Gender is complex, varied, and personal. Yet as culture catches up to human nature, the transgender experience is often perceived as the journey to one side of a binary — two sides of a coin with no grey area, reduced to questions about physical form and “passing” to one side or another. For author Chris Edwards, transitioning genders was a confusing experience, before “transgender” was a household term, before online resources, and yes, before Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover.
In a speech at Harvard Medical School in 2016, Edwards addressed a common thread of confusion around the transgender experience. “You should never, ever, ask someone who is transgender whether they have had or plan to have surgery. It’s none of your business, but it’s also offensive,” Edwards said. “Gender is not defined by what’s inside your pants, it’s defined by what’s inside your brain. Your sex is defined by what’s inside your pants, your genitals — but your gender is not.”
In his memoir, "BALLS: It Takes Some to Get Some", Edwards tells the story of his own transition — and answers questions about surgery, a personal priority in his life.”I do talk about surgery a lot, which nobody seems to be doing,” he said. “I’m doing it because I feel that by not doing it, it makes it seem shameful, and it’s not shameful. I also hope that by me taking the hit and doing it, people will stop talking about it and asking other people about it. Just have the information and move on.”
Edwards joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio Wednesday to talk about his experiences with coming out to friends, family members, loved ones and coworkers, and becoming comfortable with himself. He’ll be at the Cambridge Public Library Wednesday night at 6:30pm to chat about his memoir.
The following excerpt is edited for clarity.
MARGERY: This is a very, very, funny book … but it’s different because there’s something really fun and joyous about this book. Before we get to your story — why did you write this book?
EDWARDS: I started writing the book in 2012 — I don’t know if people realize how long it takes to get a book published — but when I did, people assumed that I was writing it and they said, oh, that’s so good, you’re helping transgender people … and I thought, yup, well, that’s part of the goal that I hoped would be the byproduct, but my real target audience was mainstream society. I was tired of seeing all the negative stereotypes and I wanted to help change perception. Caitlyn Jenner sort of beat me to the punch, she came out before my book did, and over the last year, you may have noticed how the media has shifted attention from her onto kids. The subject of trans stories are kids, as young as four and five, teenagers, college kids, all starting transition. Some with families who are supportive like mine was, but most are not supportive.
JIM: You say you came out to your grandmother at the age of five? There was no Transparent, there was no celebration and support…
EDWARDS: ‘Transgender’ wasn’t even really a word yet.
JIM: Tell us about that.
EDWARDS: A lot of people ask me when did I first realize that I wasn’t a girl, and I had never thought I was a girl. It was when it first realized other people thought I was a girl. It was this story with my Gram — my older sister Wendy and I were at her house on the cape, and we were coloring in the den, and Gram kept passing by us with platters of food from the kitchen to the dining room with dinner, and on her last pass she said, “Come on girls, dinner’s ready!” Wendy immediately sprung up and followed her to the table, and I didn’t flinch. I just didn’t think she was talking to me. And she came back over to me a minute or two later, and she was a little upset I didn’t heed her, and she said, “Didn’t you hear me calling you?” and I said, “No…” and she said, “I said, come on girls.” I looked at her like she was insane, I said, “I’m not a girl!” and she said, “Yes, yes you are.” I said, “No, I’m not! I’m a boy!” and she said, “No, you’re not, sweetheart.” And I said, “Well, I’m going to be!” and she said, “You can’t, darling.” And she just smiled.
JIM: That story can’t be true. Is that really true?
EDWARDS: It is true.
JIM: What’s in your head when you’re a five-year-old kid?
EDWARDS: I’m thinking to myself, how could she possibly make this mistake — and are other people making this mistake? My five-year-old brain goes to work, and I do my analysis, and the only thing I can see is that the differences between boys and girls is that boys have short hair and girls have long hair, so all I needed to do was get a haircut! So I told my mom I wanted my hair cut like Daddy’s, and I got a short haircut, and I showed up to school that summer and everybody thought I was a boy. Problem solved! See Gram, it wasn’t that hard … but then it was.
MARGERY: The problem wasn’t solved because as you talk about in the book, being suicidal when you get out of high school and college … between five years old and high school, things were not easy?
EDWARDS: No. I learned later that it wasn’t just the hair … I was lacking certain equipment, I saw my cousin pee in a perfect arc right over the deck rail, and I’m like, how does he do that? When I pee it goes straight down! Like, do you have a squirt gun in there? But I started piecing things together and feeling very uncomfortable, and deep-down knowing I should never say anything. I shouldn’t say a word. So I just buried it, and I wouldn’t tell anybody. Being transgender sucks, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, you feel so alone, hopeless, and I just ended up pretending. Pretending to be something I wasn’t.
MARGERY: And to know this as young as five … apparently, that’s not unusual.
EDWARDS: No. I took psychology — I was a psych major in college (and I majored in keg stands) — but I took that because I wanted to figure myself out, and in one of my courses it said your gender identity is solidified anywhere from 18 months to four years old.
MARGERY: So you go to college… and you join a sorority?
EDWARDS: Didn’t see that coming!
MARGERY: Knowing all the time that you felt totally out of place.
EDWARDS: Part of it too was that I went to Colgate University in upstate New York. My goal was, I was going to party it up in college and then kill myself when I got out. I could not envision a future where I would be happy, where I would have a wife and a family and see myself the way I saw myself inside. I just couldn’t envision a future for myself. I figured I might as well have four years of fun while I’m doing it, and to party at Colgate at the time, if you weren’t in the Greek system, you really didn’t have anything to do. My roommates were already in, and so sophomore year I was like, alright, I guess I’ll do it. I met some great people, made some great friends … but it was not what I ever would have expected for myself, and again, it was part of the act.
JIM: So you’re 26, you’re at Arnold Worldwide, and you decide to do something about it. What was the moment that made you decide to transition?
EDWARDS: Do you mean transition there, or to transition in general?
JIM: In general … and there.
EDWARDS: I felt hopeless, as you know, and I finally told my best friend that I went to college with, who was still there. I happened to be in love with her, incidentally. I told her over the phone, and she didn’t hang up on me, she didn’t freak out, and she just said, you’ve got to get some help. You have to go find somebody to talk to who can help you, who knows something. I did get some help, I ended up with a terrible therapist at first, you can read all about that one in the book, I call her the Male-Tamperer … but I found a great amazing therapist who helped me strategize and plan. I had planned, originally, to move away where nobody knew me and do all of this in secret, and she got me to realize that while that might sound like the easy way out, in the end I’m going to need support to get through this, and to go away and move somewhere where I had no family or friends and try to do it in secret could be a lot more stressful. She was the one who opened me up to the idea of staying.
MARGERY: As you mentioned before, we do have Caitlyn Jenner, we have the internet, where you can get a lot of information about transgender groups, and I suppose if you’re an eleven-year-old or a seven-year-old you could get some information online and at least know you’re not alone … when you did this, what was the community of transgender people like?
EDWARDS: I don’t know. I didn’t know any, I didn’t know of anyone … there was no real internet yet, and you couldn’t google anything because there was no Google. I basically got my information by going to the library and being embarrassed and trying to look through the card catalog and finding gender reassignment locations. I wrote to them, and they sent me information packets, that’s how I found out.
To hear author Chris Edwards’ full interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.