Life on his terms: UA transgender student offers new perspective
As a kid, Michael Woodward owned the biggest G.I. Joe collection in the neighborhood. In high school, he participated in a Junior Miss Pageant.
Michael, a UA graduate student studying public health, was born in 1964 and grew up in Indiana as a girl.
“The whole time,” he said, “it never felt like it was my life.”
He competed in the pageant because it was something he felt his mother wanted him to do.
“Some of the biggest struggles I had with my mom were about me not being girly enough, or feminine enough,” Michael said. “I think a lot of people experience that, but I know that trans people do especially.”
By the time he was in college, he had begun identifying as a lesbian and was a part of what he called the lesbian separatist movement. But he still felt out of place.
“When I was an undergrad living as a female, you know, the black leather jacket and kind of butch-dyke look, I was harassed in the dorm,” he said.
“There was a graffiti campaign about me in the bathroom and the girls’ dorm. I ended up moving off campus just because I was so uncomfortable in the dorm and not feeling like I fit in there.”
He dropped out several times before graduating because he felt alienated from the campus and his peers.
When Michael was 36, a friend pulled him aside and told him that she was going to begin hormone therapy to transition from female to male. It was then that he realized that he wasn’t a lesbian. He was a man.
“It wasn’t until I was 36 years old that I had this other option,” he said. “That’s a long time to know something was wrong but not know what.”
Finding that out was exhausting.
“My mind was going a thousand different places,” Michael said. “I didn’t know that I could take testosterone and change my body.”
That was 13 years ago. Since then, Michael has had a double-mastectomy, a hysterectomy and has continuously undergone hormone therapy.
On the operating table, he was as nervous as he would be for any other surgery, but was excited in pre-op, and relieved in post-op.
“Finally, those things were gone,” he said about his chest reconstruction.
“Other than the gray hair you wouldn’t really know that I’m any different from any other student,” he said. “It’s really cool, feeling like I’m having the correct experience like I should have had the first time [in college].”
At the time Michael began his transition, the law required that he obtain a written referral from a therapist for hormone treatment.
“[My therapist] was from the lesbian community that was not man-friendly,” he said. “So when I started talking about how I wanted to become a man, she didn’t know what to do with that.”
At the time, most of his lesbian separatist friends didn’t know what to do with his desire either, and some responded with hostility. The people he called friends called him a traitor, and some cut him out of their lives.
But after his transition, he felt a lot more like himself.
“I don’t feel like my whole life is a drag show. I’m doing what I want to do, I’m there on my own terms, I’m there as a guy,” Michael said. “I’m not trying to fit into things I don’t fit into, like sororities.”
The only time he feels uncomfortable these days, he said, is when he showers or changes in the locker room. But he attributes that to his own fear more than to the reactions of others.
“I’m just really self-conscious about somebody noticing scars on my chest,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of people don’t even notice me.”
At night, Michael sings classic rock hits in his cover band, Too Much Information, and bartends at New Moon on Prince Road. During the day, he works toward his master’s degree in public health and serves as an activist and volunteer in the LGBTQ community.
“I didn’t really get a passion for [activism] until it became my life,” he said.
Michael has counseled LGBTQ people of all ages and given talks for the anti-violence program offered by Wingspan, a nonprofit LGBTQ organization that serves Southern Arizona. He’s also been published in various magazines, lobbying for LGBTQ rights and equality.
Michael manages the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, served as a member of the City of Tucson Commission on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender issues and was elected to the FTM International board of directors.
On campus, he served on former UA President Peter Likins’s LGBT advisory council, where he helped champion policies that added transgender issues into the medical school curriculum, and even established a policy allowing transgender students to use whichever bathroom they identify with on campus.
One of his more recent achievements was the co-founding of Transgender Awareness Week in 2006. The UA works with other organizations, like the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, to host the week. The UA’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs began holding events for the week on Tuesday and will continue to do so into the next week.
“It’s made a lot more people aware of our lives and who we are, breaking down the myths, but there’s still some work to be done,” he said. “You know, one week isn’t enough.”
Other issues Michael said need to be worked on include national employment protection and respect from doctors.
“When I first moved here, I needed to see a doctor about an infection I had,” he said. “I outed myself to them, and in the room with me they referred to me as ‘he,’ and were calling me Michael, being respectful. As soon as they stepped outside the door and closed the door, I heard them saying ‘she,’ using female pronouns, totally disrespecting me.”
Sometimes, he said, transgender people die because doctors refuse to treat them.
“A lot of these situations have improved over the last couple years,” he added. “For example, gay couples being able to visit each other in the hospital. We’ve finally started fixing those kinds of things, but there’s so much more.”
Fixing those things starts with awareness, according to Michael, and is the reason Transgender Awareness Week exists.
“A lot of people in my situation are really depressed. Some commit suicide,” Michael said. “A lot of people who feel the need to end their life do so, often, because they feel like there’s nobody who understands, or nobody cares. But people do care. We’re out here, and some of us are visible because we’re trying to be there for you.”
Part of why the transition was worth making, he said, is the way it opened his eyes.
“Everybody goes through some kind of transition around something in their lives. If we’re not constantly growing and changing, why are we bothering to live?”