‘Trans man, any man — you are man enough’: How Oliver Wenman found gender euphoria through burlesque

Photo by LEO Studios, courtesy of Oliver Wenman; illustration by Jordan Sellergren

“I shaved last Monday, and look, I’ve got stubble already,” Oliver Wenman says, leaning into his laptop camera during our conversation over Google Meet.

“Being able to hear my voice and not cringe at it. Being at a public pool just in swim trunks, and being able to just feel the sun on me.” He smiles with satisfaction. “My gender euphoria comes from those aspects that allow me to be me.”

Wenman has been on testosterone for three and a half years. When he looks back at the YouTube channel that he started at the beginning of his transition journey, he can barely recognize his voice. And he’s glad of that.

“I really enjoy all of the effects that have been happening with testosterone,” he said. “I very much am happy, and really grateful that I did decide to be more true to myself.”

Like many trans folk, Wenman notes that there was “a lot of foreshadowing” when he looks back at his life pre-transition. He notes, for example, that while his voice has deepened, his speech cadences are the same — but that even in a higher register, his pattern of speaking had always been somewhat more masculine.

And he remembers trying to come out somewhat gently and subtly to his mother, only to be met with not just acceptance, but familiarity.

“‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been dressing more masculine lately,’” he recalls telling her. “And she goes, ‘I have two sons; I know.’”

Then one day, when looking for his passport in the household safe, he happened on his mom’s will. “She wrote it back in 2010, and she actually has a note in the addendum that all genders and pronouns are just as valid as any other pronouns or genders that may not be listed. My mom knew back in 2010 — holy crap!”

His own path to understanding was less direct.

“I could tell that something was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And it wasn’t until I did drag for the first time that I saw my reflection and went, ‘Oooohhhh, that’s what that is.’”

For a time, he was enmeshed in an unhealthy relationship that didn’t allow for even safe social transitioning. Once he’d extricated himself from that, he slowly began the social transition among his friends. But it was a different health issue entirely that offered a clear path to medical transition.

“I was having ovarian cysts that ruptured every month — excruciating pain,” he said. “There were times that I would pass out from the pain. So I medically needed a hysterectomy, and so I timed it in such a way that the day after my hysterectomy was the day that I started testosterone. So I didn’t have to be on any estrogen blockers or things like that. Also, that [means] my hormone replacement therapy [HRT] is a medical necessity, because I’ve had my ovaries removed. … My testosterone is not technically trans health, it’s reproductive health.”

That is a source of comfort in a country where acceptance of affirmative care for trans people always seems to be at risk. Another source of comfort? The LGBTQ Clinic at the University of Iowa.

“At Pride, Iowa City, the LGBTQ Clinic was there, and I talked to them about what I would have to do to get on hormones.”

They let him know he’d need an HRT recommendation letter from a therapist, so he pulled a name from the list of LGBTQ-friendly healthcare providers he’d gotten from Planned Parenthood (also where he found the OB-GYN who performed his hysterectomy) and booked an appointment. He was clear and direct about his reason for seeking therapy, but not only did he get that letter, he also still sees that therapist.

When it came time to return to the LGBTQ Clinic with letter in hand to arrange to start testosterone, he went looking for the names listed on the flier he’d been handed at Pride, and found all of those doctors completely booked. So he took an appointment with Susan Kaliszewski, PA-C, and, like that therapist, he still sees her to this day. He’s made her his primary care physician.

“She still takes the time to make you feel like you’re one of few, that she has all that time to spend that moment with you and catch up,” he said. And after he had an allergic reaction to the first brand of testosterone he tried, she helped him navigate supply chain issues and insurance woes to get the typically forbidden auto-injectors for a different kind covered. “She’s really good about crossing the Ts and dotting the Is,” he said.

Wenman remembers pushing himself toward hyper-femininity when he was younger, in an attempt to make sense of the confusion that he didn’t yet know to name gender dysphoria.

“I just felt like the only way I could be accepted was if I looked hyperfeminine. It was me projecting, that’s what it was — it was me projecting that the only way that anybody would accept me was if I looked hyperfeminine.”

He “broke and cracked and constantly dislocated ribs” trying to achieve hyperfemininity through corseting, and that hourglass shape is now permanent, even as his body changes.

“Weird silver lining is it makes me look more like an anime character,” he says with a rueful laugh.

Wenman, who is a performer in many capacities, has done burlesque since before his transition, now frequently with his group Knights of the Round Pasties. He explores a wide variety of characters, and that broadness is anchored in feeling confident in who he is day-to-day.

“Performing a gender that is outside of my gender is kind of the thing like, ‘Oooh, I’m a superspy; nobody will know, muahahahaha!’” he said, with a hint of glee.

Last fall, he performed the role of Dr. Frank N. Furter for the Rocky Horror Picture Show screening at NewBo Market.

@_._dork.star_._ Once every 7 it’ll make you a man #trans #ftm #transman #rockyhorrorpictureshow #halloween ♬ I Can Make You a Man (Reprise) – Tim Curry

“Oh my god! It was so great to be a trans man costuming as a natal male that was in drag!” he said. “It was great. … Some people were like, ‘I’m jealous that your ass looks better in those Spanx than mine does,’ and back in my brain, I’m like, ‘Because I have experience in heels.’”

“Instead of feeling like I’m not being true to my gender,” he said, “it feels like I’m an excellent showman.”

“I do the brightly colored hair; I still like to wear makeup, because, well, I’m a performer! I like that situating of oneself. But when I wake up in the morning, I can just say, ‘Yeah. Cool.’ I don’t need to spend hours putting on makeup to look as feminine as possible, to be OK with it, because at that point, it was putting on a costume, and I didn’t realize that.”

Wenman acknowledges that the path to self-integrity can be a tricky one to walk.

“I was worried that I would not be man enough,” he remembers. “Especially because I’d devoted so much of my life to being feminine, I was like, ‘Do I have to just learn a whole other thing?’ I realized what it was: I didn’t feel comfortable being a toxic man, I didn’t feel comfortable with toxic masculinity. So I was afraid I wouldn’t be man enough.”

But he knows now that isn’t the case.

“Any man. Trans man, any man — you are man enough. If you identify as a man, you are man enough. … No matter how you dress, no matter how your hand gestures are … You are. I am. … I may not have started transitioning without that realization.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 303.

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