When Alex Ellison graduated from SCDS in 2008, he was called Anna.
During high school, he wrote for the Octagon, played bass in the jazz band and rowed for Capital Crew.
He was also a big Spice Girls fan, attending their reunion tour show in San Jose his senior year and writing a funny review of it.
During high school Ellison said he was in denial about his attraction to women and his masculinity in general.
“For occasions like dances and graduation, I did put on makeup and wear dresses. But I always dreaded it,” he said.
“I skipped senior prom because the dance wasn’t worth the agony of all the feminine social norms I was supposed to conform to. But if you had asked me then, I would’ve just said I didn’t want to go.”
Ellison came out as lesbian in the fall of his freshman year of college at Northeastern University in Boston.
However, for him it wasn’t a difficult announcement, as he knew his parents would be accepting.
“My parents had a lot of gay friends, so I was never afraid that they’d feel different about me,” he said.
But his lesbian identity didn’t feel right either.
“I hadn’t been exposed to anyone in the trans community, and my understanding of a trans person was very limited,” he said.
“It was always male to female.”
In fact, he didn’t know it was possible to transition from female to male until he took a sociology class in the fall of his sophomore year and met an FTM (female to male) trans man.
[sidebar title=”Advice from Alex:” align=”right” background=”on” border=”all” shadow=”on”]
Sexual orientation vs. gender identity:
Sexual orientation is who you like. Gender identity is how you identify.
I’d like to make it clear that gender identity and sexual orientation are completely separate things. There are trans people who date all kinds of people and identify in all kinds of ways. I happen to be a trans man and I happen to be attracted to women; those two things are unrelated.
The trans man talked to the class about his transitioning, and afterward Ellison asked him some questions.
One of those questions was about binding (hiding one’s chest). Ellison had assumed that one could use ace bandages, but was informed that this method was very dangerous. So the trans man gave him some links to buy chest binders.
He also gave Ellison resources such as Charles Asher’s (an FTM YouTuber) YouTube channel and Jamison Green’s book “Becoming a Visible Man.”
After meeting the FTM guest speaker, Ellison began doing a lot of research and thinking about his gender identity.
“I think part of me knew I was transgender right away (after listening to the presentation), but it’s a big thing to wrap your head around,” he said.
To educate himself, Ellison watched countless YouTube videos about people transitioning and read books and blogs for about a year, until he was sure enough of his identity to tell his family and girlfriend at Northeastern.
He also found an open and accepting online community where he could learn about transitioning.
Although Ellison was introduced to the trans community only in college, he said he had always felt masculine.
“I always wanted to be ‘one of the guys,’ whatever that means,” he said.
“I didn’t have the words for it, but really I was just a little boy who everyone thought was a girl.”
It wasn’t until he became a part of the gay community in college that he felt comfortable expressing that feeling. In his freshman year, he began cutting his hair short and wearing more masculine clothing.
The first step after he accepted his male identity was binding.
“There are companies that make binders (which cost around $30) specifically for trans men, and once I started wearing one, I couldn’t take it off without serious dysphoria, despite how uncomfortable they are,” Ellison said.
In 2010, Ellison came out as transgender to his family and friends.
He said everyone in his family was accepting, including his only grandparent. He bought his parents books and encouraged them to ask questions.
Ellison moved home after his sophomore year at Northeastern when he was coming out. He said he was extremely depressed, not taking care of himself or coping in healthy ways. He couldn’t focus on school either.
“For me, and I think for most trans people, coming out is terrifying,” he said.
“The fear of hate, discrimination, misunderstanding, losing family and friends, losing jobs and health care and maybe even housing is what keeps us in the closet, sometimes forever.
“I was fortunate enough to have a supportive family, and, as far as I’m concerned, friends that are bothered by me being trans just aren’t my friends.
“Someone said to me once ‘Those that matter don’t mind and those that mind don’t matter.’ And that’s not true for everyone, but luckily for me it has been so far.
“The relief came when I could actually start transitioning and living as my true self.”
Ellison said his older brother Tom, ‘05, has also been supportive and a role model. Ellison was the best man at his brother’s wedding in September.
In fact, the most significant part of the transition process was when he changed his name in 2010.
Wanting to keep his initials because of a family tradition, he made a list of male names starting with “A” and asked his parents to choose.
“I think it was helpful for me and them that they got to rename me,” he said.
Ellison said that after he changed his name, it was also easier for people to get his pronouns right.
“I changed my name on Facebook after talking to my family about it,” he said.
“And I enlisted the help of my close friends and relatives to spread the word to the rest of my people.”
In July of 2011, about a year after Ellison had been going by male pronouns, he had chest surgery, a procedure that he’d been considering for quite a while.
“When I was coming to terms with my trans identity, one of the reasons I felt confident I was on the right path was how much I related to wanting top surgery,” he said.
[sidebar title=”Advice from Alex:” align=”right” background=”on” border=”all” shadow=”on”]
To anyone questioning your gender identity or sexual orientation:
You are not alone. Seek out the community via the Gender Health Center or the Sacramento LGBT center, and you will be welcomed with open arms no matter how you’re feeling or identifying.
Country Day is very small and can feel isolated, but there is a whole community full of love that is waiting to meet you. Just listen to yourself.
“It was about two years of intense self-reflection before I decided to go through with it.
“For me, it got down to ‘What body am I comfortable in?’” he said.
Because insurance companies at the time had trans-exclusionary clauses (plans that do not cover medical treatment relating to gender transition), his parents paid for his surgery.
Ellison said he knows that he’s lucky since many transgender people cannot afford the surgeries.
In fact, Ellison said that sometimes surgery can literally save lives.
“The suicide rate in the trans community is astronomically high, and physically transitioning is often the only way to cure the dysphoria we experience in a body that feels so foreign to us,” he said.
“For many of us our gender isn’t socially validated until we look different physically.”
After surgery, Ellison said it felt like a big weight was finally off his chest, both literally and metaphorically.
“I could finally wear any shirt without worrying about how it fit across my chest and what people could see,” he said. “I didn’t have to wear painful compressing chest binders in order to feel okay about my body.
“I could finally open my eyes in the shower. I could go swimming! It changed everything for me.”
Surgery wasn’t the only way Ellison changed his body. Shortly after the surgery, he started taking hormone medication, including testosterone.
He said that his voice got deeper, his hairline changed, his shoulders broadened and hips narrowed.
He said that his emotions felt a little different too.
“I don’t cry as easily, which is not to say I don’t get sad,” he said.
“It just doesn’t manifest into tears. These experiences are different for everyone though.”
Although some people choose to stop taking hormones, Ellison said he’ll take them for the rest of his life.
“Some people choose to identify as non-binary or genderqueer and take hormones for a short period of time as a way to affirm that,” he said.
“Other people have health complications or for whatever reason don’t feel healthy and choose to stop.”
According to Ellison, most doctors aren’t comfortable starting hormones. He said that now that he’s taking hormones, he has even more trouble getting a doctor.
“Many doctors have never had a trans patient,” he said. “Instead of telling us that, discussing it with us and educating themselves, they often choose to turn us away.”
Ellison said that there was a period of time when all the doctors recommended as trans friendly were booked.
Ellison couldn’t get a refill on his hormone medication, so he tried calling urgent care centers. In the end, he paid out of pocket for the refill.
Not only is it hard to find doctors when one is transgender, but it can also be difficult to get employment.
“It can be hard to get a job or housing if your name and gender on your ID don’t match how you look,” he said.
Consequently, Ellison said, homelessness and unemployment (which have no correlation to education level or employment history) are prevalent among the trans community.
According to him, in California, the vast majority of discrimination towards trans people is faced by trans women of color.
“I do know people who were fired, even in California, when they came out to their employers as trans,” he said.
Ellison said that because he’s a white trans man with “passing privilege,” he is usually assumed to be a cis man (cis meaning someone who identifies as the gender assigned at birth). Therefore, he experiences less face-to-face discrimination. Most of the discrimination he does face is institutional.
Ellison said he’s lucky that he was born in California, where he can change his birth certificate and driver’s license fairly easily as there are many states where that is impossible.
[sidebar title=”Advice from Alex:” align=”left” background=”on” border=”all” shadow=”on”]
To any parents:
If your child comes out to you, listen. They are facing an uphill battle no matter what, and anything you do to suppress their expression only makes that hill steeper. Do research, talk to experts and, above all, make sure your child knows you love them no matter what. Their life could depend on your support.
He has now changed his name and gender marker on his driver’s license legally, but has yet to get a court-ordered federal gender change.
Ellison said many trans people change their name and gender with one document. However, in January of 2011, he changed only his name.
To get a court-ordered gender change (including social security, passports, and birth certificate), a person must have already undergone a surgical procedure. Because he changed his name before surgery, he was unable to change his gender.
Ellison said that it was simple to get a driver’s license change in California, as only documents signed by a person’s doctor are needed.
Although Ellison has undergone surgery, taken male hormones and changed his name, he said that transitioning is always a very slow and ongoing process.
He said that he’s open to speaking at the school’s LGBTQ+ club and privately to students questioning their gender or identifying as transgender.
Above all Ellison emphasizes that transgender people are just people.
“I hate jogging almost as much as I hate traffic,” he said. “I love dogs. I make amazing homemade pickles.
“I’m just trying to live my life in skin that doesn’t crawl.”
—By Nicole Wolkov