Thursday 14 December 2017

'People from my past sometimes don't recognise me and I find that difficult'- young transgender man shares his experience

Alex Lawson (21) began his transition three years ago,
Alex Lawson (21) began his transition three years ago,

Rebecca Lumley

A young transgender man has revealed some of the "little things" that make up the daunting emotional journey of gender transition.

Alex Lawson (21) began his transition three years ago, after feeling a "sense of discordance" in his body for as long as he can remember.

While people have become more open about sharing their experiences, Alex said there are many aspects of transition that one cannot foresee before experiencing it.

Speaking to Independent.ie, Alex said he sometimes feels a disconnect with his past.

"I still try to acknowledge my past as much as I can and to appreciate the things that I got from my past. It’s not just that once I was a girl and now I’m a boy, it’s more I was trapped for a long time and it was difficult, and then I came out," he said.

"There’s lots of little things that people wouldn’t think about. If I see someone I went to primary school with, I don’t get that little nod of acknowledgement or that little hello because they don’t recognise me. So I’ve lost a whole section of my past and I found that very difficult."

While unforeseen feelings of loss can prove challenging, Alex says guidance from a professional can make all the difference.

Having reached a breaking point in his life before he came out as transgender, Alex was admitted to hospital with mental health difficulties.

He said: "Things got very tough for me, having this all internalised so I got into a very bad place mentally and I ended up in emergency referral to the mental health service."

Despite facing a fear of rejection, Alex confided in his occupational therapist while in hospital. He was the first person Alex, then 18, had told about wanting to transition.

While he revealed his feelings to his best friend a short time after, it took longer to broach the subject with his family.

Having grown up in a devout Catholic household, where "John Paul II was still taped up in the kitchen", Alex feared that he would not be accepted.

He wrote his parents a letter and read it to his parents separately.

He recounted: "I was gone out in the car with my mam for a drive and we parked in a carpark. The rain was pouring down and it created a really nice ambiance, for want of a better word. And I took out the letter from my pocket and I read it out loud to my mam. So that’s how I came out to her. 

"I didn’t want to be staring at her when she read the letter so I figured that it would make sense if I read it to her, and I did the same thing with my dad later on. I invited him into my bedroom and we sat on the bed and I read out this letter to him."

Alex says his mother was relieved by the admission, as she now understood what had been the root of his mental health difficulties. He says the support of his local priest was also a huge step in normalising the news for his parents.

He said: "The priest knew me quite well and he was quite accepting of me, so that made it an awful lot easier for my parents to accept me.

"The power of an authority figure like that in my parents’ life accepting me. He really set a brilliant example and I think if he hadn’t been accepting of me there would have been a true quandary, a true moment of ‘what do we do from here?’"

Three years on, Alex is "legally and socially" transitioned, having changed his name and gender on all relevant documents. He takes the male hormone testosterone, which has made 'a huge difference' to his life.

"It made it so much easier to handle day to day stuff. Like, you wouldn’t have caught me on the phone a few years back because I wouldn’t feel confident with my voice, and that’s a huge thing," he said.

Having lived as both a man and a woman in his young life, Alex feels that he has experienced both sides of the coin. As a feminist, he says there are differences in the way he is regarded now.

He said: "I have many of the same opinions now as when people used to perceive me as female but now people will listen to them, whereas before they didn’t.

"I think trans people have such a huge window into what the world is actually like because you’ve experienced two different ways of being perceived. It’s small stuff, it’s small vague stuff that you can’t pin down. It’s all sorts of little tiny things. It’s the fact that when I walk through a crowded street, people part for me instead of having to squish in between little gaps here and there. It’s lots of little things."

While Alex says he feels lucky in the support he has received, the future was not painted as a hopeful place in the lead up to transition.

When he grappled with issues of self-identity, he was left without positive transgender role-models to look towards.

He said: "I felt very alone for a long time and at some point decided I was going to look up films about trans people. Even if they’re fictional, I’ll be able to see characters with their own stories. It’ll make me feel a little less alone. So I went on to streaming sites and I looked up trans character films.

"I didn’t see a single film where the trans character didn’t either die through murder or suicide or have some form of sexual abuse. Not one."

"It is still very hard to envision a future for yourself when so much of the media just says you die or you’re miserable and that’s what makes you trans. Whereas being trans is not being miserable, it’s just that you’re assigned something that you’re not. It’s quite simple and straightforward.

"You don’t have to be miserable to be trans, in fact very many of us aren’t miserable at all. You just have that one aspect of life that’s a difficulty but you get through it and you’re a whole person outside of that."

Now a voluntary member of the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), Alex is calling for better media representation of transgender people and the provision of positive role models for trans youth. Like many in the trans community, Alex has foregone privacy to share his story and provide hope to others.

He said: "I think something that drives a lot of us is the idea that we can be for others, what we never had. In the trans community especially there’s a huge sense of responsibility that if things are going ok for you, to be there for other people. I don’t think that’s isolated with regards the trans community but I think it is very prevalent in the community.

"That’s why you do get involved, that’s why you do interviews, that’s why you do share your story. I’m naturally a very private person, I don’t want to be going telling everyone intimate details about my life, quite personal stuff, but I do it because I think do you know that, if this means in 20 years time I wouldn’t have to do it because it’s so normal, then it’s worth it."

"I think that really speaks to the level of hope and willingness that the trans community has, to try and engage with the broader community and try and integrate into society and be accepted."

Alex recommends counselling as a way of dealing with the challenges of transition, but advises that while it was beneficial to him, it is not a one-size fits all solution.

There are also a number of online resources available, including the website GenderEd, which Alex recommends for parents of transgender people.

If you are affected by issues raised in this article or would like to learn more about trans issues, you can access the following resources.

www.gendered.ie

www.teni.ie

www.belongto.org

http://transcendireland.myfreeforum.org/resources.html

Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)

Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org

Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)

Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)

Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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