Playing Bass is Easy; Transitioning Genders – Not so Much

The New Orleans Saints are facing the Dallas Cowboys for Sunday Night Football on the screens of a Fort Worth Applebee’s. The Saints score and a fan can be heard shouting, “Who dat? Who dat?” as she bounces up and down on her chair. Wulffrith Harris, a 53-year-old who fidgets with his goatee from time to time, glances across the room at the table and says, “Somebody sportsed good.” It’s a reference to the stereotypical sports interview in which the random sports pro says something like, “We’re going to sports our hearts out. The other team’s going to sports their hearts out. But we’re gonna win, ‘cuz we’ll sports harder.”

The interruption is a lighthearted break in serious conversation that has meandered from Harris’s childhood, growing up in his grandparent’s home in Cincinnati to two combat tours in the Army to musical aspirations to education, and most especially how his transition from female to male has impacted each of those aspects of his life.

In the beginning…

“I can remember being about three or four and telling everyone that I was a boy and to call me Steven,” Harris said.
He had been born with the middle name Stefanie, and everyone called him Stefanie or Steffie. He couldn’t recall if requests to be treated like a boy had ended because they were frowned upon or simply became pointless.
Harris got into music at age 10. He was often home alone and had taken accordion lessons after the state had placed him with his grandparents in Cincinnati for reasons he still doesn’t know.
At age 12, Harris said, his gender dysphoria — in which one’s psychological identity as male or female is the opposite of one’s biological sex — pressed him again to present as male. “Once puberty hit, it became rather apparent that I wouldn’t be able to get away with it,” Harris said. His breasts made it impossible to present as male.

At 13, he bought his first guitar at a garage sale. He recalled opening his windows to play with his neighbor, the organist at Crosley Field. Harris’s favorite music was Motown, and he wanted to learn bass. “If you’ve ever listened to Motown, you’ve noticed the bass. I mean, you just can’t miss it,” Harris said. When he was playing back then, his gender dysphoria didn’t matter.

Blending in…

Harris joined the Army two days after his 17th birthday, on a Monday. In the Army, he was outwardly female, though he still experienced gender dysphoria. He was always attracted to men, so presenting as female and finding men desirable didn’t clash with policies such as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

He was the first female truck driver in the Army when he arrived at his unit in Germany in 1983. The job had recently been reclassified as a non-combat position, so there were no barracks for him. He slept on a desk at headquarters until his command figured things out.

That was a rare time his gender made him feel out of place in the military. “It was very comfortable for me. Everyone dressed the same way. There was no, ‘We wear pants, you wear a skirt, so we can’t talk around you this way,’” Harris said.

That attitude may have enabled him to accomplish one of the things he’s most proud of. When Harris was a staff sergeant his unit deployed to Somalia for Operation Restore Hope, and all of his soldiers returned home.
During his service, Harris found outlets to express himself as male. A favorite hobby was online role-playing games. He played male characters. It was through games that he met Nathan Baumbach. “The interesting thing about our friendship is that Wulff was roleplaying a young, shy male character and had everyone believing he was male,” said Baumbach.

Marching to a different tune…

After 22 years in the service, Harris retired and pursued his education at Tarleton State University and subsequently the University of Texas at Dallas. Shortly after obtaining his master’s degree, Harris divorced. Soon after that, Harris decided to transition from female to male.

Photo by Chris Sanders. Harris playing at Rock the Storm with Texez Mud in January 2016. The concert was a benefit for tornado victims in Garland and Rowlett Texas.

Photo by Chris Sanders. Used with permission.
Harris playing at Rock the Storm with Texez Mud in January 2016. The concert was a benefit for tornado victims in Garland and Rowlett, Texas.

In 2011, while seeing a counselor for post-traumatic stress disorder and help dealing with the divorce, Harris finally took up the bass guitar on the counselor’s recommendation.

In 2012, Harris lost his job at Raytheon, and spent much of his time practicing bass. Late that year, he was hired by Lockheed Martin but hadn’t been paid yet when he came across an auction for a spot at Rock n’ Roll Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas, and, “put in a bid that was something like the minimum plus a dollar” – and won.

“I had to pawn my car to go to that one, but I went,” Harris said. He’s since gone to more camps. He’s played with Zakk Wyld, Lita Ford and twice with Judas Priest. Ford helped him past songwriter’s block he’d had after bad experiences with a music teacher in 7th grade.

Harris now writes with and plays in two bands: Medicinal Bourbon, a blues band, and Texez Mudd, a southern rock band based in the Dallas area. Harris said he’d been in another band before meeting these groups, but being transgender didn’t mix well with the band, so he’d lost his place as their bassist.

Life after breasts….

Harris decided to transition while still employed by Raytheon. He explained that Raytheon has a program for transgender staff and provided a presentation to his coworkers. “They explained the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. They’re one of the most diverse companies in the defense industry.” Harris said.
DiversityBusiness.com ranks Raytheon as number 8 on its list of the top 50 diversity companies in the U.S. Harris’s current coworkers don’t know he’s transgender now that he no longer works at Raytheon, but are aware that he’s gay.

While Harris has been fortunate professionally, with the Army’s culture making his gender dysphoria less intrusive and civilian companies’ progressive policies making being trans a bit easier, Harris still has significant challenges. Ohio, the state Harris was born in, won’t change the sex on his birth certificate, which can cause various legal hurdles. The state of Texas refuses to change drivers licenses for transgender men and women. Health concerns are the most significant challenge, though. “I’m at five years on (testosterone),” Harris said. “My cancer risk is going through the roof.”

Harris paid for breast removal surgery, as well as the hormone therapy, which doctors tell him increases his risk of ovarian cancer. Obtaining access to a hysterectomy has been difficult, Harris said. Several providers have simply hung up on him when he revealed that he was transgender.

Statistics for transgender healthcare issues are difficult to track down and most of the information available is seven or more years old. Brad Becker, executive director of the California-based GLBT National Help Center said, “The problem is having years and years of studies where the trans community has been underrepresented in health research of any kind.”

Becker added that one of the few things known about transgender health is that they are approximately three times more likely than gay and lesbian youth to attempt suicide.

When asked what he wished people knew about him, Harris said, “I’m a guy. I’m not a woman pretending to be a guy. I’m not trying to trick them. I’m a guy. I just happen to have a birth defect – or I didn’t get a phallus. This is no conspiracy against somebody.”

Justin Lynn, a longtime friend, said, “I guess you could say I looked up to Wulff when I was a kid. He definitely looks happier playing the bass.” There’s no confusion of pronouns. To Lynn, Harris is just a guy and a friend. Which probably answers that old N’awlins question – “Who dat?”

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