Full disclosure: I’m transgender.
For those of you who don’t know, that means that when baby-Callie was in the womb, a few wires got crossed. Y-Chromosomes went where they weren’t welcome, pulled a few bits of flesh the wrong way and stimulated the genes for sasquatch hair, but left my brain blissfully unaware… at least, until it noticed that the body it was driving didn’t quite match the mental blueprint it was carrying and began asking what the hell had happened. By the time I figured it out I was fourteen and broad-shouldered, with a trim little beard and a killer tenor, but I finally knew why none of that felt like me: I was a woman. I had always been a woman. I’d just been sewn into a body that didn’t fit me, and despite the words of several well meaning people (telling me I was handsome and talented and what a shame it would be when I couldn’t sing tenor anymore), I knew that if I didn’t make some changes, I’d take my own life before I was twenty.
I didn’t choose to be transgendered. No-one would choose to be transgendered. Every time I hear someone start talking about ‘lifestyle choices,’ I feel like screaming. Let me give you some perspective. Imagine, for a moment, that the body you’re wearing isn’t yours; it’s wrong in every way, from the feel of your skin to the sound of your voice, down to the very stench of your sweat. Imagine waking up to that, day after day, watching that body change and grow into a person that has nothing to do with you, but that the whole world thinks – no, insists, that you truly are. It’s like wearing a rubber gorilla suit that you can’t take off, one that comes with a mind of its own in the form of reactions, impulses, cravings that at best make you cringe and at worst make you retch. And every time you try to express who you really are, the world shrieks with laughter and calls you a freak, demanding that you feel ashamed for daring to feel the way you do, or simply assumes that you don’t know any better. You’re ignored, trivialised, ridiculed. ‘It’s just a phase,’ the world says, admiring your gorilla suit. ‘You’ve been this person for so long. It’s who you are.’
Faced with that, why wouldn’t you take a pair of scissors and try to cut it all away?
That’s Gender Dysphoria: a physical condition where your biological sex and your gender, which are two entirely separate things, don’t match. It’s hell. And I wouldn’t wish it on the worst monster.
I was lucky. I have family and friends who love and support me (to be honest, my friends knew I was a woman before I did,) and I found a GP and a therapist who were not only only sympathetic, but actually willing to listen to me. Five years (and a whole lot of hormone replacement therapy) later, I’m mostly comfortable in my own skin. I can step out in a pretty dress and make-up and not get so much as a strange look. I get called ma’am at service stations. Instead of carrying around a cranium filled with suicidal anxiety, the most I have to grumble about these days are 8:30am shift starts and the occasional nightmare where I never transitioned at all. This isn’t my happy ending: it’s a happy beginning, the start of a life where, for the first time, I can’t wait to see what happens next. But my transition has also taught me that I was lucky in more ways than one.
Let’s be honest: you’ve heard my story before. Boy realises that they’re a girl in a boy’s body, she seeks help, and either gets it and lives (relatively) happily ever after or takes her own life. Today, transgender individuals enjoy a level of exposure and acceptance that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. The combined efforts of social media and transgender celebrities like Laverne Cox and Andreja Pejic have forced attitudes worldwide to change for the better, encouraging transgender awareness and support and educating viewers about the realities of Gender Dysphoria. However, while some prejudices have been laid to rest (or at least been brought to attention as prejudices,) others harmful stereotypes have been created, including this little gem by Caitlin Jenner on how important it is for trans women to present a good image:
‘I think it puts people at ease,’ she said to TIME magazine. ‘If you’re out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable. So the first thing I can do is try to present myself well.’
… hold on a moment. Is she saying that it’s the duty of transgender women to look as society demands? So as not to cause offence?
If we take her statement literally, a trans woman is only worth accepting into Jenner’s society if they meet that society’s standards. They need a perfectly feminine body that’s pleasing to the eye, a chin free of bristles, elegant cheekbones, the best voice that a speech pathologist can buy, and nothing at all that could possibly suggest that they once wore a gorilla suit. Because if one hint remains that they were ever ‘a man in a dress’ they’re offensive. They’re awkward. They’re wrong.
What utter tripe.
Even in the transgender community, popular thought still clings to the idea that there are only two genders, and that there are only a few acceptable ways to express those genders. Women can’t have beards. Men don’t have breasts. If you want to transition, you have to annihilate every physical trace of who you once were: not because you find it disgusting, but because it makes other people uncomfortable, sometimes to a lethal degree. Despite the growing culture of acceptance, transgender individuals are still harassed, assaulted and murdered in shocking numbers across the world. Some would say that, quite aside from changing your biological sex to match your gender, ‘passing’ is a necessary defence; after all, undergoing painful surgeries is better than being lynched in the street.
Of course, the majority of transgender individuals do want to transition completely. That’s certainly what I want for myself. I don’t want anyone to know that I’m transgender if I don’t want them to. I’ve worked for years to make sure that I can pass without fail, and it feels wonderful to be recognised as my chosen gender wherever I go. But what about those individuals who are terrified of surgery, or who don’t have the bank balance necessary to finance a flawless body? What about those individuals who are perfectly happy to be androgynous, identifying as neither male or female? Are they somehow lesser, simply because they can’t pay to have their cheekbones broken and remoulded into the proper shape, or to have their tracheas shaved to give them a slender neck? Are they inhuman because they embrace aspects of both genders, and not just one?
During my transition, I met many different women from all across the gender spectrum. There’s a transgender performer in Tasmania who sings a wonderful tenor. A cisgendered girl from Berkshire, Harnaam Kaur, recently made tumblr history with a full, gorgeous beard. Another transgender woman cheerfully refuses to have Gender Confirmation surgery, stating that she’s happy with her ‘downstairs guest.’ A girl I met at a clinic in Melbourne hasn’t started hormone replacement therapy and doesn’t want to, quietly saying that she’s confident enough in her own identity. Others, the vast majority, have had to pause momentarily along their transitional journey because they can’t afford their medicine, or are saving up for surgery.
What do all of these women have in common? They’re still women, every one. And every single one is beautiful.
You can’t create a template for the ‘perfect’ transition. Just as every person is unique, every transition is unique, and the gender identities that result are just as diverse. Society’s so-called standards are as good as obsolete: if what society thought of us truly mattered, we would have hunkered down inside our gorilla suits and quietly let ourselves die. Instead, we’re slowly beginning to realise that, cisgendered or transgendered, no-one has to fit the stereotype of a given gender to be a man or a woman. You don’t even have to be a man or a woman. All you have to be is you, comfortable in your own skin, whatever that skin may be. For me, that’s the woman I’ve been all my life. For you? It could be anything at all.
And the sooner ‘society’ realises that, the better. Because who are they to stop us from being who we are?
Image: Zach Giunta
Callie Doyle-Scott was born in Tasmania in 1990, but has since travelled around Australia: she currently resides in Canberra. A graduate of RMIT University’s Creative Writing program in 2013, she never quite lost the study bug: her speciality is culinary history, specifically that of Victorian England and Japan throughout the ages, though she loves to research old folktales in her spare time. Callie started writing stories when she was ten (her first being about a cave that could turn people into animals,) and was first published in Dickson College’s CLIO History Journal with two articles on Renaissance heroines Caterina Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia. While studying, she went on to found and edit Verity La’s Out of Limbo project (an online archive devoted to the coming-out stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex individuals,) and participate in Bryce Courtney’s final writing masterclass in 2012. Since then, she has written articles for the Verity La and Writer’s Bloc webjournals, and hopes to establish a wider portfolio over the coming months. She is currently working to finish the draft of her first novel, a gastronomic fantasy entitled Soup for the Moon, in the hopes of approaching a publisher by the end of the year.
This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.