Think of Alaska, a state so famous for ruggedness its nickname is the Last Frontier. A burgeoning trans community doesn’t seem to fit.
But over the last six months, Alaskans have shown a surprising amount of interest in transgender-related surgeries on RealSelf. Despite Alaska’s low population (roughly 736,732) and small LGBTQ community (an estimated 18,000), the state’s relative traffic to trans-related treatments was higher even than for more famously LGBTQ-friendly states like California and New York.
These numbers are surprising. But should they be? Of course transgender men and women live in Alaska. They live everywhere. They’re people — people dealing with discrimination, bullying, and inadequate medical resources far more frequently than non-trans men and women.
Looking for Home
When Drew Phoenix relocated to Anchorage from Baltimore in 2008, he wasn’t particularly concerned about his new home’s conservative reputation. Drew had fully transitioned and presented as male. Alaska was his fresh start. Then he was denied housing, twice.
“Who’s this?” potential landlords asked upon seeing a woman’s name on old credit reports.
“That’s me,” Drew replied. “I’m transgender.”
That’s when, he says, landlords would flat-out reject him: “We can’t rent to you.”
“I moved from a place that was very open, very accepting, that had laws [protecting trans individuals] to this place that I thought was going to be a land of opportunity,” Drew says. “Then I get here and I realize it’s a very red state with really no legal protections, and it’s not very safe for a transgender person like myself.”
Up until a few months ago, people could legally be fired, evicted, and run out of restrooms in Anchorage if someone thought, let alone confirmed, that they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. There was no legal recourse when it happened, and every transgender Alaskan we spoke with said it has happened to them, often more than once.
“There was nobody to go to and file a complaint,” says Drew. He would know; beyond his personal experience, Drew is executive director of the nearly 40-year-old Anchorage LGBTQ organization Identity. Last year, he played a pivotal role in convincing the Anchorage Assembly to make it illegal to discriminate by sexual orientation or gender identity within city limits.
The Assembly ordinance, which passed in September 2015, quickly drew protests (as of this writing, it may go to vote in August). Still, it’s a noted change in a country where nearly 50% of all LGBTQ men and women live without significant legal protection.
Changes like this aren’t limited to Anchorage. Last year, 12 states passed 21 city and county employment nondiscrimination ordinances, according to Alex Sheldon, research analyst at LGBTQ think tank Movement Advancement Project (MAP).
Only one state, however, passed legislation protecting LGBTQ individuals, and anti-trans measures continue to dominate state legislatures. Politicians have introduced more than 30 since last year alone.
Rome, as they say, wasn’t built by one Vanity Fair cover.
Ace Bandages, Duct Tape, Confidence
Of course, legal changes don’t guarantee safety. In Alaska, living openly remains not only difficult but dangerous. There are some places trans man Danny Ashton Earll won’t go after dark.
“I’ve been beaten up twice and raped four times,” he says. “I’ve lost some friends and I’ve had one individual threaten my life with a gun.”
Like many trans men and women, Danny knew from an early age that he was, as he puts it, “different.” It wasn’t until he met a trans man in college, however, that he began to understand what was going on.
First came the duct tape and Ace bandages. Danny would wind his chest with both, painfully constricting his breasts to capture a few moments of feeling like himself. Eventually, he bought a binder, a tube top-like contraption that’s more effective and less painful.
The first time he wore his binder, Danny cried. “I couldn’t even put a shirt on,” he says. “I was finally seeing something that I felt reflected who I was instead of seeing something I desperately despised.”
He’s decided to make the change permanent with a mastectomy or, as it’s more often called, top surgery. While getting cosmetic surgery is in no way a requirement of transitioning, it is a tool like hormone injections that many trans men and women use to align how they feel with how they look. The options are numerous, with every person picking a personal combination.
For trans men, surgery can masculinize the face, the chest, and the genitals, among other body parts. For trans women, the options for just the face are so extensive that doctors typically group them under one umbrella term: facial feminization surgery. Procedures also exist to feminize the chest and genitals.
For Danny, his primary focus is top surgery. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it,” he says. “If I had the money, I would have done it yesterday.”
Gender-confirming surgeries aren’t cheap; Danny estimates his will cost at least $5,000. The procedures are also not often covered by insurance. Now tack on an added expense for those in Alaska: travel.
“We have no surgeons who work with transgender individuals,” says Drew. “The nearest place to go is Seattle.” That’s a 2,000-mile road trip, or a three-hour flight costing upwards of $500 a ticket. “It costs just an exorbitant amount of money to get any surgery,” says Drew.
Making matters even more complicated is the mental change tied to getting a gender-confirming procedure.
“We’re touching upon their emotions, their conflict, the conflict they’ve had all their lives where how they feel inside doesn’t match with what they see in the mirror,” says Beverly Hills facial plastic surgeon Dr. Harrison H. Lee. “Finally, after having [surgery] we’re getting closer to that congruence, to that peaceful place, that harmony. They finally look the way they feel.” Dr. Lee has seen it again and again in his work with hundreds of transgender patients, including Caitlyn Jenner.
When friends return from getting surgery, they often tell Danny of a newfound harmony. “They say it’s beyond words, that it’s just the most amazing feeling, and it never really goes away,” he says. That’s what he wants for himself, too. “I just want to feel whole. I just want peace. It’s really that simple.”
“The Best F I’ve Ever Had”
Alaskan trans woman MoHagani Magnetek vividly recalls the day she got the gender changed on her driver’s license. “It says female,” says MoHagani. “It’s the best F I’ve ever had.”
MoHagani moved to Anchorage after serving in the Coast Guard for nearly nine years; she began transitioning in Alaska. For her, the state’s isolation had unexpected benefits.
“There’s no one around to tell me what I can and can’t do,” she says. “This was the first time in my adult life that I had the opportunity to just be me.”
Not that everyone has been welcoming. In 2013, MoHagani visited Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse in Anchorage.
When she headed to the women’s restroom, MoHagani says a bouncer stopped her and asked for her ID. At the time, it identified her as male. MoHagani says the bouncer barred her from using the restroom, took her photo, and kicked her out of the bar. Humpy’s later issued an apology, but the memory still stings.
“It’s like being stabbed. Repeatedly. Like being punched. Constantly you’re taking it,” she says of facing anti-trans sentiment. “You’ve got to pick and choose when you fight. But it hurts every time.”
MoHagani envisions a future where trans people will live free of bullying, shaming, and harassment. “I don’t have to hide, I don’t have to shelter myself or cut myself off,” she says. “I just get to be me because I have a right to walk under this sun like everyone else.”
Matching the Outside to the Inside
For transgender men and women sharing a new self with an old world, every correct pronoun is a win.
That’s why Identity’s weekly Friday night transgender support group always starts with three simple questions: What are your names? What are your preferred pronouns? Is it safe to use those names and pronouns in public?
It was a Friday when the Anchorage civil rights ordinance was signed into law. There weren’t enough chairs in Identity for everyone who came to celebrate.
The group was large — 22 adults — and as varied as their celebratory rainbow cupcakes. All ages, backgrounds, and genders gathered to share their ups (“My life is finally back on track, and I finally have another shot at things”) and their downs (“Every day I’d wake up and want to kill myself”).
Over several hours, they offered advice, sympathy, and, when necessary, shoulders to cry on. Applause broke out whenever someone mentioned the ordinance.
To the far right of the room sat a middle-aged man and woman. They stayed quiet most of the evening, new to the group. When their turn came for introductions, they explained that this evening wasn’t about them, it was about the teenager sitting to their left.
“We’re here,” they said, “to support our son.” Their son, a person they loved and always would. What followed was the evening’s longest, loudest round of applause.
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