A transguy struggles with addicition and isolation and discovers wellness and his identity along the way
by Jeff Berry
Teo always knew he wanted to be a boy. As a young child he would go on what he describes as magical journeys just to achieve that result. “Once when I was maybe seven, I went to my grandfather and said I wanted to be a jockey. He told me to sleep curled up tight on my pillow, so I would stay short. I did that for a month straight—in my child’s perception if I became a jockey, boyhood came with it.”
He always knew there was something different about him, but never had any language for it. At school he says he was constantly forced into playing hopscotch or some other game with the girls, and it didn’t make any sense to him. But at least at three o’clock he was able to go back to his neighborhood and play football with the other boys.
During adolescence, as his hormones began to kick in and his body began to change, he couldn’t understand what was happening to him. “The trauma of that really sent me spiraling,” he says, and he went cold. “It sent me into this path of annihilation. I was suicidal, but I didn’t want to die—I literally wanted to annihilate myself. I didn’t want to feel anything, or to exist anymore. It’s hard to sit with today, that level of what I felt.”
Teo, who turned 41 in June, has been HIV-positive for 13 years, and was diagnosed with AIDS seven years ago. But he finds it hard to separate his journey as a transguy from his becoming infected with HIV. His life experience of living with self-loathing, of never feeling right in his own skin, left him feeling disposable and unwanted. “It was literally a daily battle—every morning, when I would get out of bed, there was this bargaining about not putting a gun to my head.
“Had I felt like I belonged when I was younger, had I known that someone like me could have had a home in the world, I doubt very much that I would have ended up in the places I did that led to my contracting HIV.”
Teo came out as a lesbian at the age of 16, and lived in the butch-dyke community, and says, “You know, it worked—I’m very grateful today that I had some place to be. But it never was home, I never could quite relax into my own self or the community enough, because it never really felt true to who I was.”
As he started to physically and mentally transition in 2002, and got into the rhythm of living his life as a guy, a huge weight was lifted off of his shoulders. But prior to then, while still in his early 30s, he sort of danced around the decision. “There wasn’t really even this idea that it was possible, I sort of knew what my dream would have been, but I didn’t know there was an avenue to that. And then I started to meet transguys, and I was like, ‘Oh. Uh-oh.’”
During this same period his HIV continued to progress—his T-cells dipped below 200, and his viral load was out of control. In 2001, with a T-cell count of 33, he says he was done. “I knew the bottom line was that I didn’t want to die a girl. That was, I think, what gave me the freedom to make that choice. I saw where I was headed, and I knew I wasn’t happy, I knew I wasn’t healthy, and it was a chance for me to finally make a choice that was just for me. I could not care as much what other people thought, probably because I didn’t know that I was going to be around a long time to watch it.”
He was in therapy at the time, he says, because he was struggling with anxiety and depression, not because of gender transition. “I was sort of blissfully naïve. I didn’t know that I was supposed to have a letter and all this other stuff. And in the summer of 2002, I walked in to see the endocrinologist, and I said, ‘I’m 35 years old. I’ve been sober for well over a decade. I’ve had therapy. I’m going to be neurotic the rest of my life, that’s just a given. And look at me. I’m this very masculine-looking butch dyke, and this isn’t working.’
“Right then and there he wrote a prescription for testosterone. And I walked out the door.”
He continued in therapy afterwards because his life was changing so rapidly. “For the first time in my life I finally felt like I was getting something I wanted, and something I needed—and I was terrified that somebody would take it away from me. When it came time for chest surgery, I was terrified that they would tell me I couldn’t because of my immune system. Or that I wouldn’t be able to find a surgeon who was willing to operate on me. I was so afraid that somebody was going to get in my way. I had an inkling of what joy felt like, and I was terrified that I was not going to be allowed to go any further.
“I think the paradox of all that was that as I started to transition, I started to feel more at home in my own skin, and I stopped being at war with myself. I started to like who I was, I became more invested in me, and more invested in my own well-being. Actually I got physically healthier. Some of that was probably stress reduction, but I could kind of see myself growing old as a man, where I could not ever envision myself being an old woman, so there was nothing for me to fight for before. And now, I cared about my future, I cared if I survived, I could actually see my physical self, in my future, in a way that I couldn’t before.”
While Teo doesn’t view transgender as a stopping place for him, he also feels it’s a very personal experience for every transperson. “If I fill out a form that says male, female, or transgender, I check the male box. I’m living in the world as a small, hippie, crunchy, yoga-practicing guy. That’s kind of what I look like and how I fit in.
“If you ask me to pin down a label, I’ll use queer more often than not. I wouldn’t use straight; I have friends who do but that doesn’t feel home for me. So it’s still pretty new in terms of being out, and what kind of guy I want to be in the world—if you ask me 10 years from now that might be a different thing.”
Living as male has been both a gift and some hard work, says Teo. “I had to learn all new social skills, body language, and sometimes even actual language—apparently guys on a construction sight don’t generally announce they are going to pee. I added ‘I am going to the head’ as part of my lingo.”
While Teo says he sometimes misses being in a community of women, and some of the emotional and physical intimacy that goes along with that, for the most part he prefers the company of other guys. “I think I’m a little bit more comfortable with gay men in that way, because they’re familiar to me. I’m a whitewater kayaker—I spend my time with a group of guys who don’t know my history. A few of them know now, but for the most part they don’t.
“I don’t know that the queer community is more accepting of me,” adds Teo, “I just think that they don’t notice me. If you’re in San Francisco, sure, but if you’re in Connecticut, where transguys don’t even exist on the horizon of possibility, then—you know, I’m just as likely to get killed in a bathroom, or bashed, as a transwoman. I’m very leery of that. I certainly go unnoticed in a lot of ways, if I’m careful, but I’m screwed in the bathroom if my towel drops, because I pass so well that now all of a sudden there’s a reaction. Maybe if I was a little more obvious, people, men in particular, wouldn’t feel that knee-jerk reaction.”
Today Teo is happily married to a woman whom he met a little after he started transitioning. “I often joke that I am the poster child for why our marriage laws are messed up. Prior to transition, I couldn’t legally marry my now wife, but I also could not be fired from a job based on being queer.
“In Connecticut, all that is required for a marriage license is a photo ID. My license has my new name, and my gender is listed as male. I walked into town hall and got a marriage license. Mind you, all of this is predicated on some privilege—being able to afford the legal name change, access to a therapist who would write me a letter to change my gender marker at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the ability to navigate the various government systems involved.
“However, now legally married, there is no legislation in Connecticut that would prevent an employer from firing me due to being trans. There is a human rights ordinance ruling that suggests it falls under sex discrimination, but no one has tested it in court to my knowledge.”
Nevertheless, even with all of the many advances in transgender rights, Teo agrees we’ve still got a long way to go. “I do think that in some ways, in terms of civil rights, in terms of awareness, in terms of community, the trans community is 15, 20 years behind,” says Teo.
A few years ago, while in Canada and around the time of the SARS epidemic, he came down with a high fever and was extremely ill. “All I knew was that I had to drive home. The idea that looking the way that I did—looking male, being vulnerable, not sure what was going on with me, not sure that I would stay conscious— I couldn’t let myself go to a strange E.R. where there was no one to advocate for me. I drove 15 hours to get home, so that my girlfriend, now my wife, could help me.
“Even as sick as I was [when I got home], I waited four or five days, because I didn’t have the emotional energy to go to the E.R. And when I finally went to the E.R., I start telling people that I’m on testosterone, and this is who I am, because I know that someone’s going to listen to my chest, and I haven’t had chest surgery yet, and I have to come out. What people think they can ask you—all of a sudden, the fact that I’m going through gender transition is on the table. I’m here because my lungs hurt, because I have a fever, because I’m diagnosed with AIDS. It has nothing to do with my gender. But you get treated like this guinea pig. People who have no business being around you start showing up to ask questions, because they’re curious.”
And finally, says Teo, there is the constant argument about how he got HIV. “Like, it’s none of your business. You don’t need to know that. ‘Well, you may have had a drug history.’ Then ask me if I had a drug history. ‘Well, then how did you get HIV?’ None of your damn business!”
He says it’s painful to watch, what people feel like they can do and say to you. “And you’re always left with that question: Am I going to get okay medical care here?
“It’s funny, because I don’t have that same experience around being transgender, and how I walk in the world. I don’t normally tell people, but if I do tell them, I don’t feel disempowered by that, I don’t feel ashamed by that. But I still struggle around the HIV piece, because of the reaction I’ve gotten, where people have pulled back, they’ve been afraid. My dad won’t tell his family, my family at large doesn’t know. Even a couple of years ago my dad said, ‘Well, we haven’t told everybody [about your HIV status], because then they won’t come to Thanksgiving dinner.’”
When asked what’s the single most important thing he’d like readers to remember, Teo responds, “I think I’ve learned this as a human being. I think the details can be different, and I think we need to know the details, particularly as care providers. We need to know the details of someone’s life, or the details of a particular set of people’s experiences, so that we have some framework. But I think the details aren’t as important as what’s common, or that humanity—reaching for people’s humanity, that sense of connection, of interconnectedness, rather than the details that separate my experience from yours.“I started to like who I was, I became more invested in me, and more invested in my own well-being.”
“[When] I sit with a provider who I really feel is right there, and who lets me own my own information, and treats me like a holistic, whole human being—I know it when I see it, and I know it when I feel it, and it feels incredibly safe. And it feels like I can be held, and I can be cared about. It lets me be a part of that process, and I think that that’s the thing that I want people to walk away with.”
Today his T-cells hover at somewhere between 400 and 500, and his viral load is undetectable. “I found some medication that worked. I do a lot of stuff now to physically take care of myself, and I’m doing okay.” While still on disability, he periodically works as a consultant, leading sensitivity trainings for care providers that deal with issues specific to the transgender population.
Teo says he doesn’t see a clear delineation between his physical, emotional, and spiritual health. “Paying too much attention to one and neglecting the others is a recipe for disaster, from my personal experience.” He stays active, surrounds himself with people whose values resonate with him, and regularly practices yoga—mostly Vinyasa—and meditation. “Yoga has been healing for my body and mind, especially as a transgender person. I spent so much of my life actively trying not to be present, being at war with my physical form, that to practice being in the same space and time emotionally, spiritually, and physically, has been a gift.
“This isn’t an easy journey, but it isn’t one I would trade for anything,” say Teo. “If the HIV meds interfered with testosterone and I had to choose—the HIV meds would be out the door, pronto. Again—my choice, not every other transperson’s choice.
“I look in the mirror and see this reflection that finally looks familiar in its newness—I like what I see looking back at me. I am at home.”