Monitor: A journey from Sheila to James

CFAX listeners were no doubt perplexed. Last summer, one of the Victoria radio station’s news anchors, Sheila Gardner, signed on with a brand-new name.

Sheila Gardner was now James Gardner.

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“For many, this might be a bit of a surprise and some may find it confusing at first,” Gardner wrote in a statement carried on the Puget Sound Radio website. “However, for me, it is the conclusion of a long and sometimes painful journey to a future of happiness I have never felt before.”

Gardner is, as far as he knows, the only transgender radio broadcaster working in a Canadian city. The 54-year-old is in the middle of a female-to-male physical transformation.

In January, Gardner had a hysterectomy. In May, he’ll travel to Florida to have chest surgery that includes a double mastectomy. For 15 months, Gardner has taken male hormones. His face has lost some of its feminine softness, becoming more angular. He’s experienced some male-pattern baldness, but has sprouted new follicles elsewhere.

“I’m actually shaving. I like that,” said Gardner, smiling. “It is really cool. I never thought I’d be excited about it. But I am.”

Interviewed after his first surgery at CFAX’s Broad Street building following his newscast (scientists studying Mars, Jersey Shore storms, political disturbances in North Korea), the veteran broadcaster seemed upbeat. Blue-eyed with silver spectacles, Gardner is a sturdy five-foot-four. The timbre of his voice is lower than most women’s, although higher than that of many men.

For this meeting, he wore a brown tie and coffee-coloured shirt. In December, for a previous interview, Gardner had on a yellow shirt and a golden tie he had won in an auction. That tie was donated by Hudson Mack, a television news anchor for CTV2 Vancouver Island (both CFAX and CTV2 are owned by Bell Media).

For Gardner, the decision to wear a tie — an archetypal symbol of masculinity — was a momentous step. “The first day I wore it, I felt like I was sticking out like a sore thumb,” he admitted.

Hired by CFAX two years ago, Gardner was then a woman who identified as lesbian. He says it was no secret from the outset and the station “was open to that.”

CFAX was equally understanding of his switch from female to male. Following accepted protocol for such situations, the human resources manager called a meeting with staff, without Gardner, to explain her female-to-male transition.

“Afterwards, the HR manager said, ‘They’re all happy you’re doing what you need to do. And we’re a family. And you’re a brave person.’ It was great,” Gardner said.

Kevin Bell, CFAX’s general manager, said the station is “very supportive” of James in his decision. “We’ll do whatever we can do to help him along.”

No formal announcement was made on the radio on June 4, 2012, when the news anchor and reporter Victorians knew as Sheila signed on for the first time as James. Some listeners did call in to ask what had happened to Sheila.

“Most [staffers] could answer the question. No, Sheila’s still here. But now she’s James. She’s going through transition,” Gardner said.

'I felt male from Day 1'

Sheila Ruth Gardner (now legally James Russell Gardner) was born in Edmonton on Sept. 14, 1958. She trained at the Columbia School of Broadcasting via correspondence, sending cassette tapes via mail to be critiqued. At age 20, she was hired by a small radio station in Wetaskiwin, 70 kilometres south of Edmonton. Gardner had jobs with a variety of stations in Edmonton (CJCA, KIRK FM, CFRN) before moving to Vancouver in 1987. In Vancouver, she worked for KISS FM, CKWX and then, in 2005, CKNW — one of the top-rated talk-show stations in a city with a population topping two million.

Radio was — and continues to be — his passion. Gardner says he loves the immediacy of live interviews, knowing thousands of listeners are tuning in to something happening in real time.

His father, who died when Gardner was 14, was a veterans affairs administrator for the federal government. When Sheila was a child, her mother tried to make her wear dresses — in vain.

From an early age, Sheila knew she was different. She wore boyish clothes. She didn’t like playing with dolls. And her friends were boys, not girls.

“I felt male from Day 1,” Gardner said.

By adolescence, she was developing crushes on girls. Gardner decided she must be a lesbian. At the age of 19, she made this public. Her mother, with whom she’d become closer after her father’s death, was supportive.

“I’ve always been with her,” said Gardner’s mother, Pauline, who is 87 and still lives in Edmonton. “When she came out before as a teenager, I accepted it. I would do anything for her, you know.”

It was many years later, in the fall of 2011, that Gardner made the decision to transition to the male sex. She had been reading a lot about female-to-male reassignment surgery. It finally felt right.

No one thing in particular triggered the decision. It was partly because, in her mid-50s, she felt time was getting on. Gardner would picture himself as an elderly person sitting on a porch.

“I thought, sitting in that rocking chair, am I an old man? Or am I an old woman?”

Once the decision was made, she experienced a heady combination of excitement and relief. She consulted her doctor and a therapist specializing in transgender issues. In physical terms, the first step was taking “my first shot of testosterone” in January of 2012. Gardner was told some effects of the hormone therapy were not reversible. So, in her mind, there was no turning back.

Sex changes are complicated things. It’s not as easy as hormone shots and a few snips here and there. Like many undertaking the journey, Gardner is unsure whether he will make a full physical transformation. He may be content with “top” surgery, that is, having a double mastectomy and follow-up procedures to make his chest appear more masculine.

Bottom surgery, for the female-to-male change, can include a phalloplasty, in which a penis is constructed using skin from another part of the body. The phalloplasty, which requires three surgeons, costs more than $40,000. Testicular implants and an erectile prothesis (or penile implant) are options as well. Bottom surgery can also include a metoidioplasty, in which the clitoris is reconfigured to resemble a penis. (For a full cost breakdown on sex-change surgeries funded by the provincial government, see the accompanying story.)

Gardner’s hysterectomy was covered by the B.C. Medical Services Plan. In this province, chest reconstruction for female-to-male transitions is also funded. However, because there is a waiting list, Gardner opted to have his chest surgery done sooner in the United States and pay for it himself.

“I don’t know about doing anything further [than chest surgery],” he said. “It’s a process. Not everybody decides to go the full route.”

For those wanting to transition from one gender to another, Victoria is among the best cities in Canada in which to live.

Victoria psychiatrist Gail Knudson is medical director of the transgender health program at Vancouver Coastal Health and a former president of the Canadian Professional Association of Transgender Health. She’s also chief assessor for gender-confirming surgery in B.C. — if you’re having sex-change surgery in this province, chances are, the paperwork will land on Knudson’s desk.

Knudson says in terms of funding for gender reassignment surgery, British Columbia is considered a “progressive” province. Last October, the B.C. Ministry of Health announced it would for the first time fund penis-construction surgery for women transitioning to the male sex, although the number is limited to five cases annually. Breast removal and chest reconstruction surgery are already covered.

Male-to-female surgery, including removal of the penis and testicles and breast construction procedures, is covered in B.C. However, the cost of the private after-care facility in Montreal (where vaginaplasties are now done in this country) is not, Knudson said.

In terms of societal acceptance of transgenderism — “which kind of goes with the urban centres” — Victoria, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are considered to be Canada’s leading cities, she said.

University of Victoria sociology professor Aaron Devor is the author of FTM: Female to Male Transsexuals in Society. He is also the donations co-ordinator for UVic’s Transgender Archives, the largest such collection in the world.

(That collection is, by the way, about to vastly increase in size. Devor said the university is now negotiating to acquire a huge collection of transgender materials from the U.K. that “would pretty close to double the size of the collection.”)

Devor, who himself underwent a sex change about a decade ago, says transsexuals make up a very small part of the population — about 0.5 to one per cent in North American urban centres. In terms of widespread societal acceptance, the transgender person is likely where gay men and lesbians were a decade or two ago.

Yet acceptance is growing, something reflected on television and in movies, Devor said. Glee introduced its first transgender character a year ago, for instance.

“Recently, there’s been a transgender character on practically every long-running TV show. And there’s lots of films that have had transgender characters, if not transgender themes,” he said.

“I would say, absolutely, it’s more accepted than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Which is to say, not everyone is comfortable with it.”

Devor says Gardner’s decision to be public about his gender transition is a significant step, given his high profile in Victoria.

“It’s very brave of him; it’s not easy to be under scrutiny like that,” he said. “Now everyone in his workplace knows, all the people who’ve been his loyal listeners know. … Now there’s a huge amount of people who know someone who’s transgender.

“They can see he’s a good person and he hasn’t turned into a monster in any way,” Devor added with a laugh.

When it comes to transgender folk, he said, the best advice may be: Don’t get hung up on the details. For when it’s all said and done, people are people.

“I would say this is part of a natural human variation,” Devor said. “And this is part of what nature has produced. We can’t deny and shouldn’t. And we shouldn’t repress. In fact, we should celebrate it.”

Acceptance growing for transgender people

Denver journalist Eden Lane is, in some respects, Gardner’s counterpart in the U.S. While Gardner may be the only transgender radio broadcaster in Canada, Lane — who underwent full surgery a decade ago to become a woman — is believed to be the first transgender journalist to work in mainstream American television.

Lane is the host of Colorado Public Television’s In Focus With Eden Lane, a weekly arts and culture program. A bubbly personality who laughs often, Lane said she has successfully maintained a seven-year broadcasting career.

Still, life as a transsexual journalist has its challenges.

Several years ago, she interviewed candidates for both the Democratic and Republican parties. There was “backlash and negative attention” from each side of the political fence, simply because these politicians had consented to be interviewed by a transgender journalist, Lane said in a recent phone interview.

And while Lane is supported at her TV station, she said prejudice against transgender journalists within the industry still exists.

She’s experienced news directors being initially enthusiastic about her application for a job. “And then, once they Google you, you never hear from them again,” Lane said.

As a journalist, she doesn’t make an issue of her transgender status, which has been publicized widely. “My job is to get the story,” Lane said, “not be the story.”

Interviewees don’t ordinarily broach the subject. However, some indirectly let her know that they know. After she interviewed George Hamilton, the actor immediately told an anecdote off-air about Christine Jorgensen, the first person widely known in the United States for having sex-reassignment surgery.

“That was a very interesting anecdote to bring up, if it weren’t for the idea that he was perhaps trying to send me a signal he surmised that I might be transgender. And that it was OK with him.”

Despite occasional setbacks, Lane — who, as a male, once worked as an actor, dancer and singer in New York City — has created a happy life as a journalist, wife and mother (she and her husband have a daughter).

Lane said she succeeds as a transgender journalist by working hard and trusting in herself, family and friends, and her audience.

“If you’re comfortable with yourself, you’ll be able to be authentic in your work, in your personal life, in your place in the community. It will only help you blossom in every area.”

Closer to home, UVic graduate student and writer Julian Gunn has transitioned from a female to male identity. The 39-year-old says he had “top surgery” 13 years ago.

Gunn, a soft-spoken fellow with a goatee, was just 24 when he decided to transition.

“I was literally walking down the street and going, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this,’ ” he said.

Gunn, who used to be Laura, said he is satisfied not to make a complete physical change from female to male. Transition, he says, means different things to different people — it is “about coming into congruence with how you feel.”

Unlike Gardner, who maintains a long-distance romantic relationship with a California woman, Gunn is attracted to men. As such, he identifies primarily as a gay man.

Devor says it’s important to remember that sexual preference and gender identity are separate things. As well, the whole notion of a “sex change” is far from being black and white. Some people opt for full sexual reassignment surgery, in which the body is transformed as much as possible into the opposite sex. Others, like Gunn — and perhaps Gardner — are content with a partial physical transformation.

“For some, a full transition into the opposite gender doesn’t really reflect how they feel about themselves. They don’t want to have a complete and full transition in every aspect of their lives,” Devor said.

Happily, Gunn’s family and friends were supportive. To announce his decision, he met his parents in a coffee shop. Gunn then asked his mother and father to make a list of the things they liked about him.

“Then I said, ‘Would that change if I transitioned?’ They were like, ‘No, of course not.’ And my dad was like, ‘Can we go fishing?’ ”

Gardner telephoned his mother to tell her of his decision to transition from female to male. “There was this long pause. She had to digest it. She didn’t really have a problem with it,” he said.

His mother, Pauline, said she was surprised to get the phone call. “She said, ‘Mother, I have something to tell you.’ ”

Pauline admits she still finds the concept of someone needing to change his or her sexual identity baffling.

“They feel they’re in the wrong body, or whatever it is. I can’t understand that. But I tried to support her. I still do, and I always will.”

Said James: “My mother is starting to get to know who James is, but still, Sheila is still here.”

Pauline’s attitude bodes well for Gardner’s future. Knudson says that for a successful transition, strong family support and acceptance is the “No. 1 predictor.”

Gardner has experienced several bumps in his journey so far. Some friends in the lesbian community found it hard to accept his decision to become a man. One asked, “Why can’t you just become a butch lesbian?”

In a blog entry from early in the transition process, Gardner wrote: “Well, it doesn’t work that way because deep down inside, I am a straight male. Problem is, the outside doesn’t match the inside. When I look in the mirror, it is a female staring back at me.”

(Judith Halberstam, a professor at the University of Southern California, has written extensively on conflicts between lesbians and those who undertake a female-to-male transition. She once said: “Some lesbians seem to see FTMs as traitors to a ‘women’s movement’ who cross over and become the enemy.”)

In another blog entry, Gardner wrote that he and his romantic partner had split up after almost three years. His girlfriend was mostly supportive of his transition. Still, she’d started out dating a woman — a woman who is now becoming a man. It wasn’t what she’d initially bargained for. When I last spoke to Gardner, the pair were together again … at least for now.

“I’m in a relationship,” he said, “but it’s ever-evolving because of this whole transition. So I don’t know where it’ll wind up.”

Other struggles are more mundane. At one point, Gardner was worried about using a men’s public washroom. It’s a big issue for the transgender person. In his book Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue, Nicholas M. Teich notes that those who don’t pass on the outside as “ ‘clearly male’ or ‘clearly female’ are thrown both out of men’s and women’s washrooms on a daily basis.”

Gardner recalled the first time he used the men’s washroom in the workplace. “I felt … it felt awkward.” He’d heard men don’t talk in public washrooms, unlike women, who like to chat.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’ll just keep my eyes down.’ ”

In a wider sense, there’s the whole question of passing as a man when, for more than half a century, you’ve lived as a woman. There are so many details to pay attention to — how to walk, how to talk. For instance, Gardner has studied how men riding buses interact with one another. There are subtle differences, he says. Unlike women, men sitting side by side tend to mostly stare straight ahead while chatting to one another.

Still, there’s no question he’s on his way. When I asked Gardner whether he felt more masculine after his initial surgery, the broadcaster said he mostly feels he’s setting out on a long-anticipated journey.

“For me,” he said with a small smile, “it means a relief that I’m getting on with my life.”

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