8 May 2014

Questioning gender and identity

8:25 am on 8 May 2014

Girls are girls and boys are boys. Girls usually like boys and boys are usually into girls, but some girls like girls, and some boys like boys. Sometimes, girls and boys like both. These girls and boys, we’ve got names for: lesbian, gay, bi-sexual.

But what if you’re a girl who isn’t really a girl and feels more like a boy? Someone who definitely likes girls, but doesn’t know if that makes her lesbian or straight, because she doesn’t identify as either a girl or a boy? Who are you then?

Sebastian Maddox was born female, but found expressing femininity uncomfortable, even from a young age.

Sebastian Maddox was born female, but found expressing femininity uncomfortable, even from a young age. Photo: Diego Opatowski

These confusing questions are common for many young transgender people. It’s not just LGBT anymore; the acronym can expand to as much as LGBPTTQQIIAA to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, intergender, asexual, and ally, and even that’s not exhaustive. It’s bloody confusing for people who’ve never come across those terms before, and even for those who have.

“For a long time, even still, I have remnants of ‘I’m not really good at what I’m supposed to be’,” says Sebastian, 21, of Wellington. “It’s something I think a lot about. I’m still working out the language and the implications of it all.”

Sebastian was born female, but found expressing femininity uncomfortable, even from a young age. Trying to figure out what that pull of masculinity meant was hard; being a tomboy made it easier to fit in. It wasn’t until Sebastian came across the term ‘gender-queer’ on Tumblr at the age of 16 that they started to better understand the labels and language that helped define what they were feeling (‘they’ is Sebastian’s preferred pronoun).

“Gender-queer is a catch-all term for people who don’t fit into or reject the gender binary. I still identify as that now. A few years later, I identified more as trans-masculine. I’m not a trans-man, like a binary trans person. But I am transgender and I am trans-masculine and gender-queer. Before I worked that all out, I was just an anomaly. I felt like I was a failure of a woman, and I just continued existing as a tomboy. I didn’t talk about my confusion with anyone.”

That initial online discovery led to finding a group of people with similar experiences, something Sebastian is ultimately glad and grateful for. But outside of that community, they say there’s very little understanding and support.

“I came out to my family mid-last year about it all. My mum has found it pretty difficult, mostly because she doesn’t understand. She wants to support me and for me to be happy, but she’s just really confused. My brother reacted really well and he’s been really supportive, but my other siblings have said they need a little bit of time to get used to it. I’m totally fine with that, because it is a big confusing thing if it’s not something you’re directly involved with.

Sebastian has visited an endocrinologist (a hormones specialist) and went on a hormone-therapy course for a while, but took a break “to figure things out”. They’ve got a bit of peach fuzz (“but it could always use improving”), but hope their voice will drop and they’ll gain some muscle mass: “I’m being read as a young boy, which I don’t really like because I’m 21!”

But fully transitioning to a man would bring about a type of social power they’re not ready for, Sebastian says. “I don’t like being read as a woman, but then I get really worried if that makes me a misogynist. I have a lot of feelings about patriarchal masculinity, and by working to be seen as masculine, by doing that I’m gaining a social power that’s at the expense of women and femininity, and it’s really difficult to reconcile.”

I have a lot of feelings about patriarchal masculinity, and by working to be seen as masculine, by doing that I’m gaining a social power that’s at the expense of women and femininity and it’s really difficult to reconcile.

Sebastian spends a lot of talking and writing about those issues, and also helps to facilitate TransForm, a support group for transgender young people in Wellington. Sebastian’s advice to them is to do as much research, and find out as much information, as they possibly can to work out how they feel.

“If you can, access support services; the internet is a great resource. What worked for me was finding and learning as much as I could. Finding other trans people to talk and be friends with is really important as well, because it would be pretty lonely on your own. The most important thing is to be absolutely sure in what you want and what the impacts are going to be, and to be prepared to deal with that. Do whatever you can to do, and be, what you want.”

That access to supportive friends and people to talk to is what’s spurred 19-year-old Graeson (last name ommitted) into action. She’s just been referred by a doctor for a psychiatric evaluation as part of the ‘next step’ in transitioning from a man to a woman.

“I recently told my flatmate and my best friend about my decision, and they were both completely accepting of it. One of them recently went into the Army and told me not to really do anything major until he gets back, because he’s so supporting of me that he wants to go to all of the meetings with me. He’s truly my best friend.”

Coming out to her family was harder, she says. “It was extremely frightening and extremely stressful. My mum took a few minutes to process it but she’s okay with it now. When she told my dad, his response was ‘well, there’s not a boring moment going on in this family’. I didn’t sleep for five days thinking about what my dad would think and say. I didn’t want to be rejected from my dad’s side of the family because they’re kind of closed-minded. It would hurt me if they rejected me, but I don’t think it would change my mind. This is who I am. If they don’t really like it, then they’re going to have to keep on not liking it.”

Graeson’s been preparing for this moment for a long time. In recent months she’s secretly gone through a change of wardrobe and is now comfortable expressing herself as transgender in public. She’s also done a ton of research about what comes next.

“They do this whole psychological process to make sure that (transitioning and surgery) is definitely what you want and that you’re not going to regret it,” says Graeson. “Then I’ll get estrogen to help the breasts grow and stop the facial hair. Once the breasts get to a suitable size, that’s when you go and get surgery.”

She wants that surgery to become female “everywhere, top and bottom”. Graeson says the doctor told her it’s mostly publicly funded, but even if she’d have to stump up money for the change “it’s not going to be a barrier, because I will do everything I can to get to the way I feel.”

CORRECTION: We originally had the incorrect pronouns in this story for Graeson. The story has been updated, and we regret the error. 


Rainbow Wellington: http://www.rainbowwellington.org.nz/

Rainbow Youth: http://www.rainbowyouth.org.nz/

School’s Out: http://schoolsout.org.nz/

Gender Bridge: www.genderbridge.org

Health West: www.healthwest.co.nz

Outline – 0800 OUTLINE or www.outline.org.nz

Curious: www.curious.org.nz

Gender Reassignment Health Services for Trans People within New Zealand (PDF)