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Girl Meets Boy

I always wondered how my transgender friends Amy and Gavin dealt with love, sex, surgery -- everything, really. So I invited them for dinner. First of two.

By Ryan Elias 20 Oct 2011 |

Ryan Elias is a freelance writer in Vancouver. He wishes to express his thanks: "As well as agreeing to be one of its subjects, Amy Fox was extremely generous with her time during the composition of this article, acting as first reader and technical editor through its many drafts. Thanks, Amy, this would have been incomparably more difficult without your help."

[Editor's note: Today on the Tyee, sit in on reporter Ryan Elias's curry dinner with friends Amy and Gavin, two individuals with many stories to share about being transgender. Tomorrow, hear more from their conversation in the second half of this two-part series.]

Kadie Somers was a classic tomboy; when she was eight she asked her mother for a Nick Carter bowl-cut and was horrified to get a Winona Ryder pixie instead.

Her first inkling that she might be gay came when she was 12 and discovered that she was far more interested in kissing her best friend than her boyfriend. For many years thereafter she figured that if the shoe fit, she might as well run in it, but the "lesbian" label never felt entirely comfortable.

Shayne had dyed-black hair that flopped over one eye, thick-framed rectangular glasses and a close-cropped goatee. Kadie met him more than once before she learned he was transgendered. It got her thinking. She asked him for some of his time.

It was the fall of 2006. She was 19 years old and studying stagecraft at New Westminster's Douglas College. She got to school long before dawn, left well after dark. Weekends were more aspiration than reality.

She and Shayne ended up sitting knee to knee on a piano bench in a practice room closet in the college's music wing. He did most of the talking, about who he was and how he lived, about hormone therapy and identity. She listened. A light came on.

"All this conflicting stuff in my head, my attempts to turn off my own gender, the unwanted attention I got as a girl, it all kind of slid together and I could see that there might be a way through it."

That Halloween, Kadie bound her breasts for the first time, inked on fake stubble, and felt totally comfortable. When she graduated the following April, she changed her name so that it would be reflected on her passport.

"I came to realize that basically, I could be whoever I wanted to be," says Gavin.

Wake-up call

Amy Fox remembers when she decided to take the first step away from the male body she felt trapped in.

Four years ago, on her 26th birthday, she awoke to the everyday cacophony of trucks clattering down to the port of Vancouver. An industrial bakery around the corner pumped out a thick doughnut smell that mostly masked the diesel-stench of the street, but there was nowhere in the neighbourhood to purchase any sort of pastry.

Home was a narrow room on the second floor with chipped white walls and an off-grey carpet; bed was a twin mattress on the floor in the corner. The apartment's water-heater took up most of the closet, leaving scant room for her bulky and oversized clothing. Sketches adorned the walls and art projects lay piled around the edges of the room alongside books borrowed from Simon Fraser University's Out On Campus.

"There was a hell of a view," Amy says. "At night you could see the lights of the cranes blinking in the fog."

It was the self-imposed deadline for a decision. But she'd known what that decision had to be since two in the morning, 59 days earlier. "I had pretty much figured it out, but I was looking for someone to tell me I was wrong."

No one had. She called the clinic at SFU and booked an appointment.

Today, her only regret is that she didn't do it sooner.

"People should get to be who they say they are," Amy says -- a statement remarkably simple in its construction and loaded in its implications.

He, she, they, zhim

One recent evening, I invited Amy and Gavin over for dinner to delve into those implications.

"People should get to be who they say they are," Amy was saying. "So I prefer that people use 'Amy' and feminine pronouns even when they're talking about things I did before transition."

Deliberate use of a transgendered person's previous name and pronoun is a common tactic to undermine their gender identities, she adds.

"I see what you're getting at, but I don't mind 'Kadie' for when I really was Kadie," Gavin replies. "It's still a part of who I am and I'm comfortable with it bubbling up now and then. Back when I was first experimenting with ambiguity, I didn't even really mind 'she.' But I found that if I let people get away with that, it was the only pronoun they'd ever use. So I started enforcing 'they' with my friends, and I accept 'he' from strangers."

The pronoun this article would use for Gavin ended up being a point of some contention. I was convinced that the awkward sentence construction around "they" would muddle readers. Despite having a marked preference for "they," Gavin was receptive to this line of thinking. But Amy was adamant and ultimately persuasive: how can one write an article about a transgendered person's right to self-identification, while simultaneously ignoring that identity for the convenience of hypothetical readers? These issues are intrinsically challenging, she said, why not carry that through in the writing?

"I also like 'zhim,' but almost nobody ever uses it," Gavin says, laughing, and stands to get seconds.

I find "they" much easier to parse than "zhim" or any of the many other recently invented gender-neutral pronouns. We'll run with it.

Introducing two old friends

Gavin is one of those people who's long and lean in a way that makes them look taller than they are. They've got the smirking, laid-back geniality of Jim Stark on a good day, only aided by the startling resemblance they can bear in the right light to James Dean. Amy is a more contained sort of person, with an inward facing posture and a habit of looking down when she smiles. It's an obvious comparison, but she really does look quite a bit like Ellen Degeneres.

She's butch, the sort of woman who can work a tanktop or a welding torch but looks most at ease in a well-fitted suit. Gavin tends towards tight T-shirts and relaxed-fit jeans. They have almost identical haircuts, short and spiky.

I met Gavin, as Kadie, in 2005. Montreal-born, she had moved to Vancouver the year before. Today, Gavin is a stage technician and rigger, a profession that carries its own lessons in transience, in which they construct unlikely cathedrals of iron bars, devising ingenious mechanisms and theatrical illusions, and tear them all down weeks later. In the theatre and festival circuits, thankfully, their gender identity has rarely been an issue. They sing and play guitar at open-mic nights around the city with a rough collection of like-minded musicians.

Amy and I met in an improv troupe almost a decade ago. She was introduced to me as an 'evil genius,' and the label fits. Though unassuming in demeanour, she's frighteningly intelligent and aggressively contrary. She always has at least two or three schemes on the go, any one of which may be an elaborate joke or deadly serious.

Since I've known her, she's acquired a handful of academic credentials, run twice for office as a protest candidate at SFU and once as the B.C. Rhinoceros Party's MLA candidate for Burquitlam. When she ran seriously for SFU's student government in 2006 and 2007 as an out transsexual, she won both times and played an integral role in the university's ongoing, unprecedented and hotly contested withdrawal from the Canadian Federation of Students. Today, she runs a small metalworking business, and is planning a bid for Vancouver city council under the League of Tomorrow slate. Next September, she'll start shooting a trans sitcom called The Switch.

Gavin and Amy knew of each other, but hadn't really spoken before tonight. So when I brought them together in my apartment in East Vancouver and sat them down with a vegan chickpea curry, it didn't take much to get them talking. Amy is perched on a rubberwood stool at one end of the bar-height table in my kitchen, leaning forward over her food to punctuate her words with quick, bird-like gestures. Meal inhaled, Gavin sprawls back, apparently comfortably, across two stools and a windowsill.

What they're up against

Having to get on your loved ones' case about pronoun use sits pretty low on the list of transgendered difficulties. Because so many live under the radar and so little research has been done, precise data is hard to find, but it's clear that trans people, especially those who change from male to female, are substantially poorer and far more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the cisgendered.

("Cis," by the way, is the opposite of "trans." So where a transsexual woman is someone who has transitioned towards a feminine body, a cissexed woman is someone in a conventionally sexed woman's body who feels comfortable there. A "normal" woman, if you will. "Cisgendered" means conventionally gendered, whereas "transgendered" refers to someone who breaks gender norms, whether or not they've changed their sex.)

Being transgendered can make you a target for hate crimes. The best-known example is probably that of Brandon Teena, whose 1993 rape and murder by acquaintances who found out he was trans was the subject of the Kimberly Peirce film Boys Don't Cry, but there have been innumerable others since.

Amy points out that different risk factors intersect: transsexuals are more likely to be poor, especially those that are disabled or of colour. Poverty drives people to the sex trade.

"Sex work is the only thing that your trans status makes you more rather than less qualified for. But if you're a transsexual streetwalker, society says you're basically a disposable human being," she says.

Caucasian children of privilege, both Gavin and Amy have had it easy compared to other trans people, and they know it. Additionally, both pass well: Amy is usually perceived as a butch, cissexed woman, Gavin as a young cissexed man or a teenager of ambiguous gender. Neither has ever been the victim of a serious hate crime, but both are used to petty acts of inconsideration. It's often based in uncertainty more than active hostility; many people simply don't know how to act around someone whose gender they can't tell.

Tranny bladder blues

Public washrooms are ground zero for this sort of confrontation.

The choice between the men's and the women's presents an opportunity for strangers to register their unease with your gender, Amy says. Since she mostly passes as butch, she's had it easier than more visible transsexuals. But still, she's been glared at and told to leave, had women step out of the washroom, look pointedly at the sign, and then re-enter to stand around and wait pointedly for her to finish up. Once a woman even followed her out of a bathroom and down the hall, telling her repeatedly that she had to use the men's.

"But I assure you ma'am, I'm a woman," is all she could think to say back.

Gavin says men tend not to make eye contact in the washroom, so they don't run into as much trouble. But as a person with female genitalia, they're sometimes made pressingly aware that being noticed as trans in the wrong situation can carry terrible consequences.

Last year, Gavin was in Mexico at the Coco Bongo club in Cancun. The washrooms were in the basement, and being in a foreign country, Gavin decided to play it safe and use the women's. Heading back downstairs later in the evening, they found bouncers posted in front of both doors. When Gavin took a step towards the women's they brusquely directed them through the other door. The men's room, they found, was a long narrow rectangle, very crowded, and the only facility was a tiled trough around the edge of the room. Though they had a pee-spoon with them (a device to help people with female genitalia pee standing up), in a room full of drunk men they felt suddenly conspicuous and vulnerable, so hunched briefly in a corner of the room and retreated, bladder still full.

"That's called 'tranny-bladder,'" Amy interjects.

Increasingly desperate, when the bouncers tried to turn them away later, they lifted their shirt and pulled down their breast-binder. The bouncers let them past.

"They didn't care about my ID, so I figured it was lift my shirt or drop my pants," Gavin says.

"That was the best pee of my life."

Getting a vagina

Of course, it's not just washrooms. Even outwardly, welcoming communities can carry hidden snags.

"I was volunteering for this queer women's event," Amy says, "And I remember being told that 'we support our transgendered brothers and sisters, but this is a women's event.' By which they meant they reserved the right to eject transsexual women."

There's a breed of second-wave feminism, she says, which is particularly hostile to trans people, the intersexed, kink, and sex-trade workers.

"One I hear a lot from that sort of crowd is that 'real women bleed.' Well, I bled for a year and a half," she says with a sharp wave of her fork.

We laugh, but she's not exaggerating.

Amy underwent a facial bone shave in Boston in 2008, and a vaginoplasty in Montreal in 2009. Her mother, Eleanor Fox, went with her on both trips.

"I did it to be there and look after her and care for her and support her, but I think I learned a great deal in the process," Eleanor, a retired nurse-therapist, told me over the phone from Kelowna. "I had a chance to meet several other transgendered people then, and the recovery house in Montreal was fantastic for me."

The facial bone shave, one type of facial feminization surgery, reduced the jaw and brow bone deposits left by male puberty while lowering her hairline. It came with a battery of other minor, related procedures, and was relatively trouble-free.

The same can't be said for her genital surgery. As you might imagine, it's a pretty invasive procedure, where "skin is cut up and reconfigured. Some is turned into a mucous membrane, some is thrown out." Even when everything goes well, recovery is long and painful.

"It's fucking vile," Amy says, grinning. "You're so swollen up, it's like you’re wearing a gigantic soggy diaper made out of your own tissue. There's lots of mucus and blood-clots the size of flattened pinecones."

Gavin, who's squeamish, puts down their fork. I've got a more resilient stomach, but in any case am busily taking notes.

The doctors left a stent in her at first, to prevent her new vagina from prolapsing or collapsing, along with a catheter. Once the stent came out, she had to start dilating with a "hard plastic dildo-looking thing" to keep herself from shrinking or sealing up.

"That sounds kind of exciting, but it's actually really boring," Amy says.

For the first two weeks after the operation, she had to dilate five times a day for a total of two hours. For the month after that, four times a day, three times a day for the month after that, and so on. Today she dilates about once a week for half an hour, a routine she'll keep for the rest of her life.

For Amy, the process started to go awry as she was healing.

"I call it my mutant healing factor," she says. She's always healed quickly. But in this case she was also improperly stitched back together. "My upper labia sealed shut over my clit."

She scheduled a follow-up surgery at UBC Hospital, but due to lack of funding for trans medicine, she says, she ended up waiting almost a year. The surgery took place in an operating room without stirrups, so she was forced to hold a "yoga position, feet together and knees off the side of the table" for two hours. Even worse, it turned out that the wait between identifying the problem and correcting it had been too long; her clitoris had died.

There's a further surgery that might help repair the damage, but it would require another trip to Montreal and probably won't accomplish much, she says.

Before she started hormone therapy, Amy had sperm frozen. She's open to being a biological parent if her partner is willing. Or she might donate the sperm to a friend.

"When you think about it, you're actually more usefully fertile than you were before," Gavin says. "You can impregnate someone whenever you want, but never by accident."

Hormones and windsor ties

Modern medicine has yet to come up with a really satisfying way to build a penis; trans men can be penetrative or orgasmic, but usually not both. Gavin's decision to forgo genital surgery entirely is common even for those who live entirely as men.

"Even if there was a way to get a fully functional penis, I don't think I'd be considering it. I just don't feel like I'd get enough out of it to be worth all that trouble, pain and risks."

Similarly, though they bind their breasts full-time, they haven't decided yet if they'll have them removed.

I ask them what they have to say to people who question their gender identity because they haven't done much medically to change their sex, or those who question their decision to try and settle somewhere in the middle.

"My gender identity is what I say it is, nobody can argue with that," they say. "It's got nothing to do with hormones or surgery. All those can do is help me find a body that feels right."

Gavin's family doctor "has trouble even saying vagina," so they've been going to the Trans Health unit at Ravensong Community Health Centre in Vancouver. The staff is good but wait-times can be long.

Because Gavin has been living masculine for years already, they had little difficulty getting the centre to approve them for a light course of testosterone, or "T." They're still on the fence as to whether they'll go ahead with it, though.

If they do, the T will most likely stop the hips that have lately begun to develop on their, let's say it, boyish frame. It will also reduce their breasts.

"I like my breasts," Gavin says. "But they'd be nicer on someone else. And I'd like to be able to go topless at the beach without being stared at."

"I'm really not into the idea of breasts with chest hair," they add, grimacing.

It may also render them infertile, though trans men who don't have genital reassignment surgery are sometimes still able to bear children. Though Gavin would like to have children some day, they're willing to leave it to fate whether they will bear their own or adopt.

It's not the risk of hairy breasts or loss of fertility that's worrying them, though. When they start taking T their body will begin to undergo changes similar to male puberty, and there's a real risk to their singing voice.

"Puberty hits the vocal chords hard at any age," they say. "But at 23 with my vocal chords already formed it's not going to be easy. That scares me sometimes... Right now I'm focusing on being the person I want to be without medical assistance."

But they would like a pair of sideburns and a real version of the stubbly beard they've been known to painstakingly apply with mascara. Even neckbeard and the prospect of a receding hairline appeal.

"It didn't used to bother me at all, but as I get older I'm less and less interested in being mistaken for a teenage boy," they say.

Amy laughs, she gets the same thing all the time. Memorably, she was once mistaken for her date's teenage son.

"I was five months younger than her," she says.

"People are just looking for a box to put you in," Gavin says. "I get almost everything, from butch lesbian to underage boyfriend. A lot of it depends on who I'm with and where I am."

Amy has similar experiences: "In queer circles, I'm often asked if I've started T yet," she says. "They think I'm a female-to-male early in transition."

Amy could, of course, grow her hair long and wear only frilly pink dresses to avoid a lot of this confusion. But though she's a girl, she's not interested in being hyper-feminine. She'd rather be butch or androgynous. Communicating this used to require a constant balancing act, as she couldn't just throw on an oversized pair of men's jeans without looking male. Today she has more leeway, and prefers clothing in men's styles made and cut for women.

"I didn't learn how to tie a windsor until about a year into transition," she says.

"I think I learned in high-school," Gavin replies.

They walk a similar line with clothing, aspiring to be "androgynous, but from a male perspective." Of course, society in any case really doesn't have a male equivalent to the frilly pink dress. But they find that if they wear baggy or ill-fitted clothing it ends up making them look like a teenage boy or worse, a woman in men’s clothing.

So it's obvious then that gender is about much more than genitals. Clothing has far more bearing on how a person is perceived day-to-day. Voice and speech patterns are also key, and many trans people get vocal coaching to help change their speech habits. Body language can be especially difficult to change. But gender leaves its mark on a great many less obvious activities as well.

Tomorrow: Amy and Gavin talk sex, families, and facing criticism.  [Tyee]

Read more: Gender + Sexuality

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