When a Brother Becomes a Sister

One summer day in 2005, writer Molly Haskell’s 60-year-old brother, John Cheves (who went by Chevey), dropped by her New York City apartment and revealed an earth-shattering secret. He had a disorder called "gender dysphoria," and was going to become a woman. 

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Haskell writes about the experience in an upcoming memoir titled My Brother, My Sister (Viking/Penguin Books, September 5. 2013), in which she documents "losing" her brother and gaining a sister, and how her relationship with her sibling evolved, along with his body, as he became a female named Ellen Clark Hampton.

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“What’s shocking is that there were no clues, even in hindsight, that Chevey wanted to be a woman,” Haskell told Yahoo! Shine. “But as I went through this journey, I learned that it’s often the most unsuspecting people—stereotypically masculine men—who are privately battling gender identity disorder.”

Chevey told Haskell that as a child he had yearned to be a woman. "I had confusing urges, feminine longings, but even in puberty I simply had no concept for what I was experiencing," he said. Cheves concealed those desires for most of his life (only revealing them only briefly to his wife Eleanor before they were married), hoping they would go away; however, as he told Haskell, "the urge gets stronger, not weaker. You just don't want to go to your grave in what you believe is the wrong body," Hampton explains in Haskell's book.  

Any signs that Cheves was conflicted about his gender were kept secret or disguised as health issues. “In his 50s, while still living as a male, he developed anorexia,” said Haskell. “He told us that his doctor wanted him to lose weight to lower his cholesterol but he was starving himself in secret. He’s six feet tall and had shrunk to about 150 pounds; very thin and concave.” In his struggle to reconcile his identity, Cheves also hired two personal trainers: one to keep him fit and strong, as the world typically viewed men, and the other to help him lose weight in order to develop a more feminine shape. In her book, Haskell quotes her brother, “It was like I was two twins fighting each other; instead of a devil and an angel, I had a woman on one shoulder, a man on the other, duking it out.”

Once, when the siblings were young, Cheves walked into a room barefoot, forgetting that he had experimented with painting his toenails, and he prayed that Haskell wouldn’t notice. He also picked the skin on his fingers obsessively. “I always told him to stop doing that but he would brush me off,” said Haskell. “I learned later that he was trying to ‘remove’ his male skin.”

When Haskell asked Hampton to describe her first desires to be a woman, she confessed that when she was 6 or 7 years old, she would sneak into Haskell's room and wear her clothing. “I’m sure they were the most feminine items she could find,” said Haskell. “At that time, I was outgrowing my tomboy phase and discovering boys so I was dressing more feminine.”

Hampton also recalled that as a child, her mother quoted an old Southern saying, “If you kiss your elbow, you’ll turn into a girl.” Hampton told her sister that she practically broke her arm trying to reach her elbow. 

In 2006, one year after confiding his plans to Haskell and under the advisement of two therapists, Cheves began the year-long process of “presenting”—in which he lived as a woman without undergoing genital reassignment surgery. Therapists advise patients to hold off on the surgery for a year to give them enough time to weigh the pros and cons of their decision. “However, they recommend diving into the female lifestyle,” said Haskell. “The person wears a wig, makeup, women’s clothing, and even changes their name. Eventually, Chevey became Ellen.

Next came electrolysis to remove body hair and facial reconstructive surgery to remove masculine features. Cheves insisted that he didn’t want to look sexy per se, just feminine. “He said that if he were going to become a woman, he wanted to be a woman, right down to the details,” said Haskell. Cheves had surgery to shorten his forehead, pull his hairline forward, raise his eyebrows, minimize his nose and nostrils, and remove part of his jaw. He also got a tracheotomy to remove his Adam’s apple. “However, a side effect of the tracheotomy is that a person’s voice becomes deeper, which Ellen was self-conscious about,” said Haskell. “When she finally worked up the nerve to use the ladies’ room in public—a big milestone—she would tell her friends not to talk to her there so people wouldn’t hear her deep voice.”

Gender reconstruction involved vaginoplasty and labiaplasty—two procedures that used refashioned skin from Cheves's male genitals. Haskell writes in her book that until Cheves got the surgery, his wife Eleanor had been holding out hope that he would change his mind. Haskell quotes in her book: “Until then, believe it or not, I still felt he might change his mind, go back to being John.” However, Hampton was thrilled with the results. According to Haskell, if the surgery is “done right,” neither a sexual partner nor a gynecologist would know that the patient had been born a member of the opposite sex. Hampton went to the gynecologist and "passed the test."

“None of the surgeries are covered by insurance since the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM] removed gender identity disorder from its data base last year,” said Haskell.

Hampton and Eleanor are now divorced and Hampton lives in a mountainous region (Haskell declined to give further details). Her relationship options are slim in such a remote area but she recently dated two men: a retired doctor and a businessman who loves the outdoors. “She always tells her dates upfront that she used to be a man,” said Haskell. "It hasn't really been a problem so far."

And Hampton and Haskell's relationship couldn't be better. "We're so much closer since my brother became Ellen," said Haskell. "I know her so much better than I ever did and the best part is, she is so much happier."

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