Alumni Western Be Extraordinary The Campaign For Western

Finding your identity

by Lindy Mechefske | May 6, 2014

Massarella
Dr. Carys Massarella at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton. (Photo by Geoff Robins)

Dr. Carys Massarella, MD’90, knew by age 8 she was in the wrong body.

“I tried for a very long time to live as a man. To anyone looking on, I was living the dream. I had a wife, two children, a respected, privileged, well-paying position in society,” she says. “But eventually I could not go on as I was. I sought help and started down a new path.”

Massarella graduated from Western as Callum Ralph Massarella in 1990 and completed her residency in emergency medicine at McMaster University in 1997, before joining Hamilton’s St. Joseph’s Hospital and becoming Chief of Emergency Medicine there from 2001-5.

Today, she is President of the Medical Staff Association.

A faculty member in the DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster, she regularly presents lectures on sex and gender issues in health care. She has also been a TEDxMcMasterU presenter on the subject of transgenderism.

For her efforts, the Huffington Post named her among the world’s Top 50 Transgender Icons.

But at Western, she was simply Callum.

“In my first year, Western wasn’t known for being radically diverse,” she says. “But that year, we elected the first person of colour as student president. That made me realize we could make a difference. It just seemed to me this was a whole other world where anything was possible. It encouraged me to think differently about what was possible.”

Nevertheless, the timing was never right for Massarella to share her true self on campus. “Diversity was all about visible minorities at that time.” she said. “Issues like apartheid were still relevant. For sexual and gender minorities, however, there was really no outlet I was aware of or willing to be seen at.”

And so, she did and said the ‘right things’ appropriate to her perceived gender. “There was just no possibility I could have found a place of safety as a transgendered person in a visible way,” she says. “Not to say that wouldn’t have been available, but I would have been too scared to access it as I had no peer or role model for that experience.”

Nearly two decades after graduation, she began transitioning from male to female – taking hormones and growing her hair out. At this point, it was a stealth transition. Eventually, she called a meeting at work and came out. No one was particularly surprised.

“Even the nuns took it in stride. Most people were pretty accepting of me at least overtly, but covertly, that’s possibly a different story,” she says.

In 2009, at age 43, Massarella completed her transition, opting because of her timeline, to pay to have her surgeries in the United States. Following this, she underwent three months of intensive voice re-training with a speech language pathologist, a procedure that normally takes years. A former baritone, changing her voice was the single, hardest part of her transition. It was necessary in order to be credible to her patients.

Soon after, she attended her 20th class reunion. “It’s sort of the classic reunion story where someone comes back as a woman, but I was amused to be that person,” she says. “I have found universal support for my identity amongst both my Western classmates and work colleagues, and really experienced nothing negative.”

These days she has become a “trans-warrior physician” – a leading expert and advocate for the transgender community – who wants to pave the way for public education and acceptance.

“I have committed my life to demystifying transgenderism,” she says.

Massarella, who still practices as an ER physician, is also the lead physician at the Quest Community Health Centre in St. Catharines – one of Ontario’s few transgender care clinics.

“The biggest obstacle for most transgender individuals is access to medical care,” she says. “In our clinic, we no longer refer patients to psychiatrists. Being transgender is not a pathology. Gender dysphoria is not a psychiatric illness.” The majority of Massarella’s patients are between 14-22 years old, but she has seen patients from 8-79.

“With young patients, I simply talk to the parents about creating a safe environment for their children to explore gender. The statistics are so new and so scarce, that we really don’t know how many of these young patients presenting with gender dysphoria will actually end up being transgender,” she says.

“I’m looking forward to a time when we will recognize that transgenders are not an existential threat to anyone, anywhere. That day when the ‘freak factor’ is gone is coming.”


This article appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Alumni Gazette
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