Deputy InDepth Editor
Illustration: Éna Brennan
Transgender identity is misunderstood and ignored in the Irish media. TN speaks to Darrin from Cork about realising his gender identity.
It is difficult to talk about the “transgender experience” when many of us do not even know what “transgender” means. It refers to individuals whose gender identity or expression is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Although the term unites people, it is important to recognise that there is no definitive transgender experience. Everyone is different, and to generalise about the physical and psychological process of changing gender is wrong and unhelpful.
What is even more unhelpful, however, is to ignore the issue completely. It is a habit of the mainstream Irish media who have proven either apathetic to the status of transgender people in Ireland, or have submitted them to ridicule, outing members of the trans community on their front pages.
No wonder organisations such as Transgender Equality Network Ireland (Teni) exist to mend the lack of understanding among the Irish people about what it means to be trans. The issue has either been ignored or sensationalised in trans horror stories, feelings of isolation and marginalisation.
It is true that the process of changing one’s gender can be extremely difficult and emotionally traumatic both for the person in question and for their families and friends. This no one can deny. Earlier this year research questionnaires coordinated by organisations such as Teni found that 80% of Irish trans people who completed the survey admitted to having seriously thought about ending their lives. 40% confessed to having attempted to commit suicide at least once. These statistics are undeniably alarming and of course need to be addressed. It is equally true, however, that there are success stories, but these accounts are rarely deemed print-worthy.
To better understand the diversity of transgender experiences, I want to introduce you to Darrin. Darrin is 22, is from Cork, and currently runs the Cork Transgender Support Group. As I logged into Skype to meet Darrin for the first time, I realised that I did not know what to expect; I had, essentially, no idea who I was meeting. Who I met surprised me.
When Darrin answered my call I met a boy in his early twenties wearing glasses, a checked shirt over a loose T-shirt and with both ears pierced. He looked absolutely normal; I do not know what I expected, but it was not necessarily this. Even those of us who are open-minded about gender identity cannot help being influenced by the media’s attempt to paint transgender people as aberrations.
“Darrin never suffered from self-doubt. He knew he was a boy; the trouble was convincing everyone else.”
Darrin, biologically, is still female. He has the ability like any other post-pubescent woman to have children. What distinguishes Darrin from other women who are biologically women is that, in his opinion, he is and always has been a boy. He recalls, at the age of 10, being confused as to why he was separated from the boys in primary school. As far as he was concerned, he was male.
“I wore boys clothes, I did boy things, I shaved with my plastic razor every morning imitating my mum’s boyfriend,” he tells me. He teases his mother, since coming out as trans, as to how she could have ever doubted that he were anything but male, when there was photos of him shaving at the age of four.
Things changed for Darrin when he went to secondary school, which he referred to as “the difficult time”. Darrin never suffered from self-doubt. He knew he was a boy; the trouble was convincing everyone else. He recalls that, even in coming out as gay at the age of 16, he felt a degree of marginalisation and judgement.
But secondary school was also the time that he realised he was trans. This realisation offered him an opportunity to change his life for the better. “The difference between knowing you’re a boy, when biologically you’re a girl, and understanding the implication of that is huge. I was about 16 when I realised I was trans. Before, I just thought I was a boy with a girl’s body … Realising you are transgender is about having the vocabulary and the ability to express yourself. You’ve know all along. You just didn’t know the term.”
As Broden Giambrone, the director of Teni, explained to me, many people, especially in rural communities in Ireland, do not even know that being trans is a possibility. Often people feel trapped in their biological gender and are not aware that there is a way to liberate your true self. Thus it is one of TENI’s roles to make the trans community as visible as possible in Irish society, creating a continual dialogue among both trans people and the wider community to ensure a greater understanding about diverse gender identities.
Realising that he was transgender, however, came with its own obstacles. Darrin explained to me some of the difficulties of establishing himself as male. “You have to tell your family.” This, fortunately for Darrin, was less of a challenge than it can be for some trans people. He is quick to stress how supportive and open-minded his mother and siblings were.
He explains that he did not even have to tell his mum. “She guessed,” he says, half laughing. ‘‘She saw me walking towards her as she was sitting in the car waiting for me, and she told me that it dawned on her that this was not her daughter walking towards her, but a man. She asked me, straight out, whether I was trans.”
Darrin jokes that when he told his brother that he was trans, he was angry that Darrin had interrupted The Simpsons. His sister, he remembers, was happy to be the only girl in the family. “All the more attention for her,” he jests. Yet he also admits that, although they were initially very accepting of his new identity, it was still very difficult for them to adjust.
“Realising you are transgender is about having the vocabulary and the ability to express yourself. You’ve know all along. You just didn’t know the term.”
They found it hard to take on board that their baby sister was now their baby brother. Calling him by his female name, which he prefers to not share, was a difficult habit to break. His mum explained: “It’s like calling a phone a phone your entire life, and then somebody telling you that now you have to call it a lobster. It’s not an easy or immediate transition.”
Another obstacle Darrin highlights is overcoming the period when your outward appearance does not yet reflect your inner gender. Darrin explained that he started taking hormones aged 19, but that the process is, of course, not an immediate transformation. He recalls a time when he could not decide whether he looked enough like a boy yet to use the male bathroom, but felt uncomfortable using the female loos, and did not feel like he should have to use the disabled toilet because he is not disabled, leaving him no choice but to go home in floods of tears to use the bathroom.
“It’s difficult to understand,” he said, “why suddenly I couldn’t even fulfil the most natural urge of using the bathroom. It was hard to get to grips with the idea that some things were more difficult for me than they were for other people.”
Darrin comes across as possessing a certain maturity that seems rare for a 22-year-old. When Darrin talks of his problematic time at school, it is clear that he has distanced himself from that period of his life. He is not emotional, but observant. Not judgemental of others, but understanding of their lack of comprehension.
He explains that, even when he came out as gay, his friends, especially girls, ran a mile. He talks of the way they ostracised him, believing him to be looking at them as they changed clothes. “Girls can be very self-flattering,” he jokes. His recollections are in no way bitter or hostile towards those who did not accept him. Instead, he seems to be at peace with the ups and downs of his gender change, because he has now found his identity.
Today, Darrin lives in Cork and has a girlfriend, a job and a loving family. He is living proof that, if you do have gender dysphoria (the condition of feeling one’s emotional and psychological identity as male or female to be opposite to one’s biological sex), it really is not the end of the world, but is perhaps the beginning of a happier life.
Essentially, Darrin’s is a story of success, one that is not often told in the Irish media. The challenges of being transgender are considerable, and Darrin is of course extremely lucky to have such an accepting and supportive family. While his story is one among many, it is refreshing to hear a young transgender person whose story challenges the talk-show stereotype of the adult male who wishes to become a woman.
As Mary Lawlor of the Dublin-based human-rights group Frontline Defenders said at the International Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association’s European conference held in Dublin this week: “It’s always the case where any group is marginalised you have to fight apathy.” This is certainly the case when endeavouring to increase awareness and establish rights for transgender people in Ireland.
As it stands, transgender people are not legally recognised by the Irish state. But this is a broader issue that cannot be addressed in a single article. Hopefully Darrin’s story will help those who read it to see transgender identity differently, which is where we need to begin.