Jayden Sampson remembers the exact moment he said goodbye to the woman he once was. It was a bright, sunny day in May 2002, and the then-35-year-old was riding in the funeral procession for her grandfather, who was a firefighter and World War II veteran. Sampson recalls the tear she shed as the car passed by a local firehouse and every fireman stood at attention. At the memorial service, she listened to family members’ stories of her grandfather’s wartime heroism—none of which she had heard before.
Sampson says he decided to transition from female to male “at the point they released the doves. I remember thinking, ‘my grandfather lived a very courageous life. I wonder if I’m living as courageous and authentic a life.’”
There were only two things standing in the way of his transition. The first was the fear of no longer being able to sing with the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir, where she had been a member for seven years. The second had much more serious implications. “I was now aware that I might be perceived as dangerous and threatening,” Sampson says. “I was going to present to the world as an African-American man.”
But Sampson knew what he had to do. “I always felt a more masculine energy in my life,” he says. So he began taking testosterone. His voice became deeper and he started to grow facial hair. A few years later he underwent “top surgery”—a total mastectomy. He describes the process of transitioning as both exhilarating and sobering. “There was an inner smile and confidence in being able to present as a man, which matched what I had always wanted. It was sobering because I was not socialized as a man and now had the challenge of defining what it meant to be a man.”
There was also another critical challenge facing Sampson, who identifies as bisexual: whether or not to have “bottom surgery.”
Phalloplasty, one of the bottom surgery options, involves constructing a penis. Most phalloplasty procedures require multiple surgeries and can leave large areas of scarring. Erotic sensation may be diminished, and problems with urination—like leakage—can occur. It’s also costly, running anywhere between $50,000 and $150,000, and is typically not covered by health insurance.
Metoidioplasty, a less expensive option—roughly $2,000 to $20,000, depending on the surgeon and how many surgical procedures are performed—involves creating a small phallus from the clitoris. The operating time for a metoidioplasty is about three to five hours, but the procedure may include additional surgeries, such as a vaginectomy, testicular implants or a hysterectomy. The resulting penis is very small, not even large enough for sexual penetration, and the risks are similar to phalloplasty.
Sampson chose not to have either procedure. “How a person identifies doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the physical equipment they’re working with,” says the now 43-year-old. “For some people, the choice is transition or die. They are not going to make it until they present as their chosen gender. I transitioned because I wanted to bring together my male and female energies.”
Growing up in Evanston, Ill., Sampson was a self-described nerdy kid who excelled in debate. He says “homophobia came into play” early in his life. “Everyone on the basketball team was a lesbian. You did not want to have that label in high school.” Even though the label was appropriate, Sampson “didn’t want to deal with the high school angst,” and thus shied away from the sport.
Sampson, who had come out of the closet the first week of college, attended the University of Chicago where he got involved in LGBT issues and joined an African-American sorority. He then earned a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Sampson moved to Philadelphia in 1992 to work as a public defender. After four years of feeling like he wasn’t making a difference, he left the job. Over time, he got involved in local LGBT causes, serving on the boards of the Attic Youth Center and Mazzoni Center, the city’s LGBT health center. At the Attic, he focuses on mentoring LGBT youth. “They all need my help, but I’m especially interested in trans youth because they are the most at risk.”
According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), 59 percent of transgender youth report being harassed and bullied in school, and 23 percent were victims of physical assault. “The Attic is the safe haven,” Sampson says.
Health care for trans adults is also a major concern for Sampson. Trans people can be denied health care due to anti-transgender bias. Some simply can’t afford treatment or don’t know the best ways to navigate the health-care system. Sampson also serves on the planning committee for the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference (PTHC), which addresses physical, mental and spiritual health needs of transgender people and how to develop grassroots organizations to support their community.
“People are thirsty for knowledge about what they’re doing to their bodies,” Sampson says about PTHC. “Let’s face it. We are willing and voluntary guinea pigs. We have no information about the long-term effects of taking testosterone or estrogen.”
Besides training health-care providers how to treat transgender patients, PTHC helps educate religious leaders about welcoming trans members to their congregations. “Just like many churches struggled to welcome gays and lesbians, many churches reject trans men and trans women,” Sampson explains. “Many trans people who were involved in their spiritual communities before they transitioned find they’re not welcomed as a trans person and lose their spiritual connection.”
Another challenge within the trans community is the two distinct and polar opposite factions. There are those who prefer to “go stealth” or “pass” as their chosen gender, never acknowledging their past life. And there are those who are out and trans fighting for equal rights. “Being stealth isn’t going to lead to better health care or help end discrimination against trans people,” Sampson insists.
Statistics from another survey by NGLTF and NCTE reveal a startling picture of transgender discrimination. Ninety-seven percent of trans people experience harassment or mistreatment on the job. Nineteen percent have experienced homelessness. Eleven percent have faced eviction and 26 percent were forced to seek temporary shelter.
“Discrimination within the trans community is multilayered,” says Sampson, adding that he is thankful for the love and support of his family. “Unlike some of my trans sisters and brothers, my family has been very supportive.” But, he says, “people of color who are trans may experience a double dose of discrimination. I made my choice to live an authentic life and at times that’s not easy to do. We live in a society in which people make assumptions based on what they see.”
Which is exactly why he stresses the importance of not being defined by sexual orientation. “Judge me by my work ethic. Judge me by what I do. Pay attention to people’s character because at the end of the day, that’s what matters.”
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom