Published 17/04/2010 | 05:00
Mark (not his real name) has a favourite photo of himself from his childhood days. He's wearing a tracksuit with a picture of Donald Duck on it. "It looks just like a little boy," he says. "There isn't a hint of a little girl there. And it's me."
But Mark, a 22-year-old student at a Dublin university, was born biologically female. He's a transgender man who began hormone treatment and started to live full-time as male when he started college.
Brought up in Eastern Europe, Mark is funny and self-aware, with a warm smile that belies the difficult time he's had in recent years.
As a child he never felt particularly girly, so when puberty hit he was horrified. He felt like a boy, but his body didn't match. "Everybody was changing, but I was changing in a way that I didn't want to."
In his conservative home country, he'd never heard of transgender people, and it wasn't until his family moved to Ireland when he was 16 that he discovered there was a word to describe how he felt.
Mark is very glad that he came to Ireland, not least because of the access to information and treatment.
But although he made friends, he found school here difficult. For the first time he had to attend an all-girls school and wear a uniform -- including a skirt.
He told his parents that he wanted to live as a man just before his Leaving Cert. "Which turned out to be not such a good idea," he says dryly. "They didn't respond very well at all. My mother said that if I decided to go with this I wouldn't be welcome in the house. I tried to explain it but they wanted to have none of it."
And so he moved out for a while. But his parents missed him so much they asked him to return. "I said I'd move back if they tried to accept me for who I am. And now, well, they're still trying!"
Do they refer to him as their son or their daughter? "They refer to me as 'my child'," he says. "But as long as I'm still their child ... "
Things have, he says, improved over the past few years. He performed so well in his Leaving that he was awarded a university scholarship, and being able to start college as a man made him "incredibly happy".
There's still a lot of paperwork to sort out in order to get his identity officially recognised, but he's doing well at college, where very few of his friends know that he was brought up as a girl -- to them, he's just another bloke.
And as for his parents? Well, it's getting better, but it's not perfect. "They're still of the opinion that their child has died," he says.
"But it's still me." He laughs. "Who else could I be?"