A riveting interview that shares the life experience of a queer transsexual Afro-Trinidadian.
Hi James*, can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a married, Afro-Trinidadian man in his 30s and lives on the east coast of the United States. I was born, bred and fed in Trinidad and Tobago and left at age 20 to study at the tertiary level. I have a doctorate and work full-time. Both of my parents are alive and well and are happily married. I have two siblings, both of whom no longer live in Trinidad. I am also a queer transsexual man. I use the word transsexual (as opposed to transgender) intentionally because it describes how I see myself; I am changing my sex characteristics and female aspects of my body. I am a man, regardless of what packaging I may or may not have. I identify as queer because I am attracted to all types of people, regardless of their gender identity.
How did you identify in your childhood/teenage years?
As a child, I didn’t think much about my gender or sexual identity. I was assigned female at birth so my family raised me as a girl. I didn’t have to question it much because I was a tomboy who was sometimes allowed to do whatever stereotypically boyish things I wanted (except when it came to formal events like church, family parties, etc. Had to rock a dress, ribbons, baubles, frilly socks and shiny shoes). I hated the name my parents gave me because I found it too “girly” and not reflective of how I saw myself.So, I made my friends call me “Sam” or “Alex;” those names followed me into secondary school and my best friend even used to buy me stickers with my preferred names. As I approached puberty, I had a more difficult time with my body and the changes I experienced. I think I started menstruating at age 10 but didn’t tell my mother (she found out two years later). I was angry and confused because I had to start wearing training bras and started getting puberty talks in school. This was when I had to confront my gender and “accept” that I was a girl. Everyone started having their primary school crushes and I was no different; my first crush was at 8 but I found myself attracted to an older girl who was one of the lead sopranos in my school’s choir. I knew that it was “wrong” to like another girl so I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I made up these imaginary boyfriends to fit in with my peers and convinced myself that because I spent so much time playing with this one boy, I must like him.
My teen years are mostly a blur but from what I remember, I really struggled. Everyone was growing out of their “tomboy” stage and my masculinity was becoming more pronounced and solidified. At 13, I came out as bisexual to my secondary school best friend (with whom I was madly in love) and really started to shy away from thinking of myself as a teenage girl. For some reason, being a teenage girl did not fit with my self-concept and I was having a hard time liking myself. I spent a lot of time in online chatrooms as an escape and found out about testosterone patches and their side effects (e.g., increased body & facial hair, increased muscle mass, deeper voice). Something clicked and I knew that that’s what I wanted my body to experience. For the first time, I felt like something made sense but there was no way I could explore this or access testosterone in Trinidad. So, I went through adolescence with the secret of being attracted to women, feeling less and less like a woman as I aged, and pretending to be feminine so people would stop treating me differently and teasing me. It wasn’t until I left secondary school that I embraced my masculinity and attraction to women. At that point, I was labelled a gay woman but that still did not feel right. I gave up on trying to make sense of my identity and spent a year of partying hard, drinking heavily, and smoking to numb my pain. I didn’t think about my gender when I was drunk so I just functioned like a machine.
What was it like growing up in Trinidad and Tobago?
I always think of growing up in Trinidad and Tobago as a love/hate story; the education I received was phenomenal and laid the foundation for me to thrive during my tertiary years. I enjoyed time spent with my family and friends, the cultural experiences of Christmas, Carnival, Easter and sometimes, the ritual of church (I was raised Roman Catholic). I was loved and respected because I was a solid student (when I wanted to be), a musician, a writer, a footballer, a cricketer. But I hated growing up there because I learned that there were aspects of who I was that were not accepted or celebrated. How could I love a country so much that didn’t fully love me back? It felt abusive and one-sided. I felt disingenuous living in Trinidad and felt like I was in a fog for most of it. I knew being a girl did not fit but there was no way I could question it, particularly when Trinidad was even more conservative when I lived there. Also, there was no language related to gender identity; you were either gay or straight. I grew up hearing anti-LGBTQ songs like “Boom bye bye” and “Bun out the chi chi,” listened to family members and friends ridicule gay people, and for years, I internalized those negative messages. I found myself disgusted and feeling unlovable throughout adolescence and my early 20’s because I was similar to those people they hated. I kept my mouth shut about my gender expression and decided that if I felt this tortured by age 25, I was going to kill myself.
Throughout school, I was teased by some of my peers for “acting like a boy.” I confided in one of my friends that I wanted to cut my hair and start openly “tracking girls.” When she threatened to tell my mother about my “nastiness,” I pretended that I was joking. After that experience, I created this person who would fit in with other girls. I had boyfriends who were more my friends rather than romantic partners. I would purposely dress in hyper-feminine ways but felt ugly and exposed whenever I did. When I completed secondary school and started working, some of my coworkers had the same reaction as my school friends; I wasn’t womanly enough and was “weird.” On the other hand, it was the first time that some of my male coworkers started treating me like one of the boys and that felt…natural. It was at this job that I had my first girlfriend. Our relationship was a secret to all but a handful of people who we told after being together for over a year. Even with the secrecy, I felt liberated because I was finally living part of my truth. But living your truth comes with a major price, which for me, was my extended family.
My family knew I dated women when I lived in Trinidad but no one talked about it; they just started treating and speaking to me differently. And I was okay with that because it made it easier to distance myself and feel less ashamed of who I was. While living in the US, I came out as a transsexual man and that caused major rupture in my family system. My parents accepted me as a person but they did not understand. My siblings were in disbelief and my brother said I would always be his sister. Those are the reactions that I was able to handle. My extended family’s vitriol, however, really cut me deep. My aunts, uncles and cousins verbally attacked me and said the most vile things about me, and my parents’ child-rearing; they told me that I was going to hell and that my parents should have beaten it out of me. They do not care about what I’ve accomplished over the years and I do feel sorry that they would never know how great of a person I am.
What were some of the challenges you faced while living in Trinidad and Tobago?
I truly struggled reconciling my religious beliefs with my understanding of my gender and sexual identity. I wanted to explore my identity but couldn’t because I learned that in my faith, acting on any sexual feelings toward someone of the same gender was sinful. But my challenges were not limited to sexual attraction; I was in a society that had no framework for transsexualism other than sex workers. I struggled with my appearance; what I wanted to wear, what I wanted my body to look like, the sound of my voice, my mannerisms…all of these contradicted the expectations family, friends and society had of me. The older I got, the more harassment and violence I experienced. I had people threaten to beat me up or offer to “show me how to be a woman.” I had police officers ridicule me as I was minding my business and walking through the street. One time, I went on a boat ride and they divided patrons into men and women. I went into the women’s line and had people loudly ask, “What that is? That look like a man. Wam to it boy?” I had security guards not want to touch me or let me into venues because of my appearance. I frequently went to well-known gay club in Woodbrook and one night, we had the pleasure of people throwing bottles into the venue and screaming homophobic epithets. People hated me for assuming I was gay but I knew they would hate me more if I told them I was a boy. When I left the country at 20, I felt broken. I am fortunate that I have never experienced serious physical violence due to my gender expression; trans women in the Caribbean are not that lucky.
Did you find it difficult accessing healthcare while in Trinidad?
Yes and no. I did not medically transition until I left Trinidad therefore, I have no experience with healthcare in Trinidad. However, I was sexually involved with women when I lived there and never once disclosed my sexual history to my doctor (who had been my physician all my life). I lied and said I was not sexually active because I could not deal with the stigma of being a woman who slept with women. My first girlfriend encouraged me to go to a particular gynecologist, as she knew him to be open-minded. When discussing sexual history, I disclosed that I had sex with women and he automatically said, “Oh. So you’re a lesbian?” I replied, “I didn’t say that. I said I have sex with women.” Again, I did not have the language to say “I’m a transsexual man” but to me, the distinction made sense.
How has your identity, sexual orientation and sexual expression changed or progressed through your adult-life?
The biggest change was not feeling like I have to play pretend any more. I lived two lives for a long time; there was the side of me that was the tomboy who lied to family and friends about not wanting to date because I was so focused on school. Then the other side of me was the Trini living in America who dated women, wore whatever I wanted, and started to do research on gender identity. This back and forth became exhausting and painful because it felt like constantly putting on a mask. I was miserable and immersed myself in my studies. I figured if I were the best student, when people eventually found out that I was a transsexual man, they wouldn’t care because the content of my character would be established by my academic and professional successes. After coming out to my extended family and being rejected by most of them, I realize how faulty that line of thinking is.
I am still attracted to women (and married to one!) but I no longer feel ashamed to admit that I also find men attractive. For me, asserting my manhood meant adopting really toxic aspects of masculinity, like internalized homophobia. “Real men can’t like men” or “Real men like sports.” Well, I am a real man who likes men and most sports are still boring to me. My version of manhood is not based in this stereotypical hyper-masculine trope often seen in Caribbean men and I’m okay with that.
How has your access to healthcare changed since living in the USA?
The only reason I have been able to medically transition (i.e., be on hormones, have gender affirmation surgery) is because I left Trinidad. Being in the US has helped me obtain resources that were not available to me when living in Trinidad. From what I gather, more people are aware that trans people exist in the Caribbean but they mistakenly think it’s the same thing as being gay so there are no health initiatives for people like me. Hormones and surgery are medically necessary for trans people and should be something that is incorporated in health care.
What are some of the changes you wish to see regarding the accessibility to healthcare for transgender men and women in the Caribbean?
First off, I want there to be a campaign to explain the difference between the LGB and T in the acronym. Trans people are not some hybrid or morphed form of gay and our medical issues are different. I want medical professionals to receive training to increase their awareness and enhance cultural competence, while learning how to keep their religious and moral beliefs out of their clinical practice. I want medical professionals to receive training on evidence-based practices with the trans population (e.g., hormone replacement therapy) and I want to see initiatives that create safe spaces for trans people. Look at what is happening in Jamaica with the trans women who are forced to live in the gullies and can only engage in sex work to survive. We are quick to mistreat our own countrymen who do not fit in these restrictive categories.
What advice would you give to transgender men and women living in the Caribbean?
Most people may not understand what it means to be trans but that does not mean your existence is any less valid. Find at least one ally who may not understand what being trans is but still sees and honours your humanity.
Live in your affirmed gender but be safe and strategic.
Always remember your value; no matter what external voices say, you know who you are. Do not let other people try to convince you otherwise.
Being trans isn’t “abnormal;” it is simply less common. Uncommon things are not automatically bad. Embrace your difference.
*Name changed upon request.