A trans woman (male to female), Stacey Vetzal underwent sex-reassignment surgery in 2014, marking the start of feeling "aligned" after a lifetime of gender dysphoria. "I played with my sisters' friends. She hated it," Vetzal said, recalling childhood. At school, Vetzal avoided sports and the macho kids, and got teased for being "gay." First there was "cluelessness," later questioning. Vetzal married in 1995 but had discussed gender with wife Sharon three months into their relationship. A brush with abdominal cancer in 2008 was a precipitating event for Vetzal in rethinking her gender. After hormone therapy, laser hair removal and a name change came sex-reassignment surgery and many months of healing. Vetzal, now 46 and running her own software-development business, spoke with The Globe about a complicated journey for herself and her family.
Transitioning is a lifelong thing but for me gender-reassignment surgery was a milestone. When you're a trans person and you have the "wrong" body parts you attract scrutiny from society. There is some doubt as to your gender. For myself, after GRS there was a feeling of it being indisputable. You could no longer dispute my gender because I had better alignment with my body configuration. Still, afterwards, it often raises the question: Did I do this for myself or did I do this for other people? For me the answer was quite complex. I kind of did it for both.
For a trans person there are so many different surgeries. In our community, we use the term "bottom surgery" as opposed to "top surgery" and it can entail a number of things. It's a nice fuzzy term. For some male to female people bottom surgery might be as simple as an orchiectomy. Or it might entail penectomy or the full vaginoplasty. They say you can return to work eight weeks afterwards but that's a stretch. The reality for me was three months out of day-to-day work. You feel like a patient and don't get a chance to bond emotionally with your new body for quite some time. I had to go back for a revision surgery, which is one of those complications they don't talk a whole lot about. It's still a healing process.
I also had breast enhancement. For me that was almost more important in terms of how I felt about myself than the bottom surgery. Moving through life as a woman in public every day, it's uncomfortable having masculine features, broad shoulders and tops not quite fitting the way they should. The top surgery was big: Finally I could have tops that look right, that I could feel really good in.
Before then I was still hesitant to emerge. In 2011 I did my social transition, which means changing everything I could that other people see: name change, identification change, throwing out my male wardrobe and exclusively presenting to the world around me as a woman. But I felt awkward and withdrew from some business networking. I wasn't out at the breakfast business meetings for a few years. With the self-confidence I got after GRS, 2014 has been very different. I didn't look or sound any different but somehow the alignment got me out of the house. Now I'm back and involved in the business community again. There have been some changes to my business and it's brought me new opportunities. It's hard to say if any of them are related to my being at peace with my whole body. But that's what it is: Peace. My new confidence comes from that extra peace, from fighting a transphobic society on one less front.
It's been a complicated journey for everybody, especially for my wife. It's really hard: She married a man. It was an emotional thing, releasing the idea that this was what our life was going to be like. And now it's going to be different. How do we deal with intimacy with changes in body configuration? It's a really complicated thing and in another way it's crazy simple: My wife always says that the only thing that changed about me was the wrapper. I love the way she phrases that, it's really nice. Today we bounce between the very neutral term of "spouse" and calling each other "my wife" when we're talking to someone and we want to give a little bit more idea of our intimacy. We've both used that term and it's a bit more endearing.
How do you pick a label when it erases so much of who you are? She's not strictly a lesbian, she's not strictly heterosexual. These days the word pansexual has become more a part of the vocabulary because it goes beyond male and female. As a trans person you'll always deal with some aspect of yourself that you can't change. I'll never change my height or the width of my shoulders. As an identity that's how terms such as pansexual come about. It's an ongoing discussion.
I have the same relationship with my three daughters that I had before. It was very important to me that when I came out to them – at that time the youngest was 9 – they understood that you can really do anything you want in life. Even gender, it's on the table. What do you want in life? What will make you happy and let you live a fulfilling and productive life in today's world?
Pre-op, I knew people and institutions couldn't see past my genitalia. I could have been sent to a male prison or embarrassed out of a women's change room no matter how discreet I tried to be. I had a body that fit neither box. Society focuses on the phallus as the singularly defining attribute of masculinity, no matter how impotent it becomes. Whether people knew or not if I still had one, I knew, and it was a burden to me. I lived with the ghost of internalized transphobia. It was a barrier in my own mind. Post-op, that barrier is gone. I get to bunny-hop over it. It feels like cheating.
In 2014, I went swimming for the first time in seven years. There's nothing quite like a bathing suit to bring out everything a woman hates about her body. But this year I had the courage to get past it and it was wonderful.
As told to Zosia Bielski. This interview has been condensed and edited.