A 14-year-old is stood at the pool’s edge, weighed down by thoughts that cannot be explained, and encumbered by a body that is off-key with the mind’s melody. An attractive boy is about to enter the water. He approaches. He takes off his shirt. He is wearing a bikini. He is a girl.
This is the crescendo of confusion that Benjamin Melzer felt with his body. Melzer is now a 30-year-old transgender man, the first non-biological male to grace the cover of European Men’s Health magazine and the next big thing in the modelling industry. But, standing in a bikini in a public swimming pool has left unpaved inroads in his imagination of a little boy forced to be someone else – someone female.
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Speaking of this episode in his life, he says, “I can’t describe the feeling. It was so hard. I stopped going to the public pool even though I love being in the water.”
To the outside world Melzer was confident and always attracted attention, even adoration, from his peers in school. Boys wanted to be his friend and girls competed to be around him. “I was kind of an asshole when I was a girl. I was loud, a bully and wasn’t very tolerant. I wanted to protect myself, and have people look at them and not me,” he explains. But while this attention was diverted elsewhere, he contended with a whirlpool of questions and internal struggles on a daily basis. “What was normal for others was horrible for me. I always waited until the lesson started to use the gender-neutral restroom. Somebody who feels comfortable in their body doesn’t have to think about things like that. I’d pay for clothes with cash because if I tried to pay with my credit card, they’d have asked to see my identity card.”
Growing up 40 minutes outside of Düsseldorf, Germany, there was little information available about the gender dysphoria he was experiencing. But Melzer knew there was “something special” about himself as early as three year’s old. He finally had a name for the way he felt when, aged 18, he watched a documentary about Chaz Bono, Cher’s transgender son. Benjamin made the decision to transition fully and live as his authentic self five years later. Unlike many other transgender people, Melzer had the full backing of his family throughout the process. “I had support from day one from my family and friends. Even my Grandma, who was 89 at that point, said, ‘Nothing is going to change but your name.’”
His friends were also relieved when he finally decided to go ahead with his transition. Laughing at the recollection, he reveals, they said things like, “Finally you did it,” and “You’re so much nicer now.” Eleven surgeries and four years later, Melzer has completely transitioned and is all man.
Ashton Kutcher sent me a message on Facebook, saying, ‘Congratulations Benjamin.’ I didn’t believe it was really him
Speaking of his transition journey, he says, “It was the best time and the hardest part of my life.” Calling himself a cliché for always liking blue more than pink, he explains, “I felt and acted totally like a guy. I was always into sports and not into girls’ things – nothing at all. It was all very crazy.” Verbalising his time trapped in a female body, he adds, “I describe it as being in a dark room, it’s safe, and there’s only one door. You have to decide whether you want to go through the door and show up – that means a lot of problems, you have to explain and tell people who you really are. Or, you can stay in that room, be alone and safe. I’m so glad I went through the door. It’s the best decision of my life.”
Walking through that door was not without its administrative and medical complications, however. “You have to fill out a lot of paperwork because the surgeries are covered by health insurance, and that takes quite a long time to get the final ‘go’. You have to be very patient.” Once the procedures were approved, Melzer also suffered setbacks with his surgeries. “For me, there were little things that went wrong. To fix them I had to have another surgery. I would say that I am very physically strong, but when it comes to the ninth or tenth surgery, even I was thinking about giving up. I was very sure that I would never give up, but that’s the struggle you have in that moment.”
The whole picture
Speaking of the moment he finally felt whole as a man has a poignant and resonating significance for Melzer. “I knew doing Men’s Health was the ultimate manly thing I could do. After that, I felt I was complete and my life could start.” But being a man was not only about acting masculine, achieving fame or even being the cover star of a magazine. Being a man meant diving from the pool’s edge and baptising a new body; it was about reclaiming his story at a public swimming pool. “Right after the top surgery, when the healing process was over, I went to the public swimming place with just shorts on, I jumped into the water and that was the best. Top surgery is the most important surgery for all trans men.”
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Melzer is now fit and well and proving to be a pro at most things he has turned his hand to – becoming something of a poster boy for the trans community and a sculpture the cisgender [non-trans] population is more than happy to admire. Yet, there’s one area where he claims to still fall short. “At first, I used to think maybe I could better understand women than other guys, but when I started my transition and got testosterone in my veins, a few doors just locked and I can’t get in.” Even though some areas are now out of bounds for Melzer, he has also integrated himself into some pretty impressive circles. After the Men’s Health cover, “Ashton Kutcher sent me a message on Facebook, saying, ‘Congratulations Benjamin.’ I didn’t believe it was really him.”
Recent success has also brought greater media scrutiny and a minority who try to devalue his achievements and usurp his spotlight for criticism. “Around 98% of messages are positive, and 2% are negative. People on Snapchat ask, ‘Can I see your dick?’ or call me a ‘catfish’ [someone who pretends to be something they’re not], saying, ‘This is not what trans looks like,’” Melzer admits. “I can just laugh about it. It’s so ridiculous. I think there’s a lot of jealousy. Some biological men feel that trans men are going to replace them or think we see ourselves as better men. I don’t see myself like that; I’m just a guy, that’s what I am. I don’t want to replace anybody or take anyone’s wife.”Competition and envy are also things Melzer has endured from within the transgender community itself. He explains, “In Germany, there’s a lot of hate in these groups and a lot of jealousy. People say to me that I am lucky, and I am lucky. I’m quite tall for a trans guy, but the body I have is not because I had a surgery, it’s because I work my ass off.”
This self-assured persona was something Melzer says he acquired during his transition. As he saw his physical appearance mirror his internal image, a confidence fed him in a way no testosterone ever could. “I’m totally comfortable now and I listen and try to understand things more. I’ve calmed down and feel very, very different.” He is so comfortable with his masculinity in fact that he jests about his gender identity and sexuality. “I make jokes about girly shoes and everything. I say things like, ‘I would have been a great woman.’ That’s funny, and people see that I’m open with all this.” He continues, “I love fashion. I don’t think I have to prove anything. Look at me, I’m happy and I have a girlfriend. I just live my life.”
A modern icon
This attitude is part of what has made Melzer an icon and an authoritative voice for the trans community. Just by being himself he is brandishing the fact that transgender people are just that, people, like everyone else.
He is witty, charming, intelligent and successful. “The trans people you see on the TV here in Germany are a little freaky, over the top or completely depressed. I want to normalise it,” he adds. The way he now identifies is a step towards turning this rhetoric into a reality. Melzer says, “I would never say to anybody, ‘Hey, I’m a trans man.’ The word is just weird. We need to think of a better word than transgender.” Elaborating on his hesitation in embracing the trans label, he clarifies, “If you asked German people on the street about being transgender, they would probably think of a drag queen. I want to show the world that I’m just a normal guy who happens to be trans.”
Melzer admits that as a child he was never forced to wear girls’ clothing, have long hair or conform to a female gender role. Yet, as a man, he embraces traditionally female colours and accessories. “If I like pink, I wear pink and if I love heels, I can say that I love heels. I love bags. I want my girlfriend to have all the bags, like Chanel. She doesn’t know that she wants them. I’m telling her, ‘You need this, you better buy this one.’”
I would like to see myself in the modelling industry as a successful male model, who’s not only getting trans jobs, even cisgender jobs
Make-up is also something Melzer has only ever experienced as a man. He reveals, “When I had a girl’s body I was totally against make-up and concealer. But now I’m like, ‘That makes me look really good, so give it to me.’ I’m open to these things because I feel comfortable in my body.” This outlook and willingness to put his own happiness above exterior judgment is refreshing. “I know I’m a guy and I know I’m not bad looking. If a concealer or make-up makes me look better on TV or camera, then come on. I have a concealer, a thing for the eyebrows, and powder to get rid of the shine. If you have a spot or something, it’s perfect.”
Melzer has been with his fiancée Zara for seven years, but their friendship began in their schooldays. Five years after leaving school, but before Melzer’s transition, they rekindled their friendship. “We started out just as friends. We went to the cinema and went to have ice-cream and stuff like that with others, and then we fell in love. I don’t really know how it happened,” he muses.
Speaking about his dating history and sexuality, Melzer insists, “I’ve always dated straight girls. I’ve never been into the lesbian scene. I never identified as a lesbian. My girlfriends have always seen the real me inside. I’ve never had a problem with that.” Zara has been beside Melzer throughout his transition and viewed the man she saw inside materialise before her eyes over the course of their relationship. “She went through this whole transition with me. I had my first testosterone shot when we started dating,” he adds. Now, the couple are currently saving for their wedding, and in terms of funding their upcoming nuptials, “a Calvin Klein commercial would be a great help,” he laughs.
Having broken new ground for trans men in Germany and beyond, Melzer’s next goal is to make the modelling business more accessible for trans models. “I would love to open doors for the trans community in the modelling business because it’s a hard business. They want us to be tall and in shape. The industry is completely changing right now. You see that with Ashley Graham; she’s a plus-size model and she’s absolutely amazing. I would love to shoot with her one day,” he explains. “I always say, ‘I’d like to trans-form the world.’ I probably did that a bit with the Men’s Health cover. Hopefully trans kids see it and I can be that hero for them.”
In terms of personal ambition, he says: “I would like to see myself in the modelling industry as a successful male model, who’s not only getting trans jobs, even cisgender jobs. That would be a dream come true.”
What’s unique about Melzer is not that he is a trans man, or a trans model. He embodies something rare, refreshing and modern – what many men today are hoping to achieve. He is content in his own skin, with his life and with the choices he makes. He doesn’t give too much power to vociferous voices or to society’s stigma, and treats life as an off-road adventure. He may not have been born a biological man, but his masculinity is not the end-product of a chemical reaction or a surgeon’s knife. He is masculine because he listens to his mind’s melody, which is now pitch perfect with his body.
But what does masculinity matter? He is a wonderful contradiction, a mixture of feminine, masculine, tradition and the future. Explaining his life’s mantra, he says, “I want to do my thing, and when I help people while I’m doing my thing, that’s perfect for me.”
Eight years ago, Melzer made the decision to do his thing by walking through one door, and in turn, has opened many more for others. His message is as clear as his defined abs: sometimes you just have to jump in at the deep end.
For more information, see benjaminmelzer.com