Sex-Change Operations Mistakes in God's Factory

Part 3: "God made you a boy"

Two years ago, Tanja Pfeil says, she wept uncontrollably after a TV report about a girl like Kim. She mourned the girl she could have been, and the life she'd missed as a woman. The girl on TV looked perfectly female and showed no male characteristics at all, said Tanja. At that point, to the outside world, she was a businessman from northern Germany, in her mid-forties and named Michael. "I attribute it to my sunny personality that I didn't fall apart," she says now. "Being transsexual is something for people who are completely healthy."

Michael Pfeil with his son in 1996, before becoming Tanja.
Stephan Elleringmann

Michael Pfeil with his son in 1996, before becoming Tanja.

As a 13-year-old, Tanja asked her grandmother where people came from. "They're made by our dear God in heaven," the old woman replied. "And when will I finally be a girl?" Tanja asked. "Never," her grandmother said, "God made you a boy." Her first thought at the time was that something had gone wrong in the cosmic factory: God had cobbled her together wrong.

But during Karneval, the German version of Mardi Gras, the young Michael wanted to dress up as Little Red Riding Hood or a princess. He liked playing games with the girl next door. By the age of 10, the family's first-born child -- their son and heir -- was envious of girls with developing breasts who were allowed to wear dresses and makeup. Whenever his mother left the house, he would secretly put on her clothes: lingerie, girdle, high heels and bras (stuffed with handkerchiefs).

He forced himself into the role of a man. He met a woman, fell in love, married and fathered a son. When the boy was born, Michael wished that he himself had given birth.

He held out until his 40th birthday, occasionally drowning his sorrows in red wine. Then he decided that he couldn't do it anymore. "My son Aron is a gift. He shouldn't find out during puberty," he told himself. When Michael was ready to make the change, about ten years later, his friends were deeply divided. But his family supported him and the expected upheaval in his village never materialized. Tanja Pfeil, previously Michael, didn't want to extinguish her old life. But after the first estrogen treatment she had the sensation that something fuzzy in her head had gone clear. "Michael dissolved and became Tanja," she said. "She is stronger than he was."

"I wish you had been like this when you were a man," Tanja's wife recently said. "I tried. I wanted to be a good husband," Tanja replied. But it was impossible. Now the couple plans to divorce and remain friends. "But I would have preferred sparing myself and everyone else my life as a man."

At least Tanja Pfeil was lucky when it came to her body. As a man, she was short and had delicate hands and feet. Now that the hormone treatments have rounded out her breasts and hips, her skirts fit better. "You look enchanting," an elderly woman and regular customer recently said.

"I just happen to be a girl"

To become a woman, Pfeil endured a nine-and-a-half hour operation and the torture of laser epilation to reduce facial hair growth. Other transsexual women have Adam's apple or cheekbone reduction surgery. They take voice lessons to make their voices sound higher-pitched. Some are unable to stop manipulating their bodies, constantly finding new aspects they believe need to be changed.

Kim will have none of these problems. Later in life, no one will be able to tell that she was born male, because her biological development into a girl started at the age of 12. She was the world's youngest patient to receive hormone injections to obstruct her male puberty. This gave her time before making a final decision on surgery.

Even with Kim, though, the decision to switch genders wasn't taken lightly. Before Bernd Meyenburg approved her sex-change process he took a detailed look at every aspect of her family life. Had there been any unusual incidents? Mental illnesses? What about her relationship with older siblings? Were there any day-to-day problems?

"From an emotional standpoint, Kim comes across as a healthy, happy and balanced child," Meyenburg wrote in his report. She had never behaved like a boy, not even for a short period of time. "There is no doubt that her wish is irreversible, because it has been evident since very early childhood."

In the past, Meyenburg was strictly opposed to hormone treatment before a child came of age. He began to question the wisdom of his own rules when one of his patients resisted his advice and ordered hormones over the Internet. She went abroad at 17 and had a sex change operation for a few thousand euros. Meyenburg was angry at the time. Today this woman, a law student, is one of his happiest patients.

Now Meyenburg allows his young patients to enter hormone treatment early, before puberty complicates a sex change. "They simply suffer less," he says.

Kim is already much closer to realizing her dream. The first letter of her name has been changed in her record, and her school now treats her as a girl. Thanks to the hormones, her breasts are developing, like those of other girls in her class. She's allowed to use the girls' locker room during gym class.

One thing hasn't completely changed for Kim, though -- heckling in the schoolyard. But now her best friend sticks up for her. Kim says she feels good about herself in spite of the taunts. "My girlfriends see me as a completely normal person," she says, and time seems to be on her side. The family is buoyed by signs of progress in public acceptance of transsexualism. In the United States, for example, some students have managed to convince universities to add a box -- "transsexual" -- next to "male" and "female" on their forms.

In New York and Spain, transsexuals are now permitted to change their gender on their personal ID cards without getting a sex change operation. Will such changes prompt some to dispense with surgery altogether?

"It's out of the question for me," says Kim, who still wants to get rid of the parts of her body that remind her that she was born as Tim. By law, in Germany, she'll have to wait until she's 18 to take the next step. Meanwhile, she resorts to wearing tight pants.

"I just happen to be a girl," says Kim. She keeps a piggybank in her bedroom filled with change she has been saving for the operation -- since the age of five. Once it's over, her new life will start. "In Paris," she says, "where no one knows me."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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