For Garrett Denning, a newly formed arm muscle was the turning point in his transition, something that made him happy and feel like himself.
That muscle in his arm—a characteristic of a man, Denning felt at the time—was what kept him going in the early days of his transition. He’d flex the muscle, and when he visually saw the tightening and bulge in his lower inside arm he felt at peace.
Denning, a Fox Cities native who studies human services at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, is a trans man, which means he was assigned a female sex at birth but now identifies as a man.
He said he always knew he was different—but “different” was most commonly attributed to his autism diagnosis as a child. He describes his childhood as one where he always got along better with adults than children, a self-proclaimed “strange kid,” with a very dedicated mom who did her best to find him resources to be successful in school.
“They didn’t have good labels yet,” said the 30-year-old. “There was so much overlap in that area so I think that my differences were just chalked up to having autism.”
Denning said all the therapists and specialists in his journey through autism helped him realize he was different.
“But it didn’t give me a way to identify what different was,” he said.
When others around Denning came out as gay, he started to contemplate “what if?”
“It didn’t really connect for me right away that I could be. It was like something else that other people could be—gay—but not me, I was just weird.”
College at a small private school campus for Denning—then living his life as a bisexual female—and exposure to a lot of different situations and people was impactful. Denning fumbled through relationships, academics and college life, which ultimately led to a transfer to UW Oshkosh where there was an LGBTQ Resource Center on the horizon.
The LGBTQ Resource Center at UW Oshkosh, which “had a very huge influence” on Denning’s transfer to UWO, has an overarching mission to offer activities and services to the LGBTQ+ community on and off campus and to the University at large.
“I began to find myself more connected to an abstract place than to the place I was at,” Denning said. He loved the idea of a support system and acknowledgement for people in the LGBTQ+ community.
Denning transferred to UW Oshkosh and pursued an English major from 2008 until 2010. In 2010, Denning left the University for a variety of reasons—mental and physical health, uncertainty about his gender, fallouts with people he cared for.
At the time, Denning said he was living somewhat of a double life—he felt comfortable acknowledging he was trans with his peer group, but not with his family. Denning said he had come out to his friends at UW Oshkosh during the first-ever TransAction Week on campus in 2010.
TransAction Week offers workshops and experiences to encourage community among transgender and gender nonconforming individuals and allies.
“During one of the panelist stories I turned to one of my friends and said, ‘I’m going to use he pronouns from now on.’ And so, I guess that was my coming out story,” Denning said.
“There is a lot of talk about the typical trans story. There are a lot of ‘I knew since I was 3 years old-type stories.’ For some people, that’s very real and for others, it’s very played up,” Denning said. “We’re starting to talk about that story—while it is very real for some people, it’s not real for others. It’s limiting.”
By 2012 Denning had started hormone therapy and legally changed his name to Garrett.
“The fastest thing that starts to happen with the hormone therapy is you immediately feel a little better about yourself,” Denning said of his personal transition. “It’s not about the shots, it’s more about the next step. You are taking steps within your own transition to be who you are.”
Besides the beloved muscle in his arm, Denning said pretty quickly other changes came about, too. His voice dropped, facial hair and side burns grew, body changes followed.
“Maybe nine or so months into the treatments, I was getting a little wisp of facial hair. I was so proud of it,” he said. “Looking back, it was the patchiest little nothing on my face, but it was mine—and the fact that it was mine and I could have a beard was something I was overly proud of. I’m still overly proud about it.”
In many ways, Denning said his transition was like a second puberty. He said the testosterone shots are a part of what he does to be who he is—and they will continue for a lifetime.
“You take out the garbage, I inject myself with a needle. It’s a routine thing,” he said.
In 2015, after working at various jobs and overcoming health challenges, Denning returned to UW Oshkosh. He switched his major to human services and plans to graduate at midyear commencement.
His second stint at UW Oshkosh has been a good one—Denning is an advocate on campus, serves on the TransAction Week planning committee, facilitates S.A.F.E. training and easily stands in front of a room and identifies himself as a trans male.
“I think I’m finally in a place where I’m happy and can be me.”
S.A.F.E. TRAINING AT UW OSHKOSH
S.A.F.E. stands for Students, Staff And Faculty for Equity. S.A.F.E. training at UW Oshkosh offers participants a three-hour interactive workshop designed to introduce LGBTQ+ terms and culture, and help people be effective allies both in and outside of the classroom. S.A.F.E. prepares people to become allies of the LGBTQ+ community—and office allies are designated with a pink S.A.F.E. triangle on doors of offices throughout UW Oshkosh.