Discovering Identity From the Outside In

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“I hid from myself because as a Jewish firstborn son, I felt like I had to be the perfect son,” said Gabrielle Spierer, who went under the knife last year for her male-to-female gender reassignment surgery.
 
 

On a quiet, curved corner of Montgomery Avenue in Bala Cynwyd sits Dr. Sherman Leis’ reconstructed home turned private practice.
 
But there’s plenty more for him to reconstruct within the house.
 
Leis is a plastic surgeon specializing in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery, specifically gender reassignment. He founded The Philadelphia Center for Transgender Surgery, the first private outpatient center in this region and one of the world’s leading facilities. 
 
He’s been practicing for 41 years, completing his first transgender surgery successfully shortly after he started.
 
But he didn’t perform another gender reassignment surgery — often referred to as a “top” or “bottom” surgery, respectively — until about 25 years later, simply because no one ever asked. 
 
Then, about 12 years ago, a resident who happened to be transgender came to learn plastic surgery under Leis’ wing.
 
She stressed the need for more gender reassignment surgeons because it would be a valuable community resource. 
 
Intrigued, Leis became more plugged into the transgender community, attending meetings and seminars and also visiting a colleague in Trinidad, Colo. — where there’s a large transgender community — who convinced him to start performing more of the surgeries. 
 
“When I came back, I thought it would be a great idea,” Leis said, “and there was really a need for it. There were a lot of trans people around who wanted surgery, and there were only at that time about three surgeons who were doing that work. I was the fourth.”
 
Little by little, word got around about his practice. 
 
“Now, my practice is probably more than 90 or 95 percent transgender patients,” he said, which is the busiest he’s ever been.
 
About 80 percent of his patients come from the central or eastern part of the U.S., Leis noted, and another 15 percent hail from the rest of the country. The remaining 5 percent is split between international patients, mainly from Canada, South America and Asia. 
 
He’s since perfected gender reassignment surgeries — or as much as you can — after performing them successfully more than 1,000 times. 
 
Although the numbers are continuously rising, there are an estimated 700,000 transgender people in the U.S. 
 
And those thousands of surgeries aren’t always “bottom” ones. Sometimes, a patient only wants a top surgery — breast augmentation or breast removal — or even just facial changes. 
 
“There’s a very large spectrum of gender identity that I’ve learned — and am still learning — and everyone doesn’t have to have everything we can offer to make them happen,” he said. “A lot of trans people don’t want to be considered trans. They just want to be a normal man or a woman and go on with their life.”
 
Leis has seen an increase in the demand for these surgeries, more so in recent years, “especially when well-known people like Bruce/ Caitlyn Jenner or Chaz Bono” undergo the surgery, he said.
 
“The number of transgender people is not increasing. It’s just the number of people coming out and going forward with transition is increasing.”
 
When it comes to his Jewish values, Leis doesn’t think gender should affect who a person truly is. The Conservative/ “medium Traditional” Jew keeps it simple in his mind: Just be a good, honest person.
 
“The Jewish people that I’ve seen here — and I’ve had a number of Jewish patients — seem to have the problems and benefits of any transgender patient,” Leis said. “For the most part, they’re accepted pretty well.”
 
Those problems extend to verbiage: pronouns such as “ze,” “xe,” “ey” and “they.” These trans-friendly and slightly ambiguous pronouns may work for some, but Leis believes they label people harshly; he prefers the traditional “he” or “she.”
 
“Most of my patients don’t want to be labeled as transgender,” he said. “If she presents as a woman, then ‘she.’ Period. If he’s a man, ‘he.’ That’s the way they want to be presented, otherwise they shouldn’t present themselves that way.”
 
That’s how Gabrielle Spierer sees it, too.
 
Spierer, one of Leis’ patients, comes from the older generation with the likes of Jenner, a time in which no one really addressed the trans issue.
 
The 58-year-old from Long Island cross-dressed all her life, but it got to the point almost 10 years ago that she felt miserable and had to do something about it.  
 
Spierer, who then went by Gary, started going to counseling and support groups. 
 
“There was really no knowledge or understanding and, in my case, after going through all the counseling I did, I understand now why things were the way they were,” she admitted. 
 
Spierer went under the knife last year for her male-to-female gender reassignment surgery, when she said her “mind, body and soul fully matched,” finally.
 
Maybe the need to conceal rather than feel came from her Hungarian immigrant parents, who survived the Holocaust and came to America right before Spierer’s birth.
 
She explained that in those difficult times, emotions were never dealt with properly, meaning that everybody who lived through the war should have received some sort of counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder but never did.
 
As a result, Spierer felt like she had to be the perfect child in her parents’ eyes.
 
“I hid from myself because as a Jewish firstborn son, I felt like I had to be the perfect son,” she said. “But regardless of where you are in life, even if you’re a straight person, you need supportive, caring people in your life, and that’s one of the hardest things to have.”
 
After a long break from religion, Spierer actually began going back to shul occasionally a couple of years ago.
 
“It was really great to go back, and no one really knew,” she confessed.
 
But she said the Jewish community hasn’t fully warmed up to the trans community yet.
 
“I think religion should also change with the times and modernize as well,” she said. “Nobody chooses to have their life harder, but I am proud of who I am. It made me look at my entire life.”
 
Spierer received a lot of counseling for both transgender and family issues, which was a lifesaver.
 
She’s now going back to school full time at SUNY Empire State College to earn a master’s degree in social work and counseling.  
 
“I decided I really needed to finish changing my entire life,” she laughed. “The transition is not just a physical one — it’s an emotional one where we get in touch with our souls and be the women we really are.
 
“I’m hoping I can do something meaningful with the rest of my life.”
 
Donna, who did not want to use her last name, also got a fresh start from Leis’ help.
 
The 62-year-old had the feeling that many trans people have: A feeling of not being fully comfortable in your own skin.
 
“Things just didn’t seem 100 percent right,” she explained. “Not that life wasn’t giving me the things I need to be happy. I come from a very nice family, with two wonderful parents. But there was always the sense that there’s something else. And it wasn’t that I needed another toy or needed to accomplish something else.”
 
Those feelings never went away, even into her 40s and 50s.
 
“I would never ever hint to anybody that [transitioning] is where I want to be because boys don’t do that. If they do they’re thought to be less masculine and less normal and not right between the lines,” she admitted.
 
Donna, then Don, had worked in a Lehigh Valley news organization for 25 years, and, when 9/11 happened, she realized the fragility of life. 
 
“For me and for millions of people, we realized how precious life is and how short it is and how our one life is ours to live,” she said, which is when things started to change more rapidly. 
 
She started to transition and had the first of three surgeries — a cosmetic one — with Leis at the helm in April 2010.
 
“He handed me a mirror, and I was able to see, still a little swollen, my face looking just a little different than it ever had,” she whispered softly, “and it was so much nicer and I started to cry. That was huge.”
 
After she healed, she returned to work. In addition to a new ID badge, she was reintroduced to the staff as Donna.
 
She drew a lot of her strength from Judaism, following nonspecific teachings of being true to oneself. 
 
“My religion was part of it, because I was Bar Mitzvahed, and I was very proud — it was one of the proudest moments of my life to stand at the altar with my father and his father and my mother’s father in front of the congregation,” she recalled. “But it seemed that throughout all of the teachings that we get, one of the most profound of all of them is ‘to thine own self be true.’ And when I couldn’t stand it anymore — not living and expressing myself all the time as what I felt was right for me — my sense of self wasn’t fully gratified until I made this transition.” 
 
Ever since her transition, life went from black and white to color, and she and Spierer both agreed they owe much gratitude to Leis.
 
“I personally think I have the best job in the world,” Leis said, “because I don’t think there’s another profession in the world, in or out of medicine, that has the ability to bring such a profound effect to a human being’s life as transgender surgery.
 
“That’s why I have no plans to retire. I’m going to keep doing this as long as I can.” 
 
Contact: rkurland@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737
 

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