When I first officially met Ethan, I was interviewing him for one of my first journalism classes at Georgia Southern University. He posted on Facebook that he was doing his first keynote speech at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro.
I walked down one of the aisles and sat down. When service began, people sitting on the aisles held hands together to create a tent for children to walk through. The children sat at the feet of someone who read “I am Jazz” by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings. This story was the introduction to hearing about Ethan Niklaus Winters’ story.
I’m coming out, I’m coming!
After the children whisked off to attend sunday school, Ethan went on to do his first keynote speech and spoke about his journey as a transgender man at that point in his life. He spoke about his relationship with his mom, who attended and answered questions alongside her son afterwards.
When Ethan came out to his mother, he was at school and spent all night practicing how he was going to do it. Knowing he had to do it as soon as possible, he called her at 5:30 am and talked to her for two hours.
“Why are you up this early? Did you just want to talk?” she asked, about to walk into work.
Knowing it was now or never, Ethan told her that he needed to tell her something important and that she just needed to listen to him for a second. She quickly responded with an adamant “Yes of course, what is it?”
Ethan had been coming out to his mom since the 9th grade, as he was slowly figuring out who he was. But this time was different, because he wasn’t just the ‘little girl’ she thought she’d raised, he was also about to medically transition into the man he’d always dreamed he was. He was coming out as transgender to his mom days before going to Atlanta to start hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
She was really quiet after he told her. She wasn’t upset. Instead, she just had a sense of loss, fear of what that meant for her child’s safety. Ethan and her stayed on the phone, his mom asking questions and Ethan giving her the answers he had at the time.
“We have learned a lot together and are closer than ever,” Ethan said. “She’s never let me go through any of it alone, even when she didn’t understand why or my urgency.”
Ethan continued socially transitioning, which was the hardest for him, especially in the beginning. He isolated himself a lot because it was really overwhelming, trying to explain who he was to people who knew him before, to deal with the looks of strangers who weren’t too sure how to ‘take’ him, correcting people, emailing teachers, etc.
Say My Name, Say My Name
By the time of his keynote speech, Ethan Niklaus Winters had legally changed his name, which he chose himself. After trying out a couple of “neutrals” names, he stuck to his gut and chose his favorite name, Ethan.
“I just couldn’t get over how much Ethan just fit me,” he said.
Niklaus is Ethan’s favorite villain in Vampire Diaries, who was also very misunderstood in his opinion, like there was so much more to him than meets the eye, which Ethan resonates with.
He picked his favorite season, winter, as his last name.
“Everything lies dormant seemingly dead but really just working within itself, protecting itself from the cold surrounding it,” he said. “I find something so beautiful about that and I strive to embody that quality of working within myself when things around me get cold and lonely.”
He cried during the process of changing his name. The moment he had the official paperwork in his hands, he changed everything- his school ID, bank cards, driver’s license, social security- immediately after leaving the courts.
“My name is the most magical assortment of words I’ve ever heard nothing makes me feel more myself than my name,” he said. “To this day I love when people say my name when people say the whole thing Ethan Niklaus Winters it sounds like music to me, like windchimes in the wind. I adore everything about it!“
Going to the top
During the time of the keynote speech, Ethan was raising money to get top surgery, which cost $8,000, through his own money, crowdfunding online, donations from friends’ side hustles, school refunds and “honestly any stream of money I could get my hands on I was pouring it into my medical transition.”
I decided that taking medical steps in my transition was important to me about a year after first coming out.
At this point, Ethan was already on HRT, which he started at the Feminist Women’s Health Center, in Atlanta, Georgia. He chose the center, because he didn’t have to diagnosed with gender dysphoria before being able to start HRT. He chose this clinic specifically because they had a trans health specific initiative, which meant they had the training and were dedicated to being a very affirming and inclusive space for trans people, according to Ethan. He later found a doctor closer to him.
“Having to prove you are trans enough by reaching some kind of threshold of dysphoria is gross,” Ethan said. “There is no one size fits all cookie cutter box that trans people just fit into. We are all different just like CIS people. Some trans folx don’t even have dysphoria so how do we help them? We aren’t performers trying to prove ourselves to the world, we are people just trying to be ourselves.”
Ethan had chosen to medically transition for physical, mental and legal reasons.
“I wanted my body to match the vision in my head,” Ethan said. “I wanted my body to feel like home somewhere comfortable. I wanted my body to feel like mine. Because those things made me feel happy and holy within myself.”
Although being home in his body was important to him, there was a bigger, looming factor that Ethan considered when raising $8,000 while in school.
“In Georgia you are required to have had a gender affirming surgery to change your gender marker on official documents, like ID’s and things like that,” he said. “I felt as though job security and walking through life would be easier without having that ‘F’ on my ID.”
Ethan only had his eyes on one doctor: Dr. Charles Garramone in Davie, Florida, who is one of the most well known and best top surgery surgeons in the country. Dr. Garramone’s practice specializes exclusively in female to male transgender paitents and nonbinary paitents excusively, according to his website, https://drgarramone.com/.
“His results were unbeatable in every way to me and I didn’t want anyone else to do it,” Ethan said.
A year and a half and eight thousand dollars later, Ethan and his mother traveled further down south from Statesboro, Georgia to Davie, Florida for his post-op surgery. Dr. Garramone requires all patients, for the first 24 hours, to have someone with them at all times, according to his website. Most patients stay in town for about 6 to 8 days on average.
“My mom is my rock and this was my first surgery ever – I couldn’t have done it without her. She has been there every step of my transition. I think us being together for this was pivotal in our relationship.”
Despite his research, he was most surprised by the recovery process of top surgery.
“My body was traumatized,” he said. “I still remember when I woke up afterwards, they had to put me back to sleep I was in so much pain. When I woke up again I started crying because I wanted my mom, it was emotionally and physically painful. I was afraid to breathe or move, I couldn’t stand up straight because I was guarding my chest.”
His mom made sure that he took meds on time, made sure that he was hydrated and made sure he was doing what he needed to so he could heal. He was dependent on his mom for his meds, food, bathing, everything for a week until he could get his bandages off.
“There are so many horror stories of transphobic doctors purposely messing up surgeries or making access to HRT difficult,” Ethan said. “I have been extremely lucky in my journey in that I was able to access and afford the affirming and top rated doctors. The medical field and the trans community have a very tense relationship. The health care system is not always the most affirming place for trans people, we get barred in many ways or those we seek help from aren’t trained on how to treat us. To this day I get stressed about appointments because I am never sure what might happen. Like will there be a new nurse? Will I have to see a different doctor than usual? The list goes on, you just never know.”
Shirts Off to You
On Ethan’s facebook, he has the day he swam without a shirt on as an event in his life.
He was sitting on the side of a university indoor swimming pool in south Georgia. His scars were still pretty raised and felt like a scream for attention. There was a huge wall of glass surrounding the pool, making Ethan feel like he was a fish, about to be dumped into the ocean surrounded by potential sharks. However, he wasn’t alone. He sat there, deciding if his shirt was joining with him in the water or not.
“Boy, you spent eight grand on that chest. You better show it off!” his pool buddy said.
“I couldn’t deny that I’d spent a pretty penny so I could do this sort of thing, so why was I even thinking about missing out on this?” Ethan said. “So with a deep breathe I pulled my shirt off and exposed my chest to the public world for the first time. I will remember that day for the rest of my life, every nerve in my body felt alive and free. I never realized that a piece of cotton wrapped around my body made such a difference in what being in water felt like. I haven’t swam with a shirt on since and I never will.”
A New Man
After $15,000, without any insurance coverage, in medical bills, blood tests, HRT treatment, needles and syringes, doctor’s appointments, medication, top surgery and gas to get to and from, Ethan ‘passed’ seamlessly in public.
“Transitioning- even before the medical part- gave me my freedom,” Ethan said. “I’d found myself and I could not have cared less what anyone else thought. It was the confidence in my transition that lead me to my activism.”
After his top surgery, Ethan went on to be more involved as an activist in the LGBTQ+ community in southeast Georgia.
“I decided to be very out and open about my identities because I didn’t see enough representation in my day to day life,” Ethan said. “I didn’t see anyone providing inclusive care or support. I wanted to change that but I didn’t see any other way other than me outing myself and speaking up for my community. It is extremely exhausting mostly because I had to let myself be tokenized- I was the spokesperson for being queer. However, I used that position in my favor I created change and got the ball rolling on a lot of things that are still transforming to this day. In the end I wanted to leave the spaces I entered better than I found them and I feel like I did just that.”
Ethan’s activism in college consisted of a lot of educating people and humanizing the trans experience. From his own classes to being a guest speaker in classes, panneles, conferences, workshops and regular everyday conversations.
“I made a career out of 3 main ideas: illumination, solidarity, and revolution,” he said. “Illumination: Identifying the issues and rectifying them through education and policy innovation. Solidarity: Bringing together groups of people through alliship to break down walls of division. Revolution: Making sustainable and inclusive changes so that trans people and people in general can have equity in our society. My career as a public speaker and activist is the job of a lifetime because it isn’t working for me, it is my passion. There is nothing else I would rather do than be a change maker for my community.”
Ethan graduated from university in 2018 and went on to work as a coordinator for TOP Notch, a program that partners with trans folks and helps them raise money to offset the incredibly expensive cost of medical transitions.
If you’re interested in hiring Ethan to speak at universities, conferences, and events, you can visit his website. You can follow Ethan on Twitter @niklaus_winters.