14 Oct 2014

Redefining gender in their own words

8:42 am on 14 October 2014

By now, at nearly 21, Spencer Sharpe has perfected a response to That Question, which seems to come most often from guys at parties: “Are you a girl or a boy?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Spencer shoots back. “Unless you want to sleep with me.”

It usually renders the guy speechless.

Spencer, who uses the pronoun “they” rather than “he” or “she”, knew from age 13 that they weren’t a girl, the sex they were assigned at birth. 

“But then I wasn’t a trans guy either,” Spencer says. “I love girls. I would love to be a girl. But I can’t.”

Today, they’re wearing a black cap with BOY embroidered on it in hot pink.

When official forms ask if they’re female or male, Spencer will sometimes draw a third box - or scribble out the question and write “NO” instead.

Spencer Sharpe

Spencer Sharpe Photo: Aidan Standish

It was a huge relief when, in Spencer's teens, they finally discovered the word genderqueer. “The first time I heard it I thought: “What’s this? Other people feel this? I’m not broken?” 

Ruby O’Sullivan, also 20 and of Nelson, cites “a lot of confusion” amongst their peers. Ruby, who identifies as genderfluid and pansexual, doesn’t restrict the gender of people they date, and says a lot of people just can’t accept that, grilling them on their preferences.

Both are happy to occupy a relatively unknown realm - neither male nor female, content with a more fluid concept of gender. But it’s sometimes frustrating that what should be a very personal and even unremarkable sense of self has to colour so many interactions in the outside world - particularly when it comes to drunk guys at parties. 

“I live to destroy cis white boys’ egos,” Ruby jokes.

While other cultures are historically comfortable with different genders and have words to suit, Westerners mostly aren’t. Indigenous North Americans, for example, use the word two-spirit. The word hijra has been in use in India since antiquity, and of course Samoan culture embraces its fa’afafine.

Earlier this year, when Facebook changed its gender categories to include 50 new options - as well as adding a space to write your own and the gender-neutral pronoun option “them” - company software engineer Brielle Harrison said there were a lot of people for whom the tiny change meant nothing. 

Ruby O’Sullivan

Ruby O’Sullivan Photo: Aidan Standish

“But for the few it does impact,” Harrison, a transgender woman, added, “it means the world.”

At the moment, New Zealanders can only add a custom gender on Facebook - the drop-down list isn’t yet available. But Spencer says any bit of wider recognition of people who aren’t one gender or the other is welcome. 

The lack of a common language - and thus, understanding - means Spencer and Ruby are constantly explaining themselves. Both have found relief in a network of friends at QYouth, where they can be themselves. Spencer often directs people to New Zealand cartoonist Sam Orchard’s Queer 101 piece, which did more to help Spencer’s family understand what their teen was going through than they could explain at the time.

“It was hard because the only trans stuff you see in the media is either really gross misogynistic roles about trans women, or Chaz Bono,” Spencer says. “I try to explain it to people and they go: ‘So you’re 80 per cent dude and 20 per cent chick?’ And I go: ‘Well I’m 100 per cent something else’.” 

But for other people, gender doesn’t occupy a third space. They were assigned one gender at birth but came to realise they identified with the other, so they changed their lives to suit. And although there is a lot more to masculinity and femininity than the distribution of hair and tissue, for some, those were the last pieces they needed changed to feel complete - to match up the brain and the body. 

Claudia McKay, Phyllis King, and Christina, who live in Wellington, Palmerston North, and Fielding respectively, were all assigned a male gender at birth, but knew something was different when they reached puberty. 

Claudia, 57, is the president of Agender New Zealand, which has been supporting transgender people and their families since 1996.

“There are usually two times in your life when you’re blessed with understanding,” Claudia says. 

The first is from a very young age - people who remember feeling different to their assigned gender from their earliest memory. For others, it’s the hormone rush at puberty that does it.

“My childhood was a typical boy’s childhood growing up in the Hutt Valley in the ’60s,” Claudia says. “There was no language to describe what I was going through. The Hutt Valley was not somewhere you could talk about anything like this. There were no role models apart from [New Zealand-Australian drag performer and activist] Carmen, and she was no role model at all for most people.”

Claudia ended up carrying around a heavy secret that coloured every interaction she had with the world. She was shy and reserved, and found it difficult to make friends throughout her schooling.

She hid her secret until she met her future partner, who surprised her with understanding. They married and were together for 12 years, starting the forerunner of Agender, the group Cross Dressers - Real Ordinary Men. (It included IT specialists, so of course the acronym had to be CDROM.)

Meanwhile, Claudia continued to morph into a woman, cross-dressing in private and within the group. 

Then Niko Besnier, a professor of anthropology at Victoria University, asked her to speak to his final-year class about her life. He didn’t know she’d never actually been out in daylight as a woman, and she was initially terrified. But she took it as an opportunity to live the truth in the outside world. 

The talk at Victoria went well, and on the way home she had an epiphany. “It was literally like a blinding vision that said to me: ‘This is the right thing for you. This is how you need to live your life’. It was like a road to Damascus experience. I realised I couldn’t go on living as a male and had to make the changes. Logic, fears and worries about what might happen didn’t enter into it for me. I knew this is what I had to do. 

“I thank Niko a number of times for that, for unwittingly pushing me in the right direction.”

With that decided, she began taking hormones: estrogen and cyproterone acetate, which suppresses testosterone. Although she had felt like a woman since puberty, the physical change was “a scary process”. 

I realised I couldn’t go on living as a male and had to make the changes. Logic, fears and worries about what might happen didn’t enter into it for me. I knew this is what I had to do. 

“Unlike coming out as gay, where nothing changes, with this your appearance changes. No matter how you dress, your features change and you look very different.”

“Her skin softened, body hair disappeared, and soon she felt that she needed to dress as a women permanently.”

“If you start really young then you can minimise the effects of testosterone, and your presentation to the world is a lot better,” Claudia says. “But if you don’t start until you’re 40, the damage that the testosterone has done to your body is there. The things that masculinise your features and your voice get set in stone.”

Living as a man, Claudia’s hair had begun to recede. The hormones she was taking stopped that, but it didn’t grow back. Nowadays she styles her hair to cover the slight recessions in the front, and admits she’s a little self-conscious about it. “Wigs are terrible, and hair is quite an important feature.”

Christine, 53, went through a similar hormonal experience but says she had to laugh when she started lactating one day at work. It lasted for a couple of months before it stopped. “It was quite an experience, with lots of new sensations to experience. I found it all fascinating.”

Transitioning from female to male means taking testosterone, which Claudia says can have an impact very quickly. “Testosterone is a pretty profound hormone. You see someone 12-18 months after they’ve started and they might have a beard, receding hairline, hairy legs.”

“Beyond hormones and clothes, options for physical change mean surgery. Transforming from a male to a female trans women involves reconfiguring genitals to form a vagina, with other options including facial and voice feminisation surgery and breast and buttock augmentation. Female to male trans men can undergo operations to create a masculine chest and genitals.”

The ministry publicly funds three male-to-female surgeries every two years, which are performed in New Zealand. It also funds one female-to-male surgery carried out overseas every two years, with the money for both drawn from the ministry’s special high-cost treatment pool, which is money set aside for one-off treatments not otherwise provided by the public health system. 

But surgery is not common in New Zealand. Since 2004 there have been just 12 publicly-funded male-to-female gender reassignments and six female-to-male, with 61 people currently on the waiting list.

Also, not everyone who wants the surgery gets it. Ministry documents note that surgery can have profound personal social, and medical consequences, and is only undertaken after a comprehensive evaluation. 

The ministry counts four phases of gender transition, and requires people have to be living and working as their preferred gender full-time for two years, with multiple psychiatric assessments. 

They take hormones under medical supervision, which could be enough - surgery might not be needed at all, the ministry notes, if hormone therapy is “adequate for social functioning”. 

That’s exactly what Claudia found - and so has Christine. Happy the way they are, both have never bothered to try getting on the waiting list.

“What’s between my legs does not define who I am; it’s just not that important,” Claudia says. “If by some miracle I won Lotto I might consider doing it, but it’s not a high priority in my life.”

“To me it’s the mind and how you feel in yourself that is more important,” Christine says. “I’m having a ball of a time just being in the middle.”

For those who do want surgery, sidestepping the public system entirely and getting it done in Thailand is a popular choice, according to Claudia.

Going back to those days - there was a real fear. I’ll be honest; some people in rural areas still carry those fears around.

One who has is Phyllis King, an adult adviser at Rainbow Taranaki who travelled to Thailand last year to have her surgery performed. She is 67 now, and was married for 36 years.

She began her physical transformation late in life, after her wife passed away in 2010. Before she died, her wife accepted Phyllis cross-dressing, though only at home. 

In fact, they used to go to op shops and buy clothes together - Phyllis laughs now at the styles she chose back then. “God, I look at some of them now! You make some terrible choices as you learn what your personal style is.” 

Phyllis initially made her own estrogen creams and testosterone blockers from plant ingredients, and later went to see her doctor and received hormone patches. After a brush with colon cancer, she had gender reassignment surgery at Bangkok's Preecha Aesthetic Institute in 2012. She had, as she puts it, “the cut and tuck, breast augmentation, tracheal shave, and a bit of a facelift because I’m a bit ancient”. 

“Even though you get some bits removed, I wanted to feel whole, I wanted to be the whole deal, not half-and-half. Others are happy being half-and-half, but I could afford it, so I did it.”

Maybe more profound than their own physical changes, however, has been society’s growing acceptance of people dealing with their gender and sexuality in their own way. 

Claudia remembers days of fear in ’90s Wellington. The first time she went out to work as Claudia - she works in property management - her partner made her take their first support group cellphone. “It was in case I got beaten up,” she says.

“Going back to those days - there was a real fear. I’ll be honest; some people in rural areas still carry those fears around.

“Aside from redneck yobbos giving you a hard time occasionally, nothing really happens,” she says. “I haven’t had any major emotionally disturbing moments. That’s not to say some people don’t, but I’ve been lucky.”

She attributes part of that to her own sense of security and confidence in appearing in newspaper articles and on television in support of transgender issues. 

“Back in those days everyone in the community was secretive and they didn’t want to be associated with those things. We took the stance that no, we are out there. If there was ever an opportunity to front to the media we took it and we never had a single bad experience. It was because we were being open and upfront; I think people responded to that.

Christine says that 30 years ago, when she was in her 20s, times were harder. “Back then everybody shunned you, you were looked down upon. It was hard days. It’s still hard for them but it’s more accepted today. It’s more common. People come out, and it’s like ‘Oh so you’re gay? What the hell’.”

Christine runs a computer services business from home. Her customers know her gender identity and the majority don’t care, she says. “Thirty years ago, it was: “I’m not going to that one ... I have seen big change in my time.”

Spencer is thankful the internet is there to help demystify and support young people who are questioning. “There’s a lot of stuff on the internet that helps people figure out that they don’t have to be one or the other,” they say. “I was stuck being a girl, and the fact I found stuff that said I didn’t have to be either was a huge relief.”

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