Sitting with his mother, Charlie Poulson, senior in graphic design, listened to his grandmother Ruth as she gushed over her recently purchased Lady Gaga CD. The intimate atmosphere was lighthearted and filled with hilarity. The constant laughter caused his mother’s cheeks to turn the same shade as her vibrant pink shirt.
Sitting in the midst of them, it is difficult to imagine the family being anything but at ease. It is as though the family has been left perfectly untouched by hardships. However, that is not the case, as the family has been fighting an ongoing battle with identity and acceptance for almost two decades.
Charles Edward Poulson, the 21-year-old man with piercing blue eyes and the beginnings of a five o’clock shadow, was once female.
Charlie was born under the name Chloe, and his mother lovingly describes the little girl as very feminine, with nothing out of the ordinary. That is, until she turned three and was able to dress herself. T-shirts and gym shorts replaced dresses and bows. Charlie suppressed a smile and lightheartedly rolled his eyes as his mother and grandmother reminisced on a particular floral dress that was ditched for a favorite pair of Superman pajamas.
“I didn’t feel the need to overcorrect it,” said Suzanne Poulson Spooner, Charlie's mother. “When she was older, I just considered her a tom boy.”
When it came time, Charlie was anxious about coming out to his family, describing it as a terrifying and unchartered experience.
Then he did it twice.
At the age of 13, Charlie came out to his mother as bisexual — lasting only a few weeks until his mother confronted him about finding only women attractive. He began to solely recognize as a lesbian, an identity he claimed until age 19. Even after coming out as a lesbian, things did not feel right. Physical appearance began to drastically contradict internal feelings.
“In my head I thought I was male and it was totally normal, but I also knew my physical self was female,” Charlie explained. “Whenever someone would point out the fact that I was female, it never quite settled with me.”
Realizing his struggle and desperately wanting to help her son, Suzanne tried to talk to him about what was happening. Neither knew how to approach the thoughts and feelings Poulson was experiencing.
“I didn’t have the vocabulary to understand or to know where it was going,” she recalled.
The vocabulary finally became accessible during his freshman year of college. A friend posted a YouTube video of a transgender man documenting his process. Charlie remembered being fascinated with the videos and how closely he related to them. He began to research and explore what he would ultimately come to identify as — a "trans man," or a female-to-male transgender person.
In March, Charlie legally changed his name to Charles Edward Poulson. Equipped with his newfound identity, he was eager to find ways to adjust his body so that it would better align with his mind.
Chest binders were a constant. Concealed underneath his shirts, the restricting binder compressed his chest so that it would appear flat. The tight nature of the binders caused marks and eventually scars that streaked across his sides and shoulders. Regardless of the pain and restrictions, not wearing the binder was never an option to him.
Deciding the binder was no longer enough, Charlie began to receive weekly shots of testosterone on December 22, 2010. Every Wednesday for the past two years, Charlie has held his right thigh and injected a syringe full of testosterone into his muscle.
Changes were slow at first. Starting with voice slowly dropping every few weeks and a few hairs marked the beginnings of a beard. Today, he can proudly tell you in a noticeably lower voice that he is fully capable of growing a full beard.
Testosterone affected much more than his body. His personality began to change to match his appearance. Charlie described being unable to communicate effectively and express his feelings. Regardless of these setbacks, he was excited to share with his family.
That’s when Charlie faced a whole new dilemma. While he was thrilled about the changes, his family was still coming to terms with saying goodbye to Chloe. It was the hardest part of the process for himself and his mother.
“I had to just sit back and watch people let go of Chloe,” he said. “My family was still in the mourning process of losing their daughter when I wanted the process to speed up.”
Hearing recordings of Chloe’s voice still brings his mother to tears.
“There wasn’t anything we didn’t love and adore about Chloe,” she said. “That little voice that’s still Chloe is the only part of her we have left.”
His family worked on little changes — using his name Charlie rather than Chloe and being careful when using pronouns. When these things became routine to the family, Charlie decided to take the last step in his transition.
Top surgery, or female-to-male transgender chest surgery was performed by Dr. Charles Garramone in Sunrise, Fla. When he discovered surgery was an option, Charlie said he was ecstatic there was a way to finally fix his body. This surgery would grant him freedom from the chest binder’s restraint. His family was apprehensive about the procedure.
His mother described it as the point of no return. His grandmother remembers sitting him down and requesting not to make any irreversible changes until the age of 25.
“It was a logical request for me, but Charlie had a clear vision of the path ne needed to take,” she said.
After explaining the necessity of the surgery to them, the only thing standing in his way was the surgery price tag. With the help of a friend, Poulson found a solution. Fashioning macramé bracelets out of old shirts he had outgrown due to testosterone-induced growth, they began to fundraise. With the $3 bracelets plus money raised at a benefit concert, he raised more than enough to pay for the $5,900 surgery.
Now at six weeks post-op, Poulson feels the biggest change has not been the physical subtraction from his body, but the confidence he has gained.
His mother looks proudly at her son, saying, “Charlie has been a little girl, a tom boy, a lesbian, transgendering, transgendered; I don’t know what else he can hit.”
“Im done! Im done!” he laughs and follows up by stating that no more surgeries are in his future, but he will continue to take testosterone shots for the rest of his life. Wanting to be a resource for transgender students, he plans to continue reaching out to the community. His YouTube channel, SirMasterCharlie, documents his transition and offers resources to those going through the same experience.
“People just don’t have the education,” he said. “Well, I am the education.”