I Transitioned During Medical School—What Biden's Assistant Health Secretary Means to Me as a Trans Doctor
I was born Daniel Weitzer—a triplet along with my two sisters. By the time I was four, I knew I was in the wrong body. My parents would argue constantly, a typical dysfunctional home, and I would just watch them. I always wondered why my dad fought with my mom all the time, and with that came a lot of negative feelings toward him. I didn't want to be anything like him. Instead, I wanted to do all the things my sisters were into, but they'd exclude me, saying, "No, you're a boy, you can't do this!" This was in the 1990s, where trans issues were barely on the radar.
As a 6-year-old, I started dressing up in girl clothes, wearing fake earrings, and begging the tooth fairy to make me a girl. My parents eventually took me to a therapist, who officially diagnosed me with gender identity disorder, an obsolete term used to describe anyone feeling distressed by their defined gender. Therapy was my only treatment.
Then came the years of nonstop bullying. I remember being in the third grade and getting teased for wearing a princess outfit for a school parade. That was so hard for me. It was like, oh my gosh, if I am who I really want to be, I am going to get discriminated against, judged, and be afraid of society. My other option was to live in a fake fantasy world where I pretend to be someone else. So I chose the fake world. There, at least I wouldn't be bullied and feel depressed. I wouldn't be asked, "Are you a boy or a girl?" I wouldn't have to get nervous when people say "There goes a man in a dress" when I walk by. I had to look a certain way externally to be accepted because no matter what, people preferred to see me the way I was born.
I lived as Daniel until I became too miserable living that lie. But around my sophomore year of college. I couldn't hide behind that fake identity any longer.
I started being me: dressing up, wearing high heels, painting my nails, growing my hair out. I wore jewelry, and I began exploring makeup. Sure enough, the bullying started again—the same stares and the same questions challenging my identity. I felt it every time. And every time, it was painful and embarrassing. I decided to go back to the fake me until medical school.
I interviewed for medical school as Daniel because I didn't want to legally misrepresent myself during the application process, since my ID still had an "M" on it. But once I got in, I said to myself, I'm done! I'm going to live as myself now! I might as well start figuring out how to live my truth if I want to be in this position of power and authority as a doctor.
Once I was in med school, this was around May 2013, I changed my name to Danielle and started living as a woman. I remember when I first told someone, "Hi, I'm Dee!" I was so nervous, like, oh my God, am I going to have more problems than I could ever imagine? Are people going to be able to tell? Am I passable? I felt safe thinking nobody knew my past.
Unfortunately, some students went on Facebook and saw old photos of me before I began my surgeries and transition—which was around this time. And I just felt so naive and stupid for leaving those old photos up. Why didn't I think to take them down? They quickly spread all across the class, and the isolation, ridicule, and stares started again. There was no official training at my medical school on how to deal with trans patients, so there was that added ignorance from them. They didn't understand what I was going through.
Within three months, everyone knew about Daniel. The school offered no help. Instead, they victimized me further, forcing me to see a therapist about the whole situation even though trans issues were well in the forefront at the time. They accused me of falsifying my identity, which I did not. It was such a nightmare. I felt very manipulated. You'd think in medical school, the importance of identity and sexuality would be taught. You'd think there'd be training on how to accept a transgender person, on how to protect us from sexual discrimination, instead of being an enabler of that very issue. Here I was, being me, and because it didn't please people, I was the problem.
This was all during my first year of medical school. Even with all the ostracizing, I pressed on. I continued with my transition, going through several surgeries and hormone therapy. The whole experience—the transitioning and feeling exposed among my classmates—was even more isolating than I ever thought I'd experience. I felt compelled to keep to myself for the remainder of my time there. I didn't talk to anyone; I couldn't trust them.
Out of med school—and educating others
Now that I've graduated med school, I am very deliberate about educating people—especially medical school administrators and those in the medical field—about transgender issues. How do we talk about identity? Sexuality? How can we intentionally create safe spaces for trans people? I want people to get comfortable with non-normative gender and sexual identities. I always use my story of isolation and pain to push that message across.
I still have not overcome a lot of my personal issues, even now as a 30-year-old psychiatry resident at Rowan School of Osteopathic Medicine in New Jersey. I'm also a member of the ABC News Medical Unit, where I cover transgender medical topics, like the impact transition surgery has on mental health. And though I no longer feel as much insecurity and fear, given how far I've come in my journey, there are still massive struggles I face, such as building trust in relationships—something that cis people could take for granted.
The pandemic has made life even harder. That's true for many in the trans community who are struggling with isolation and the added stress of being out of work, trying to find a place to stay, or figuring out their health care situation. So many things could've been disrupted. Maybe they were in the middle of transitioning? For me, it compounded that existing state of loneliness and isolation.
Recently though, I felt a bit hopeful about the future of our community when I heard Joe Biden thank us in his presidential victory speech. It felt like maybe a real change was coming. I also remember him saying things like he thinks trans equality is the civil rights issue of our time. Making our community a priority by giving the much needed national attention to what we face will only help. And he's already showing it isn't all talk.
What the new administration means for trans individuals
Biden's recent nomination of Dr. Rachel Levine for US assistant secretary of health is a powerful one. Not only did Dr. Levine surmount the odds to become a trans doctor—a pediatrician—she is now on her way to being the first openly transgender federal official confirmed by the Senate. It gives our community hope. It sends a message that we are equal, our rights and values validated, and now, we finally have a seat at the table. This is a stark contrast to the messages we received from the Trump administration. This historic moment also communicates to millions of Americans that transgender people deserve to be treated fairly and have the same equal access to opportunities as everyone else. It has the potential to shape the social narrative on who we are as a community and as a country, too.
Aside from having trans people join his cabinet and fill important positions, the new administration needs to take a firm stance within the health care system for trans folks. Some people I know would go as far as cashing out their life savings or taking out loans just to obtain hormone pills or to get the necessary surgeries. If this administration can expand all state health care coverage to include procedures for transitional goals like surgery and hormone replacements, this will have a big impact on our community—given that those pills and surgeries are the most essential aspect of our journeys. They allow us to not just feel our truth, but to walk in it physically. Without this, it takes a significant toll on our mental wellness. That's why I wanted to become a psychiatrist.
I fought so hard to get into this space because I wanted to be part of our community's change—to be in a position of power and respect, have a voice, and be a model to raise awareness of our struggles, just as Dr. Levine is. It would've been easy to call it quits when my classmates found out about Daniel on social media. I could've vanished into obscurity and complained about how ugly and unaccepting society can be. Or I could fight like hell to be part of that voice that brings about change. I chose the latter.
I remember dragging my feet to class the days following my outing in medical school. I wanted so badly not to be seen—I just wanted to disappear. I fell into a deep depression. Transitioning openly can do that to you. I was in an internal conflict trying to be myself, but I still felt I couldn't. It felt like society was telling me, "No, you can't be you." I was always challenged by the outside world and their idea of who I needed to be versus who I knew I was. All of those societal stressors become hard to navigate. To compensate, a trans person might turn to drugs or contemplate suicide. Our community is at significantly higher risk of mental health issues, especially depression, suicide, and substance abuse, more than the general population.
It's not like when we come out, the world suddenly becomes very accepting, and all our anxieties melt away. I, unfortunately, learned that the hard way. I saw past the ridicule. I thought, what are my options: Live my life as a guy, or continue on the path of my truth and take whatever comes with that? And ultimately, I became confident. Not just as a trans woman, but because my overarching goal was to be a doctor to serve my community. And it felt good that I was able to do that.
Rita Omokha is a freelance reporter who writes about race, culture, and politics. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, ELLE, USA Today, and Women's Health, among other outlets.
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