Harrison Massie: A transgender man's journey

Harrison Massie has been transitioning from female to male for seven years.

October 16, 2018, 6:43 AM

For Harrison Massie, transitioning from female to male was never about trading one gender for another.

Seven years ago, Harrison, now 29, started his journey "to feel more like myself."

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Harrison Massie, 22, and Heaven pose for a photograph in their home in St. Louis, Missouri, Feb. 24, 2012. "Heaven and I had a very brief relationship, which was always more of a friendship, we went through some very hard times together," Harrison said.
Sara Swaty/Reuters

"I’m not embarrassed to say that I was ever a woman," said Harrison, who lives in St. Louis, Missouri. "Ultimately it’s a part of who I am and how I was raised, and I love having the perspective of both genders."

But Harrison said he longed to feel more comfortable in his own body and wanted to have certain masculine features, such as a flat chest.

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Harrison Massie, 22, in bed at his home in St. Louis, Missouri, Jan. 27, 2012. "I'm extremely fortunate to have the people in my life and to even have the transition I've had," Harrison said.
Sara Swaty/Reuters

As he embarked on his journey, Sara Swaty, a young photographer and friend, set off to capture it, frame by frame, year after year.

"In my previous work, I had never had the opportunity to connect with anyone so deeply and document their transition from the very beginning," said Swaty, who first met Harrison as a teenager in high school.

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Harrison Massie, 21, poses for a photograph, July 1, 2011. "It's beyond luck, karma, blessed, whatever you believe in. I've heard all the stories? of people like me losing everything to be at the position I am at today. I honestly never thought I would get to this point in my life," Harrison said.
Sara Swaty/Reuters

"I always approached photo shoots with clear concepts and ideas of what I wanted the images to look like," she said. "But with Harrison, I was ... following his lead, and did my best to capture him as he felt, not as how I saw him."

Rejection from family and relatives is common for many trans people, but that was not the case for Harrison, who always had the support of his loved ones.

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Harrison Massie, 22, reacts as his friend George gives him a testosterone shot, Dec. 27, 2011. "George and I have been friends now for 12 years, I've never felt exposed in front of himÃ? we're chosen family and always have been," Harrison said.
Sara Swaty/Reuters

In a 2016 study published in the journal LGBT Health, 31 percent of transgender individuals surveyed said they experienced a moderate amount of rejection from their families and 14 percent said they experienced a high amount of rejection.

A recent U.S. study found that roughly half of transgender male teens have attempted suicide at least once.

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Testosterone, a needle and alcohol swab that belong to Harrison Massie lie on a table, Sept. 26, 2015. "Nowadays it's normal," Harrison said. "When I first started it was painful and scary because I've never liked needles or shots, but you just get used to it. It's everyday life now."
Sara Swaty/Reuters

"Harrison's been my soulmate, my companion," said his father, Robbin, a retired teacher in his 60s. "He said he was transitioning and wanted to become a boy and I was fine with that."

Harrison’s mother Stephanie said it was really hard at first to process her son’s decision to transition.

"It was like the death of that child."

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Harrison Massie, 22, Jan. 27, 2012. "I'm extremely fortunate to have the people in my life and to even have the transition I've had," Harrison said.
Sara Swaty/Reuters

With time, though, she realized that he was still the same person and their relationship never wavered.

"He’s still the baby, still the light of the room."

"I knew this was what he wanted to do and I knew it would make him so much happier, and it has so much," said Harrison’s oldest sister Jasa. "I am very proud of him, and the man he has become."

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Harrison Massie, 26, talks with Elle, left, and Mackenzie in Elle's apartment in St. Louis, Missouri, Sept. 25, 2015. I have very long-lasting friendships in my life. About nine of us have been friends for over ten years now," Harrison said. It's "very important to me because we've been through good times and very traumatic times together."
Sara Swaty/Reuters

Harrison and his fiancée Sandra Manzoni, 29, a fellow bartender and an air acrobatics performer whom he met two years ago, have recently bought a house in St. Louis.

Harrison recounted how nervous he was when he first asked Manzoni out, telling a friend how he couldn't breathe around her.

Now, a year after their engagement, "I’ve learned how to breathe with her in the house," Harrison said jokingly.

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Harrison Massie, 25, poses for a photograph at his home, Jan. 4, 2015. "I want surgery because I've never had an attachment to the fat that has been on my chest since puberty. I will finally be able to go outside without a binder. Finally, I will be able to swim in public. Finally, I will be able to go back to the gym without feeling like people are staring at my chest," Harrison said.
Sara Swaty/Reuters

Harrison's tight-knit group of friends were hardly surprised by his decision to transition. They were taking cues from things he would say or do and, in a way, they saw it coming.

"When he came out as trans, we sort of looked at each other and went 'Duh'," said George Caputa, one of his closest friends who now lives in Germany.

"When you truly love and support one who is trans, their gender identity has little to do with what you love about them."

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Harrison Massie, 25, eats breakfast with his cat, Jan. 4, 2015.
Sara Swaty/Reuters

As Harrison started his hormone therapy, the group met for the first months of injections, in celebration and to help him get comfortable with the process.

"Spending time with such a beautiful group of people and feeling the love they share with each other is incredibly uplifting," said Swaty.

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Harrison Massie, 25, sits on his car outside of his home, Jan. 4, 2015. "Growing up in Saint Louis shaped me as a human in general more than any other city could. It's truly my home," Harrison said.
Sara Swaty/Reuters

But Harrison also has faced many challenges.

"When I first started transitioning I couldn't find a job for the life of me," he recalled. "Anytime I tried to explain to an interviewer that my deadname (name prior to transition) wasn't the name I went by, they just got confused and wouldn’t hire me.”

Eventually, Harrison found a home in craft bartending, through which he said he can express himself and finally be appreciated.

Healthcare was also among his biggest concerns. With patchy coverage, getting access to testosterone at an affordable price was often hard and he ended up paying for much of it out of pocket. He says he had to shell out roughly $110 every month for seven years, more than $9,000 in total.

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Harrison Massie, 27, serves a cocktail as he works at Planter's House in St. Louis, Missouri, June 25, 2017. "When I first started transitioning I couldn't find a job for the life of me. Anytime I tried to explain to an interviewer that my deadname (pre-transition name) wasn't the name I went by, they just got confused and wouldn't hire me," Harrison said. "Craft bartending is finally a place where I can express myself and finally be appreciated."
Sara Swaty/Reuters

Lack of health insurance remains a big concern for Harrison, who runs a bar in St. Louis, and a big hurdle to his getting top surgery, a procedure that includes the surgical removal of breasts and chest reconstruction that can cost several thousand dollars.

Encouraged by friends and eager to put an end to the physical pain caused by years of wearing a tight binder around his chest, Harrison recently started a "GoFundMe.com" page to raise enough money for his top surgery.

"I've always felt like surgery was always out of reach due to the price tag, which is why it's taken me 7 years to ask," he wrote on the web page. "So this is my current journey, please help me feel better, not only about my pain, but my self esteem.”

PHOTO: Harrison: A transgender man's journey
Harrison Massie, 24, and Heaven in bed, Dec. 31, 2013. "Heaven and I had a very brief relationship, which was always more of a friendship, we went through some very hard times together," Harrison said.
Sara Swaty/Reuters

So far, Harrison has raised $8,330, surpassing his goal of $8,000.

Over these seven years, Harrison went from being the "pretty girl" in school to becoming his true self, growing a "beautiful red beard" and getting close to finally be able to swim in public.

"It’s beyond luck, karma, blessed, whatever you believe in," he said. "I honestly never thought I would get to this point in my life."

Story by Maria Caspani.

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