Amandine Abraham’s sister is gone. Photos in family albums remind her that Janielle Williams, her 29-year-old sibling, is still there – she especially recalls a First Communion picture where Janielle wasn’t wearing her veil, unraveled her ponytail and poses butch-like – but the name’s different. It’s Sam.
He’s the same person on the inside – hopeful, caring and mischievous – but the chest-length hair is gone and, eventually, the breasts will be, too.
It’s been a year now since Sam told Amandine, 26, he wanted to be a man. And lots of tears, conversation and heartbreak later, they’re as close as they were when the two were sisters. If not more.
“I cried a lot,” Amandine recalls when she found out, saying she hid her tears from Sam, because “if I cried in front of Sam about it, then Sam would think I was unsupportive.”
But she wasn’t. She was struggling with the unfamiliarity of what her sister-turned-brother was going through, feeling like she was also coming out every time she casually brought up Sam and someone asked, “Who’s that?” And, at the same time, she wasn’t sure how to be there for him. It was just too much. The toughest part? Calling “Nell” – Amandine’s regular nickname for her then-sister – by a new name, Sam. “It was almost like I lost my sister,” she says.
Those feelings dissolved over the last year, and now calling her former sister “Sam” feels natural (correcting herself instantly and incessantly helped). How far she’s come was demonstrated last week during a Dunkin’ Donuts pit-stop when the drive-thru attendant handed coffee and breakfast sandwiches to them and said, “Here you go, ladies.”
“Sam looked down like Sam was 8 years old and someone just ate Sam’s favorite cookie,” Amandine remembers. “I was like, ‘You’re sad that he called you a lady, aren’t you?'” She was right. “It’s OK,” she consoled. “You’re a really pretty man.”
The two laugh about it now. In fact, they laugh a lot. They might not be sisters anymore, but the way they finish each other’s sentences, giggle at one another’s quips or wrap an arm around the other proves their unflappable closeness. Gender can’t divide that.
‘This is me’
The first thing to go during Sam’s transition was the hair. Amandine made an appointment, they went together and the stylist chopped off six ponytails – Amandine even helped – and he was left with a faux-hawk. And a lot more confidence, says his sister. Since then, he’s lost even more hair, sporting a military buzz cut.
Sam’s always been masculine. Amandine, ultra-girly.
“We were dressed the same as kids,” says Sam, a student at Washtenaw Community College. “My mom wanted us to be twins.” “Matching dresses,” Amandine cracks up, and Sam recalls wearing the ones “with the big telephone on it with the Velcro you could pull up.” Again, they both burst into a storm of laughter.
Sam liked girls at an early age, along with He-Man and men’s clothing, which he secretly wore in middle school against his mom’s will. He’d rummage through his father’s closet and steal whatever looked good on him. They were often baggy, but that was in. He felt cool.
At 19, he – then, Janielle – came out as a lesbian. No one was really surprised, especially Amandine, but their Christian parents weren’t accepting of it. They kicked him out. “There was no acceptance. There was no understanding. There was no compassion,” Sam says.
Later, when they found out Sam was transgender, his father hurt him again when he said – repeatedly – “I had a little girl and her name was Janielle. That girl will die a girl.”
Sam faced even more opposition at a public restroom, where he was carded for using the male bathroom – “I felt like I was 15 years old, only I had to piss.” He’s been refused haircuts at barbershops. Told he can’t ride on a bus. Friends have even abandoned him because they imagined the process would be quicker. This would all be worse if he hadn’t adopted a new attitude since the less-confident Janielle came out as a lesbian 10 years ago.
“This is me,” Sam asserts. “And if you don’t like it, I really don’t care.”
Over the years, Sam and Amandine have leaned a lot on each other, and before Amandine left for New York City last week, Sam said, “I’ll miss her terribly.” While in NYC, Amandine, a former part-time Eastern Michigan University creative writing and English professor, will continue working on the Web site she launched a month ago http://www.tutoringcreativity.com that offers an array of editing services. To show her support for the LGBT community, she’s donating 10 percent of her earnings to the Human Rights Campaign. When the site spurs enough money, she hopes to help Sam complete his FTM transition, which is at a stand-still because of insufficient funds.
“I always tell Sam that we’ll have a big jar that we’ll put money in, and someday we’ll fill it up and we’ll get your boobs taken off,” Amandine says. They both laugh.
Then, they get serious. Sam talks about his struggle to afford being who he truly is. The price could cost him more than money. “I’ve got to move backward to move forward,” he says, adding that he’s jobless because people want him to dress like a female – since his license identifies him as one – even though he feels like a man. “Do I revert back and do all this psychological damage and dress like a woman and get a job where it’s the only way it’s conducive to make a living?”
And those breasts – can’t they just disappear? Every time they’re part of the conversation, they laugh, but the jokes just mask what Sam’s really feeling: disdain for parts of his body.
He’s tried the double-thick chest binders, and loved it until his breasts started feeling odd: “I read the package later and it says, ‘Only wear for two to three hours.’ I’m like, how applicable is that? I have to live 24 hours.”
When they’re finally gone, Amandine will cry. Sam might, too.
“I even keep myself up at this weight because at this weight, I pass as somewhat androgynous,” Sam says. “If I were to be thinner, these would be even more ginormous.”
He’ll get there. It’s just a question of when. And it’s killing him. He’s reminded every morning in the shower that his mind says he’s a man, but his body – those breasts – tells him otherwise. Once in a while, at dinner, he sees his reflection and thinks he sees a five o’ clock shadow, but then he tells himself he’s wrong. It’s just the lighting. It’s not there.
“Sometimes I look up at the mirror and I see a vision of what I feel on the inside – and it’s almost tangible,” he muses, “but it’s like you’re just holding on for the next step – the next process – to happen.”
Sam won’t give up, he asserts. Nor will his sister.
“Someday,” she says, smiling, “we’ll get there.”