Jamie Evans is a talented artist and illustrator whose work has been commissioned by the Ontario Justice Education Network and the Canadian Aviation Museum, among other organizations. His clients are sometimes surprised by how young he is — just 24.
They’d be even more surprised to discover that he was born a woman.
Evans, who asked that his real name not be used, suffered from gender identity disorder. People with this disorder are referred to as transgendered, or trans, a catch-all term to describe someone whose gender identity does not match the physical sex they were born with.
“ ‘Gender’ is who you feel you are in your mind, and ‘sex’ refers to what you have between your legs,” Chaz Bono has explained. Bono, the child of Cher and Sonny Bono, is a trans man.
Evans first began identifying as a man when he hit puberty. “I felt trapped in the wrong body,” he says.
His green eyes are intensely serious as he talks about the most painful period in his life — when he realized he was transgendered.
His way of coping was to become anorexic to minimize his female curves and inhibit menstruation.
“I hit rock bottom,” he recalls. “I lost control of my body. I got help because I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t help myself.
“My friend was becoming more distant; he didn’t know what to do for me. Also, I had come out to him and he distanced himself. Mentally, I was breaking down — I wanted to die. I couldn’t deal with my body.”
Evans would dress like a tomboy, and looking at his body in the mirror was a constant obsession.
“I would visualize not having breasts,” he says.
Most trans people have traditionally waited until they were in their 40s or 50s to begin the process of transitioning to the other sex. Evans is part of a new wave who are doing so earlier. At age 20, he began working with Helma Seidl, a therapist at Ottawa’s Making A Difference Counselling and Consultation, who specializes in gender identity disorder.
Evans made the decision to become male at the age of 21.
Dr. Gail Knudson, medical director of the Transgender Health Program at Vancouver Coastal Health and founder of the Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health (CPATH), says that over the past five to 10 years there has been a fivefold increase in youth presenting as trans in Western Europe and North America.
Trans youth suffer from low self-esteem and rejection and have difficulty with peer, intimate and family relationships, adds Knudson, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Sexual Medicine. “They are at higher-than-average risk for suicide attempts, poly-substance abuse, depression, anxiety and high-risk sexual behaviour.”
A survey of 433 trans Ontarians 16 or older was published this month by Trans PULSE, a research project funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. It found that half of trans Ontarians have considered suicide and that 43 per cent of those surveyed had attempted suicide at some point in their lives. Trans individuals up to the age of 24 “were nearly twice as likely to seriously consider suicide as those over age 25, and almost three times as likely to have attempted suicide within the past year.”
Those findings were released in advance of today’s Transgender Day of Remembrance, which is being observed in Toronto and six other Canadian cities. In Ottawa, the local police will for the first time host a flag-raising event at their headquarters, and a march will be held to Parliament Hill to show support for Bill C-389, which proposes to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to protect gender identity and expression.
“We have created such a strong social construct of what it means to be male or female,” says Seidl. “(Trans people) constantly observe themselves to make sure that their behaviour fits their social gender assignment, an assignment that does not come naturally to them.”
As they grow up, many trans individuals repress their feelings about their gender incongruence and play the role that society expects of them. They often get a job, find a spouse and perhaps even have children. Today, however, trans people are coming to terms with their gender identity at an earlier age.
Why? “There is greater accessibility to health-care professionals, more public information (via the media), and more support within the community, from parents and schools,” Knudson says. “For example, many schools now have (gay-straight alliances).”
Once diagnosed with gender identity disorder, Evans was given a customized treatment plan by Seidl.
At 21, he began the process of becoming male. This included a hysterectomy, a double mastectomy and hormone therapy.
“For a female-to-male patient, beginning hormone therapy means I throw them into menopause and then I throw them into puberty,” says Seidl.
It’s a lot to put oneself through, Knudson acknowledges, but she adds: “Transition is a medical necessity — it’s not something that people choose to do. All of the research outcomes prove that people not only have a better quality of life but live more productive lives.”
But things don’t get better overnight. “There’s a fantasy that when you start hormones and get surgery, everything will be fine,” says Evans, whose face is adorned with prickly stubble. “Hormone therapy is slow and agonizing — you don’t feel male or female. You feel rejected and more insecure.”
And having been socialized as a girl, Evans needed to learn male behaviour and gestures.
As someone who has breached gender norms, Evans is troubled by instances of anti-gay violence.
“When I go into the men’s bathroom, I’m really careful,” he says. “There’s a code: you walk in and you don’t dare make eye contact with anyone. There’s tension and it’s real; looking at another guy can give the impression that you’re gay.”
But it’s a mistake to make any assumptions about the sexual preferences of trans people. Once they’ve transitioned to their new sex, some will be gay, some will be heterosexual, some will be bisexual, and some will still be figuring it out.
Transition is a three-to five-year process, and Knudson says the most important predictor of success is family support.
Evans agrees. “There’s no question that having my family and friends support me through all this made a huge difference. This is what saved me.”