Jackson Schad had breasts on the brain for seven long years. He couldn’t take a shower without feeling like he was looking down at a stranger. He couldn’t walk around without hunching over to hide them. Adding to his daily humiliation was the chest-flattening corset, known as a binder, he wore to hide his breasts, which caused crippling back pain and constricted his breathing. It had been this way ever since Jackson, born Tina Maria, started living as a man at the age of 21.
By April of last year, at 27, his self-esteem was at an all-time low. The breasts had to go. But having them removed permanently was way too expensive.
At a bar one night in Lexington, Kentucky—a revelation. A sympathetic friend suggested Schad take his plight to the Internet and crowdfund the surgery he needed, seeking donations from family, friends, even total strangers touched by his plight.
Schad got to work on an Indiegogo profile, posting photos, an extensive bio and a detailed outline of how he’d spend the money if he got it. He offered donation-based incentives like pancake breakfasts ($100) and mix CDs ($50), and he created a series of compelling videos demonstrating his binder and the complications it caused. In one video, he showed pictures of himself as a young girl.
WATCH JACKSON SCHAD'S CROWD-FUNDING CAMPAIGN
Within two days, Schad raised $1,000 toward his goal of $7,000. Each night, he watched eagerly as friends, acquaintances and strangers pledged money to him in increments as small as $10 and as large as $500.
“It was kind of breathtaking,” says Schad, looking back. “It’s an experience I’ve never had before. It was super overwhelming. I cried a lot.”
On a Wednesday afternoon last June, just weeks before his Indiegogo campaign was scheduled to end, Schad sat at his computer and posted on Facebook that he needed just $500 more dollars.
“Before I knew it, I hit my goal because a woman whose husband was dying of cancer contributed $500 of their leftover fundraising funds,” he says.
That night Schad announced the news on Facebook and said he’d be celebrating at a karaoke bar nearby. Lexington doesn’t have a very active midweek bar scene, but when Schad walked in, the place was packed. Everyone from close friends to people he barely recognized showed up to congratulate him.
The burgeoning world of crowdfunding isn’t just for charity half-marathons anymore. Since 2012, more than 90 people have used Indiegogo to crowdfund gender reassignment surgeries, and that’s just a sliver of the thousands who have successfully done the same on crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe and WePay. (Using our tech, we were able to analyze the profiles of Indiegogo users to identify the trend and ultimately find Schad.)
A full regimen of female-to-male reassignment surgery can cost between $6,000 and $24,000, and male-to-female operations can run well over $50,000. Because most health insurance policies don’t cover any of the costs of reassignment, those who identify as transgender often find themselves stuck in a prolonged state of pre-op limbo. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender people are four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000, and 47 percent report adverse job outcomes because of their gender association.
With fewer resources and little hope for insurance to foot the bill, more and more people like Schad are turning to strangers on the Internet for help. And their success rate is pretty good: Our analysts estimate that 14 percent of “top surgery” (breast removal) campaigns on Indiegogo are successful, compared with an overall success rate of just 10 percent for the average campaign.
Most crowdfunded campaigns are for top surgery, for female-to-male transitions, and breast implants for male-to-female. Breasts (or the lack thereof) are obviously more noticeable than what’s down below, and the surgery is less expensive and less dangerous than “bottom” procedures.
“It’s a lot easier to ask for $9,000 than it is to ask for $25,000,” says Jacob Rostovsky, a 22-year-old trans male and founder of Trans United With Family and Friends (TUFF), an organization that helps transgender people fund their surgeries. According to Rostovsky, funding for most crowd-sourced surgery campaigns often comes from people outside the transgender community. “It’s like, ‘Why should I pay for your surgery if I can’t pay for my own?’” he says.
Campaigns for top surgery range from intimate, personal stories to elaborate pitches submitted by friends, classmates, colleagues and family members. Most campaigners offer incentives like art, music or food. And the most successful efforts usually involve strong social media and marketing campaigns.
In September, members of the Queer Chorus at the University of Texas took it upon themselves to start a campaign for their director, Joseph Ovalle, who has identified as male since the age of 4. The chorus made videos and set up a section on the page for Ovalle to tell his own story. He describes how wearing a binder every day takes a serious toll on his physical and mental health, and also affects his musical ability. “My lung capacity has been greatly weakened from wearing it,” he says. Then there are the mounting medical bills. “Simply put,” he says, “this surgery opens the door to a better life for me.”
Using Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook to get the message out, the chorus raised more than $2,000 towards their $7,500 target in a week. And when the campaign ended this Monday, they exceeded their goal, raising a total of $7,850.
Watch Ovalle perform with the Queer Chorus.
WATCH OVALLE'S CAMPAIGN VIDEO
On another crowdfunding site called WePay, trans female Fyrah raised money for an orchiectomy (surgical castration) and electrolysis to remove her facial hair. She promised everything from tarot card readings to tattoos, and a little something extra for platinum members: “If you want to pay for all of it, I’ll give you my fucking balls in a jar.”
As tempting as this offer may have been, Fyrah was only able to raise 50 percent of her goal. She has yet to have her testicles and facial hair removed.
Fyrah isn’t the only one making provocative promises to get donations. Tara Emory, a self-proclaimed “transgendered model, self-made artist, pin-up girl and burlesque performer,” posted her Indiegogo profile to HungAngels.com, a transgender adult forum. “Larger amounts will be rewarded with special perks!” she wrote. The biggest perk? Getting to spend the whole day and evening with Emory.
Corrie Kaisal, a 29-year-old male-to-female transsexual with a Kickstarter campaign, is currently offering special access to her social media accounts, including “exclusive picture section access.” Big spenders who donate between $10,000 and $25,000 will get two real-life dates, one pre-op and the other post-op.
As many well-meaning crowdfundees have discovered, some campaigns are less successful than others. Ja’briel Walthour, a public school bus driver for children with special needs in Hinesville, Georgia, started an Indiegogo campaign to fund her top surgery in May. Though she managed to raise $3,075, she fell far short of her goal. Still, she isn’t giving up. Walthour wants to join the U.S. Air Force but is holding out for surgery in the hopes that she’ll face less discrimination when she applies. This week she started a business selling home-cooked dinners (her BBQ ribs with vegetables and a choice of pie or cake can be yours for $7).
“I’m not waiting five years,” she says. “I will have every dime that I need. No matter what I have to do, I’ll get there.”
Last summer, after seven years in limbo, Jackson Schad finally got his operation, and today he’s happier than he’s ever been.
“When I look in the mirror now, I feel like this is the person I’ve been seeing my entire life,” he says. “It feels really good to have other people finally see me. I’m at the end of my transition now. I’m complete.”
Megan, the woman whose final donation made Schad’s top surgery possible, lost her husband in the same hour that Schad went under for surgery. The two are still friends. “She likes to think we met in that moment. I like to think the same thing. It was very powerful,” he says.
Schad’s mom took a while to come around to his new life, but lately she really seems to get it. Until recently, they hadn’t seen each other in about year. “She came up to visit me and I did not look female anymore,” he says. “We went out to lunch with my sister and I noticed out of the corner of my eye she was staring. I looked at her and said ‘What?’ She just got these tears in her eyes, it was really intense, and she said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever seen you smile.’”