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Oliver Leon’s column appears monthly in The Link.
November 22, 2011
As I’m writing these words, I’ve been on testosterone for 18 days. Before I began injecting hormones, I never thought much about my body beyond nourishment and sleep. Paying attention to it is a relatively new phenomenon for me.
The pores on my face are deeper and more pronounced. My torso hair may be getting a little darker, but I’m not sure. What hasn’t changed though, is that mental health continues to be a battle.
This is common for trans people. There are all sorts of facts about how trans people have horribly high rates for depression and suicide. I could quote them, but I’d rather explain why.
Looking in the mirror and not being able to connect yourself to the person staring back at you is bewildering, painful and heart-wrenching. It’s terrifying.
Childhood is not idyllic. Trans people often—not always, but often—know that they are ‘different’ from the other kids around them. They know that there is something ‘wrong’ with them.
Sometimes they have the words to express their preferred gender. Sometimes they don’t. Their family members encourage them to follow the rules applicable to the gender they were assigned at birth.
Whether or not the trans person in question agrees is something else entirely. Sometimes the people surrounding the trans child or person are forceful, forcing them to engage in activities or expressions without their consent. They mean well.
Transexual and gender-nonconforming teenagers are only just starting to feel okay about coming out in high school. Rumour has it, anyway. I haven’t met any folks who have come out in high school. I don’t blame them.
I mean, in a country where Catholic school boards won’t allow Ontarian youth to have a Gay-Straight Alliance, why would a trans teenager feel safe coming out in high school?
I have read newspaper articles about gender-nonconforming children—young boys who wear tiaras and princess dresses and parents who raise their children to shop in both sections of the department store. Newspaper articles about gender non-conformance in children. Is this really such a marvel?
What happens if you’re in your thirties or forties and decide to transition? You might have a job, a nice house, some kids, a spouse. How will all of that factor in?
Actually, maybe you don’t. You could have a low-paying job and not have the money to access services to transition. What if you’re elderly and trans? How will you tell the nurse who’s helping you out? Will your identity as a trans person be respected in a nursing home?
Looking in the mirror and not being able to connect yourself to the person staring back at you is bewildering, painful, and heart-wrenching. It’s terrifying. I still don’t recognize myself in the mirror. Transitioning is a journey I’m taking in an effort to remedy that.
Look around. How gendered is the area around you?
Are the bathrooms segregated? Are the advertisements aimed at specific genders, such as straight masculine men and straight feminine women? Does the birthday card you get say boy or girl on it?
When you fill out a job application form does it ask you your sex? Do you only shop in the area you’re ‘supposed’ to, even if the clothes on the other side might appeal to you more? Do people call you ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am?’ Have they ever been mistaken?
I won’t bore you with too many questions. Those are just starters. Gender is everywhere. Transexuals know this on a visceral level, and gender-nonconforming folks generally do as well.
Gender is oppressive and frightening. You can get kicked out of bathrooms for looking ‘wrong.’ Hell, it’s not just bathrooms and locker rooms. You can get kicked out of your housing situation, your church, your job. You can get kicked out of your family.
It all depends on whether or not you follow the rules. A variety of factors can effect how you’ll be received as an out trans person: race, class, religion, age, geographical region, etc.
When you transgress gender, it can make people uncomfortable, disagreeable, or violent. Frankly, I don’t give a shit if you’re uncomfortable with my gender.
I am sick of getting adrenaline rushes every time I go into a public bathroom as my body prepares for a fight-or-flight response.
I am exhausted by feeling sucker punched in the gut every time I hear my birth name.
I am fed up with feeling like I have to avoid certain spaces—like my own home, for instance—because I know that my identity will not be acknowledged or respected. All of these contribute to anxiety and depression, both of which I have experienced.
It is not fun. I do not enjoy having to make crisis plans for myself all the time. Trans people should not have to live in a society where their very existence is doubted or denied. Trans people should not have to justify themselves to anyone.
But I do. And so do my trans siblings. Why? Mostly, it’s to get access to the services that I need as a person to survive. Some trans people, such as myself, need hormones and surgery. Not want. Need.
For some trans folks—but not all—transitioning is a life or death situation. My personal transition is tied to my mental health. Other folks do it for other reasons.
In the introduction to the book Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, gender theorist and performance artist Kate Bornstein wrote “All I ever wanted to do was be pretty.”
Emphasis on ‘all.’
I have had the desire to do horrible things to myself, but knew that transitioning was the only way that to survive.
I know that other folks have felt the same way. So we’ve found this quality within ourselves—it’s called resilience. Or maybe it’s an unwillingness to cater to people’s bullshit.
Either way, I know that I am not a woman. Regardless of whether or not I wear pink t-shirts or nail polish or dance around my house in colourful underwear, I know that I am not a woman. I am a man, whatever that means to me or you or anybody.
Because I am a man, I have a man’s body and therefore am not trapped in my own body. It just needs some editing. And some tattoos. I really want some of those.
I try really hard not to listen to the people who gender me wrong or who use my birth name.
There are days when I approach friends, shaking slightly, to ask for a hug. There are days when I walk in the door to my house and have to suppress sobs from all the pent-up emotions. There are days when I have to whisper to myself that I am a good man, a good person, who is doing the best he can.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are days when I am dandy as Oscar Wilde in a courtroom trial. Misgendering rolls off my personal space faster than a kid on a toboggan sledding down an icy hill. Gender can just get down on its knees and beg to unzip my jeans (but only if it asks nicely).
Trans people fight tooth and nail to have their genders recognized as valid and legitimate.
This is why we can be defensive or angry when faced with inane questions or invasive pat-downs.
We’re touchy because we’ve been poked and prodded so many times that we’ve forgotten how to heal.
So the next time you’re looking at us to get up and go educate, check in first and ask if we feel up to it that day.
I want to thank the two people who got me through my first shot of testosterone.
Thanks to N., for teaching me how to inject and injecting for me when I decided that I didn’t want to do it when I’d never done it before. Thanks to K., for supporting me and holding my hand. I hope that you both enjoyed the lollipops as much as I did.
Navigating this ferociously gendered world in a state of precarious mental health is hard.
Actually, just doing it in general and coming out safe and whole is really hard.
But survival is pretty damn important.
There will come a day when trans people, as a whole, will be able to look up from their survival field guides, drop them and live in a world where we can thrive.
Here are some handy resources to help you or your loved ones resist:
The 2110 Center for Gender Advocacy here in on campus: 2110 Mackay St., 514-848-2424 ex. 7431
Good reminders on self-worth for trans and gender-nonconforming people: binarysubverter.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/trans-101/
Holding On: an article about trans people and integrity: questioningtransphobia.com/?p=3631
The It Gets Better Project, for LGBTQ youth: itgetsbetter.org/
Kate Bornstein’s Blog for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws: katebornstein.typepad.com/
The Icarus Project, radical info on navigating mental health, trans-friendly: theicarusproject.net/
210 Things to Do Instead of Cutting: secrettalk.com/secrets/210-things-to-do-instead-of-cutting/14316931/
Feeling suicidal? The Trevor Project, for LGBTQ youth: 866-488-7386, thetrevorproject.org/
Canadian 24h crisis hotline: 514-723-4000
Online forum for Trans and gender-nonconforming folks—immediate crisis support: lauras-playground.com/chat.htm
October 10, 2011
“I want to share my transition. I want to write to you about public bathrooms, navigating my name change and taking hormones. I want to tell you about the scary parts, the fun times and share with you the celebrations that come along with transitioning. I want to tell you all of this because I think that it is important that you know about it.”
Goods news, Concordia! I start hormones on Oct. 26. Are you excited for me? If you are, congratulate me! Really, do. It’s a good thing. It means that you are acknowledging my struggle and patting me on the back.
Same goes for any other trans person you may know—depending on how well you know the person and what they’re comfortable with, offer a fist-bump, high five, or a hug. It’s exciting for a transsexual to finally be on hormones. Be excited with them.
That brings me to what you shouldn’t bring up with a trans person—because a lot of people seem to be iffy on whether to ask questions or not ask questions, and have a tendency to sometimes ask the wrong questions. Hopefully this helps to clear things up a bit.
Firstly, ask if you can ask questions. Trans people get questions about themselves all the time. Answering them is time-consuming and emotionally exhausting. The trans person may not be up to answering you at just that moment, for reasons that don’t have anything to do with you.
Please do not inquire about genitals. It’s a rude and invasive line of questioning—period—whether you’re a trans person or not. In college, I had a professor ask me about mine after class. I stared at her pointedly until she looked away and changed the subject.
When a trans person is talking about their body, mimic the language they are using. Don’t gender their body by referring to their parts as “boobs,” “vagina,” and “penis.” They may not use those words. Those words could be triggering painful memories.
Please, please be careful when inquiring about trans people’s bodies. We have a lot of hurt and shame surrounding them due to years of confronting heteronormative ideals, parental expectations and any number of other issues that trans people have to deal with.
Ask about pronouns if you are unsure. Unless a person is used to this question, you may get an irate answer. Breathe. It’s okay. The person is not mad at you particularly—they’re frustrated with the circumstances that always force them into these situations.
If the person is not mad, they might be appreciative that you took the time to check in. Assuming pronouns and getting them wrong is really embarrassing, after all. If you mess up someone’s pronouns after they have told you their preference, just apologize, correct yourself, and move on.
While being taken aside to apologize is nice and it’s awesome that you realized that you messed up, it’s not like anyone’s going to smite you for getting their pronoun wrong. Although, if you continue to ask questions about their genitals and whether or not they’re getting surgery “down there,” be prepared for lightning bolts. Maybe.
Don’t ask about birth names. That’s like accusing them of being someone they aren’t—like you can’t believe them when they tell you what their chosen name is, which suggests that they’re untrustworthy somehow.
I think that’s my biggest bruise—the idea that trans people are tricking people, lying or not telling the truth about their real identities. Hey, I chose to be true to myself. Don’t question the integrity of that decision, okay? Please don’t ask me about regret either. The real lying was pretending and going along with being a girl. That was a shameful lie that lay on my tongue for too many years.
So, maybe you’ve figured out by now that I’ve considered gender a lot. This is true. As such, please do not try to give me or any other trans person gender “tips.” Again, this is equivalent to telling someone they’re “doing it wrong.” Most of the time, trans folks are aware of gender on an extremely visceral level.
We know what we feel comfortable doing and what we don’t. I can’t pull off the macho tough guy swagger. I am a man that feels comfortable crossing his legs and gesticulating a lot.
Sure, that can be perceived as a little feminine, but you know what? I’m okay with that. I’m a bit of an effeminate guy. You should see all the flowery button-down shirts I have—plus, nail polish goes really well with my bow ties.
Please do not assume the sexuality of trans people. I know MTFs who are lesbians and I know MTFs who are straight women. I know FTMs who are gay men and FTMS who are straight men. Heck, I know trans people who have just given up on figuring out who they are attracted to because gender is just too complicated!
Anyway, when I say “don’t assume,” this also means “don’t assume we’re all going to get married, have kids and a nice house.” Trans people are just as varied and colourful as cisgendered people are.
Oh, and here’s a good one: don’t out trans people without their consent—even if they write about their lives in a newspaper column. Not everyone needs to know such personal information.
Am I going to inform every single person I meet that I am trans? No. The guy who sells me my OPUS pass every month doesn’t need to know. Nor does the baker I get pizza subs from. My gender is completely irrelevant sometimes.
The above also applies to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, asexuals, pansexuals, queers and others as well. Essentially, if someone is not straight, don’t out them without asking.
Just one more thing and I’ll stop haranguing you—please don’t say, “I understand.” You really don’t. As a cisgendered person, you have no idea what you are talking about. People don’t think you’re sick in the head for being your own gender, do they? (If they do, contact me—I have resources for you! Or a shoulder to lean on, if you want it.)
Here are some alternative comments to make:
“I can imagine.”
“Yeah, that must suck.”
Oh—and one more one last thing. Yes, I do know who Chaz Bono is. Cher’s son—he transitioned from female to male. No, I did not see him on Oprah or Ellen. He’s living his life and I am living mine. And that is all I want to do—in a safe, healthy, and whole way.
Oliver is @inkwrite on Twitter.
People sometimes don’t know how to refer to trans people, or misuse words they don’t properly understand. So, I compiled a list of some handy words and terms that might help you out when talking to, about or with a trans person.
Trans: I use this as a short word for “transsexual” but in other circles, it is short for “transgender.” See below.
Transgender: this word has come to encompass all gender-variant identities including, but not limited to: butch, drag queen/king, effeminate men, cross-dressers, etc. Not everyone identifies as such, however.
Transsexual: a person who may be physically altering their body to feel more at home in it. They were assigned a gender at birth and disagreed with the assignment. They are therefore choosing to modify their body accordingly. This often involves taking hormones and having surgeries—but doesn’t have to. You choose how far along you want to go. There are many non-op or even non-hormone folks out there who prefer to remain as they are, but just go out and about as the gender they truly feel they are. Don’t doubt their decision.
MTF: a person who is transitioning from male to female. They may or may not have identified or gone along with their “male” identity throughout their life.
Trans woman: an MTF person.
FTM: a person who is transitioning from female to male. They may or may not have identified or gone along with their “female” identity throughout their life.
Trans man: an FTM person (like me).
Top surgery: surgery to alter your chest.
Bottom surgery: surgery or surgeries to alter your genitals or to remove reproductive organs (hysterectomy). The removal of reproductive organs is required by law if you want to have your “sex designation” changed on your birth certificate.
Genderqueer: a person who does not identify as male or female. A genderqueer can feel they are in the middle of the two, neither, or a mix of both—or something else entirely.
Genderfuck: someone who enjoys messing with the given cultural expectations of gender.
Cisgender: a non-trans person.
Heteronormativity: the straight world—and all the assumptions, expectations, and rules that go along with it.
Passing: Successfully being perceived as the gender you transitioned/are transitioning towards. Passing is a problematic word. It puts the onus on the trans person in question for getting their gender “right.” Rather, we should see it as onlookers perceiving a trans person incorrectly. One can’t embody one’s own gender wrong. The only time I would use the word “passing” is when I need to be perceived as something I am not in order to survive. For example, I may need to “pass” as a woman in order to get access to bathroom stalls with garbages in them so I can throw my pads away. (Yes, I still have a period. It will go away after three months of hormones, thank the gods.)
September 5, 2011
To the alarm of my parents, I am a transsexual.
I am on the female-to-male spectrum of this gender brouhaha but I have never once identified as female. I just went along with the label until I could no longer handle the mess that was my unconscious.
In January 2010, I started exploring gender, using a neutral nickname and being read more and more as male. I liked it a lot. It felt right. On July 15th 2010, I came out to myself as transsexual. On Jan. 2nd 2011, I came out to my parents. They are supportive, but are still processing what everything means. My 13-year-old brother is bewildered, but happy for me.
I have lost two friends, gone through a nine-month-long depression and experienced suicidal feelings. I needed to figure out, if I had to do this, what would happen if I didn’t and what would happen if I did—those nine months were long, long months.
But this is not a sob story.
Though I have heard the tales and the hurts of trans folk and experienced the personal gender insecurity some people get upon seeing me, and though have dried the tears and ignored the stares, I am not asking for your pity. I am asking for your ears and eyes.
I want to share my transition. I want to write to you about public bathrooms, navigating my name change and taking hormones. I want to tell you about the scary parts, the fun times and share with you the celebrations that come along with transitioning. I want to tell you all of this because I think that it is important that you know about it.
This issue is important to understand so that transsexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming folks do not have to deal with the stares, the harassment, the paranoia and the violence anymore. I want that to stop, so this is my contribution.
My name is Oliver Leon. I am 19 years old. I am studying English and Creative Writing at Concordia University, with a minor in Women’s Studies (which, by the way, could be renamed Gender Studies). I want to be a college professor when I grow up. I enjoy poetry, Harry Potter, and kayaking.
On Aug. 29th 2011, I received permission from my psychologist to start hormones in the form of a letter. This is a legal requirement for transsexual folk and this step is a large piece of red tape for many people because it requires you to go through three months of psychotherapy. How many people can afford this? Not everyone. I have a trans friend who can’t afford therapy and now has no idea what to do with this life.
My psychologist is a kind and gentle man. He didn’t seem concerned when I told him I didn’t think I was a straight guy. He did not seem worried that I came into his office wearing a hot-pink t-shirt. He has never asked me the invasive questions you get when going through the Montreal General Hospital. (The triage there will ask you questions like “Are you a top or a bottom?” and “What do you fantasize about?” I was confused, so I told them Robert Downey Jr. just to be flippant.)
Anyway, this letter says some fun things. I asked my psychologist if I could include some quotations here and he said yes.
“My client became aware, in childhood, of a persistent discomfort with his gender… My client’s presentation is consistent with the criteria for [a] diagnosis of Transsexualism… He meets the DSM-IV criteria for Gender Identity Disorder Adulthood… [He] has followed the Standards of Care to date, and in my opinion, is highly likely to comply in the future.” I trust, Dr., that you will consider Mr. Leon’s candidacy for hormone therapy…
My psychologist is a great guy. He’s complying with the rules because that’s how transsexuals get help. Sure, I could buy hormones off the street—but that could kill me. I don’t know if the needles are clean, or if the dosage is healthy. Nobody knows the long-term effects of injecting hormones into a body, because nobody has cared to study the subject.
Why? Well, transsexuals are scary. Suitable for talk shows and examinations at length in airports. Someone who wants to be a gender other than the one they were born with at birth? Oh my God, send them to a bucket-load of therapists—surely it’s just a mental thing! Notice that I have been diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder.
Really though, I’ve never been so happy to be diagnosed with a medical condition in all of my life. And I am incredibly grateful to my psychologist. I get to take testosterone, get facial hair and a deeper voice. I will lose my hips and become narrow like the other boys. I’ll get more body hair and gain muscle mass easier. This will be great. (To the dismay of my little brother, I will not grow huge muscles. I need to go the gym for that.)
And so, I am off to the endocrinologist’s office to get me some needles and testosterone. I’ll update you regularly on how my fabulous transsexy life is going. I will even give you all the little details, like if the colour red suddenly becomes brighter or if I suddenly stop understanding girls. What is a girl, anyway?
Certainly not me. Shall we find out who I am together, then? Excellent.