Ladies and gentlemen
It's not easy being born the wrong gender. But you have options, as Joanna Kiernan discovers when she taps into Ireland's transgender community and meets boys who were girls and girls who were boys, including a Donegal sheep farmer, an Argentinian-Irish lesbian who pretends to her grandparents she's still male, and the former girl who can't wait to be a dad
'I started living as Darrin when I was 16. I've been on hormones for the last year and a half." As I sit opposite Darrin Matthews, 21, in Dublin's Central Hotel one winter's evening, I make a poor attempt at swallowing my surprise.
For reasons that now seem ridiculous, I had thought I was meeting a young man who intended to change genders, rather than a young man who had previously been female. I admit the misunderstanding a little sheepishly.
"I was born a girl," the amused Cork native corrects me, "I didn't realise I wasn't a boy until about 10 or 11. All of my friends were boys. I didn't have any female friends."
Gender didn't become an issue for Darrin until he went to secondary school. "It was very much that the boys and the girls were separate and they just didn't interact. I was like, 'But I am one of the boys!' I went to a private school for fifth and sixth, because I didn't have to wear a uniform and I could go there as Darrin and use male toilets."
Darrin received a huge amount of support from those around him, especially his mother. "I'm a complete mammy's boy," he smiles fondly. "I think she did a great job in raising me, and she raised us by herself. My mother asked me if I was transgender. Literally her response was, 'I'm you're a mother, you can tell me these things!'"
I ask Darrin what his name was before. "No comment," he whispers politely. "I have enough reminders as it is that I was born not male. That's another one that I just don't need, to be honest."
So is a full sex-change procedure on the cards? "Personally, I'd definitely want chest surgery, to remove my chest," Darrin says, becoming a bit more pensive, "As for other surgery, I think I'm still quite young and I haven't made my mind up yet."
I wonder aloud if parenthood might be a consideration. "I want loads of kids," Darrin says enthusiastically. "I can't wait to be a dad! I'm still deciding whether or not I would like to carry the child biologically myself. Especially because as much as I think Ireland has become more open-minded, I don't know how ready Ireland would be for a man walking into a doctor's surgery and saying, 'By the way, I'm three months pregnant!' -- but it's not something I've ruled out."
Transgender people in Ireland must be diagnosed with gender identity disorder before they can begin any form of treatment. "I was very lucky that my GP is completely supportive," Darrin tells me, "but the process in Ireland is that you have to see a clinical psychologist."
Darrin now visits a doctor in London for hormone treatment regularly, but has his oestrogen and testosterone levels monitored by endocrinologists here.
Even before the hormone treatment, Darrin found that he could pass as male quite easily, but there was one problem. "The only time it really became a problem, was that lovely time once a month when your period arrives," he explains. "Some days I would literally not be able to go to school. I would crawl into bed and stay there. It's such a weird thing to feel. I wonder how many other men would react if all of a sudden they started having periods. I could cut my hair, I could bind down my chest and, for most of the time, I would pass as a male and then, once a month, this. It was another reminder that you weren't born the way you feel you should have been."
One thing that Darrin has always been clear on is his sexual preference. "I've always been attracted to women and I never had a problem, growing up, with my sexuality," he says. "I think sometimes people have the misconception that people are either gay and then become trans, but obviously you don't become trans. Some people think that people are trans because it's easier to be transgendered than gay. To be honest, if I was trying to pick an easy life, transgendered would not be a path I would go down. Sexuality and gender are completely different."
Practical issues, such as buying clothes, were less of a problem for Darrin than for those who transition from male to female.
"I think I was a lot luckier," adds Darrin. "People don't think anything of a girl going through the men's clothes section. I find it a trade-off. With female to males, like me, it's easier because growing up, it's OK to be a tomboy, and I find with hormones, they help you pass really well, but the surgeries that are available aren't that great. To be honest, they're fairly shocking. For males to females, hormones don't do a lot and it is harder to pass, but the surgeries are so good that even a gynaecologist wouldn't be able to tell that you were born male."
Sarah-Louise Stafford, 42, a sheep farmer from Donegal, felt that something was different when she was a boy of just eight years old. "In 2000 I went to get my name changed. I had been to see a doctor before that around 1994 or 1995. I went to see my GP and she referred me to a psychiatrist. He said that I was just gay. He didn't take it seriously at all, so he didn't," she giggles nervously.
"It took a long time to get things in motion," she adds. "Eventually, I started seeing a psychologist outside Dublin and I went on hormone treatment."
For Sarah-Louise the future is fully female. "I went to see a doctor in London a couple of years back and I am hoping. I thought I would have had the surgery by now, I thought I would have help from the HSE, but I'm getting no help from them. I'm going to have to fund it myself. So I'm planning to see the doctor again in the next couple of months and then see the surgeon after that. I am looking to move forward with it now and hopefully get the surgery this year."
When Sarah-Louise first came out to her mother it was a shock. "She reckoned farming was no job for me," an upbeat Sarah-Louise reveals. "I think at first she just thought that I was just a transvestite. It took her a while to get used to it, but she has no problem now, bless her."
I ask if Sarah-Louise ever felt like moving to a more cosmopolitan urban area where there might be a larger community of transgender people, or if she wished her life had been different. "I'm happy doing what I'm doing," she says. "I have no interest in going away. I knew I was supposed to be female and I wished that God would sort it out for me, but that wish never came true. I think he had his earmuffs on that day!"
Louise Hannon, 50, realised that she was not like other little boys when she reached the age of eight. However, she went on to live a very conventional, heterosexual male existence for a large part of her life. "I was forced into doing things that conformed to the male role," she tells me. "I didn't ever feel comfortable. I got married and I had two wonderful kids. When I say kids, now, they're pretty much well grown up."
After a number of years of marriage something had to give. "I got to the stage where 14 years ago I was very low and I was on the point of suicide," adds Louise in a soft, Northern Irish accent. "I didn't know where to turn. The internet had just come in and I had no idea what was wrong with me."
Through a political website, Louise befriended a Canadian woman. "She came over to Ireland to live. Her marriage had broken up. She was a trained counsellor," she explains. "I offered her somewhere to stay and within a couple of days she turned to me and said, 'Look, I think you might be transgendered.'"
Following this, Louise went to see an independent counsellor for six months. "The outcome of that was that the gender issue was the underlying problem," she tells me plainly. "There was also the problem that I had been sexually abused as a child. So I had to decide, would I have been transgender because of the abuse or in spite of it? I decided I would have been transgendered anyway, that was only a confusing side issue."
Very soon afterwards, Louise decided she needed to move forward with her gender change and started hormone treatment in 2006. But the transition was not as smooth as Louise might have hoped.
Conditions became intolerable in the transport company where she worked at the time. Earlier this year, Louise was awarded more than ¿35,000 in compensation as a result of her employers requesting her to continue in her male identity at work and, eventually, to work from home.
"I'm transgendered. It's part of who I am, but it's not the whole part," Louise comments on the case.
I ask Louise of her previous incarnation and whether she has had gender realignment surgery. "I've had nothing done," she explains, "That's something I'm dealing with medically, and I don't know what the outcome will be. It was never who I should ever have been.
"It's part of me that I'd rather completely and totally forget about," she adds with a smile. "Who you see in front of you, is who I am. I was in this no man's land in the middle where I had a male body, yet I wasn't male in the mental sense. I didn't do that whole male bonding thing, or go for a pint in the pub. Give me Hello! magazine or some of the glossies, I'd be sitting with my face in that!"
Louise has an interesting perspective on relationships. "Unfortunately," she muses, "Irish men tend to be like most men, led by their sexual motivation. Whereas for me, the sexual side of any relationship comes long after the other stuff is established.
"It doesn't particularly matter whether they're male or female," Louise says. "Everything else follows after that. The mental interaction for me is the key to everything in a relationship.
"If they happen to be male or female, and as long as they're comfortable with the fact that I'm transgendered, then I don't have a problem," she says. "I've had a couple of boyfriends and I've had three girlfriends. For various reasons they didn't work out. My bar is set quite high. To be truthful, I find women much more relaxed and laid-back. I find women much less of the sexual predator and much more of the caring, nurturing side."
Louise's Canadian friend was the first to help her buy female clothes. "She was the same size in clothes as I was," she remembers, "so I was able to buy for her and she was able to buy for me. Canadians, because of the weather, don't wear a lot of make-up, so when she arrived in Ireland she was learning to use a bit of make-up and I was learning from her. You buy clothes from the catalogue shops and then eventually you start going in."
The next stop was hormone treatment. "A lot depends on your body and how the hormones affect you. Some people would go on hormones and they can have very different effects," Louise explains. "A lot of it is genetic. You know, if your mother or your grandmother had a big bust, your chances of having a bust on hormones are enhanced. My mum had a very small bust, but my grandmother on my mother's side was big and these are all mine. I didn't have to have surgery or anything like that. I was pretty lucky, but I'd know other people on hormones and while the skin gets softer and you get a little bit of a female face, nothing else happens."
I wait to meet with Argentinian Ariel Silvera, 28, on Dublin's Mary's Street one cold afternoon. The place is buzzing with shoppers and as each even vaguely female individual approaches I attempt to make a man out of them. A square jaw here, a little facial hair there. I fail to pick out Ariel.
Ariel is nothing that I can categorise. She is feminine, but alternative-looking, a tad arty even. "In terms of my trans history, I came out as transgender a few years ago," she tells me a few minutes later over coffee.
"Around 2008, I was going out with somebody that identified very strongly as a feminist," Ariel explains. "I would have been male-identified at the time, and the first things that she noticed for me was that I acted very differently when I was around straight men. A lot of it had to do with the fact that I was trying to play a part and pretend to fit into this kind of aggressive, very macho thing that was very much not me."
Ariel began to research the transgender community. "The last piece of the puzzle for me was that I read a book by an American woman, Julia Serano, called Whipping Girl. She basically writes a sociological analysis of how trans women are seen in society, and also a history of the medical side of things. Julia Serano herself identifies as a butch lesbian. So I was like, 'Wow!' Because one of my big blocks was that I don't feel very feminine. I don't really fit in this, or at least not traditionally. This opened my mind a lot and I realised that, yes, I could be what I am now -- a queer, lesbian woman."
So has Ariel had a full sex-change procedure? "That is something that I find is very private," she replies softly. "I will tell you that I have been on hormone treatment because that is something that I felt I needed to do. Once all the theoretical stuff was sorted, this brought things back to my body and the final thing I realised, one of the biggest things I did was I had ignored my body for a long time. I would act like it wasn't there a lot of the time."
Ariel came out to her parents in 2008. "I didn't plan it, I didn't think about it," she explains, amused at the memory. "It sounds really weird, but at the time I could not conceive that anyone would see it as a bad thing. I thought it was a great thing. I thought, 'I am myself and I'm happier.'
"I just blurted it out one day and it didn't go down that well, but they clearly still loved me and so they started wanting to make sure to see me very often and to hang out with me so I would see that it was not a wholesome rejection of me as a person. It's taken them a few years to come around to it."
Ariel believes the revelation was made even more difficult for her parents to comprehend because she came out in her mid-20s, rather than her teens, a time when most transgendered people come out. "At the time I had a girlfriend that I lived with," she says. "I was doing the whole grown-up, heterosexual, male thing, and for them that made perfect sense."
The only people that Ariel is not out to are her grandparents back in Argentina. "Ever since I came out, I haven't been back to Argentina. My grandmother visited in May and I had to pretend to be male," she laughs. "It was certainly a very interesting experience. It was very annoying and the first day was kind of exciting. I do some performance and it felt like doing drag, only the other way. A friend of mine, who's a trans man, had a binder -- I don't know if you know about those? They're a very tight piece of clothing that trans guys use to bind their breasts so that it appears they have a flat chest. I borrowed that so that my grandmother wouldn't notice my breasts."
Ariel is very much a feminist, but would have considered herself as such even before her transition to female. As a result, she has quite an interesting view on sexism. "There are certainly a lot of things that become very noticeable when you transition from one gender to another," she explains, "You see that change in how people see you and how people treat you. A lot of the time when I identified as male, my word would not have been questioned, whereas now it's much more in question."
Ariel is quick to dispel common misconceptions about transgendered people. "For me it's very important to say that if you're a trans woman it doesn't mean that you are gay. It doesn't mean that you're anything in terms of your sexuality. If you are a metal-head kid who listens to heavy metal and plays video games, that doesn't mean that you're not a trans woman and it doesn't mean that if you come out as a trans woman you have to stop doing those things."
I ask if Ariel feels that some transgender people feel the need to over-compensate on a superficial level for not being born the gender they are, explaining how she did not seem to fit my own preconceived image of what a transgender woman would look like, in short, a drag queen.
"I think that is expected of trans people," Ariel says, and then she pauses for thought. "And it's a bit of a vicious circle, because it's something that sometimes we have to do because maybe we will be perceived as 'ridiculous women', but we will at least be perceived as women."
The Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) seeks to improve conditions and advance the rights and equality of transgender people and their families. For more information, see www.teni.ie