Having never met a transgender person, Declan G Henry wanted to explore why somebody would be unhappy about their gender and seek to change it. His quest saw him travel widely to interview trans people for his book.
AS A gay man, I decided to write this book because up until two years ago, I had never met a trans person and knew very little about the subject.
This is not that unusual because the majority of people will never have met a transgender person, although many will have seen one featured in a TV documentary or serial drama.
Either way, most people are still relatively new to this concept and as a result there remains a lot of curiosity, ignorance, and misconceptions about the trans community.
I wanted to explore why somebody would be unhappy about their gender and seek to change it.
I wanted to speak with people who were transgender and hear their stories. I wanted to demystify the wrongful image that the media have portrayed of people having ‘sex change’ operations on a whim.
Writing this book took me on an extraordinary journey.
I travelled all over the UK and Ireland interviewing trans people and listened to their life experiences first-hand. In doing so I met some of the nicest, friendliest, and honest people that I have ever met in my life.
I utilised my social worker background to help me find out why there were women and men who felt uncomfortable with their gender and sought to change it. I was assigned male at birth.
My brain tells me I am a man and that is how I live my life. How different it would be if I was assigned male but my brain was to tell me that I was female.
And that’s exactly the type of situation that trans people find themselves in and seek to change through transitioning to the gender that their brain tells them they are; often discarding years of emotional agony and unhappiness once they start the coming out process and confront who they really are.
There is no easy or magical way to change gender. It is often a drawn out process of doctor’s appointments, life-long hormone treatments and surgery but everybody I interviewed had no regrets that they chose to transition to a new gender.
Nearly all the people I interviewed for the book noted that they had had issues with their gender identity in childhood.
Many recalled how, as boys, they dressed as girls — and vice versa — and how, as children, they played with toys designed for the opposite sex. Some of them only felt comfortable playing with children of the opposite physical sex.
These were childhoods filled with silence: how they felt about themselves was never discussed and only rarely were any of them able to confide in a family member or friend.
So great was their distress about their bodies, their pubescent years were often marked by self-harming incidents and suicide ideation.
Eventually, these issues subsided after they begun the transitioning process and had developed a greater sense of value and identity of who they were.
There are four main categories in the trans community: trans women, trans men, non-binary people and crossdressers.
Trans women, up until recently, made up the largest percentage of people who transitioned.
Many have not had an easy time because some trans women pass as women better than others. Less practice early in life means they often struggle to develop a good sense of clothes style and make-up and further problems occur for those who are naturally large-framed or tall and have big hands and feet.
Facial electrolysis may work better for some than it does for others.
Many trans women have undertaken full reassignment surgery — because the surgery is less risky than for trans men — and nearly all will have at least had breast enhancement because breasts do not necessarily grow that much whilst taking oestrogen.
Having testicles removed also ensures that the body stops producing testosterone. There are long waiting lists for surgery with many opting to travel overseas to Thailand and America.
Trans men, on the other hand, have less of a difficult time than trans women in the sense that they pass much easier in their new gender.
This is partly because taking testosterone helps to masculinise the body.
Although trans men are less likely to have full reassignment surgery that involves genital surgery, nearly all of them have chest reconstruction surgery.
Most trans men feel that their body dysphoria eases after they have had their breasts removed and this helps them present in their new gender with greater confidence.
Historically, trans men have come out as trans earlier in life than trans women, although up until the last couple of years there were fewer trans men than trans women.
That is changing, however, with recent statistics indicating that these days there are as many trans men as trans women transitioning.
Like trans women, many trans men opt to travel abroad for private surgery although few have genital surgery because of its risks, the need for multiple surgeries and the high expense.
Non-binary people are also coming more to the forefront of the trans community.
But generally this category consists of younger trans people who do not identify as either men or women, depending on their gender assigned at birth, or those who consider they are both genders.
There are more than 20 non-binary terms/descriptions in this category to help explain gender internalisation and how this dictates the way the person presents to the world.
Many non-binary people are drawn to an androgynous state although it’s also quite common, for example in the case of a gender-queer person assigned male at birth, to have grown a beard and choose to wear female clothes and make-up.
Although crossdressers are recognised as being part of the wider trans community, they are mainly heterosexual men who are comfortable in the gender they were assigned at birth.
They do not endure gender dysphoria nor do they have any inclination to transition to female or adopt an androgynous state.
Since they dress in female clothing they are often regarded as trans women but it’s there that the resemblance ends because most are happily married and have no desire to live full-time in the opposite gender.
Life in Ireland for trans people is in some ways no different to the UK and other parts of Europe — long waiting lists and limited options for surgery on the health service, which means travelling abroad for private surgery.
This is coupled alongside misconceptions and transphobia, although physical violence appears to be rare.
However, Irish trans people have the advantage of being able to self-declare their gender, since the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act 2015.
This allows trans people to gain legal recognition without seeing a doctor or needing medical treatment. In doing so, they followed Argentina, Denmark, Malta, and Colombia in allowing trans people to self-determine outside of the medical process.
In the UK, a trans person is still required to get opinions from two medical professionals before they can start medical treatment.
There is no doubt about it, transgender people are becoming more visible in society because more and more people are coming out and transitioning earlier in life than in previous decades.
In 10 years’ time, it is estimated that most people will know a transgender person, just like everyone currently knows somebody who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
By that time, much of the current curiosity and fascination surrounding trans people will have waned because it will have become the norm for people to say they have trans relatives, friends, neighbours and work colleagues — without fear or shame.
I hope my book will open your mind to the trans community and answer many questions.
Your heart will also be opened by the people featured in the book who have had the courage to become who they really believe they are, against the many hurdles and obstacles that have hindered their journey to living the true authentic lives that were both their destiny and entitlement.
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