It was a warm June afternoon, and Michael Maher and his longtime girlfriend, Jessica Ireland, had plenty of reasons to smile as they posed for photos in Boston Children’s rooftop garden. After weeks of rain, the sun was finally out. The couple was packing for an upcoming trip to Universal Studios. And Michael had just been given the all-clear by his clinical team at the hospital’s Center for Gender Surgery — he didn’t have to return for a checkup for another three months.
‘I could finally be myself‘
Now 28, Michael knew from an early age that he was born in the wrong body — an otherwise well-behaved child, he recalls crying and acting out when he was dressed in stereotypically “girly” clothing. He always used the boys’ bathroom at school. When he played with his imaginary friends, he used the name “Michael” for himself.
In middle school, he tried to conform to what society said he should be. “It didn’t go so well,” he remembers. “When I stopped voicing who I knew I really was, I got very depressed.” He didn’t know it then, but the depression was a symptom of gender dysphoria, the distress that results from a conflict between the sex a person was assigned at birth and the gender with which they identify.
When Michael was 17, everything changed: He came across a YouTube video that included a transgender character. “I didn’t know what trans meant until then. It was an epiphany for me,” he says. “I experienced all the emotions at once — happy, sad, scared. I knew that I was trans, too, and that I could finally be myself.”
A pleasant surprise
The next few years were filled with research, as Michael learned everything he could about transitioning and began the process himself, with Jess by his side along the way. In 2018, he reached out to Zack Hogle, a friend of a friend who would soon become the first patient to undergo a phalloplasty — the surgical creation of a penis — at Boston Children’s. He made an appointment for a consultation that day. “I couldn’t even believe that there was a possibility to have this procedure done so close by,” he says.
Michael admits that he wondered how he would be treated by clinicians, particularly at hospital that he had never previously visited. “As a trans person, I’ve found that medical staff doesn’t always know how to talk to me,” he explains. “But everyone at Boston Children’s was extremely educated in working with trans patients. They went out of their way to get me what I needed and make the experience a good one.”
Following the March 2019 procedure, Michael has had a few small hiccups but has healed very well overall. “I knew what to expect, and I’m really pleased with the results,” he says. And he doesn’t mind returning to the hospital for follow-up appointments. “I look forward to seeing everyone there. Maria especially has been there for me whenever I have a question,” he says of Maria Semnack, the center’s registered nurse.
But Michael is also ready for what’s on the horizon — his plans include keeping busy with “outdoorsy” pastimes like hiking and fishing, training to become a police officer, and continuing to share his story with others. And he and Jess recently moved in together. “I finally feel comfortable in my own skin now,” he says. “I’m going to do what I can to be happy.”
Learn about the Center for Gender Surgery.
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