Trans Profile – Ashley

We have a chat with Ashley. Jamaican. Transgender woman. Fashionista

Hi Ashley can you tell us a little about yourself? 

Here are 5 words that best describe who I am: Brave. Positive. Fashionista. Fun. Loving

How did you identify in your childhood/teenage years and what were some of the challenges you faced with your gender identity throughout your youth?

As a child growing up I always felt like a girl. I was always uncomfortable to do boy stuff but as I grow older I realize I am definitely a girl on the inside. Everything I do is natural. I was born this way. 

How has your identity, sexual orientation and gender expression changed or progressed through your adult-life?

Nothing much has changed as it relates to my gender identity and sexual orientation. I am more confident within myself and the decisions I made are truly how I feel in my heart. 

What is it like to identify as a transgender woman, living and working in Jamaica? What are some of the challenges you face?

 It’s very difficult because contrary to popular belief, trans women are not sex objects and prostitutes. This is not true. The opportunities are very limited. This is my life and I’m 100% responsible for every decision I make so I have to do whatever it takes to survive without selling my body. No judgment to those who choose that path though.

Tell us about your blog and your professional journey? (Check out her blog here)

I’ve always loveeeeeed fashion and dressing up growing up and because I never got to graduate from high school to become an accountant as planned. My love for fashion never dies so I decided to start a fashion blog in late 2011. With me being consistent with my blog it has given me alottt of opportunities some of which I capitalize from. I just want to keep on striving and dream big no matter what challenges or obstacles I may face ahead in life. 

Do you have a support network? What are some of the resources that help you navigate life in Jamaica as a transgender woman?

 My ONLY support is me, myself and God. No one gives me anything. Everything I achieve thus far is me believing in myself and go out there and making a way. 

What are some of the changes you wish to see regarding the accessibility to healthcare for transgender men and women in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean?

One of the most important changes is I would love to see is for trans women to be able to get hormone treatment here because as it is right now I don’t know of anyone or doctor that does that kind a treatments in Jamaica. 

Do you face any other challenges you wish to discuss further?

I don’t really face any other challenges and I’m thankful. I get criticism everyday when I’m going about my daily business. It’s my normal now because I’m grown and I have a strong unaffected spirit. 

What advice would you give to transgender men and women living Jamaica and the wider Caribbean?

Stay in school. Get an education. Believe in yourself. Don’t worry too much over people’s words. It’s powerless and does not matter. 

 

TRANS PROFILE – FJ (Part 2)

This is the final part of the series on FJ. Part 2 features a discussion on his identity as a transgender man, some of the challenges he faces and some of the changes he wishes to see. (First part of profile.)

What is it like to identify as a transgender man, living and working in Jamaica? What are some of the challenges you face?

I was fortunate enough to be in the minority of college graduates who acquired a job within a year of completing their studies. That doesn’t mean however, that I landed a job as soon as I began looking. In fact, that’s quite far from the truth. I had been interviewed countless times for jobs I was qualified for and more than competent to perform, but had been denied because of my gender expression.

In Jamaica, being gender non-conformist in your gender expression automatically brands you as gay or lesbian. As such you are discriminated against in the slightest or most egregious of ways. So given that I was designated female at birth, my masculine presentation worked against me in some of these instances.

You can identify such occurrences because from the moment you step into the establishment you see the reactions on their faces. You feel the stares and become aware of the faint whispers and hushed tones amongst members of staff. The interview commences. Questions are asked and you respond, but they’re not listening; not really.  I have only been on one interview during which I felt that the interviewer was genuinely interested in getting to know me and actually listening, not just hearing, to my responses. Not surprisingly, I currently work for him.

My work environment is special. The culture at the company is familial. Everyone supports each other, not only career-wise, but in their personal lives as well. They attend family gatherings such as funerals, weddings and even christenings. But despite such a congenial atmosphere, there are times when I experience homophobia. I would call it transphobia, but their motivations lie in their perception of my sexual orientation and not my gender identity.

When I first began, it was worse than it is now; especially from other persons who worked in the building that my company shares. To be fair, they were rather “polite” about it, as very few were bold enough to question my choice in attire or my perceived sexual orientation. Now they have more or less gotten used to me, but I still get the occasional quip or inappropriate look.

I’m eternally grateful for the existence of a gender neutral bathroom. You can only imagine the reactions I received from the women while attempting to conform to convention and use the bathroom that coincided with my body parts. The discomfort was too much for me to bear. I gave up on trying to appear normal, which in turn resulted in a more comfortable situation for everyone else. I always go to the men’s room in other public spaces though.

Being constantly misgendered is something I’m building my tolerance to; just as I am with the crude street harassment to which I am constantly being subjected. Some of my coworkers are aware of my identity as a transgender man, others are not. My office consists of quite a few Christians and other individuals with strong beliefs regarding gender identity and human sexuality. So while I don’t appreciate the language used, I’d rather not stir the pot if you catch my drift.

Do you have a support network? What are some of the resources that help you navigate life in Jamaica as a transgender man?

Hmm. A support network. Yes I am very fortunate to have made a family out of supportive friends and of course I can’t leave out my Twitter peeps lol. When I began owning my identity and coming out, I thought that it was only my friends that would have been accepting and supportive of me. However, I was, as I usually am when I make these assumptions in my head, so very wrong. Yes my friends accepted me with open arms, but gradually, over time, some of my biological family came around as well. I’m tempted to call her my little cousin, but she isn’t so little anymore, so I shall refer to her as my younger cousin. She is a living testament to the fact that regardless of my gender identity or sexual orientation, there will always be at least one family member (apart from my mom) who loves me unconditionally.

Growing up I learned to be self-reliant. I don’t possess strong familial ties with the exception of those I share with a few of my family members. Even so, during my turbulent teenage years, there wasn’t really anyone I could confide in that would help me to successfully navigate those stressful and trying times. Subsequently, I internalized everything and developed my own coping mechanisms; though how well they work is another story entirely. So I don’t use resources as much as I utilize exercise, work and my hobbies to keep me occupied and my friends and meditation to aid in keeping me grounded.

A group of gender non-conformists are in the process of establishing a more formal support group for persons who don’t conform to society’s gender binary. It’s an initiative I’m looking forward to being a part of and I hope tremendously that it will prove to be beneficial to those involved. Mental health is of the utmost import to trans and queer persons; especially those who experience gender dysphoria. Having a support system is just as crucial as accessing the appropriate health care that will enable queer and transgender persons to lead healthy, balanced and productive lives.

 

What are some of the changes you wish to see regarding the accessibility to healthcare for transgender men and women in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean?

Tackling the issue of providing adequate health care services for transgender individuals in Jamaica will be an arduous task. Ideally, our framework would include comprehensive policies and procedures for providing health care to transgender persons; complete with legislation to ensure that the rules implemented receive the strictest adherence and failure to comply is met with equal retribution. Sadly injustices against LGBT persons still run rampant in our society. We have to ensure that when trans persons attempt to access these services, they are not met with the same discrimination that is already all too commonplace in their everyday lives.

I know that expanding our health care sector to cater to the transgender community might be novel and exciting to health care professionals, but we are not guinea pigs and I would hate for us to be treated as such. I believe that a concerted effort between all parties involved – medical institutions, medical professionals from various segments, insurance companies, legislators and the trans community is the only way to successfully achieve a suitable and sustainable outcome. Our services should not be the result of a doctor “trying a ting”.

I am an advocate for sensitization and training sessions for current medical personnel, as well as the inclusion of transgender specific issues in the curriculum for persons aspiring to enter the medical profession. All too often are our doctors and nurses ill-equipped to handle the nuances of delivering services to transgender people. They often misgender their patients and use offensive language, albeit sometimes unknowingly. Still, this can result in members of the trans community refraining from accessing healthcare services in the future. Refusing to use their preferred name may also be distressing, as is the inability to use a gender-neutral restroom, or at the very least the one patients prefer to use.

Usually, as soon as persons hear the word “transgender” they automatically think “surgery” and “transitioning”; but there is so much more to trans people than transitioning and their surgeries. As such, the approach to healthcare for the transgender community should be holistic and not centered solely around hormone therapy or surgical procedures.

On top of all of this, the healthcare services being offered need to be affordable. Unemployment rates for those belonging to marginalized populations tend to be significantly greater and this affects their ability to afford healthcare. Subsequently, healthcare is not usually one of the top priorities of said population. We need to work in conjunction with healthcare providers and insurance companies to ensure that this vulnerable group is able to access these services which are especially crucial to their overall wellbeing without said access adversely affecting their pockets.

Do you face any other challenges you wish to discuss further?

Retaining my sanity? Lol. I kid. On a serious note, living in an environment that can be quite hostile to LGBTQ individuals demands a magnitude of resolve that is unbelievably and undeniably hard to maintain consistently; day in, day out. Some days are better than others, but we are humans after all, not machines.

 

What advice would you give to transgender men and women living Jamaica and the wider Caribbean?

You are not alone in your strife. There are many others like you who face similar struggles. Find or build a support system if you can, even if it consists only of online interaction. Isolation is dangerous and having a support system will vastly improve your mental and emotional health. Also, in whatever you do, stay safe. We all desire full self-expression but be mindful of your social context. Visibility is important but please remain as safe as you possibly can.

Trans Profile – FJ

This is Part 1 of  a two part series on FJ. Part 1 focuses on FJ’s personal journey from childhood to adulthood and how his gender identity and gender expression evolved through the years.

Hi FJ can you tell us a little about yourself?

Hello Internet! 🙂 My name is F.J. and I am a young man in his mid-twenties with high aspirations and the brightest of futures. I hold a B.Sc in Computer Science from the University of Technology and am hoping to pursue my Master’s within the next year. I’m an introvert with a few extroverted tendencies and I enjoy reading, working out (I wish I was more consistent), coding all manner of apps and playing video games.

How did you identify in your childhood/teenage years and what were some of the challenges you faced with your gender identity throughout your youth?

As a child, I never really gave much thought to who I was or how I identified. The only thing that I knew for certain was that I was different from the other children. I didn’t identify as a girl as I could not relate to them and my perceived notions of femininity, but neither was I accepted by the boys as one of the guys. This resulted in me being in a sort of identity limbo which left me isolated from my peers.

However, it wasn’t until after I had had my first sexual encounter at 16 that I embarked on a journey to explore my gender and sexuality. Initially, I identified as a lesbian as it was the only term I knew that could begin to describe who I was. I started doing a lot of reading about the LGBT community and when I came across the definition of the word “transgender” I knew I had found what I was searching for.

I could relate to the dysphoria experienced by some trans persons unequivocally. My body had never felt like it belonged to me; so much so that there were parts of me that I deliberately ignored when I looked at myself in the mirror; parts of me to which I had no attachment; parts that felt foreign; whose very presence on my body caused me severe discomfort.

Even so, I didn’t begin to identify as transgender immediately; I feared that I would never be able to live my life fully self-expressed here in Jamaica. I figured society would never accept me, I’d never be safe and that my mother especially would have the hardest time accepting who I am. I decided that transitioning wasn’t worth risking the mental and physical health of my mother; that my happiness was not as important. Because of this I gave up my desire to transition and live the life I’ve always envisioned myself having.

After one of the great crises in my life, I was faced with what would be a pivotal point in my life. It was at this point that I began embracing my identity as a transgender man, rather than continuing to run away from it. The first few steps out of the closet were quite refreshing. Though I had always tended to be masculine in my presentation (save school uniforms and church wear), I had always harboured this version of guilt because of it. I knew I was not behaving the way I should have been. I was not even remotely interested in makeup, dresses or other “feminine” things; and I was definitely not interested in romantic relationships with boys. This resulted in an internal conflict between me being myself or conforming to society’s binary, and thus, extremely restrictive gender roles.

How has your identity, sexual orientation and gender expression changed or progressed through your adult-life?

When I began accepting myself in my mid-twenties, I felt empowered. I regained a sense of control over my life that I had long lost in the chaos of my teenage and young adult years. I grew to love and appreciate myself more; my sensitivity, sentimentalism, preference for video games and chill over a night out on the town; my love for books and insatiable hunger for knowledge.

I finally cut my locs after a year of contemplation, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was beginning to actually see myself being reflected whenever I looked in the mirror. I had always preferred male clothing and my apparel transformed into one of the most wonderful forms of self-expression that I could possess. My garments became one of the ways in which I affirmed who I was daily and it is one of the ways I use to remind myself that I am a man of my own design and no-one else’s (Local clothiers won’t let my wardrobe be great though 😦 ).

My sexual attraction has remained constant throughout my life, though the name given to my sexual orientation has changed a few times. Identifying as a lesbian made me a homosexual, but after claiming my gender identity, heterosexuality was the name of the game. Funny enough, I’ve always told my peers that I was straight. They always thought I was merely being humourous.

Now I’m heading into my late twenties and I feel more grounded than at any other point in my life since hitting puberty. I own my gender identity, my gender expression and my sexuality. These are no longer things people can make me feel ashamed about.

Your blog gives the reader a very in-depth and personal view of your life. Tell us some more about the reason and motivation behind your blog?

About 10 months ago I met a young man; his name is Sean. Sean was the first “out”, self-identified transgender man I had ever met. Gradually, our friendship flourished and as I got to know him, I became aware of some of the struggles he faced; one of which was the lack of a support system. Sean’s struggles – which it is logical to assume many other trans men share – prompted me to attempt to provide these men with a medium through which they could garner support, or at the very least, realize that despite however they felt, they were not alone.

Almost a decade ago – when I first realized I wanted to transition – I thought about documenting the process in the form of a blog which would aid in informing other persons who might want to do the same, or those who were simply doing some research. I’ve contemplated many times whether or not the very personal nature of my blog was a reckless move on my part, but in order for people to identify with it, it’s the only way it can be. It also aids in spreading awareness about the everyday realities of other transgender men and myself.

There is a lack of visibility of Jamaican trans men and I hope that in stepping forward, I inspire other men live their truth. Being trans (gender dysphoric or not), or gender non-conformist, carries with it it’s own unique set of struggles; and regardless of the severity of them, no-one is ever worse off with additional moral support. I also utilize the platform to highlight social issues, provide what education I can and (hopefully) generate discussion on these topics. The blog is still young, but I harbour high hopes for it.

I have found that writing can be therapeutic for me; which is ironic because I used to detest it. Albeit, since I began writing about my life and my experiences it has helped to provide closure for many of the unresolved issues I have had in my past; some of which I never even knew I had. A lot of my experiences have affected me negatively, but now given my increased level of introspection, I’m better able to deal with their effects.

Part Two continues here.

Check out FJ’s blog here

Trans Profile – Jessica, Part II

(This is the final of a two part series. Part one focused on Jessica’s personal journey to becoming the “ultimate” her. Part two focuses on health care issues facing transgender persons in Jamaica and how she plans to change it. This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

First part of interview

Do you plan to remain in Jamaica?

I’ve thought about it. One of the things I look at is the treatment cascade. The treatment cascade is services provided by the government in the public health system. You have an entry level which is when you get tested (for everything: diabetes, HIV, STIs etc), then you move from treatment to medication. You may need to be referred to a psychologist by a social worker.

Is this in relation to HIV treatment or transitioning?

No, just in general. The health system is supposed to provide you with a minimum package. There are some issues. Accessing the treatment cascade is a problem. For some persons even walking to a health centre can be a problem. If you don’t look as feminine as society requires you to look you might fraid seh somebody run yuh down. This means you have to take a taxi instead which is expensive. [To fund that] you need to work and you may lose your job if you go to work dressed as how you are. You may then have to start a business, likely supported by the LGBT community. All of this depends on money! That’s why I say that when you face the question on whether or not to transition you need to take a lot of things into consideration. You need family and friends. If you don’t have a family, try to mek one.

So how does the transgender community gain access?

They’re not going out to the health centres. One or two of us may be at a workshop. Where transgender persons do come out is at the big gay parties. But when they’re there they don’t want to be tested. [It’s uncomfortable to face] in that environment. I am one of the lucky ones who got tested.

If you manage to enter the treatment cascade, as a transgender person wanting to transition, there is nothing there. Just a doctor, if you have one, to do regular check ups, and maybe a psychologist who doesn’t really know how to deal with transgender issues. The doctors are reluctant to prescribe the hormone medication because of the country’s prohibitive environment. They don’t know anything about the treatment, they don’t know if it’s against the law, if it’s against their practice. They have to consult with others before they treat you.

The treatment cascade here is also not designed in a way to make transgender persons feel comfortable. I may want some linguistic skills to make my voice more feminine, and transgender men (female to male) may want techniques to help lower the voice etc. If you look at women like Caitlyn, they look beautiful, but they still have that male voice. There’s nothing in the treatment cascade for that.

You have to go abroad.

Yes. However, I did apply for a grant to help me develop a treatment cascade for the Jamaica health system — to create a treatment cascade for transgender persons. It will not be the best, but I want to at least allow for access to hormones and linguistic skills development. And we need to get psychologists on board because going through all of this is a big process. Even [as a transgender woman] to move from the male to the female bathroom….

I spoke to someone about that and it was a big issue for them. Regardless of which one they chose it was uncomfortable.

Moving from one to another is like a whole new world. When I went into a female bathroom for the first time I gasped because there were no urinals. [laughter]

Yeah, we don’t necessarily need those.

And then you start to look within yourself and think, Am I looking at the women in any way…? Do I fit in with them? For me, now, it’s not a problem. Others may not look as feminine and so other women using the bathroom get uncomfortable. Why dis man come in the bathroom dressing like a woman? Many don’t mean anything by it, they just have security concerns. Is this person an impostor who intends to rob me? So a lot of trans persons think twice. I know a lot who wait until they reach home to use the bathroom.

Doing that may cause health problems, though, like UTIs and kidney infections.

Yes. So the referral manual I want to create for the treatment cascade will be Colour Pink’s first TransHealth project that targets the transgender community. It will also involve educational plans for sexual reproductive health plus gender and sexuality to learn about the terminology. When transgenders are out they should be able to firmly articulate who they are.

We are grateful for the time spent with Jessica and look forward to working with her on future initiatives. Please like the Colour Pink Facebook page to keep current with its activities and learn how you can help.

Trans Profile – Jessica

(This is part one of a two part series. Part one focuses on Jessica’s personal journey to becoming the “ultimate” her. Part two focus on health care issues facing transgender persons in Jamaica and how she plans to change it. This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

Hi Jessica! Thanks so much for being a part of TransWave’s Transgender Profile Series. After meeting you, and watching a video of you at the Larry Chang Human Rights symposium, I knew we had to feature you on the site. Could you share with us a bit about your family background?

Thank you. Okay..let me take a deep breath. I was born in Kingston & St. Andrew. I was raised in a Christian family: father, Jehovah Witness, and mother, Pentecostal. Growing up as a very poor family but [we] try to mek ends meet, and all of that. I attended school when we had money.

Any siblings?

Yes, they were bigger than me. I was the youngest.

When did you first start to identify as female? Do you remember or was it just a gradual thing?

As far back as I can remember when I was two…two to three…playing with dolls. I knew within myself that I was different from everybody else. At first I think that everybody was one until you do things like purple touch. I saw that she act effeminate but then she has an organ that is different from mine. As kids even when you bathe together…you realise that she has a different organ but I could relate to her…whereas with boys their gender expression was different from mine.

Was there a moment that you decided to accept yourself as a woman or did the difficulties in that respect spring more from without than within?

I lived my life pleasing other persons. Even when I identified [I hid it] because the idea of being transgender is recent. We never knew about those things back then. If you’re effeminate you’re gay. When I started to go out and meet other members of the LGBT community and I act effeminate, they’d say, “So why you have to act so girly? Why you can’t be more masculine, why you can’t act more masculine?” I didn’t understand so I tried to accommodate them.

I remember a time there was this house lyme and they bluntly told me not to come because my gesticulations, how I am, would cause tension. When I said I wanted to get married and have children, they were saying, “Why you want fi change how God made you?”

Gay men, specifically, said this?

Yes. The community also had a journey to make [to accept transgender persons] and it hadn’t crossed that bridge yet. They didn’t understand.

The first time I found someone I could relate to was when I saw Laura. When I saw her I said, “Look at that nice lady.” Someone turned to me and replied, “No, she was a man.” They didn’t understand either because at that time people didn’t know the right terminology to use. I found out she was biologically male and transitioned to female. I could relate to her. Each time I saw her I asked her how she did it. I wasn’t in that capacity as yet. You have to know your surroundings before you start. If you want to cross [transition] but you don’t have the support network , the finances, it doesn’t make any sense. You have to wish and pray that one day you can become the ultimate you.

I considered for a long time whether or not I would just be a woman and not transition. It wasn’t until I did a training workshop in 2014 with Latoya that I learnt about transgender[ism]. We did the gender and sexuality talk. When I mapped myself it came back to transgender. I ripped up the paper, throw it away, did it again, throw it away…I got so frustrated until I decided to accept it. It was just really time to be myself, to evolve.

Now that I’ve started the transition, I’ve realised how stigmatised you can be. [Being seen as] gay, is one discrimination. Then being HIV positive. You get it from the wider society and within the LGBT community because no one wants to get involved with you because you are positive. If you’re doing sex work, that’s another thing. And now transitioning is another! Sometimes I am even afraid of those within the community. I went to a KFC once when an employee there recognised me. She told all her coworkers that I was a man. I was so disappointed. She was putting my life at risk. But I just stood my ground. Other times, they pass me on the street and bawl out, “Jermaaaaaaine!”

That might just be an inadvertent slip. It can take time to make that transition, too, into treating you as Jessica.

Yes.

Is it easier, in that sense, to move around in the wider society because they accept you based on your gender expression, whereas, those who knew you from before have to adjust to how you are now?

Yes. The first will see me and pass and go bout dem business. When I do my business at the bank, or with various companies when doing my bills, they would have known me as Jermaine. I’m okay with that. When I interact with their employees and they address me as Jermaine, I say, “No, my name is Jessica.” It’s a challenge for them so I have to educate them. They’ll say, “You don’t look the same as your ID photo. We have to call you by the name on the ID.” I tell them, “No, I’m giving you permission to address me as Jessica. It doesn’t matter what’s on the ID — I’m telling you what to call me.”

How long have you been out as transgender?

I took my time. You have different steps. If someone asked me how long I’ve been a transgender, I could say from I was a child. How long have I been living the life of a transgender? Not just identifying as transgender but living it: dressing as a woman, using the female bathroom…it’s two different things. I always tell persons it’s like learning to drive: moving the gear stick is one thing, but going on the road, keeping the vehicle steady, it’s another. It’s very difficult. I’ve been living the life for two months. The actual wearing of female clothing and so on, is about two weeks.

It takes a lot of courage. It’s not something where you wake up one day and say, “Today, I’m gonna put on female clothing!” You have to start off gradually. Maybe you start by wearing panties, then you start wearing shorts, you start dressing unisex, you know? I would advise other transgender persons to take their time and do it properly. Sometimes people rush. I’ve spoken with transgender persons living overseas. Maybe they’re in an environment that is more enabling so they rush and do the sexual reassignment surgery. But they didn’t start with hormones, they didn’t start to use the female bathroom. Maybe they didn’t go to a qualified surgeon. Some hear the word “transgender” and think it means you have to transition, when you don’t. They go through with the surgery then later regret it.

For Jamaicans, I say, take your time. Think about it. Jamaica is not an enabling environment. If you rush it you may have to leave your family, your community, and end up marooned in a place from which you can’t move. Fortunately, I am at a level where I am capable of managing it. I am blessed because I can wear female clothes to work and I can use the female bathroom at work. In my own right, by being me, I am an advocate. I educate: sitting down in my female clothing, talking and commanding persons. I say, “Listen, my name is Jessica, not Jermaine.” Then they go home and tell their families, their children, “I have a transgender at work.” [chuckles]

Part Two continues here.

Trans Profile – James*

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.