Is Philly the New Transgender Capital of the World?
Patrice Golgata never forgot what she read. And a few weeks later, while performing household chores, she heard an ad for an upcoming TV show. “Trapped in the wrong body!” the announcer shouted. “Meet the youngest transgender person to undergo sex reassignment surgery.”
Trapped in the wrong body?
She imagined Shane, suffocating.
She called down the stairs: “Shane, I need you to come here.”
He came up, hair dangling in front of his eyes.
She blurted it out: “What are the chances you’re one of these people who feel like they’re trapped in the wrong body?”
“Yes” was all he said.
Shane’s father had long been out of the picture; the responsibility for what to do next fell squarely on Patrice. She felt panicky, unsteady, but willed herself to remain calm. “Okay,” she replied. “I don’t understand anything about this. So I’m going to have a lot of questions.”
Shane left the room. Patrice started crying. And kept crying, for weeks.
Ashley, a mom in Montgomery County, learned about her son when he came home for summer break from college. He hunted and fished with his dad. He seemed happy. Then, one day at her job as an office manager, she received a text from him. A photo. There he was—face expressionless, hair flat-ironed, eyelashes thick with mascara. “I need to talk to you,” the message read.
In West Chester, Julie and Jeff found out gradually. At three, their daughter told them she was a boy. At five, when her teachers divided the room by gender, she threw tantrums. And at 10, she stood in front of the bathroom mirror and hollered: “If God’s so smart, why did he give me the wrong body?”
However a parent learns the truth, the revelation occurs as a kind of death. “It is a loss,” says Wayne psychotherapist Michele Angello. “Finding out your daughter is your son means losing everything a parent imagines for a child’s future.”
Parents must accept never seeing their daughter in a wedding dress or their son in a tuxedo. And they must also mourn the past. All the joyful times mom and dad thought they provided were, for their child, often painful lies. All those birthday cards to “Our Darling Daughter” or “Handsome Son” suddenly sting. Family history is rewritten, pruned—sometimes forcibly. Family photos of trips to Disney World are either tucked out of sight or destroyed.
But the truth is that most parents never make it that far. Overwhelmingly, they reject the news entirely. “It’s still rare to see supportive parents,” says Robert Winn, medical director of the Mazzoni Center. “I’d say more than 90 percent of our young trans clients under 25 don’t have parents supplying emotional or financial assistance.” Mazzoni counselors often advise high-school or college-age kids to remain closeted until they no longer need help with basics like tuition and housing.
Angello runs a support group for parents of trans kids to help them reframe things: The perceived death of the child you thought you had is actually the birth of the child you really have. Kids and their parents sometimes even celebrate “rebirthdays”—the date of a sex reassignment surgery or name change. But the distance from stunning revelation to cake and candles is long.
“I was supportive,” says Patrice Golgata, “from the very beginning. But privately, it took time for me to process. I just—I remember looking at the suicide statistics, how high they were. And I was scared. I thought, You know, my kid needs me.”
One day almost about 30 years ago, Bala Cynwyd plastic surgeon Sherman Leis greeted a new patient, one who asked that he perform “sex change” surgery.
Leis demurred, saying he wasn’t familiar with the procedure. But Janice Meyers persisted, explaining that no one in the area performed sex change surgery. Intrigued, Leis did some research and discovered that the transgender had to travel—to Canada, or Colorado—for surgery. And there was precious little literature available, just a few articles in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. In Janice’s case, the surgery would involve removing a tube of tissue from her abdomen, molding it in the shape of a penis, and attaching it just above the clitoris.
“I was not intimidated by the surgery at all,” says Leis. “If you have experience and understand a surgery conceptually, the technique is already there in your hands.”
Leis performed the surgery. Janice adopted a new name of Jan, married his girlfriend, and moved to Florida. “That was it,” says Leis. “No one else came seeking that sort of surgery, and I had a busy practice as it was.”
More than 20 years passed. Then, in 2004, Christine McGinn walked into Leis’s office. She didn’t know he’d performed a previous “bottom” surgery. She told him she wanted to conduct her residency in his practice, and one more thing: She hoped he would begin performing transgender surgeries.
She had a very personal reason.
McGinn is a commercial-grade knockout, a camera-ready, sunny blonde. She is also transgender, and in 2000 completed her own transition. She has dedicated her career to performing sex reassignment surgery to help others like herself. McGinn encouraged Leis to travel to Colorado, where trans surgeon Marci Bowers ran a practice. Leis watched Bowers perform surgery for a week. “It was interesting,” he says. “But that wasn’t the reason I altered my practice.”
As a plastic surgeon, Leis explains, “I help people feel better about themselves.” In that context, bumping a woman from a B cup to a D cup is fine work. “But gender reassignment surgery is truly life-altering, life-saving surgery,” he says. “You can see it in the way patients react when the procedure is over.”
And so Leis began to expand gender reassignment surgery at his practice. McGinn and a second surgeon, Kathy Rumer, performed their residencies with him. Rumer now conducts gender reassignment surgeries in Ardmore. McGinn, who has appeared on Oprah and also starred in the documentary TRANS, which covered her journey from Lieutenant Naval Commander Christopher McGinn to her current identity, today has her own New Hope-based practice.
Transgender surgery (including facial and chest procedures) represents about 90 percent of Leis’s business. About a year ago, his secretary took a call from a new client. Her name was Patrice Golgata, and she was inquiring for her child.