Kristen Worley is a former world-class cyclist who now champions the rights of women in sport. She has challenged the gender policies of the International Olympic Committee and related sports bodies, which she successfully argued were designed to discriminate against female athletes. Worley was born a boy, adopted by a conservative family, and felt like an outsider from a young age. Woman Enough (published this month by Random House) is about her legal battle and personal journey, including her decision to pursue gender reassignment surgery. In the following excerpt, she offers a candid description of the experience of transitioning and how it changed her life.
There’s no manual for transitioning. It’s not like changing a light bulb. In Toronto in 2000, there were hundreds of endocrinologists, but perhaps four of them knew the ins and outs of gender reassignment and were willing to take on patients. I was referred to a doctor who had a practice at Bay and Bloor. She set up a sensible, gradual hormone treatment plan to suppress my testosterone and increase my estrogen.
Even though we were adjusting my hormones gradually, when your testosterone drops as your estrogen soars, your brain goes through a massive chemical change and adjustment. Along with relief and delight, you also feel depression, confusion, anxiety and doubt: “Why do I have to tell so-and-so?” “This is too difficult.” “I’m scared to wear women’s clothes in public. Can’t I just wear them at home?”
My wife Ali jokes (but isn’t joking) that she married a man, raised a teenager, and ended up with a wife. By teenager, she’s referring to my hormonal changes. For the first few years, she had to keep reminding herself how she’d felt as a teenager, and that I was basically hormone soup.
I didn’t know how to look like a woman, so I tried to be a teenage girl. Ali had to teach me to dye my hair, to paint my nails. That must have been weird for her, but I couldn’t think about that. I gave myself a goal—go to the Bay and buy women’s underwear—and then agonized over it for days. When I finally started buying women’s clothes, I went through my pink phase. I was sick of grey and blue. I wanted colour. Blouses, not shirts. Pastel socks. Ali kept steering me toward what she called the Ellen DeGeneres look—women’s jeans or black pants, cashmere sweaters, cute flats.
After the pink phase, I stuck mostly to unisex clothes, and didn’t present as rigidly “male” or “female.” Still, when Ali and I would walk down the street, a lot of people would stare. I expected that. (I was and still am surprised by the cruel things some people say, even in open-minded Toronto.) I wouldn’t meet their eye. Ali would stare them down for me.
Sometimes we would think, Why shouldn’t we stay together? We love each other. Our marriage is about a lot more than sex. We want to keep our family intact. I’d suffered a lifetime of rigid conventions—why stick to one more? We saw that most relationships don’t work out, regardless of gender orientation. Couldn’t we be different? As well, imagine if your partner had an accident, became paralyzed, or got cancer. What I was going through wasn’t that, but it felt like a kind of catastrophe. I needed Ali’s help, and she wanted to help me.
Other times I could see how hard this was on her. Transitioning is narcissistic. You are self-obsessed. It has to be about you. I was in the battle of my life—I had to articulate the same fears, day in and day out, and Ali had to listen. I was polite to people all day. When I got home, I could be short-tempered, or a hollowed-out zombie, or a tearful mess, and she supported me unconditionally.
Here’s a hard truth. I saw that Ali, this woman I loved, was doing everything she possibly could for me. And yet I still felt—often—that I was in this alone. No matter how valiantly Ali and her family tried to understand me, part of me was sure they never would. No matter how much they stuck by me, I couldn’t shake the fear that every new step I took would be the last straw for them. As a cyclist, being selfish was essential to my training—“I’m sorry you’re lonely, but I have to get up early/train all weekend/be away at races.” Now I was transferring that selfishness to my transition. No matter how much others did for me, I’d internalized the idea that, at the end of the day, I was out there by myself.
On the Ides of March, 2004, I went through a full surgical transition at Montreal’s Centre Métropolitain de Chirurgie. I was excited. My doctor, Pierre Brassard, was the leading sex reassignment surgeon in North America; his patients came from around the world. I had spent four years preparing myself for this, researching the science as rigorously as I’d trained in sports. I kept reminding myself that my brain and body would finally be aligned. But I was also scared. There was still a part of me that was Chris. I was ending his life.
The night before the surgery, the nurses handed me a razor and instructed me to prep the area. Ali was the one who shaved me. I can’t imagine how strange and sorrowful that must have been for her.
Then they gave me a sedative, and I got weepy.
On Tuesday morning, I was wheeled in for surgery. Twenty-four hours later, I woke up bandaged, groggy and heavily medicated. I was scared to look down at myself. The doctors forced me to, because I had to do a lot of self-care; I had to become very familiar with my new genitals. When I finally did look, I was so swollen I could hardly see anything.
On Wednesday, I had my first bath. (To heal, I had to bathe two to three times a day.) Looking down between my legs, part of me thought, “Cool!” while another part of me asked, “Where is it?” My brain had transitioned as far as it could. My body was in shock.
After I was discharged, I spent two weeks in a facility nearby, for people who’d just had gender reassignment surgery or are about to have it. Three specially designed meals a day, quiet, with time to think and heal. To protect our privacy, it’s located on an island in a lake, down a long laneway and then over a bridge. It was under tight security. Visitors had to be buzzed in. If you weren’t told where to find it, you’d never know it was there.
There were ten of us recuperating together—eight women and two men of all ages, who had come from all over the world, from different professional and cultural backgrounds. At 35, I was the youngest. It was a strange time. First of all, I was pretty medicated. Secondly, my body was in shock. I didn’t think, “Hurrah, I have a vagina, I’m a woman!” I was barely aware I had one for the first few days. I had to relearn what my genitals looked like. I had to relearn how to go to the bathroom.
I would go out for walks—ever the restless athlete—but no one else did. We shared meals together. We talked. The care wasn’t psychological, it was convalescent. There were lessons about bathing, cleansing, preventing infections. I was swollen and massively black and blue. A caregiver handed me a vaginal dilator, a thin plastic shaft, and instructed me to insert it like a tampon nine times a day for 45 minutes at a time. (You do the math. It fills up the day.) As the weeks go on, the dilators get thicker.
Back in Toronto, the work of transitioning continued, with absorbing new problems. Seven days in, I began experiencing terrible, raw pain, dead centre in my lower pelvis. I was waking up several times a night, drenched in sweat. Soon, I couldn’t get out of bed. Ali drove me back to Quebec. I had an infection; my body was rejecting some of the external parts that had been made into internal parts. The surgeon had to go up through my vagina to correct it.
I’d been told that it would take me six months to heal. It was more like a year. The swelling persisted, as did the bruising. I spent months sitting on a donut. I had to do hours of dilation exercises every day, and will have to do some for the rest of my life. It took me a full six months to be comfortable with touching my body. I went into spontaneous menopause. I experienced a version of phantom limb syndrome—I kept having flashes of panic that my penis was still there. Very few family doctors knew how to care for transitioned bodies.
One of the toughest adjustments, believe it or not, was peeing. A woman’s urethra is smaller than a man’s. As Chris, I could hold it. As Kristen, when I had to go, I had to GO. I had to relearn all my sensations and timing. No more peeing outside, behind a tree or over a bridge. It’s not easy becoming a woman.
And of course, there was the emotional transition. I never regretted the surgery. It wasn’t a choice, it was an imperative. But I still had to make peace with my past, reconcile where I came from. Until I was 50 years old, I really struggled with Christmas and birthdays. I would often bow out of celebrations with my in-laws at the last minute. It was stressful for them, never knowing if I would show up or not. Ali would leave me behind and carry on, but my absence was always a presence. All these years later, my emotional journey hasn’t ended. Perhaps other trans people have an easier road, but I’m still walking mine.
The next step, changing my name and gender on all my legal documents, was downright Kafkaesque. Dr. Brassard had given me the affidavit that the Canadian government requires. But the people who worked at the various bureaus were often uninformed about how to deal with situations like mine. To change my driver’s licence, I had to chase down my local MP, Maria Minto, for her signature. Ali had to educate a Revenue Canada officer about transgender issues. The passport office was the usual nightmare. By the time Census Canada knocked on our door, Ali had had it. She told them, “Sorry, Chris died.”
I had spent a lot of time thinking about what my new name should be. For the four years I’d been transitioning, I’d been living as Kristen Jackson. I wanted to make it easy for people; they could still call me Kris. But after my surgery, I wanted a fresh start. I talked to Ali about changing my last name to Worley.
It was a radical idea. We were still married, after all. What would we be to each other now? I suggested we’d be sisters. She had to let that idea steep for a while. Eventually she brought it up with the rest of her family. They were receptive, but they had questions to work out. But the Worleys did what they always do: they rallied around me and held me up.
About four months later, a big government envelope arrived at the Worley house. Out slid my birth certificate, driver’s licence, health card. Kristen Dawn Worley. A legally born female.
If this were a movie, I would have burst into tears and hugged everyone, then fallen back in my chair with a smile, bathed in righteous satisfaction. But life isn’t a movie. Yes, staring at the documents felt good. I said, “That’s cool.” But as with transition, the change didn’t sink in overnight. Imagine if, on your 38th birthday, someone told you to forget who you’ve been and start life again from day one. I’d changed my name, my body, and my outward relationship to the rest of the world. But I hadn’t really lived as Kristen yet. It would take a few more years to fully transition in my own mind. I put the birth certificate away in a drawer, and didn’t look at it for a long time.
There was one thing I was still terrified to change: being married to Ali. You might think I was selfish, maybe even monstrously so. I wouldn’t argue with you. But I was still so vulnerable, and Ali was so strong. I leaned on her for everything. She had co-created me. If she walked away now, I might dissolve. And for her part, she’d been helping me for so long; she’d invested her money, time, love and years. How could she get me this far, and then leave me before I was ready?
We stayed together for seven more years. I know it wasn’t easy for her. But she’d committed to taking care of me, and she honoured that commitment in ways visible and invisible.
By September 2010, Ali was staying out late, leaving home early. She finally told me: she’d fallen in love with a man named Michael. She was exhausted; she needed to find her own life again. I guess it was inevitable, but emotionally I felt betrayed. Our relationship was hardly conventional. I would have accepted an open marriage, but that’s not what she wanted.
On our divorce application, my name didn’t match the name on our marriage certificate. So who exactly was getting divorced? Ali spent many nights researching Ontario divorce laws; there was nothing about trans people at the time. Everyone assumes a same-sex family is a gay family, but we were proof that isn’t always true. Ali spent seven long hours in a courthouse one day, waiting in lines, filling out forms and getting affidavits signed. Ticking the final box—the reason for divorce—she didn’t want to blame my transition. She wrote the truth: “Irreconcilable differences.”
It took about two years for Ali and me to find our way into our current relationship: best friends. Sisters. Michael accepts my place in Ali’s life. We all eat dinner together several nights a week. Ali and I are and likely will remain one another’s most important person. People think relationships have to be binary: you’re either married or divorced. Why can’t people be intertwined differently? We’re taught that divorce equals failure. But for Ali and me, it was the best thing we could do. Our relationship didn’t fail. It evolved. We got to where we needed to be.
Everyone is fascinated by what happens when people behave badly. But I think it’s much more interesting, much more moving, when people behave well. We can only behave well when we’re open to it, when we embrace a natural evolution rather than restrict it or control it. Ali and I are a love story. It’s not your typical love story. But it’s the real thing.
Excerpted from Woman Enough by Kristen Worley and Johanna Schneller. Copyright © 2019 Kristen Worley and Johanna Schneller. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.