, and so I decided to go to the women's bathroom. And again, since I'm so androgynous, it's kind of - I'm in the middle where it's hard to tell whether I'm male or female from first glance.
And so I was walking to the bathroom, and I had some woman start yelling at me. What are you doing in the women's restroom? And at that point in time, I just got anxiety because it's, like, oh, my gosh, what am I supposed to do?
HARRIS: Right. You know, and when you're in that period in the - where you're, like you said, in the middle, one day you're getting sir'd and he'd, and the next day you're getting she'd and her'd. I remember when I first started, you know, hormones, I was just so impatient. I wanted them to take effect immediately. I wanted everybody to see me as male.
I was working at a coffee shop, and there was this man who would drink on the corner. And when I would walk by, he'd kind of eye me. And he'd always say, hey, baby. And I would get really, really upset, but I would just keep walking. I would ignore him. And you know, I started to grow facial hair, like I said, three months in. And then one day, he was standing there with another guy, and the man looked and said, hey, baby. And his friend looked at him and was like, why are you hitting on that guy?
HARRIS: And I felt really validated.
HARRIS: At that point I was like, yes. And then I kind of smirked and was like, yeah, why are you hitting on me?
HARRIS: So that was something. But it was - it's funny now, but it was really, really upsetting. Other things - you know, the biggest things I face now as far as discrimination is that people see me as a threat. You know, as a black man, I think I'm very non-threatening. I'm always smiling. I wear glasses. But sometimes I walk down the street, and people will cross, or people will clutch their bags a little tighter or pull their kids to them.
It's funny. I can be on a packed bus sometimes, and no one will sit next to me. You know, there's this male privilege, though, that's been bestowed upon me. So if I go to the sports bar and I have my little sports analysis, people listen to me (laughter).
ROCHES: Oh, wow.
HARRIS: You know, before they didn't. You know, safety I feel. You know, if I'm walking home late at, night I'm not concerned about a sexual assault. So you get a little, and then you lose a little.
ROCHES: I guess I wanted to ask you, Julian. So when you look in the mirror, are you amazed by the changes, and are you happy with them?
HARRIS: I am happy with the changes. You know, I didn't turn into Denzel Washington (laughter). But yeah, so I have to say, you know, I walk into a place. People don't look at me. I just - I guess I'm just like an average, short guy.
MCEVERS: That average, short guy was Julian Harris who underwent sex reassignment eight years ago. He was talking to Tor Des Roches for our series Been There. And if you're going through something big and life-changing and you want advice about it, let us know. That's how we heard from Tor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with Been There in the subject line.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH'S "BLUE TURNING GRAY")