More Than Just A Mr.

When I first met Nathan James Skeie, I instantly had the impression that he is a little bit of a bad boy. Tattoos down the arms, lip ring, piercing blue eyes, and just enough cologne that makes you want to lean in, the type of man that would make my former Catholic girl giggle and blush.  But, as soon as he began to speak, I saw a man so thoughtful, introspective and measured that I was completely humbled by first impressions.  I met Nathan on a warm September afternoon and as we wandered down along the shore of the St. Croix River, he began to share the heartbreaking and complicated path to becoming the man he is today.  

Nathan and I talked for over 3 hours and so much of what he said hit a place of resonance and understanding. I could see the importance of each thread woven into the tapestry of his life and how each moment built upon the last.  I walked away from our conversation feeling dazed by the enormity and importance of his journey and that feeling suddenly gave way to panic.

Being the steward of someone else’s story is an honor, but also a deep responsibility, and I wanted every single person who reads about Nathan to feel as awed and inspired by his journey as I am. The editor in me, though, wanted to summarize and wrap everything into a neat and tidy package. In the end, I decided to let Nathan’s story stand on it’s own, all of it. For so many, the trans journey is a lonely and broken path, not the glamorous and seemingly sudden transition of Hollywood stars, and I, for my small part, wanted to bear witness.

“You have to be prepared to lose everything.” - Nathan James Skeie

Some 30 years ago, Nathan was born Natalie Skeie Tangen. Born to a religious family with two sisters, his mother, and a father who was selectively present, Natalie struggled as a child amidst the chaos. While he knew from a young age that despite being born female bodied, he was a boy, Natalie was given the message repeatedly that being a boy was not an option.

In church, as the children would file off to the separate female and male sides of the classroom, Natalie would constantly get in trouble for trying to sit with the boys. And, after being admonished and put back in his “place” amongst the girls, he would cry and feel confused by what he had done wrong. He heard messages of sin, of damnation, of demons, of possession and all paths led to him being an abomination.

When he became seemingly preoccupied with drawing penises on pictures, he was never asked why, but instead punished. Even later drawing himself as a boy complete with an Adam’s apple didn’t illicit inquiry. No one wanted to explore what was happening for Natalie and why he was expressing himself this way. Natalie constantly felt frustrated and with no one to help him understand the feelings he had, he held them in. Repression, as it often does, had its way of working itself out in the most destructive of ways.

"I was 'rehomed' like a kitten, a very angry kitten."

At age 11, Natalie tried alcohol for the first time, getting “wasted” and “blackout drunk.” From that first drink, the alcoholism that was lurking in his genetic structure was awakened turning what was once a kind and loving little kid into a very angry, frustrated, and rude child.  Eventually, the difficulties between Natalie and his family became so severe, his mother “rehomed” him with a family from his church.

Having been told that he was just going to go hang out, Natalie didn’t know the change was permanent and was told afterwards by his new family.  Natalie suddenly found himself in a home that wasn’t governed by chaos and struggled to find a way to fit within that structure.  Being dropped into a family with a stay at home mom who left notes of love and support in his lunchbox was jarring, but also a valuable learning experience that taught him the type of family structure he wanted to have for his own family one day.

But, that respite for Natalie was short lived, and he landed back with his birth family.  By 17, Natalie had graduated from alcoholism and was “knee deep” in heroin addiction. After dropping out of school, days were filled with survival and getting high.  Natalie began to have sex with men and fueled by drug addiction, felt invincible to the consequences of going unprotected.

A month after his partner died from a drug overdose, Natalie stole a pregnancy test from a local store and prepared a rig kit of heroin while he awaited the results. With the news of a positive result, he says he didn’t get high that day. He doesn’t think he had the fortitude within him to make a conscious decision, to actively choose to do the right thing for his child, but something intervened and kept him from using.

By the time he discovered his pregnancy, Natalie was over 4 months pregnant and had a life riddled with broken relationships and mired in addiction. Not knowing where to turn, he called his former Spanish teacher who encouraged him to reach back out to his family. Because of his drug use, the people around him encouraged him to give the baby up for adoption, but one day at around 7 months pregnant, Natalie said something within him told him to keep his child. He moved in with his sister and tried to steady his life in preparation.

Months after his son was born, Natalie thought he had put his troubled past behind him and when he was invited to a bachelorette party, he left his 3 month old son Avery to spend a night out like “normal people do.”  He doesn’t remember much of that night and by the time Avery was 8 months old, the only way he could get out of bed was to drink from the vodka bottle he had hidden beneath it.

Addiction had taken hold of Natalie’s life again and for the next several years he found himself in and out of hospitals, caught in the perpetual cycle of repression and using that led him to give up his son temporarily as he struggled to get well.

During that time, he unexpectedly fell into a sexual relationship with a woman. While it didn’t complete the picture, Natalie did feel a piece of the puzzle finally move into place and he felt compelled to share this newfound understanding with his family. Building up his courage to share something so intimate and something he knew would be hard for his family to understand, didn’t come without a price.  While blackout drunk at his grandmother’s 80th surprise birthday party, Natalie came out as gay in what he describes as the “biggest shit show ever.”

His announcement caused complete upheaval in his family and their already rocky relationship was torn apart. Natalie couldn’t understand why his family didn’t draw closer to him at a time when he needed their understanding and he felt abandoned once again.  Without the appropriate support, he continued his enmeshed and codependent relationship with his drug and alcohol counselor and numbed his feelings with his addiction.

In 2008, because of fear he may harm himself or others, his girlfriend called the police to have his car flagged. Natalie was arrested for DUI blowing a .38 which had become his baseline for everyday functioning. He credits spending the following week in jail for saving his life.  The forced detox time gave him just enough clarity to know he needed more extensive treatment.

After becoming sober, Natalie knew something needed to change in order to maintain his sobriety. He and his now-reunited son moved away from the hustle, chaos, and broken relationships in Minneapolis to a smaller town in Minnesota for a fresh start. It was the first time he had been completely self-sufficient and on his own. It was the first time he could sit with his thoughts and feelings without the influence of others and without the numbing of heroin or alcohol. With little money to his name, he outfitted their first apartment sparsely and started to settle into a quieter life.

“It all of a sudden gave me a term for this feeling.”

Despite having his son, his sobriety, and his fresh start, something still felt unsettled for Natalie. Battling insomnia, he would fill his time watching Netflix and one night during an episode of The L Word, something struck a chord.  The character in the show discussed being transgender and something in that moment felt like home for Natalie.

A self-professed research junkie, Natalie poured himself into researching everything he could on the topic.  His only experience with a transgender person had been as a child when his father’s best friend went away a Chris and came back a Christine. Natalie’s father had disowned his friend and left Natalie with the understanding that Christine was an abomination, a sin, and that she would be damned to Hell. But, now the Internet gave Natalie a more complete picture.

His research showed him the possibilities, potential road forward and even the available surgical options, but it also reinforced the ugly and frightening side. In this age of everything being on the Internet, Natalie could watch people’s week by week transition on You Tube, read the staggering rates of bullying, violence and suicide, see the lack of funding, research and support on trans issues, and read heartbreaking tales of loss.  The real trans road was lonely and not drenched in financial and community support like Caitlin Jenner.  The real trans road had a 41% suicide rate and was financially ruinous. The real trans road left casualties and that weighed heavily.

“If I lose everything, was it worth it?” 

Natalie had worked hard to create a new life for his son, one that he could be proud of, and he knew that transitioning could cause him to once again lose everything. As sure as he was that this word, transgender, explained how he had felt all of his life and who he knew he was, he wanted to be absolutely sure he was prepared for the consequences.

Desperate to see how this could fit into his life as a single mother, Natalie worked with a therapist and struggled to find the right fit. His first therapist was seemingly more interested in him transitioning than truly finding his way. He had gone into therapy hoping for an unbiased place to release all of his feelings, but left stymied and frustrated.

He set his feelings aside for 3 years and despite living outwardly as “butch”, he still felt uncomfortable in his own skin, disappointed in his own reflection. Natalie didn’t want to be a girl trying to look like a boy, Natalie wanted to be a man. For those 3 years, he examined every interaction, every relationship and asked himself how transitioning would impact it.  After working hard to regain his relationship with his family and his friends, he knew nothing would go untouched. Transitioning would impact every area of his life and he wanted to know if the cost of his decision would be worth it. 

“All you see is yourself all the time and out of survival, you forget to look up.”

After finally making his decision, Natalie readied himself to tell his closest friend, but once he arrived at her house he found he couldn’t speak. He sat speechless and sobbing for 45 minutes releasing a lifetime of pain, of anguish, and of not feeling at home in his own skin before he could finally share what he knew to be true. He credits his friend for being supportive, but still questioning.  After spending 3 years so focused on his own journey, she kept him looking up at the people around him. She prepared him for the possible losses, but also showed him the places of prospective support that he hadn’t yet acknowledged.

Buoyed by that experience, Natalie prepared himself for telling his mother and sisters, but admittedly had built up a fairytale that this time would somehow be different.  At the time, he felt a sense of immediacy and pressure to share and picked the inopportune moment of a Mother’s Day celebration. (In retrospect, he admits timing is not his strong suit.) For Natalie, though, he knew this Mother’s Day would be his last which felt weighty and impending and overshadowed the fact it was his sister’s first, as well as his own mother’s special day. While he says he did not handle that announcement with as much “grace and dignity” as he would have liked, it was one more hurdle crossed to the one he thought was most important.

Telling his son Avery had been a moment he dreaded and feared.   Up to this moment, being a single mom had been the deepest and truest part of Natalie’s identity. He had worked hard to treat his son with the openness and honesty that he hadn’t had during his own childhood. And, keeping this secret from Avery had been so difficult.  Going to therapy for a year and recently starting testosterone treatment had resulted in changes that Natalie could no longer hide and the time had come to lay out the bare truth and hope his son would understand. 

“If you want to call me mom until the day you die, I will always answer you.”

As a parent, many of the most important conversations happen shoulder to shoulder in the midst of a mundane activity and this one would be no different. After watching a movie, Natalie asked Avery if he remembered seeing the character Max from The L Word. “Yeah, its the girl that ended up being a boy.” “The term for that is being transgender. What do you think about that?” “I don’t know. He wanted to be a boy.” (Long awkward silence.) “That’s kind of how I feel.” “So, you want to be a boy?” “Yes, I definitely want to be a boy.” “Oh, you’re kind of a boy already, so I guess that’s cool.” (Return to watching TV.)

Despite his sense of relief, Natalie felt a sudden shift in the room, the air tightening and looked to find Avery’s face covered in tears. “Does this mean you won’t be my mom anymore?” Of all the moments over all the years of this journey, this would be the hardest.

 For Natalie, the answer to this question wasn’t yet clear. Natalie wasn’t ready to let go of being Avery’s Mom, but he also didn’t feel comfortable assuming the title of Dad.  Having never known his father, Avery already had a painful loss where “Dad” should be. In the end, Natalie left it to Avery to decide what he felt most comfortable with under the assurance that he would be there to answer him no matter what he decided.

Together, they also discussed another important step forward in Natalie’s transition, his name. Natalie had already decided to take Nathan as his first name. Nathan was the name his own mother would have given him had he been born male bodied and he felt it was a sign of respect as he moved forward. James was an important symbol of strength and courage from his respected sober sponsor.  And, finally, letting go of his surname and retaining his mother’s maiden name was something that brought him some closure to the strained and distant relationship with his father.  It was time for Nathan James Skeie to start his life as a man. 

“Salvaged literally means saved from the wreckage.”

Over a year after starting testosterone treatments, Nathan has settled into this chapter of his life though each day still brings new discoveries: hearing his deepened voice, broadening shoulders and newfound muscle definition, and a slow growing, much-coveted beard. But, beyond his physical changes, Nathan is finding new pockets of joy and unexpected wells of support. Being “Coach Nate” to his son’s basketball team is a moment of pride. Building a group of supportive friends and creating appropriate boundaries with his family have all been positive. The next steps in the road, though, are a little less sure.

As Nathan’s body changes through his lifelong course of testosterone injections, he has to decide if he will pursue surgery to make the permanent physical changes he has hoped for his entire life. After wearing painful binders that have left scars under his arms, he has started saving for top surgery, which would remove the excess pockets of fat and skin left from his former breasts. As with most insurance plans, there is no coverage for surgery of this type and between surgical costs and the need to take 4 mandatory weeks off from work, the bill comes to a steep $15,000.  But, the financial expense may not be the only cost for Nathan.

After working in the same food industry job for over 4 years and earning the shifts that allowed him to be there for his son when he leaves in the morning and be home in time for the bus in the afternoon (which is a parent’s dream), Nathan’s boss won’t be able to hold his position while he is on medical leave.  And, once again Nathan’s life will be thrown into uncertainty and upheaval leaving him to carefully weigh if being himself is worth the cost.

Beyond this surgical decision, he will face another that we both jokingly called “the elephant in the room.” Will he get a penis?  For now, Nathan says the surgical options are not ideal, one involving a series of painful surgeries and the other a minimal success rate. He hopes as the trans community gets more attention and funding for research, a better option will develop in the coming years and he is willing to wait.

Despite the potentially bumpy road forward, Nathan says he knows his years of tears, of addiction and struggles have all been worth it. These days he feels proud of the man he sees in the mirror. He finally recognizes himself in that reflection and that, he says, feels like home.

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If you are interested in finding out more about Nathan's journey or supporting him as he saves towards surgery, please check out his page

**Editor's Note: On the date of our publication of this story, Nathan is currently undergoing top surgery as he moves forward in his journey.