Metro transition

The Halifax transpeople community has come a long way—so far that you may not even have noticed it.

illustration Kate Sinclair

When Eric MacDonald first thought about becoming a man in 1992, he backed away from the idea. “There was very little information available to me about the transition process,” says the 35-year-old female-to-male transsexual, “and what I did know made me want to stay as far away (from it) as possible.”

Transsexuals were freaks, and MacDonald, a lesbian-identified 22-year-old at the time, didn’t know anyone who admitted to being trans. “That would’ve meant almost total ostracism.”

MacDonald struggled with his secret for eight years. “Therapists told me that my problems stemmed from other factors, from poor financial planning to being molested as a child. I explained to the therapist that this never happened, but she dismissed anything I said.”

MacDonald became convinced that nothing medical science could do would make him become a man, so he gave up his quest. It wasn’t until he met a post-transition man in 2000 that he realized he could pursue medical transition and still lead an “ordinary” life. “I was struck by how normal he looked,” he says. “That was what gave me hope.”

Kite Johnstone, a 19-year-old student at NSCAD, began identifying as an FTM two years ago. He remembers the day he realized his identity. “I was riding on the bus…I was looking at guys and wondering, I can act like them, but what would be the point?”

When he got home, Johnstone hopped on the internet. In a chat room he found a thread about transsexuality. Once he saw that he could do something to make himself look male, he decided to transition, “even if it took me til I was an old man.”

Johnstone found resources that didn’t exist for MacDonald. “I went to Venus Envy and asked them about local groups. They passed me along to the Halifax transguys group,” Johnstone says.

He also posted in a trans-related LiveJournal. Within hours, a transman from Dartmouth replied.

The internet has made a difference in MacDonald’s and Johnstone’s coming out stories. So has the passage of time. In 1992, when MacDonald was searching for answers, the gay rights movement was just starting to be taken seriously.

Since Johnstone’s birth in 1987, Nova Scotian gays and lesbians got sexual orientation added to the province’s human rights act, won the right to marry, adopt kids and get treated like other responsible adults. While nothing is perfect (see the Lindsay Willow case), the atmosphere in Nova Scotia has improved over the past 14 years. In some ways transpeople got taken along for the ride.

“There is an increase in awareness”—of transsexuals—“and peoples’ self-awareness,” says Dr. John Swaine, a Halifax psychologist interested in gender identity issues. Swaine, who has been practising for 35 years, says he’s seen an increase in referrals for this issue over the past few years, although he couldn’t provide specifics.

Swaine and MacDonald both agree that health care professionals know more about transpeople these days and are more willing to provide medical care specifically for gender identity issues. “You can’t change the mind to match the body, so it’s got to go the other way around,” says MacDonald.

With transpeople showing up on Oprah and Larry King Live to provide living, breathing examples of successful transitions from one sex to the other, teens like Kite are able to identify themselves as trans at a younger age, something that social worker Patrick Daigle of the GLBT Youth Project says is a “controversial topic.”

The Youth Project started a transgendered discussion group for those aged 25 and under in December 2005. The monthly meetings attract about 10 regular attendees. Although Daigle sees more FTMs than MTFs, he dislikes tagging his charges with acronyms. “Labels are not what they’re coming to group for. They’re still questioning their identities.”

Daigle talks to young transpeople about the risks of hormones and surgeries. He says he hasn’t seen “too much of a willingness” among teenagers to start taking hormones or get referrals for surgery.

Supports are around for adult transpeople as well. Johnstone and MacDonald attend a group for transmen over the age of 19, run by a social worker at the QEII Health Sciences Centre. A similar group exists for transwomen.

Seeing transsexual men who are at different stages of transition has helped Johnstone deal with some of his fears. “I don’t think I’m just a crazy girl,” he says. In fact, being able to see the effects of hormones and surgeries first-hand has only strengthened Johnstone’s decision to transition. “I want to start T”—testosterone—“this fall and have chest surgery”—a mastectomy—“and a hysterectomy soon after,” he says without hesitation.

MacDonald wishes the same kind of resources were around when he first realized he had to transition for the sake of his mental health. “I had no desire to be the ‘bearded lady.’”

Techniques used in sex-reassignment surgery may have improved over the past 20 years, but the prices haven’t. The average cost of a mastectomy with male chest reconstruction is $6,000. Genital surgeries range from $15,000 to $150,000. MTFs can expect to pay between $30,000 and $40,000 for everything, including hormones, electrolysis and surgeries.

“In Nova Scotia the surgical aspects of transition are not covered by provincial health care insurance,” MacDonald says. Some provinces either completely or partially pay for sex-reassignment surgery. MacDonald, a board member of the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project, would like to see this province added to the list.

Groups like Toronto’s Transsexual Menace, which concentrate on transgender causes, don’t have chapters in Nova Scotia, so it falls to “rainbow” community groups like NSRAP and Egale to fight for surgeries and other rights.

MacDonald is a rare example of a local transsexual activist. “Most people want to transition and blend in,” says Daigle.

He points to Pride Week as an example. A member of the trans youth group asked Daigle, the Pride Committee’s co-chair, to include events for transpeople in this year’s celebration. When Daigle talked to adult transpeople about the idea, he was told, “A lot of us come to Pride to blend in.” As a result, the gender identity workshop scheduled for Pride Week is billed as an information session for the general public and not as an event for transpeople only.

The odd voice does speak out. “Wayves”—Atlantic Canada’s GLBT newspaper—“now includes a trans column,” says Daniel MacKay, the paper’s editor.

MacKay also edits the Halifax Gay History Project, an online encyclopedia. “I tried to include trans stuff in the project, but no trans people would come forward,” he says. “In my experience transgendered people spend so much time on internal issues that they don’t have time to spend on external issues”—like community activism.

While MacDonald is a willing activist, Johnstone thinks he’ll want to fade into the background once he has started to transition. “I’m not embarrassed,” he says, “but I don’t see the point. It’s like being proud of a certain colour hair.”

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