CLEVELAND — Robert Hillier knew early on that who he was on the inside, didn’t match the outside.
“I was really young when I knew I wasn’t in the right body,” he said.
He was biologically born a female and came out as a lesbian at 14-years-old.
“I had short hair. I wore boy clothes. I always felt like it wasn’t enough, that wasn’t it,” said Hillier. “I got a little older and deeper into Facebook and Google and all the community. The more I learned about trans-people, and trans-men trans-women, non-binary people, I was learning more about what made sense.”
At 18-years-old he came out as transgender and began taking hormones for his transition, which he said are more easily obtained than finding a surgeon who can perform gender affirmation surgeries.
“Around 22 to 21-years-old is when I finally found a team that took me seriously,” he said.
He found that team at University Hospitals in its LGBTQ and Gender Care Clinic.
Dr. Shubham Gupta is a urologist and the director of University Hospitals’ Surgical Gender Affirmation Program. He said the hospital system is one of only a dozen in the country that offers top and bottom surgeries for those 18 years and older and full wrap-around service.
“We are very aware that the care that we provide for the LGBTQ population has been sub-par with poor access and poor outcomes for a very long period of time,” he said, reflecting on the medical community.
He said UH wanted to be part of the solution.
“It's an expansive, comprehensive program with the explicit aim of taking care of the physical, mental, emotional needs of all patients of all ages,” said Dr. Gupta.
Whether it’s finding an LGBTQ-friendly primary care physician, parents who want to talk to mental health experts about how their child identifies, or gender affirmation surgeries like vaginoplasty and phalloplasty, he said they can do it all.
“It's not a paternalistic, ‘this is what you need to do.’ It is in an affirming space where let's talk about things and navigate this forest together,” he said.
Hillier got his top surgery in 2019.
“I was floored with the top surgery and then I found out they partnered with a urologist for bottom surgery,” he said. “I can't even tell you what that felt like to realize that this was obtainable at this age for me, for me to be able to heal and bounce back this quick.”
He just completed the first surgery in a three-part phalloplasty.
“I will never forget the feeling when they called me to schedule my surgery day they said your insurance covered it we are good to go here’s your pre-op and here’s your surgery day,” he said. “ I looked at my wife, my jaw would not close, I started sobbing.”
And while there’s still a long road ahead of him filled with healing and more gender therapy hormones, he said he finally feels at home in the skin he is in.
“I would never change a thing to be able to look down at myself and to be able to see everything the way I saw myself as a little kid in the shower and wondering why I felt different and why it felt wrong to be here. I was like ‘why do I feel different than I feel like I should right now?’ and being able to have everything change now I can’t even explain.”
He said his hope is that wrap-around care becomes more accessible for people in the LGBTQ community.
UH’s LGBTQ and Gender Care Clinic has a centralized number that can direct you to whatever service you may need- 216-286-LGBT (5428)