A transgender man on his tumultuous journey to find his true identity – and his happiness after coming through adversity.
At five months old Liam Klenk was adopted from an orphanage. He has few vivid memories of the few years that follow, but one thing stands out.
By the time he was three years old, Liam, then called Stefanie, knew he was born the wrong gender.
Liam says: ‘I began catching people giving me odd glances because while I was born in a girl’s body, even at that early age I had begun introduce myself to people as a boy.’
The conscious and very clear realisation that he needed to change his gender permanently came after reading a book with short stories about transgender people.
Liam, who was then 20, began to undergo hormone therapy.
However his mother struggled with his new identity and to this day still ‘gets her adjectives mixed up’ – although Liam admits she tries hard.
‘I encouraged questions and always understood if people had a bit of trouble getting their head around the concept of someone being born in the wrong gender.
‘I tried to explain as best I could, and always remained very open,’ he says.
Before he could start with surgery, Liam needed to jump through all kinds of hoops according to German law, including two psychiatric evaluations and one year of taking hormones.
One year later he had his ovaries removed – which is required by law to change gender officially – then a couple of months later he had surgery to remove his breasts.
He opted to never have a penis built, ‘since most trans men who have this done have dozens of follow-up operations and physical problems all their life,’ he says.
‘I’ve often gone through hell in life but somehow I’ve been given enough inner strength and determination to always make it through. It’s been tough at times.
‘So many stories are being told, and like mine aspects of those stories are often traumatising and far from easy. Still, we have this one life we’ve been given, and no matter who we are, for me it is all about being human, kind and compassionate.’
Liam completed his transition at 34 when he was finally allowed to change his passport gender to male. This confirmation came after two more gruelling psychiatric evaluations and a court hearing – despite Liam having been physically male for years.
In the meantime, Liam was propelled on relentless travels by a quest to understand himself and the world around him.
Liam in 2002 (Picture: Liam Klenk)
He left his native Germany to study in the US and Switzerland, then working as scuba diving instructor in the Maldives before moving to Belgium, Macau, Canada, then Hong Kong.
Liam met his wife, Helena, who is now 28, in the spring of 2012 in Hong Kong, where both studied theatre and events management.
They got together in November of that year and moved together to Germany where they married, Malta, and then finally settled in Zurich, Switzerland.
Liam, now 44, says: ‘I want to share [my story] with the world and give back a little if I can. I also want to bring a fresh breath of air.
‘I want to add positivity to the transgender discussion. So many stories are being told and, like mine, aspects of those stories are often traumatising and far from easy.
‘Still, we have this one life we’ve been given, and no matter who we are, for me it is all about being human, kind and compassionate.
‘I am dreaming of giving TED talks and the like in the future, of sharing my positive outlook on life without being patronising, political or esoteric, nor demanding sympathy. Maybe I can even make a very, very tiny bit of difference in a few people’s lives.’
Paralian – meaning someone who lives by the sea – is the name of Liam’s brutally honest memoir.
Here, we reveal three exclusive extracts from the book, which is set to be published in May 28 2016.
Different from other children
I think I was around 6 or 7 years old. We lived in small town in Southern Germany (roughly 30,000 inhabitants).
Even though I had no conscious knowledge of my being trans, I must have known instinctively because I stubbornly refused to wear any girls’ clothing and had started to develop quite a manly little swagger – like a miniature John Wayne.
Something was off. I read a lot and lived in my head. During attempts at finding playmates they either found me too odd, or the girls thought I wasn’t girly enough, and the boys felt unsure what to do with me. I could climb trees and jump off walls like the rest of them, I ran around with toy pistols and cars, but of course they knew I was a girl… so I couldn’t really be part of the gang.
‘I had a few buddies with whom I roamed the neighbourhood and forests, yet none of those children grew to be good friends. Mostly, I learned to be comfortable on my own. My mind seemed to work differently from those of other children.
‘I vividly recall one afternoon in our courtyard. At that time, I was hanging out with three boys from our neighborhood. They all dared each other to do something extraordinary. One boy burned himself with a cigarette; the second performed a perfectly executed handstand; the third threw a rock at an apple and managed to dislodge it from the tree.
‘When they looked expectantly at me, I said, ‘I can make something out of anything.’
‘The boys stared uncomprehendingly then started laughing. One of them squatted down and picked up a piece of trash. It was a frayed, sticky piece of gum wrapper, only about two inches long and half an inch wide. He threw it at me.
“Oh yeah? Well, here you go smartass. Create something.”
‘I took the challenge very seriously and sat down, pondering the old, still faintly gleaming paper. I could smell an exotic mix of spearmint, old gravel, and motor oil.
‘In sudden inspiration, I did the simplest thing I could think of: I rolled the gum wrapper up into a tight roll then put it in the palm of my hand. It unrolled slightly, ending up being a tiny silvery-white coil.
“What’s that supposed to be?” the biggest kid asked.
‘I gave the small object serious consideration.’
“Hmmm, it could easily be a clock spring from a rare old timepiece.”
The other kids laughed at me. Shouting “See ya, moron,” they ran off down the street, leaving me behind.
I looked after them, feeling lonely, but somehow proud of transforming the often stepped-on, old gum wrapper into something special and beautiful.’
I was 19 at the time, and in my second year at university in Zurich. It didn’t help matters that my dad only told me about the adoption at that time because he was forced to do so. He wanted me to marry his boyfriend, and the German authorities needed me to hand in my full birth certificate (which I didn’t even know existed until that time).
I had been stunned into silence by my dad’s news. Sitting there on his couch, I felt as if I was sinking into an abyss, frantically trying to swim back to the surface but being dragged downward ever further by a weight too great to resist.
‘For years, I had puzzled over being the only dark-haired, darker-complexioned person in our family. My emotional make-up and character didn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of my family either. I had kept searching for similarities between my parents and me, as every child does, and had found none.
‘But my mom Hildegard had been very convincing as to our shared blood. She had scared me with stories of how her multitude of hereditary afflictions would manifest themselves in me as I grew older.
‘She had a large goitre on her neck as well as suffering from acute asthma. I had inherited both from her, she insisted, and would suffer as she did eventually.
‘No matter how lost I felt, and whatever life threw at me while growing up, at least I had always been secure in the knowledge of who my family was. It proved to be quite dysfunctional at times, but it was a family. But now, with my dad’s revelation, the truths on which I had based my life shattered into a million pieces.’
This was between the age of 22 and 25. I was studying photography at the University of the Arts in Zurich, but I decided to do a gap year and even dropped out completely when I was 24, because my transition was just too much to handle psychologically at the same time as studying.
I lived with a good friend at the time. He had escaped with his parents from Vietnam when he was a child and had grown up in Switzerland. He also studied photography and was a fabulous artist. We shared an old, half-demolished town house with some rats and mice.
‘It still took a few years to lose the rest of my physical femininity. My body lost its curves in stages. Body hair continued to sprout, my Adam’s apple grew more pronounced and my muscles, stronger. My genitalia became slightly bigger, as well as much more sensitive to stimuli.
‘Surprisingly, the continuing hormone therapy also caused my clitoris to grow into a miniature penis that stayed hidden between the folds of my enlarged labia. I found myself grinning, happy to have the world’s smallest penis.
‘As for the lingering psychological femininity, the successful surgeries had strengthened my resolve to embrace even further the person I had started out being. I would integrate my female side into the male adult I was becoming.
‘I was Liam, and something inside my soul knew with absolute certainty he was who I had been all my life. More than ever, I was confident to not let my life be controlled by clichés and abstract societal constructs. I had just escaped one prison and saw no reason to voluntarily admit myself to the next one. I knew I was a man – not by anyone else’s standards but by my own.’
Paralian by Liam Klenk is published May 28 2016 by Matador for £11.99.