Assigned female at birth, Ollie Zirbel always sensed that he was different than other girls.
“In middle school, my friends would have sleepovers and talk about Christian and Ryan at school and how cute they were. And I was like, ‘I’d rather be them than date them,’” he recalled.
Later, Zirbel began to learn the language of the gay and lesbian community.
“I thought, ‘Well I was born in a female body, and I have this attraction to women, so I must be a lesbian,’” he said. “I thought that was going to be the fix, but it still wasn’t quite right.”
It was only when Zirbel turned 30 and began pursuing a degree in LGBTQ (short for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning) studies at San Diego State University that his identity became clear. At a meeting of a campus support group for LGTBQ students, a fellow student who was transitioning shared his story.
“He was very open about his transition, and when I heard his story, I was like, ‘There’s the missing piece. That’s what I need to do,’” said Zirbel.
Finding his true identity
That realization marked the start of a journey for Zirbel. The Kaiser Permanente member was referred to a therapist at our San Diego Medical Center who diagnosed him with gender dysphoria, a feeling of distress because your inner sense of your gender doesn’t match the sex you were assigned at birth.
Over the course of the next 15 months, he began masculinizing hormone therapy for gender affirmation and had surgery to remove his breast tissue, also known as top surgery.
An important touchpoint along the way was a weekly support group called Being Me, led by gender therapist Aimee Severe, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center.
“Being Me includes people at all stages of exploring their gender identity,” she explained. “Some are still contemplating hormones and others are post-surgery.”
Group meetings often begin with members describing the highs and lows of the past week.
“People might share, ‘I had my first testosterone injection’ or ‘My surgery got scheduled,’” said Severe.
Participants also talk about everyday challenges, from coming out at work to socializing with friends from before they transitioned.
A place to be their authentic selves
For group members trying out new names, pronouns, or ways of dressing, Being Me is a comfortable place to experiment.
“There isn’t any reason to hide stuff in that room,” Zirbel said. “Some people come early and change into clothes that are authentic to them. It’s a group of some of the most authentic people I’ve been around in my entire life.”
The first session of every month is an “open group,” which friends and family members can attend by invitation.
“Guests are usually pretty quiet at the beginning, but by the end, they get comfortable and start to ask questions,” Severe said.
‘Sometimes the journey changes’
When he started his transition, Zirbel’s priorities were hormone therapy and top surgery. Later, he learned that Kaiser Permanente would soon begin offering masculinizing bottom surgeries, including metoidioplasty and phalloplasty, at our West Los Angeles Medical Center, and he was curious to learn more.
Recovering after surgery.
Zirbel discussed his feelings during individual therapy sessions with Severe.
“I told Ollie, ‘Sometimes the journey changes, and that’s OK,’” said Severe. “Just because you envisioned your journey a certain way on day one, that doesn’t mean you will feel the same way on day 200 or on day 500.”
On September 14, 2019, Zirbel became the first patient to have a phalloplasty at our West Los Angeles Medical Center.
Inspired to help others
Now more than 2 years out from his surgery, Zirbel is deeply grateful to his Kaiser Permanente care team. He shares his personal journey during training sessions for mental health clinicians and medical center staff throughout Kaiser Permanente in Southern California. With Severe’s encouragement, he recently began working toward a master’s degree in social work and hopes to become a gender therapist.
“I have a passion for working with the families of trans people, and I think a lot of that comes from the open groups we did at Being Me,” he said. “If you’re open and willing to talk, you can be a really supportive force.”