"There's knowing, and there's consciously knowing," Anderson Wiltshire says. He "knew" at 5 that he—anatomically a girl—was not "supposed" to be a she. He remembers distinctly a day when he stepped out of the shower, saw his female form in the mirror, and decided that when he got to heaven, God would make him male. What's more, he figured, since God wants you to love the same person for eternity, that would make his earthly love into gay love on high. Hence, homosexuality could not be a sin.
He laughs now at how well his little mind worked. But he shakes his head over not knowing, until he was a sophomore in college, that sexual transition was even possible. That's when he met a transwoman at a church-sponsored work camp and it all clicked.
"I thought to myself, 'That's what it is.'" But "consciously knowing" only made him afraid for himself on the very conservative Vanderbilt University campus. So afraid, in fact, that he went the other way, dressing "high femme," with lots of makeup and big hair. "I looked like a drag queen," he laughs. "I was a drag queen, only with two X chromosomes."
When he arrived at UNC-Chapel Hill last fall as a graduate student and teaching assistant in classics, however, Wiltshire began immediately to turn his life around. He started the legally required psychological therapy, which allowed him to begin taking testosterone in November. By January, he was ready to "present" as a male, a change he announced matter-of-factly in an e-mail to his Latin students. A colleague had advised that they would take the news in stride if he presented it that way—which they did. And others did, too.
"I probably shouldn't be surprised, but I am surprised, at how accepting people can be about something they've probably never heard of before or don't understand," Wiltshire says.
His family was surprisingly supportive. "My father finally said that he'd rather have a happy son than a miserable daughter."
An FTM (female-to-male) change usually starts with testosterone and often includes "top" surgery to remove breast tissue and other fat cells. Until a hysterectomy is performed, pregnancy remains possible. Wiltshire plans both when he can afford them. (Insurance is an issue; "cosmetic" surgery usually isn't covered.) But like the vast majority of FTMs, he does not expect to have "bottom" surgery—penile construction. "The procedure is not—they don't really get you where you might want to be," he says, shrugging. "It leaves you with something that costs too much and isn't really functional."
On the other hand, testosterone's effects are immediate and dramatic. Wiltshire's face has squared, and his neck, shoulders and chest have thickened along with his vocal chords, which quickly dropped his voice from high-pitched to baritone. The effect, unless you knew him before, is of a baby-faced young man. Some old friends, though, still "read" him as female the first time they see him, he says.
We talked awhile about his sexual orientation. Wiltshire was "out to himself" as bisexual in adolescence, but didn't date until college and never felt attractive as a female. In fact, and contrary to what his eyes see in the pictures now, he felt so ugly "I thought I should really be wearing a bag over my head."
Now, he says, he's pansexual, "attracted to people regardless of gender, gender identity, genitalia—anything like that. I'm really attracted to personality."
He's not nervous about sex as a male, he says, but he isn't trying to plunge into relationships either. He's still learning how to act, and react, in his new form. "I still have no idea," he says, giggling a little. "It's about negotiating a body that doesn't match the presentation." A lot of transmen, he's learned, seek relationships with other transfolks—on the Internet or at trans meetings—for the obvious reason that they have a lot in common.
Wiltshire's very funny on the subject of his emerging understanding of male-female differences. Men, he says, often feel "entitled" to success—sexual and otherwise—without really trying. He's working on that sense of entitlement; before, he always thought success required hard work.
And men don't smile much, he says. He's learned that, if he looks "pissed off," people never mistake him for a woman. But he plans to keep smiling as much as he can. "I'm only adopting male mannerisms insofar as I have to to pass," he says. "I have no desire to become this macho, joking, frat-boy type."
And then there's the sex drive. It comes and goes with women, he says. But with testosterone, it's always on, and it's driving him a little crazy—he can almost sympathize with those teenage boys who made his adolescence "hellish." But even if he were the last person on the planet—no sexual partners available—he'd still want to be taking it. "It's not about being with somebody else," he says. "It's about feeling comfortable with myself."
I asked Wiltshire if he ever second-guessed his decision to be transsexual. He nodded. "It's difficult," he says. "Sometimes I have to remind myself that this is the best course of action."
Just nine months ago, remember, he was contemplating the change and wondering "if my whole life would be pulled out from under me." It wasn't, but that sense of impending trouble hasn't left him completely.
But regrets? "No," he answers. "Each day it feels better. I remind myself that I felt this way for a very long time, and that if I hadn't done it, five years from now I'd still want to, only even more. And I'd know that it's never going to go away, because I tried to push it away for a very long time."
(Wiltshire declined to be photographed for this story.)