A Transgender Veteran’s Story: Misgendered for Surgery
On Tuesday, August 25th, as a flurry of nurses prepared me for a blepharoplasty (a surgical repair of the eyelids) and a brow lift, I texted on my iPhone from my bed in the surgical prep room to my Facebook friends. I told them how I had been repeatedly misgendered, an unpleasant experience for a trans woman or trans man, at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Ann Arbor, MI.
First, when I pulled into the parking ramp with my friend, Nicole, a friend who would drive me home after my surgery, the attendant at the gate looked at my ID and waved me on: “Have a nice day, sir.” This happens so frequently at the VA that I hardly notice it anymore. I chalk it up to a sort of “auto-greeting” left over from the offender’s years in whatever male-dominated branch of the military they served. Nevertheless, as I walked from the parking ramp to the hospital, I stopped by the gate and told the man that he had misgendered me, and that I am a woman. My name, photo and gender marker (F for female) on my ID also indicate that I am a woman. I explained that it was important to me and other Trans people that we are recognized as ourselves by others.
Second, when the nurse entered the hallway outside the ambulatory unit, she called the names of the dozen or so veterans waiting to be summoned inside where we would all be prepped for our surgeries. When she called out my name to go into the surgical prep area, it was “Mr. Davenport.” I hesitated and then said loud enough for others to hear, “Ms. Davenport. That’s Ms. Davenport.” She apologized and showed me that all she was given was a sticky note with just my last name and bed number. She said she isn’t used to seeing any women for surgery, and I tell her “That’s okay.” After all, I have had three surgeries and dozens of appointments over the last several years at the same hospital, and I am ALWAYS, without any exception, the only woman veteran. The demographic of veterans at the Ann Arbor VA reflects the military environment: manly, masculine and mostly macho.
Third, the wristband I was given in the surgical prep area had the correct name (Charin Hudson Davenport), but an old picture from an old ID that was issued prior to my transition. Since my transition, my photo, name and gender marker with the VA have all been updated to Charin Hudson Davenport, Female. I changed all of that two years ago. This is the first time something like this has happened since then, and it made me very uncomfortable. I complained about the wristband and the nurses were at a loss in trying to explain how such a thing could happen. One nurse wrote “Transgender Woman” at the top of my chart in big black-ink letters and highlighted it in yellow. She wanted to make sure the doctors and others would know. I thanked her, but it felt strange in ways I can’t quite figure out, even now.
Fourth, with the exception of one nurse, everyone (nurses, anesthesiologists, doctors, and the surgeon) who came into the prep area addressed me as “Mr. Davenport” and "sir", even after they read my chart. My wig was off (yes, I wear a wig!) and now I wonder if maybe I should have kept it on longer. Maybe they would have “seen” me and when they looked at the wrong photo on my wristband, maybe they would have noticed that an error had been made. But, I didn’t think about that at the time. Instead, I corrected them each time and every attempt at an apology (with one exception) dismissed the importance of their having misgendered me: “Oh, okay. I’m sorry. Now, Mr. Davenport...I mean, how do you pronounce your first name? Is it "Sharon"? Okay, Charin, let me (explain what we’re doing/check your blood pressure/take your temperature ...etc.). Have a nice day, sir.”
Fifth, the surgeon came into the prep area and even she misgendered me just before I was being wheeled into surgery. I corrected her. She looked at my wristband again, and then told me how she was going to reduce the drooping of my eyelids. It was the same procedure that had been explained to me weeks earlier by the doctor who had scheduled my surgery. But, when she told me the procedure she would use to raise my eyebrows, I realized that something had changed. I tried to explain to her what I was told would happen, and she said it was not a procedure I would be happy with and that her method would result in less scarring.
Sixth, as I lay on the operating table, the surgical team around me, the surgeon leaned down and looked into the eyes, my eyes, that she was about to operate on. “Mr. Davenport,” she said, “we’re almost ready to start.” It is the last thing I hear until I come out of surgery. I don’t recall if I corrected her.
Seventh, after the surgery, she came by to check on me while I was still in bed, and she misgendered me again. I corrected her, again, and she dismissed her error, again, with a flip of her hand – “Right. I’m sorry.” -- and continued to tell me how the surgery went without mentioning my name or any gender at all. Perhaps she is catching, I thought.
As I am writing this, it’s been almost six days since the surgery. My field of vision has increased dramatically and for that, I am grateful. However, it doesn’t appear that my eyebrows were lifted at all. If anything, my brow bone is more pronounced and I am afraid that when the swelling is gone, I will appear less feminine than before.
I am trying to stay positive, but at this point I am more than a little concerned that the surgeon made choices in the surgical prep area that were based on her perception of me as a man. To make matters worse, I have little doubt that when she looked down at me on the operating table, she believed she was talking to “Mr. Davenport” and would be performing the brow lift and the blepharoplasty on the eyes of a man.
Even if the surgical results are cosmetically pleasing, I still feel very uncomfortable about what transpired that day. Consequently, I have contacted the LGBTQ point person at the hospital. I have known him for almost two years, and he has been a powerful advocate at the hospital. He helped write the LGBT policies and training at the hospital. My advice to him is that he reinforce the hospital staff training that was done two years ago with refresher training. Don’t think of the training as a “one-and-done” deal, I told him. He probably already knows this, and my message to him might sound condescending; but, the real reasons I wrote him is that I need to tell someone in a position of authority about what happened, and I want to give him a heads up, just in case I raise hell if the cosmetic results of the surgery are what I fear they will be.
Two years ago, I changed my name and gender with the Veterans Administration, but that doesn’t change my military service records, which are all under my “dead name,” the term many Trans people use when referring to their pre-transitioning lives. To change my military records, especially my medical records, I need to request that my DD-214, a veteran's military discharge record. Being able to change our DD-214 is not a trivial matter for transgender veterans. As the Transgender American Veterans Association reports, many transgender veterans have learned that “records with former names or outdated gender designations can compromise privacy and lead to harassment when applying for jobs or benefits and in other situations.”
For instance, the family of a deceased Trans veteran who changed her VA records, but not her military records, may actually have to witness their mother or grandmother honored and buried with a name and gender that died decades ago when she transitioned. Because of scenes like this, many honorably discharged Trans veterans have reportedly foregone any military references at their funerals. This is upsetting on many, many levels.
Hopefully, scenes like that will never happen again, because in addition to finally allowing Trans people to serve openly in the military, including during transition, the Pentagon has put in place a new and easier process for veterans to change their name and gender marker on their DD-214. TAVA provides guidelines on their website for trans veterans who want to change their records. However, implementation by the different branches is inconsistent, according to some reports from Trans veterans on social media, and this has resulted in a lot of confusion and distrust.
At least part of the problem can be attributed to the fact that the tens of millions of military records that were created before military personnel files became digital continue to sit file cabinets in warehouses. It would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to digitize all of them. Regardless, I will be changing my DD-214 this year. I expect there will be delays and a lot of phone calls, but I am confident and determined.
But what happened to me during my surgery on August 25 was not caused by a mix-up between my VA records and my “dead name” military records—and that worries me even more. To be fair, the Ann Arbor VA Health Center and the Saginaw VA Medical Center have treated me with dignity and respect. I have heard numerous other Trans veterans complain about the services they received, but that was never my experience—until now. Being misgendered for an entire day, even at the moment just before surgery was to begin, reminds me that I must always be vigilant when it comes to protecting my identity. I don’t know what went wrong, but everyone in the Trans community, not just Trans veterans, is acutely aware that our identities are being challenged every day.
I also want what happened to me at the Ann Arbor VA to be a reminder to the folks there and throughout the VA Health Care System that sensitivity training is an ongoing process and never a “one-and-done” deal. It should also be a reminder to Trans vets that we can help VA medical care staff do an even better job by reminding them of that.
In the meantime, even when I do change my name and other gender designations on my DD-214 and in my military records, it won’t change the fact that I was born and still live in Michigan, where state law requires Trans people to have Gender Confirming Surgery (commonly called SRS or Sex Reassignment Surgery) before we can legally change the gender marker on our birth certificates. The surgeries typically cost anywhere from $18,000 to $35,000 and there are too few surgeons to meet the demand. Michigan’s laws and the laws in 31 other states only compound matters even more by adding another layer of institutionalized discrimination and misgendering, as a matter of policy.
This is particularly upsetting to Trans veterans, like myself, who served honorably during wartime, as well as those who would have served honorably if they had been allowed to serve. As I look at my eyes in the mirror, I wonder about the decisions the surgeon made.
Troubling questions that have vexed me for too many years, are stirring inside me once again:
What do folks think transgender veterans were fighting for, if not America and our freedom?
Char Davenport is a transgender veteran, an activist and a poet. She has three children and three grandchildren. She served in the U.S. Navy, 1974-1981, and teaches as an adjunct English instructor at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. In 2015, she received the Pioneer for Women award at Delta College. You can read more from Char on her blog, Char-Inside.