For Ian Giles, confidence is a pair of their favorite red pants.
“You don’t think about red pants being associated with top surgery, but having top surgery changed the way I felt about my body and how I felt in my body,” Giles said.
Now, a handful of years after gender confirmation surgery revolutionized Giles’ life, they’re working to give others the same opportunity.
Giles, who uses they/them pronouns, is the founder and president of Genderbands, an international nonprofit that provides free chest binders and awards grants to help transgender people afford gender confirmation surgery. The organization moved into a physical space in Orem this summer, and hosted Utah’s first transgender Pride festival last month.
It’s the first transgender-specific organization in Utah to provide services.
“We are by trans, for trans, helping trans,” Giles said.
Genderbands started in 2015 as a way for Giles to pay for their own double mastectomy, also referred to as top surgery. Giles needed to find $10,000 to pay for the surgery, hospital fees and hotel costs of traveling to Florida for the procedure and felt uncomfortable asking others for money. So they went online, ordered 300 wristbands that read “pizza rolls, not gender roles,” and began selling them to friends and in LGBTQ spaces.
But those efforts weren’t enough. So that summer, Giles maxed out their credit card to buy 6,000 more bands, signed up as a vendor for the Utah Pride Festival and wrote down “Genderbands” as their business name.
Not long after, Giles got a call that a spot had opened up for top surgery. Afterward, Giles decided to keep the momentum going, turning Genderbands into a nonprofit and help others get the same opportunity they’d had.
“I got lucky that I was able to use credit for a good chunk of it, but there are a lot of people who don’t have that,” Giles said.
Today, Genderbands sells bands reading “hearts, not parts,” in addition to the pizza roll ones, along with shirts, flags and pronoun pins around the world to medical offices, universities and corporations like Amazon and Spotify.
Opening an office in Orem was intentional. Giles said the organization didn’t want to compete with existing services in Salt Lake City and wanted to fill the gap they saw locally.
“For me, personally, it was that trans resources — or LGBTQ resources, period — are lacking seriously in Utah County,” they said.
D Porter, a board member for Genderbands who uses they/them pronouns, said transphobia remains within some members of the lesbian, gay and bisexual populations. Creating a space just for transgender people, they said, gives people a place to go where they can play games or watch a movie without having to worry about defending their identity or explaining their pronouns.
“Sometimes it’s nice to create sanctuary spaces where we are welcoming, we are accepting and at the end of the day our focus is on the trans community, and not just in Utah, but internationally,” Porter said.
Genderbands hosts support groups during the week and a couple of social events a month. The events and space, Porter said, gives transgender youth the opportunity to see older transgender individuals and see a narrative about joy and happiness.
“We want Genderbands to be a happy place that really centers on that,” Porter said.
The organization has awarded grants for six surgeries and plans to fund four in its next application cycle, which opens Nov. 1 and closes Dec. 31. The number of surgeries it funds every year depends on donations.
The organization currently only funds top surgery for transmasculine people, but is looking at expanding opportunities to provide grants for transfeminine surgeries.
A double mastectomy averages from $6,000 to $10,000, and although more insurances are including it in coverage, Giles said it’s not an option for everyone. Insurance can require transgender people to be on hormones or present as their gender for a certain period of time, along with obtaining letters from medical professionals before it will cover the surgeries.
Giles said some people medically can’t be placed on testosterone, are unable to afford consistently attending therapy, lack the funds to pay for a high deductible or can’t afford insurance.
Giles has experienced firsthand how top surgery can change a transgender person’s life. They no longer have to be concerned about their chest binder showing, what they are going to wear or have as many fears when using public restrooms.
“I didn’t worry as much after top surgery, because I still have to go to the bathroom, but I’m not as worried,” Giles said.
They’ve started swimming again, although they are still sometimes nervous about going topless in public.
“I still fear discrimination and violence, but I am a lot more comfortable,” Giles said. “I can go on hikes and take my shirt off.”
Genderbands plans to expand by adding the number of pride events members attend, attracting more volunteers and continually evaluating its programing.
“I want to be the go-to for trans people,” Giles said.