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Born again in Bangkok

Born again in Bangkok

BANGKOK, THAILAND. 11/13/2016 40-year-old Genevieve Ma'Yet rests in bed after traveling 9,000 miles from her home in Haltom City, Texas. Courtesy: Kate Ford

Born again in Bangkok
November 25
04:30 2016

Updated Dec. 2, 2016

Looking at the ceiling tiles of Piyavate Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, 9,000 miles past the point of no return, a woman wearing a pink gown and weary eyes enters the final stretch of a 20 year journey.

Nurses in old-fashioned hats whisk her through the corridor and into the cold sterile surroundings of the operating room. After four hours, Texas Woman’s University graduate student Genevieve Ma’yet, 40, wakes up and sits with the after burn of anesthesia and invasive tubes leaving her feeling raw, hungover and exposed. This was Nov. 11.

For three days, she sat in bed, heeling from a penile inversion vaginoplasty, or sexual reassignment surgery. Her wound hemorrhaged, and the indignity of being watched began to feel normal to her. On the third day she rose, lurching herself off the bed until the full weight of her journey fell onto the balls of her feet.

“It felt good to take my first steps,” Ma’yet said.

Each step was a triumph. The stitches pulled. Her girlfriend steadied her through the dizzying haze of painkillers.  She was lightheaded, but her heart was heavy.

And this week, Ma’yet returned home to Texas.

Growing up different.

Ma’yet was 4 years old when she first became conscious of her gendered sexual identity. This was Chicago.

“You just feel different from everyone else,” Ma’yet said. “You don’t know who to talk to. You don’t know if what you’re feeling is or isn’t normal.”

At school, she was a student who made A’s but couldn’t make friends and an athlete who didn’t like sports. She said she grew up feeling alone.

“Hiding who you are, hiding how you feel,” Ma’yet said. “In the ’80s nothing transgender or trans anything was really talked about. It was a lot of confusion and trying to figure out why I don’t feel right in my body. It was difficult.”

In hindsight, her mom, Bonnie Wnenkowski, saw signs her her son would grow into her daughter Gen.

“I really thought around 6 or 7 I was seeing things that were alerting me, I could just tell there was something happening there,” Wnenkowski said. 

Wnenkowski first became aware of Genevieve’s identity when the 6-year-old wore a dress for Halloween. She was struck by how comfortable and happy her daughter looked. When her father came home, Ma’yet jumped out of the costume. Wnenkowski was unaware of the fear her daughter had of her husband.

Ma’yet said her dad was mentally and physically abusive. Her mother “wasn’t around a whole lot.” While Wnenkowski was busy at work as an electric engineer at Bell Labs, Ma’yet lived beneath the shadow of her father’s expectations.

“It’s unfortunate but it’s true,” Ma’yet said. “The mental was just a constant fear of failure. He always told me I would fail. ‘School is a waste of time, you’re not going to amount to anything, grow up and get a real man’s job.’ He had a real blue-collar mentality.”

He punched and kicked her, “he even hit me with a guitar.”

After making a stand for herself, Ma’yet left for college, where she found the resources to explore herself. Four years later she came out to her family.

“The reaction wasn’t one of unacceptance, but more of worry,” Wnenkowski said. “I was worried how people, in general, would treat her, and of course, being my child, you go into protective mode. I never wanted her to get hurt. Society is just awful.”

Though Wnenkowski had her suspicions, Ma’yet kept her pain hidden.  But after seeing her blossom recently, she just wishes she could’ve helped her daughter sooner.

Wnenkowski wants to write a book about her experience to help other parents raising children without expectations associated with gender assignment.

“It’s just total acceptance because at the end the day they will stay the same,” Wnenkowski said. “The person you love is the is still the same person. The good, decent, wonderful, loving person is still there, it doesn’t go anywhere. The rest makes her comfortable but it doesn’t change how you feel about them deep inside.”

Born again

Memories of a 6-year-old who wanted be a princess for Halloween only to be scolded and stuffed into Army camouflage come to mind. Memories of a childhood home wallpapered with mental and physical abuse. Memories of feeling broken and flawed, leaving death as the only solution to the problem of her.

Through the scars of the past and the pain of the present, Ma-yet steps into the bathroom and catches the gaze of a woman she’s never seen before, the person she was born to be.

“It’s almost indescribable,” Ma’yet said over the phone. “Emotionally it’s overwhelming. I finally have the pieces that make me whole — the pieces I always knew I should have been born with. It’s overwhelming relief and joy.”

Though insurance companies consider the procedure to be cosmetic, Ma’yet said it saved her life.

“It’s the dream I’ve always had,” she said. “It takes away a lot of my trepidation about existing.” 

It took around 20 years of budgeting and siphoning from her 401k to accrue the $17,000 needed for her surgery. At first, she only considered surgeons located in the United States. But with the out-of-pocket cost starting around $25,000 to $40,000, she realized she simply couldn’t afford the procedure.

In 2015, Ma’yet and her girlfriend Kate Ford, 36, began researching alternative options. This eventually led the pair to Dr. Preecha Tiewtranon, a renowned surgeon. Despite the $4,000 cost of two round-trip tickets to Bangkok, the financial feasibility and reputation of Dr. Preecha made Ma’yet’s dream a reality.

One year before Ma’yet’s birth and 41 years before her rebirth, Dr. Preecha became the first in Thailand to perform sexual-reassignment surgery. By the early 2000s, Preecha had created a niche industry in his image and helped turn Bangkok into a global gender surgery destination. According to the Preecha Aesthetic Institute website, Dr. Preecha and his staff have performed 5,136 of these surgeries.

In a 2001 report from The New York Times Magazine, Preecha said his close work with transgender community helped him understand their struggle and appreciate their strength.

“You know, someone you do stomach surgery on, maybe it’s very hard for them, and you do a good job, but the patient is just saying, ‘Oh pain, pain, pain,”’ Preecha said. ”The sexual-reassignment surgery patients are always happy. They don’t complain. They say they are born again here in Thailand, and they are happy.’

Coming home to America’s Transition.

From their high-rise hospital room, overlooking the neon glitz and congested chaos of Bangkok, Ma’yet and Ford watched in horror as Donald Trump became elected the 45th president of the United States.

Ford said she fears the once silent minority will feel emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and resort to violence against her community.

“America made hate popular again,” Ford said.

But while they fear the next four years, Ma’yet said being trans in America has never been easy.

“Every time I go out, I have to put on thick skin because people always have something to say,” she said. “[They’ll] laugh at me or jeer at me.”

Moreover, she said going to a public bathroom is terrifying because she never knows if someone is going to yell at her or call the cops.

Ma’yet said the surgery and a new birth certificate helps relieve those fears.

“It’s going to make me more confident,” Ma’yet said. “I not only feel like myself, I’m able to be myself.”

But Ma’yet is one of the lucky ones. She survived.

She was able to afford the procedure that most with gender dysphoria simply can’t. She had the resources to get 16 years of counseling to cope with her depression and suicidal ideation.

The only assistance for transgender health care or therapy in America was a provision in the Affordable Care Act. But now, with Trump’s campaign promise to repeal and replace the A.C.A., Ma’yet fears those in the trans community will be left without the hope of care.

But when she flies home on Nov. 28, Ma’yet plans to pay her privilege forward.

“I know I can use my experiences to help other people and use it as a positive,” she said.

She said making an impact is important. It’s why she upended her career as an environmental compliance specialist in the private sector and enrolled at TWU for her second master’s degree to teach.

“I’ve suddenly realized I really haven’t made that much of a difference,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to get into teaching, I want to teach science. And teach about the environment and the planet and how cool it is.”

While the earth’s transition looks dire, Ma’yet said there’s a bright future ahead.

In a year she plans on using her semen sample stored in a cryogenic lab to start a family with Ford. But before discovering what it’s like to be a mom, Ma’yet plans on discovering what it’s like to be herself.

“[The surgery] is a completion of a lot of roads that I’ve been on and the creation of a new road to discover more about myself,” she said. ” I don’t have to deal with that aspect hanging over my head anymore. Now that my physical self is complete I can start to complete my mental self.”

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Austin Jackson

Austin Jackson

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