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For the first 38 years of her life, Michelle E. Wolf lived with a painful secret that she kept from everybody, even her closest friends and family members.

Born, raised and educated in Kenmore as a boy – Michael E. Wolf – Wolf was convinced, deep inside, that she was really meant to be a girl.

“Going back to when I was about 4 years old, I knew I was different. I was sure that I was a girl,” Wolf, now 41, recalled in a recent interview. “Over the years, the feeling became stronger and stronger. I put myself through a lot of twists and turns trying to avoid it, but I couldn’t.”

At age 40, Wolf began a process of hormone treatments, facial hair removal and other procedures to change from a male to a female. Last year, she changed her name and began wearing a long wig and women’s clothing. She is listed on her driver’s license and other government documents as a female. Everyone – including co-workers, her son and the woman she’s still married to – calls her Michelle and treats her as a woman.

Wolf waited four decades to make a gender change, but some parents now allow their children to begin that process as young as age 5. The issue of how society should deal with transgender children has touched off debate and controversy among mental health experts, school administrators, government leaders and religious leaders.

Some say parents and educators must encourage children to be themselves, even if that means allowing a 6-year-old boy to take on a girl’s name and attend school dressed as a girl.

Other experts warn that children with gender identity issues often change their minds when they get older, and they advise that decisions about gender change should never be made before puberty.

Some religious leaders believe that changing one’s gender is never the right thing to do, regardless of age.

Imagine, as a parent, having your 11-year-old son tell you one day, “Mom, Dad, I’m not a boy. I’m really a girl. I want to start living as a girl.” Or a 10-year-old girl telling you that she has known all her life she’s really a boy.

Dr. Tom Mazur, a Buffalo psychiatrist who specializes in helping people with gender identity issues, said a small but growing number of area parents are dealing with these very issues.

He is aware of at least six transgender children or teenagers attending schools in Western New York. The Buffalo News spoke to two of them and their mothers, on the condition that the newspaper would not publish their full names or identify the schools they attend.

“When parents come to me with children who are struggling with gender identity, I take a very conservative and cautious approach,” Mazur said. “I tell them that changing gender is a very difficult process and a difficult road to follow. If you can avoid it, avoid it. But I also tell them that if they choose to go down that road, I will help them.”

Wolf said she is convinced making a gender change was the right move for her.

“I’m not saying this is an easy thing to do. It’s a very difficult road. But I know I made the right decision,” Wolf said. “I feel more like myself, more than I ever have in my life.”

Right up through Wolf’s years of attending a Catholic elementary school, the all-male St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute and the State University at Buffalo, Wolf kept a secret stash of old dresses, shoes, jewelry and makeup in a closet. When no one else was home, Wolf would dress up and play the role of a female.

Wolf continued leading that secret life through four years in the U.S. Air Force. Wolf fell in love with a woman, and in 2004, married her. Wolf then fathered a beautiful son, but the urge to become a woman never went away.

In 2010, she began talking about her urges with people close to her, and seeing Mazur. She began gender transformation procedures in 2011 and now is nearly done.

Government institutions are just beginning to address legal issues surrounding people who change gender. Earlier this year, California became the first state to enact a law protecting the rights of transgender children. From kindergarten through high school, transgender kids in California will be allowed to decide whether they will play on boys’ or girls’ sports teams, or whether they will use male or female bathrooms.

The California law, which is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, has outraged some conservative leaders, who recently filed a lawsuit attempting to stop it.

Colorado’s Civil Rights Division ruled in June that transgender first-grader Coy Mathis, 6, has the legal right to use the girls’ bathrooms at public schools in the Fountain-Fort Carson School District. Coy was born as a boy but has been raised by his parents as a girl since age 5. In Maine, the state’s highest court is trying to decide whether to allow Nicole Maines, 15, born as a boy and now being raised as a girl, to use the girls’ bathroom and locker room.

Statistically, people who have gender dysphoria – or gender confusion issues – are still a small group in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are about 700,000 transgender people in the nation, or approximately one out of every 445 Americans. Transgender people are defined as those who identify with, or express a gender identity that is different from their gender at birth.

As the co-chairperson of an organization called Spectrum, Wolf is in touch with much of the local transgender community. She estimates there are “no more than 200” transgender people in Western New York.

Although the numbers are small, the issue is not going away, said Mazur, a UB Medical School associate clinical professor who runs the Center for Psychosexual Health at Women and Children’s Hospital.

Samantha to Sam

Sam, 12, who was born as girl named Samantha, attends a school in the Southern Tier. Sam has been raised by his parents as a boy since age 7.

Sam has short-cropped hair, dresses as a boy, hangs out with boys and plays offensive tackle on a boys’ football team. At school, Sam takes gym classes with the boys – changing clothes in the nurse’s office – and uses the boys’ bathroom. Sam is addressed by teachers, classmates and school employees as a boy.

Because Sam is still legally considered a girl, The News refers to Sam as “her” or “she” in this article. But Sam’s parents, other family members and friends all refer to Sam as a boy.

“Most of Sam’s friends only know him as a boy,” Sam’s mother told The News. “Sam has always been shaped like a boy and always looked like a boy, even when he had long hair. Since he was 2 years old, he’s been telling us, ‘I’m a boy, not a girl.’ Those were almost the first words out of his mouth.”

For years, she and her husband resisted, hoping Sam was just going through a “tomboy” phase. But Sam persisted. When she was in second grade, she went into the bathroom with a scissors and gave herself a short, crude boy’s haircut. She refused to play with dolls, refused to play with girls and would not wear anything but T-shirts and jeans.

At age 7, Sam begged and begged – and ultimately convinced – her parents to buy her a boy’s suit so she could dress like a boy at Easter church services. “At that point, it was the hardest decision we ever made in our lives,” Sam’s mother said. “But Sam was beaming that day. I had never seen him happier.”

Since then, Sam’s parents have been raising their child as a boy. Sam’s mother said some of her friends and family members have criticized them for it. “My husband and I are very open-minded people,” she said. “We’d rather raise Sam as a happy boy than an unhappy girl.”

“I’m a boy,” said Sam, who looked like a boy in a T-shirt, jeans and sneakers on the day of the News interview. “I never want to go back to being a girl. I never want to be a mommy. I never want to think about being anything but a boy for the rest of my life.”

Although most accept her for what she is, Sam said she has received some nasty verbal abuse from classmates.

“Most of my friends are good about it,” Sam said. “One kid said, ‘I can bring in a yearbook that shows you’re a girl.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not a girl.’ ”

“Some of these kids can be really nasty, brutal,” Sam’s mother said. “The school staff has been great, but Sam has had some really tough times with bullies at the middle school this year.”

Not everyone goes along with the wishes of Sam and her family. Earlier this year, the family got into a dispute with the operator of a summer day camp that Sam wanted to attend. Sam’s parents wanted Sam to be grouped with the boys. The camp operator would not allow it, even after Mazur tried to intervene. Sam did not go to the camp.

So far, Sam has only made cosmetic changes – dressing and styling her hair like a boy. In four years, she expects to begin taking hormone injections that will put testosterone into her body and inhibit the development of female characteristics.

Sam’s dreams for the future include a total gender transition, marrying a good woman and working as a chef.

Matti’s story

Matti, 15, already has begun the process of taking hormones. He hopes to have gender change surgery at age 18, the earliest age that doctors are willing to perform it in the United States.

The teen attends a public high school in a Buffalo suburb. Walking into an interview room in high-heeled shoes, long reddish-blonde hair and a short, cream-colored dress, Matti looks like an attractive, stylish young lady.

“As long as I can remember, I wanted to dress up as a princess,” Matti said. “I never, ever felt like a boy.”

Her mother adopted Matti as an infant boy and has been raising Matti as a girl for nearly three years.

“For years, I raised Matti as a boy, and she was miserable,” said Matti’s mother, who is a single parent. “She would always tell me, ‘I’m a girl in a boy’s body.’ I wanted Matti to be happy.”

While most of Sam’s friends are unaware of her gender history, Matti’s is an open secret. Matti speaks openly about it to friends, including those who communicate on Facebook. Matti also speaks about the change on a YouTube video, encouraging other young people to be themselves.

“When I was 10, I put out this long, humongous post on Facebook, telling everybody I know about my situation. ‘This is me. I’m gay. If you don’t like me anymore, just deal with it,’ ” Matti said. “I got so much support after that. It was a turning point in my life. In eighth grade, I started wearing girl’s clothes to school. I was so happy. I felt so normal. I was skipping down the halls.”

Matti and his mother said school officials and most of Matti’s friends are cooperative and understanding.

“Some students give me disgusted looks. I don’t let it bother me. A teacher gave me a dirty look this year and said, ‘Oh, wow,’ ” Matti said. “Most of my friends have been great about it. All the kids know about it. The girls treat me like one of the girls. Most of the boys are fine.”

Matti had a boyfriend for a brief time earlier this year. “He was fine with my history, but he was very controlling and I didn’t like that ... so we broke up,” Matti said.

Matti hopes to marry a man someday and work in the fashion industry. To any other young person who is experiencing the same feelings he has felt, Matti advised: “Don’t just keep it to yourself. Talk to friends, people who love you, people you can trust, people who won’t judge you.”

A gender change nightmare

Matti, Sam and Michelle Wolf seem to be content and fairly well-adjusted in their transgender lives. Walt Heyer, 73, of Durham, N.C., knows it doesn’t always work out that way.

Heyer is a retired businessman who runs a website called sexchangeregret.com. Much of the information on his site is based on research. Much is based on his own painful life experiences.

Born as a male, Heyer was molested as a child. He also had a grandmother who constantly dressed him in girls’ clothes when she would baby-sit him. He said he spent most of his childhood and much of his adulthood convinced that he was really a girl. At age 42, after years of counseling, he had gender change surgery.

After living eight unhappy years as a woman, using the name of Laurie Jensen, Heyer returned to his male identity and began to present himself as a man again at age 50.

“Without going into graphic detail about the surgery, you can’t restore everything,” Heyer said. “Transitioning into a female was the worst mistake I’ve ever made in my life. When I did that, I walked away from a 17-year marriage. My daughter would not speak to me for eight years while I was a woman. I was miserable.”

Today, Heyer is happily married to a woman. He spends much of his time talking to people who contact him via his website, urging them not to repeat his mistakes.

“It’s rarely reported in the media that a lot of people who have sex change operations have regrets. A lot of them have serious problems. A lot of them commit suicide,” Heyer said.

Heyer pointed to a 2010 survey of 6,450 transgender Americans done by the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. The task force reported that transgender people suffer from job discrimination, and 41 percent of the respondents said they have tried to commit suicide. That is a staggering 25 times the attempted suicide rate for the general population.

Heyer also pointed to the case of former Los Angeles Times sports reporter Mike Penner, a transsexual whose suicide was widely reported by the LA news media in 2009.

A respected journalist who was married to a woman and had children, Penner stunned readers when he announced in an April 2007 column that he was going to become a female and change his byline to “Christine Daniels.” About a year after that, he suddenly went back to his old byline and began dressing as a man again. In November 2009, at age 52, Penner took his own life in a parking garage.

Because Penner was a well-known sportswriter, his story became public. Heyer said he knows of many similar tragic stories that never made the newspapers.

“I’ve had hundreds of people reach out to me through my website and tell me they were going through the same regrets that I went through,” Heyer said. “A lot of people go into sex change surgery thinking, 'This is going to solve all my problems,’ and it doesn’t.”

Heyer said he cringes whenever he hears about parents who allow a child or a teenager to start even cosmetic changes to their gender. He urges parents to get their child “a very thorough psychological examination, looking into every possible cause for these urges” before allowing a child to begin changing gender.

“The kids who do this will be very happy for awhile and get all kinds of attention. But at some point, they may be getting no attention and asking themselves, ‘What did I do to myself?’ ” Heyer said.

There are some local horror stories, too. “One friend of mine was told not to show up at her father’s funeral because she changed gender,” Wolf said. “I know some whose spouses have left them and moved with their kids to another state. A transgender person in Rochester was murdered.”

Dr. Margaret R. Moon, a pediatrician and medical ethics expert from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, agrees with Mazur’s cautious approach to dealing with children with gender dysphoria.

“Every case is different, so it’s hard to give general advice,” Moon said. “I look at this as a family issue. It’s not just the child that needs to see a psychiatrist who has experience with these issues. The whole family has to go.”

Moon has sympathy for parents whose children want to change genders. She said it is especially stressful and tricky because “many children who have gender dysphoria don’t have it anymore when they get older.”

Moon also urges parents to “take a deep breath and don’t insist on rules for your child.”

“Offer them some middle ground,” she said, “like letting them change the way they dress and their haircut. Children need love, support and space to grow up. At the same time, I would be very much against pushing a child to have surgeries or to take medications before they reach adulthood ...Try to avoid irrevocable decisions.”

Wolf – the former Michael Wolf – remembers all the inner turmoil she endured as a child. She offers this advice to kids and teens in the same predicament: “Don’t rush into anything. The first step is to talk about it with someone you trust – a parent, a guidance counselor, maybe a friend. Don’t keep it all inside like I did.”

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com