ife at university is a transformative experience for many, with the liberal attitude towards all walks of life allowing the time and space for self-expression. Those who had found themselves in an environment in which coming out was impossible have a safe arena in which they can self-define as they choose, and an increasing number of York students are self-defining as either transmen or transwomen.
Though in previous years those who changed their gender identity were isolated, the thrust of transgender rights at York has gained considerable weight. For the confused or anxious there are substantial sources of support both in terms of medical and psychological professionals and the stories and experiences of fellow students. Oliver Pendrick, a student here and until recently Trans Affairs rep within YUSU LGBTI, stated: “In the few months I was in the role lots of people came out to me [as trans]”. By contrast, the real world erects considerable obstacles for the transgender community – from the process by which gender is officially reassigned, to the social difficulties that transgender status unfortunately presents.
Oliver, who self-defines as a transman, spoke about his personal process of change: “It was a gradual thing. I defined as gender queer for a while, but I realised that I was only defining as gender queer because I thought that I couldn’t be a gay or bisexual trans man because that was too peculiar. I thought I must be gender queer.” He felt that life as a woman seemed strange and somehow distant from his own perception of himself. “Something seemed strange for a very long time, but I really wasn’t aware of what it was. It was only when I came across the experiences of other trans people that I thought ‘Oh, that’s me!’”
Female-to-male gender transition can be mirrored by physical, surgical change, but the medical endeavours are, as one would expect, highly invasive, with permission from a gender identity clinic difficult to obtain. Lifelong hormone replacement therapy complements a series of operations in order for a transman to achieve a realistic physical resemblance to their chosen gender, something which is much more of a possibility for transmen than transwomen. Injections of testosterone allow for a deeper register, more prominent facial and body hair and, eventually, irreversible infertility. Body fat is moved from the thighs to the abdominal area and a double mastectomy, with the nipples and skin rendered more gender-appropriate, is performed. Given that these operations are generally thought sufficient for living day-to-day life as a man convincingly, many transmen stop the cycle of operations and HRT here. If genital reconstruction is desired, however, there are two options. The clitoris can be made to look like a small penis, or, through a phalloplasty, considerable skin grafts can be performed to produce a more normal-sized penis.
Having these operations performed, however, is made difficult by some cynicism from medical professionals. Counselling and referrals to gender identity clinics precede expensive operations. Oliver said that at the time, “I had a counsellor for completely different issues. I was receiving counselling for autism so she was helping me navigate the social world anyway, and it was actually only a long time after I came out as trans that I told her. I didn’t feel she could help me with it. I would very much like to go through at least part of the physical process but that would require going to a gender identity clinic and judging by other people’s experiences. A transwoman I know had to act like a very stereotypical trans woman, like 1950s housewife, and I’m not sure I could pull it off, going in there and saying ‘I like football more than anything.’”
Oliver considers such psychological profiling to be deeply unfair, and not reflective of the fact that issues surrounding gender are deeply personal: “They expect far more stereotypes from trans people than they would of other people. Just because I would like to change my sex doesn’t mean that I would like to act as the stereotypical man.” The expense of the procedures is also prohibitive.” Oliver adds: “I think that the operations definitely should be free because where can the average person get several thousand pounds? I personally have good days and bad days where I feel I’m okay being physically female if I don’t look in the mirror too much. But for those people that are really desperate, you shouldn’t have to jump through those hoops.” Oliver maintains that “For a lot of people it’s not the support from officials, medical professionals and counsellors that they need, it’s just the knowledge that there are other trans people there and that they don’t fit a certain mould.”
Given that Oliver has not undergone physical therapy, I ask whether simply self-defining as a transman is a valid ideology: “I would say yes because it seems to follow logic that there can be a variety of genders in the mind just as there can be a variety of sexes of the body, because there are lots of people with sex conditions.” I ask what self-imposed changes Oliver has made since defining himelf as a man, to which he replies “I don’t think I’ve changed the way I’ve acted at all. I’m autistic so I would have a problem copying the social actions of other people anyway. I just feel as if I’ve become myself really.”
Oliver’s experiences as a transman have been, in the scheme of the social reaction to transgender people, very lucky. “My experience is not representative of the rest of the trans people out there. I know people who have been kicked out of their homes, who no longer have friends or family whereas that was not the case with my partner. I was worrying about what to say, how to come out as a transman, and thinking he was definitely going to leave me because. However, when I told him he came out as bisexual, and it was easily resolved!”
Oliver married his partner, but was unable to get a civil partnership and so is officially married as a woman: “They said because I was physically female I couldn’t. In the end I wanted whatever ceremony was available to me. When we were told we couldn’t have a civil partnership we reacted by having a traditional wedding. But I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all because everybody else there knew I was trans.
Both the physical and mental anxiety associated with gender transition mean that it is seen as a socially and psychologically precarious state. Oliver says that it’s the duty of all transgender people with a voice to be active about their rights and beliefs. “Trans people have got to fight for themselves especially trans women, because nobody is going to do it for them, nobody is going to give them anything. Male to female women get the worst of everything. It was the trans day of remembrance this week [November 20th] and if you look at the list of people that were murdered they’re nearly all transwomen. But that could be because trans men, after they’ve had all the physical therapy look indistinguishable from other men. A lot of other gay and bisexual transmen say that they would rather live their lives as a man, but remain as women to avoid homophobia. ” Self-defining as trans is not an easy option out of gender confusion, but an intensely personal decision often rendered harder by ingrained scepticism about its validity.
If you are affected by any of these issues, contact [email protected]