"The Transition"
  • The Transition

The Transition

‘One day I was Gary, the next day I was Gwen.’

In her own words, Gwen Greenberg ’72, tells us about the courageous and difficult path she traveled accepting and changing her gender identity after more than 40 years.

Story by Wendy Greenberg

Before Caitlyn Jenner, before the television show Transparent, before a national conversation about gender-neutral rest rooms, and before National Geographic devoted an issue to gender issues (Jan. 2017), there was Gwen Greenberg D.P.M. Emphatically female today, she was Gary Greenberg as a student at Ursinus from 1968 to 1972, and for some 20 years after that, a successful podiatrist and father of four.

For Gwen, there was no choice but to accept that her assigned gender was not her true gender identity. With grace and reflection she takes us on her journey with the goal of educating us.

Growing up: A Boy’s Life

Gwen: I would say that my childhood was very unremarkable. But if I were to put it in context of when that was, I was born in 1950, the postwar, baby-boom generation. It was a very patriarchal society. Men had certain roles.

In hindsight, I would say that I rejected anything about being feminine, because I wanted to fit
in as a male. In high school that translated to participating in sports, especially football. Dad was the role model, he worked his way through college playing football and had served in World War II.

Later, a thought crossed Gwen’s mind. In childhood, watching the movie, The Parent Trap, she identified with Hayley Mills, and asked, “Why aren’t I that person?” But those kind of thoughts were quickly dismissed, not considered acceptable.

Gwen: At Ursinus—as opposed to high school where I was a very responsible person and a good student—I had some degree of immaturity that was totally let loose. I got involved in sports, fraternity parties, probably to the detriment of my studies. I became less shy, more open. In hindsight, it was trying to fulfill the role model I perceived that I needed to fulfill. If at that time in my life there were any thoughts as far as being feminine, they were quickly repressed. I had no context for those thoughts. Basically I had a lot of fun, played football, starting each of four years as a defensive tackle. I was a chemistry major and had some tough courses.

She later reconnected with Coach Dick Whatley in 2004 when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Athletes.

Gwen: Zeta Chi had a reputation for partying. If you ever saw Animal House … it was a lively atmosphere. There was not anyone who had run into me then, or in the next 30 years, who would have any inkling of what was to come. In retrospect, a lot of what I was doing in college was acting the quintessential male role.

At the Pennsylvania College of Podiatric Medicine, Gary was a good student and obtained a prestigious residency in Chicago. In 1977 he opened a practice near Allentown, got married and eventually had two children.

Questions and Realization

Gwen: There may have been some thoughts about being female but with no context. These thoughts got more frequent and more intense over the years. As they would pop up, there was nothing in my mind that would find that acceptable so I would quickly repress them or put it out of my mind.

At about age 45 or so, I started looking into these feelings as information became more available. I started experimenting with women’s clothing. So basically I was exploring the concept of having some feminine part of me that wanted to look or act female. What is common is that people purge what they have done and say, This is ridiculous. As I started to accumulate information, I found tons of people who were dealing with this.

Gender dysphoria is defined as a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify, according to the American Psychiatric Association. People with gender dysphoria may often experience distress when the way they feel and think of themselves (referred to as experienced or expressed gender) and their physical or assigned gender.

There was no single “aha” moment for Gwen, but rather multiple, smaller “aha” moments. One was finding she had little in common with the cross dressers in her support groups who were only interested in the clothing, and much in common with the individuals who were in varying phases of gender transition.

Gwen: I basically wanted to live and be accepted as female. It was not about the clothes. It was about being female. But I assumed one had to be small, petite, effeminate, like you are halfway there before you start. When I looked in the mirror I saw a 6-foot-1 football player. As it turns out, it is not the case. It is totally random.

It was terrifying to do even the smallest of things, like make an appointment with a therapist. The joke is that we are afraid of the ‘gender police.’

There is nothing about this that was not absolutely terrifying from women’s clothing to calling a therapist to going to support groups.

Finding an appropriate therapist was an important step. A therapist known for his work in this area sent then-Gary, who was now veering toward Gwen, to a colleague. That colleague completed an extensive psychological evaluation, but asked the answers be given as Gwen. The testing confirmed a female individual. It was another “aha” moment.

Gwen: One comment hit me like a brick: the therapist said that it was likely no one has ever truly known me for who I was in my entire life. That was very powerful. I was pretty far along in life.

I realized this was probably more serious than I had bargained for.

If there is one thing you should take from this it is that at that point I had everything I had worked for and could possibly want. I had a wife, beautiful children (two from a second marriage), a nice house, a successful practice. Nobody would ever embark on something like this unless they felt like they had no other choice.

It was time to tell her family.

Gwen: The therapist, a stately gentleman who has written articles on gender transition, was instrumental in getting my wife to be accepting of where I was at this point. She became “complicit,” and helped me to learn to pass as female in public. She was the only other person in my life who knew.

“…no one has ever truly known me for who I was in my entire life.”

Gwen: There was no plan to transition. The plan was to survive and get along. What happened was that I reached a point I could no longer continue in a male role. So I called the therapist, and he saw me right away, I explained what I was feeling. Of course he had seen this. What he did was show me a video about a doctor, who actually lived nearby, who transitioned from male to female. Basically what he was telling me was, “You’re not going to get out of this life as a male.”

Being told that and realizing what I had to do alleviated a lot of my anxiety. Once I decided I had no choice but to transition, I developed with my wife a strategic plan for who and when to tell.

We took our children to a child psychologist multiple times before they had any inkling of what was going on. We were as careful as you could possibly be. You have to understand that the closest thing to public education at that time was “The Jerry Springer Show,” and our goal was to educate the people we had to deal with. My youngest child was very cool. My son wrote an essay about accepting people no matter who they are. The single most difficult thing I had to do in my life was telling my dad. Everyone came around and I am supported very much by my family.

Gwen grew longer hair and had it permed. As a male it was slicked back; as a female, fluffed out. She began to take hormones. She developed breasts, and a more shapely physique, but while testosterone deepens the voice, she said, estrogen does not raise it.

Gwen: I would be very taken aback by my low and loud voice. I saw the director of Temple University Speech-Language-Hearing Center (and his grad students) who had an expertise with the trans community for more acceptable voices in new gender roles. A computer analysis had me practice phrasing and modulating. You could look great and go out to a store and you don’t realize what a barrier it is to ask for something in a male voice. It became easier to talk to people in public.

Teachers were told. A packet of educational information went out. Neighbors were informed. And, patients in Gwen’s successful podiatry practice, many of whom, but not all, she still sees today. She sees herself as a better doctor today, one who is more empathetic and relates to people as individuals.

“…Okay, I can take on the world now”

Gwen: I picked a date to become Gwen. On June 30, I was Gary. On July 1, I was Gwen. I had been hiding my entire life. Once I transitioned, I wanted to tell the world. I felt very comfortable with myself. The biggest difference is that my whole life had revolved around shame and hiding. Even planning the transition. On the day I actually transitioned, I felt newly empowered. I felt not one bit ashamed. I thought, okay, I can take on the world now.

Life as Gwen

It’s common for newly transgendered parents to move away, said Gwen, or for the family to be hostile. But the Greenbergs made the choice together that Gwen would remain a supportive parent in her childen’s lives and stay in the area.

The next step was surgery, which, after careful research, was done in Thailand.

Then there are various legal changes: driver’s license, birth certificate (after surgery), passport and social security to reflect the female gender.

Gwen: It’s not something you can do halfway. First of all, the decision to have surgery or not is something an individual makes. It is a very personal decision. I can only speak for myself, and say that for me, it was the right thing to do for many reasons.

I have not had a moment’s regret. It completed the process. For me personally I find it very hard to imagine not having it. For me it was the right thing then and now.

There are many reasons a person does not have surgery—medical reasons, resources. There are some people who don’t want to do it. That doesn’t make them any less the gender they identify as. In today’s world, transgender is a very all-encompassing term. Younger kids are less concerned about this binary gender system we have.

“I have not had a moment’s regret.”

Currently Gwen is on the medical staff of a hospital, doing surgery. However, when news of the transition circulated, Gwen was removed as director of the Podiatric Surgical Residency Program she started 13 years prior, which was a large part of her life. It was a blow. She filed a complaint under a new Allentown gender discrimination law and settled that case.

Gwen: It’s all hard. The changes in your body, the shame issues I had until transition. But I like myself for the first time. It’s hard to know what it’s like to not like yourself unless you don’t like yourself. I am the same person but a better, more real version of myself. Before I felt like I was playing a role.

Today Gwen is an athlete who enjoys skiing, cycling and folk dancing. She has renewed interest in her faith. She is involved in her children’s lives and has a new grandson. She is supportive of the local LGBT community.

Gwen: I was not a pioneer, not the first person by a long shot to go through this. Anything you could possibly ascribe to me in that regard has to do with going public. Not everyone has a good end. There are many in sex work, who become addicted to alcohol and drugs, and entertain thoughts of suicide. We need support and acceptance.

It’s not a preference. It’s not a choice. Gender identity is something that is hard wired into you when you are born. It is important for people to understand that.

She likened it to a movie that one would not have predicted.

If there is any movie I could relate to, it’s not about being transgender. It’s Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, about people who must go to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming to encounter a UFO … they had to move toward this mountain, they had no choice, and their thoughts got more intense. Once the thoughts are there, they take over your life.

“Have you ever looked at something and it’s crazy, and then you looked at it in another way and it’s not crazy at all? … I haven’t felt this good in years.”—the character Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Gwen feels pretty good too. She says she is often asked if she wished she had just been born a woman. But she would not have the children she has, she answers.

Gwen: I feel good about my life right now. I’m in a good place.