She was born a boy but knows her TRUE GENDER IS FEMALE. One woman shares the heart-wrenching story of HER DOUBLE LIFE. Her family and work colleagues know her only as a man, but as far as she’s concerned, SHE’S ALL WOMAN
My earliest memory is playing at the feet of my aunt. I was about two at the time, and I distinctly remember her shoes – they were red pumps. Gorgeous. I’m from deepest rural Ireland. My parents were so religious I always joke that in our family we rebelled by going to mass only once a week. There’s just eleven months between my younger sister and I so we’ve always been close. My other sister is three years older, and I have a very vivid memory of being jealous of her Communion dress. I wanted to wear it. I suppose I would have been about four then. As far as my family are concerned, I’m a man. They have no idea I live most of my life as a woman.
Even as a young child, I was acutely aware that wanting to be one of the girls was wrong. I remember being taken away from my sisters and sent to work outside with my dad. They wanted to make a man of me. In school, I excelled academically and was always top of the class. That isolated me from my peers. But my background is poor and my mother was adamant that we would all get a good education so we could leave and go to college. She always nurtured my more refined side – she loved that I liked books and reading, drawing and art, over more boisterous activities. She tried to steer me towards the priesthood. That was the traditional refuge for people like me, wasn’t it? But I knew I didn’t want to join a seminary. I remember loving the cartoon The Care Bears, and being so proud to have them on my pens and stationery. It caused much consternation in the classroom – Care Bears were for girls, you see. So I learned to only use them at home. I collected fancy paper too, but I did it by proxy with my sister and her friends. It had to be secret.
Secondary school was a very lonely time for me. The other boys used to ogle girls, but I just wanted to be one. I was hassled for being a swot and I was considered a hillbilly too. I wasn’t so much bullied as excluded. I never went to teen discos or did any socialising. I never had any relationships at all. That’s when the experimenting with girls’ clothes started in earnest. When I was home alone, I would wear an old school skirt, that had supposedly been thrown out, and do my homework. I felt so much more comfortable and I fantasised about wearing it in public. On one occasion, when I was about eleven, my younger sister got a new dress. I was trying it on when the family car pulled up outside. They’d arrived home early. I didn’t have time to put it back exactly how I’d found it, so I pulled it off and just threw it in a corner, hoping that I’d get an opportunity to fix it later. Unfortunately, I never got the chance. My sister blamed our other sister for wearing it. They had a blazing row over that dress for three days, but luckily I was never found out.
I joined the musical society so I could dress up and wear make-up. We did a performance of Oklahoma once and I was so jealous of the girls who got to wear dresses and fishnet tights. My costume was dungarees, a check shirt and a straw hat. Everyone knew that I was a little bit different, maybe even more than I did.
As a teenager I felt lonely and isolated. Then there was the self-loathing, depression and suicidal thoughts. It’s even a question I still have: Do normal people consider suicide at times? I joined the musical society so I could dress up and wear make-up. We did a performance of Oklahoma once and I was so jealous of the girls who got to wear dresses and fishnet tights. My costume was dungarees, a check shirt and a straw hat. Everyone knew that I was a little bit different, maybe even more than I did. There were phases when I’d think, “Okay, I need to knock this on the head, I need to accept that I’m a boy”. My religious background meant I frequently worried that the devil was inhabiting me. But I wanted to be a girl so badly. The first I ever heard of anyone being transgender was in an article I saw by chance in one of my mother’s magazines. It blew my mind. I tore it out and kept it hidden in my room.
I went on to college to study science and it was a shock to meet people there who were actually nice to me. I lived in digs in First Year but for subsequent years I moved in with a group of guys I was friendly with. I took on the matriarch role in the house, always cleaning and bugging them about washing up. But it was fun – I finally had a social life and it felt good. It was around then that the internet became accessible and really changed everything for me. I discovered a website for transgender fiction and used to read it for hours every night. There were chatrooms too, which was the start of my female cyber existence. When creating a profile, I could tick the female box and suddenly people were treating me like a girl. It was fantastic. I didn’t seek out other transgender people, I just wanted to express my inner identity and finally talk about the things I wanted to talk about.
At that time, I was still living for the most part as a man, apart from when I was alone in my room. Then I released my female self. A few years later, when the lease on the house was up, I took a chance and posted an ad online as my female alterego to see if anyone would be open to having a transgender housemate. I envisioned a fresh start but never in my wildest dreams did I think that anyone would respond and be okay with it, but someone did. She told me that at least she knew what my deal was up front. I ended up living there for several years, as a woman, only reverting to male when I went to work or to visit my family. That housemate became a close friend and was even with me when I went shopping en femme for my first bra. That’s a huge milestone for a trans woman, and it felt so liberating. The other big one is the first time you walk up Grafton Street in a dress, but I was sneaky and did it on the day of the Women’s Mini Marathon when no one would bat an eyelid. I was even able to go get my make-up done too. I raised over €1,000 for charity, though I think I benefited more than anyone.
The first time you get referred to as your true gender by a stranger feels amazing. Just being told, “This way, ladies” at a concert or being called “Miss” in a shop. Silly little things, but they mean so much.
There’s a lot of confusion about transgender women, cross-dressers and drag queens. Drag queens are normally gay men who are doing performance art dressed as women. But they don’t identify as women – they’re happy being gay men and they don’t want to transition. Cross-dressers generally do it for sexual kinks. I am a transgender woman. Even though I was born a boy, I feel like my true gender identity is female. I want to be perceived as female and interact with people as female. The first time you get referred to as your true gender by a stranger feels amazing. Just being told, “This way, ladies” at a concert or being called “Miss” in a shop. Silly little things, but they mean so much.
I can’t bring myself to come out to my family as a woman because, when that’s done, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Many trans women are abandoned by their families. A shocking statistic I read recently is that I’m already beyond the average age of lifespan of a trans woman in America, which is 32. There’s so much violence against us, not to mention drug abuse and depression – the suicide rate is sky high. And lots of trans women end up in the sex trade, so incidents of HIV are common. The same-sex marriage referendum is definitely a step in the right direction for the LGBT community, but I hope we don’t get left behind.
Sometimes I suspect my little sister knows about my female identity. There was a packet of underwear when we were kids that never got worn, apart from when I tried them on in secret. She never took the tags off and I often wonder if they were left there for me. I don’t think I could ask her though, not when my dad is still around. He and I have a good relationship but there’s definitely some distance there. I feel like I’m a disappointment to him. He can do everything – building, carpentry and all that macho stuff. I never had any interest in it and still don’t. My mother died 15 years ago from breast cancer.
It’s hard to build real relationships when you’re living a double life. You can never be wholly honest with people. I’m a man in the office, so if I meet somebody there, I have to persist with that side of myself. I’ve sat in the canteen in work listening to colleagues mock a trans person and have had to bite my lip.
Making friends as my female self is great, but I’ve had people take advantage of me too. I bought tickets to a Lady Gaga concert a few years ago for a girl I met online, and she was supposed to reciprocate by buying us tickets for another concert. Half an hour before the gig was due to start she texted me to say she hadn’t bought them. Similar things happened another couple of times with the same girl, but when it comes to friends, beggars can’t be choosers. It’s hard to build real relationships when you’re living a double life. You can never be wholly honest with people. I’m a man in the office, so if I meet somebody there, I have to persist with that side of myself. You can’t really change at a later stage because the whole relationship would have been a lie. I’ve sat in the canteen in work listening to colleagues mock a trans person and have had to bite my lip.
I read an article online recently about Bruce Jenner’s transition, which has been all over the media, and made the mistake of scanning the comments. People were calling him “it”, which is so offensive. “It” literally means you are not a human, you are sub-human. I’m a member of a popular dating site, not that I have ever gone on any dates, and “it” is the first insult I always get. One thing that shocked me about the site is the amount of straight men who obviously fantasise about being with a transgender woman. Barely a Friday goes by that I don’t get a married man asking me to meet up for “no strings attached fun”. They seem to think that I’m some sort of nymphomaniac who uses my persona to attract men. The reality is I’m an uptight virgin. I’ve never even kissed anyone. And I have no desire to be the other woman.
Having felt so isolated for much of my life, it’s great that trans people are becoming more visible in society, thanks to television shows like Transparent and Orange is the New Black. But transphobia is everywhere. In one night’s viewing, there was a trans joke in whatever comedy show I was watching and another one in the ad break straight afterwards. Most people don’t even notice them, but I do, and they all add up. When people ask me if I’ve considered gender affirmation surgery I always think, “Yeah, just daily”. But I’m a scaredy cat. The thought of it terrifies me, and it costs a lot – around €10,000 if you go to Thailand. I certainly don’t think I could do it while my dad is still alive. I don’t have enough genuine friends to create the support system I’d need afterwards either. The reality is that the vast majority of trans women who have the surgery end up unemployable, even if their workplace accepts it. They often leave because they want a clean break. And the Gender Recognition Bill hasn’t gone through here so then their qualifications are all under a different name.
They say you have to love yourself before someone else can love you and I don’t think I’m there yet. I can’t imagine ever having a family, but I’m hopeful that trans women in the future could. The naysayer in my head doubts it though. This is still Ireland, after all.
I think I’ve ruled out settling down with a partner in the future. Because I come from such a conservative background, I don’t think I’d be compatible with someone who’d be open enough to date a trans woman. It’s a small enough pool to begin with, and that reduces it further. I spent so long suppressing my feelings that it’s hard to even know who I’m attracted to. Sexuality and gender identity are two different things. Sometimes I feel like a pre-pubescent girl waiting for a proper burst of hormones to kick in, but of course that’s not going to happen. They say you have to love yourself before someone else can love you and I don’t think I’m there yet. I can’t imagine ever having a family, but I’m hopeful that trans women in the future could. The naysayer in my head doubts it though. This is still Ireland, after all.
In conversation with Sarah Breen.
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