By Bruce Christian, Sept. 11, 2014.
Arizona transplants, Ohio State fans and “the boys” are among the labels that one Valley couple has long-identified with.
For years, Decker Moss and Ethan Sullivan appeared to be a happy lesbian couple; however, since beginning their transition from female to male together, labels have become a topic of conversation that’s allowed for sharing and educating.
“Society’s labels are really the issue here,” Decker explained. “Are you gay? Are you straight? Are you a man? Are you a woman? I wish people could expand their thinking beyond the binary.”
This is a love story of two humans who became a couple, and are still a couple … just with different labels than the ones Mother Nature gave them at birth.
“We never identified as lesbians, because we didn’t identify as women,” Decker said. “We didn’t ‘become’ men. We always identified as male. We simply changed our outsides to match our insides.”
Eight years ago the couple met on MySpace — a once-trendy social network — and, despite the fact that Ethan was living in Columbus, Ohio, and Decker was living in Arizona, they decided to meet in person.
“When I met Decker I thought he was a really fun and cool person who I wanted to spend more time with and get to know better,” Ethan said. “When he told me he was trans, it was no big deal. It made no difference to me. It was just one of the many things that I learned about him at the start of our relationship.”
Once the two became partners, the world labeled them a lesbian couple, and all their friends, family members, colleagues and acquaintances accepted them that way.
“The bottom line is that eight years ago I fell in love with a person, not a gender,” Decker said. “He’s no different to me now than when I first met him. It’s the outside world that says he is.”
Their parallel life experience began long before they met.
BECOMING “THE BOYS”
“My first coming out was strictly as gay,” Decker said. “I wasn’t ready to face my gender identity issues at that point. I really had no clue what I could do about it, and the thought of changing gender was completely overwhelming.”
Once Decker met someone who was transitioning from female to male, he realized it was possible, a moment he describes as “having a door opened that had been closed and locked my entire life.”
Ethan had always identified more as male than female, but said he didn’t know there was any such thing as being transgender.
“I felt awkward in my own skin. At that time, I just thought all kids felt awkward,” Ethan said. “Gender was never really forced on me by my parents. In fact, I remember when I was really young, my dad used to call me son. I have no idea why. He passed away when I was 15, so I never had the chance to ask him.”
The combination of Decker starting his transition and meeting other trans people helped Ethan realize that he was also trans.
“Most of my life I expressed myself as male and considered myself to be in between genders,” Ethan said. “It was like this object in the distance that was out of focus my whole life. Once it came into focus, everything made sense.”
Although neither Decker nor Ethan ever felt female, beginning their transitions brought up a lot of gender conversations.
“It meant coming out all over again, and in a completely different way,” Decker said. “I’ve actually been amazed at how different the coming out process as trans was compared to last time as gay.”
While Decker used TEDx Talks and a lot of face-to-face conversations to discuss his transition, Ethan found emails a more comfortable way to explain his.
“Most of my friends and family live outside of Phoenix, so I told them through email,” he said. “It allowed me to be thoughtful when explaining everything to them, and it allowed them time to digest the info before responding.”
Ethan’s received support and acceptance from his siblings as well as his 83-year-old mother.
“At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to tell her at all … I didn’t think she would get it,” he said. “To my surprise, she was accepting from the get go. Now I tell people, if my 83-year-old mother can understand and be accepting, anyone can.”
“I knew the fear I had around transitioning was temporary, and it was nothing compared to my fear of not transitioning,” Decker said. “I knew that if I didn’t do it, I’d look back at my life and regret it. I’d hate myself for not having the courage to do what was so obviously the right thing for me. I didn’t want to die with regret.”
Ethan’s decision to transition came a bit later, but the partners found their conversations turning to the topic often.
“We openly and honestly discussed many things, from our fears about how transitioning might affect our relationship to how we were each going to come out to our family, friends and coworkers,” Ethan said.
Once the couple began their transition(s), they couldn’t wait for the process to be complete.
“We ended up transitioning at the same time, which was pretty cool because there was always someone there to talk to who really, truly got it,” Decker said. “He’s always been there for me. We’ve been there for each other.”
Decker underwent “top” surgery first, and Ethan cared for him in recovery. Six months later, they switched roles.
“Now, what I see in the mirror matches up with the picture I’ve always had in my head,” Decker said. “And socially, the world now sees me the way I see myself. I’m called ‘he’ and ‘him’ and ‘sir.’ All of the pieces align. It’s magic.”
What doesn’t match up, still, is the couple’s individual recorded history — a lifetime of legal documents that includes birth certificates, driver licenses and school transcripts.
“The battle of the documents is never ending,” Decker said. “My birth certificate still says female. I was born in Missouri and to change a birth certificate would mean flying to Missouri and standing in front of a judge with a letter from my surgeon stating I’ve ‘undergone procedures to irreversibly correct my anatomy.’”
Because each state has its own laws on what can be changed and what proof is needed, transitioning is more than a series of physical changes for anyone.
To change his driver license, Decker provided a letter from his surgeon stating that he had chest surgery — a process he says was “embarrassing, invasive and expensive.”
But, he said, the bigger problem lies with things like health insurance.
“If I tell them I’m male, what happens if I get something like ovarian cancer? Will they deny my claims because men don’t get that type of cancer? It’s incredibly frustrating to me that governments and businesses have the power to define my gender, ” he added.
SPEAKING HIS MIND
Speaking out about such matters is important to Decker, and he looks for ways to help others and raise awareness.
“I think it’s fantastic, and I’m proud of him for doing it,” Ethan said. “It takes a lot of courage to put yourself out there and talk about this stuff. It’s very personal. But I think the more people are open and talk about it, the more understanding there will be for people who are not trans.”
Despite the tremendous support the couple has received from family, friends, coworkers and people who have viewed his TEDx Talk, both Ethan and Decker have heard people — often members of the LGBT community — express that they don’t “get it,” in reference to their transition.
“I would ask them to tell me specifically what they don’t get and open myself up for them to ask any questions they want,” Ethan said. “But the truth is I could answer all of their questions and they still might not get it. And they don’t have to. As individuals, I think there are a lot of things we don’t get about each other. To me, what’s most important is that we respect each other for our differences without passing judgment.”
In addition to helping others better understand their situation, the couple also has advice to anyone preparing to transition.
“The most important thing any trans person can do is operate from a plan,” Decker said. “It’s so, so important to think through the potential hurdles and repercussions and to have a Plan B in case things don’t go as well as hoped.”
According to Decker, many trans people think changing their gender will solve all of their problems, but the change often creates unanticipated issues, such as losing a job, a home or a support system.
“But figuring out a plan by yourself can be really hard,” he said. “The best thing I did before I decided to transition was I found a therapist who specialized in gender identity issues. He helped me work though my feelings, fears and hurdles. And he helped me handle each step of my transition.”
Ethan, who also found talking to a therapist helpful, adds that no two journeys are alike.
“While I think it would be good to talk to other people that have been through it, you also need to do your own research,” Ethan said. “Everyone’s journey is different. I think you need to create a path that is best for you and then make your own plan from there.”
Decker admits he still has some frustrations — most of which revolve around the endless battle of document changes — he is happier than he has ever been.
“I never thought I’d be making a positive impact in so many peoples’ lives through all of this, but I’m really glad I have,” he said.
Fraternal twins share perspectives on gender journey
Decker Moss describes his gender journey as a series of three giant leaps — top surgery, legally changing his name and beginning a testosterone regimen — pretty standard for someone transitioning from female to male.
But within his story there’s a fourth leap that makes his identity even more complex: Decker has a fraternal twin sister named Jenny.
“I loved the fact that Jenny and I were physically so much alike. It was a big part of my identity, and of hers,” Decker said. “Jenny and I are as close as two people can possibly be … but I knew my decision to physically transition was going to directly affect her in a way that it wouldn’t with ordinary siblings.”
According to Decker, having Jenny’s support was paramount.
“Part of me was really sad about losing our ‘twin’ identity. Part of me still is,” Jenny said. “The only thing I feel I’ve lost is our nearly identical physical similarity. We really did look so much alike. I loved that. But I feel like that’s a small price to pay for Decker’s happiness.”
But Jenny knew the inner turmoil her twin faced.
“On some level I’ve known for a long time — decades in fact,” Jenny said. “I remember one time, about 10 years ago, saying to my partner at the time, ‘I won’t be surprised if my sister comes to me one day and says she wants to change gender.’ So when he finally told me I wasn’t surprised in the least.”
Despite Decker’s transition — physical changes and a deeper voice — the two still appear as twins, and the biggest change Jenny has noticed is her brother’s demeanor.
“His overall happiness is the biggest change,” Jenny said. “The emotional transformation is much more dramatic than the physical one, which is ironic because the physical change is what everyone focuses on.”
Although Decker describes his relationship with his parents as “extremely close,” he had a bit more difficulty discussing his transition with them.
“They have a vision of what they want for their kids, and it doesn’t normally include hearing their child say, ‘Mom and Dad, I was born in the wrong body so I’m changing gender,’” Decker said.
Decker said he discussed changing the name the parents bestowed on him as female and instructions on how they should communicate the news to family friends.
“I knew that it would take them some time but that they’d do their very best to understand. Watching the live stream of my TEDx Columbus talk was a huge turning point for them,” he said. “I think that was the moment where they really grasped the big picture and truly understood what I’d been going through from the time I was very, very young. After that they were totally okay.”
Today, Decker’s parents are among his biggest supporters, proud of him, and he’s proud of them. Decker adds that he is now a “much happier version” of himself.
“When someone comes out, especially as trans, having the support of the people around them is 99 percent of the battle,” Decker explained. “So to say that having their support has been huge is a massive understatement.”
Jenny refers to her now twin brother as her hero.
“I’ve gained a brother who has found a joy he never had before. And that’s the best thing of all,” Jenny said. “I’m so proud of him for helping change the perception of transgender people.”
— Bruce Christian
The story of Decker Moss and his partner, Ethan Sullivan, is unique and Decker continues to share it with the world in his TEDx Talk and other public forums.
The TEDx Program, created in the spirit of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), is designed to help communities, organizations and individuals to spark conversation and connection through local TED-like experiences, and comprises many short, carefully prepared presentations that cover a range of subjects, to foster learning, inspiration, wonder and to provoke conversations.
Decker has done two TEDx Talks, one in Columbus on National Coming Out Day in 2013, which can be viewed on YouTube, and one in January in St. Louis.
He’ll be back in St. Louis for the Transgender Spectrum Conference Nov. 22; however, Valley residents are invited to hear him kick-off the W Hotel’s new Empower Series next week.
W Empower Series featuring Decker Moss
6 p.m. Sept. 18
7277 E. Indian School Road
Cost: Free, RSVP recommended