From bullying, name calling and harassment, to isolation, loneliness and confusion, Stefan Peloza battled with a multitude of issues while growing up in Wallaceburg.
Fast-forward to 2017, the 20-year-old is a transgender Toronto woman named Stef Sanjati, who has started to make the long journey into alleviating her mental burdens.
Facial Feminisation Surgery
On Friday, December 16, 2016, Sanjati underwent Facial Feminisation Surgery (FFS) in Boston, Massachusetts with Dr. Jeffrey Spiegel – a surgeon Sanjati believes is “the best in the world” when it comes to delivering a natural looking result.
The surgery is actually a combination of several different procedures, depending on your face and desired outcome.
“The goal is to basically reduce the effects of testosterone-based puberty, and make it look like the patient had undergone estrogen-based puberty in their facial bone and fatty structure instead,” Sanjati told the Sydenham Current.
In total, she had five procedures, completed in four hours: a mandible contour, which is a jaw and chin reduction and shaping; a forehead reshaping; a tracheal shave, which is the removal of the Adam’s Apple; a lip lift; and a permanent lip augmentation.
“It is very intense and invasive, which is why I put a lot of research and a lot of time into choosing who I’d trust with my face,” she said.
Sanjati said she did not want to disclose the exact cost of the surgery. However, a GoFundMe campaign helped her raise $30,000 from 1,700 donors to help her fill in what she couldn’t pay for.
“It goes without saying that I am supremely grateful to all of those people. I can never thank them enough.”
With a full-time job as a YouTuber, the crowdfunding support was generated by her strong online following.
Why she wanted FFS
Sanjati said transgender people often experience gender dysphoria, which is a result of being told you’re a gender that you are not for your entire life.
“Some people say it feels like we were born into the wrong body, but I reject that notion,” she said. “There is nothing wrong with my body, I am not changing into another body or another person. I am alleviating mental health issues with a treatment, which is this surgery.”
“The assumption that having a penis makes you a man or a boy, which has gone on for centuries of course but never so strictly enforced until the last 100 to 200 years, is what makes trans people feel so bad to begin with. It’s what causes these mental health issues. When I was younger, in elementary and high school, I felt alone, isolated, and misunderstood in every single way possible. I felt one hundred percent isolated, because I had no idea what I was feeling.”
Sanjati said when she came to understand that she was a woman, and this was totally reasonable and help was available, she jumped through all the hoops she could.
“Because I’ve always been uncomfortable with my face, since puberty and the changes it brought, I decided to deal with that first,” she said. “This surgery is a treatment to deal with my mental health issues, and it’s already worked. The day I woke up from surgery, I felt so relieved in a way that I hadn’t for years and years.”
Difficulty growing up in a small town
Sanjati said looking back, while growing up she never understood that trans people even existed.
“I went for at least 12 years feeling perpetually uncomfortable in my body and in my surroundings,” she said.
“I thought this was normal, and a result of the other bullying and harassment I was experiencing, and not because of a disconnect in my own mental health. For example, when I was a kid and the teacher would tell us to split into boys and girls, I always knew that I did not belong in the boys side, but I had to go there because that’s what I was told.”
Sanjati added: “When it came to phys. ed., the year that we started having to change, Grade 7, I failed phys. ed. the entire year because I refused to go into the boy’s changing room. I knew I didn’t belong there… but I couldn’t put a word on it or understand it any deeper than that.”
Moving to Toronto opened Sanjati’s eyes to the transgender world.
“When I moved to Toronto and I realized that Wallaceburg quite literally, and I mean this very sincerely, exists in a bubble. There are so many people and cultures and things that I never would have experienced if I had not left, I met trans people,” she said.
Speaking to transgender people when she was doing her work as a make-up artist, led her to her own “little moment of epiphany
“That moment also felt massively relieving. But really, I had that feeling all along and all that changed in that moment was that I was able to put a label on it and know how to move forward. Meeting the trans people wasn’t a gateway, it was a cipher. It was a translator. I understood the gibberish in my head when I met them, like a key,” she said.
Never thought she was a boy
Looking back, Sanjati said she feels she never was a boy.
“The way it works isn’t that we go from one gender to another,” she said.
“I was always a girl, I was born a girl. I wouldn’t even tell people I was born a girl in a boy’s body.
This body is a girl’s by virtue of me being a girl. Every woman has a woman’s body, that’s just how it works.”
Sanjati said she was assigned male at birth.
“This is not just me, mind you, this is most people in 2016, I was assigned male at birth,” she said.
“That does not mean I am male, was male, ever was a boy or anything like that. It means when I was born, the doctor looked at me and decided, based on my physical characteristics, ‘boy’. And I am not mad at him for this, this is the way it has been done for centuries. I don’t think we even have to change it. I think what we need to do, however, is when your child comes to you and tells you that they’re in fact not the gender everyone thinks they are, they need to be taken seriously.”
Sanjati said being a women is not necessarily being feminine and looking pretty.
“Being a woman is literally just knowing you’re a woman,” she said.
“Like knowing you’re a guy, means you’re a guy. That’s all there is to it. There are plenty of trans women that do not present the way I do, that don’t get surgeries and that don’t put a ton of effort into their appearance in the way that I do. They are just as much woman as I am, or as your wife or my mother is.”
While Sanjati experience multiple instances of bullying and name calling growing up, she said one particular incident stands out to her.
“Because I never left my home, people decided they had to come to me, I suppose,” she said.
“One day before I was going to high school, my mom and I left to get into her favourite, most prized vehicle ever, her Jeep Commander. She screamed first, I ran around to see what happened. Somebody had slashed two of the tires with a ‘large knife’, the police said, and they spray painted “F*GGOT’ in black paint across the sides.”
Sanjati said this was the first time she experienced shock.
“The kind where the world goes quiet and the strength in your legs leaves you,” she said.
“It made me feel like I wasn’t even safe at home. The police treated it properly, like a hate crime, but nothing ever came of it.”
During this miment, Sanjati said she felt like people wanted her to leave.
“I never did, though. I never wanted to. I figured if I left, someone else would have to deal with it, so I might as well stay and absorb it, I was used to it at that point.”
Sanjati said whoever performed this act was clearly upset about their own situation.
“They wouldn’t have done it purely because they didn’t know it was wrong, they would have done it out of direct spite and malice, which means something was going on with them,” she said.
“So I feel bad for them, really, and I’m glad they never inflicted harm upon my physical body. Hopefully they’re more peaceful now, inside and out.”
Mental health issues
Sanjati said a lot of trans people experience depression and anxiety as a result of their dysphoria.
“Constant discomfort and being treated badly by others will do this to you,” she said.
“When I was a kid in Wallaceburg, and I was playing with how I presented my gender, I’d wear make-up and tight jeans and dye my hair, people made it clear that I wasn’t liked. My home, my mother’s vehicle were vandalized. My locker at school was broken into and things stolen on multiple occasions.”
“I was harassed, screamed at weekly. The way I handled this was that I never left my house. I lived a few blocks from the high school… I would get a ride almost every day. This avoidance saved me from physical violence but it has led to social anxiety and PTSD, both of which I was diagnosed with fairly recently.”
Sanjati said she has never been diagnosed with depression and she does not believe she has it.
“But when people constantly tell you that who you are is wrong, that you’re ugly, that you’ll never be who you are, yada yada yada… it puts you in a very dark place. And I was in a very, very dark place towards the end of high school. I tried to assimilate and be as masculine as I could bare in 12th grade, and it sucked the soul out of my body.”
Sanjati said she has noticed, since starting to medically transition, that she feels good again.
“It’s as simple as that,” she said.
“I feel happy. I feel optimistic about getting out of bed in the morning. This was before my FFS, and mostly from the hormone replacement therapy (HRT) that I have undergone for a year now. That’s usually the first step in transition, for most people.”
She said she puts more effort into work, into having and keeping connected with friends, into going places and leaving her apartment and every single day on HRT, she got a little bit more energy
“Every person’s transition is treated differently,” she said.
“Some people don’t want FFS. They might opt for other gender confirming surgeries with HRT, or none. Either way, every step in transition is a step taken to make ourselves feel more comfortable in our bodies and in the spaces we occupy.”
She said every day since she started transitioning, the anxiety and the PTSD has gotten a little easier to handle.
“As lame as this may sound to some people, before transitioning I couldn’t even be on the same side of the street as a house party,” she said. “They terrified me, because I associated them with people who would want to hurt me or make me feel bad. I can actually go to social gatherings now. That is a huge difference for me… and before transitioning, I never would have thought I would want to.”
Sanjati added: “If I had stayed in Wallaceburg, I likely would never have known I was trans, just like the several trans people I wager are living in Wallaceburg right now. I probably also would have died really young to some unspeakable self inflicted horror, but we don’t need to talk about that.”
How to fix the ‘bubble’
Knowledge and standing up for what is right, is some advice Sanjati has for fixing the “bubble” she said Wallaceburg was surrounded by.
“The internet is more powerful than ever, and young people have at their fingertips the most vast library of knowledge we’ve ever had access to,” she said.
“If you think something is unjust, speak up about it. If you see a kid being bullied, do more than watch to make sure they’re not physically hurt. You can know things are wrong, but unless you do something about it, the wrongness is going to stay there.”
She said especially in small towns, there are less people and therefore less potential “changemakers.”
“So in a small town, you all have to be changemakers. It’s not as scary as it sounds. They can do it,” she said.
She said if people have a friend or a family member that is struggling to fit in, or is experiencing some kind of harassment or bullying, be there for them.
“Make sure they know you’ll be there for them unconditionally,” she said.
“If I didn’t have my family and my group of friends, I would never have survived high school.”
Next up for Stef
Sanjati said she hopes to be doing more travelling in the near future through her online work.
“To teach people about trans issues as far as I can reach,” she said.
“I do plan on getting sex reassignment surgery (SRS), which many people wrongfully refer to as ‘The Surgery’. There are many surgeries that are just as important for trans women and none of them are compulsory.”
She said she plans to go to Thailand for this next procedure.
“They have the most experienced doctors, in my opinion,” she said.
“That and FFS are the only two that really stood out as mental health treatments for me, anything else will be minor and not really too important.”
– Photo credit: Stef Sanjati