My name is Jack, and most people reading this story will think of me as sex and gender diverse. But I don’t believe I am.
To me, this is normal, this is the way I think, this is who I am. I have always questioning gender; I can’t imagine what it would be like to not question gender, to have a fixed, stable gender identity – to know, beyond any doubt, that you are female or male. To know what a man is, to know what a woman is. Anyway, I am jumping ahead.
I should start at the beginning. I was born female. The doctor said, “It’s a girl,” and my parents said, “We will name her Jean-Marie.” Family and friends came to to see the new baby girl, I was taken home, and my life began. I had a relatively normal childhood, growing up in the 1970s with Mum, Dad, two sisters, and three brothers in Sydney, Australia.
When did I know I was different? Probably not until I was twelve or thirteen years old. I think that most teenagers feel that they are different – very few actually fit in and are secure in their identity. It is a time of discovering yourself as a young person, pushing boundaries and challenging ideas in order to develop your own sense of self. It wasn’t the feeling of difference that was the problem, it was the not knowing what the difference was. I had never heard of the word transgender, and at that time I didn’t really understand the concepts of gender, sex, and sexuality.
When I started high school, I hung out with a bunch of guys and girls. We played football during our lunch break, we smoked, and we all sat around together. Within the first year of high school, the guys and girls started to pair off. They would hold hands and kiss; I was never interested, as I didn’t find any of these people sexually attractive. I was a tomboy.
I was labelled a troublemaker at school. I was opinionated, loud, and mischievous. I questioned things and this was seen as disruptive. When I was fourteen, some new teachers came to the school, and they were younger than some of the previous ones. They came with an approach of respect rather than dominance, and they asked us to do things rather than demanding tasks of us. They could see the questioning in me and didn’t try to suppress it. They respected me as a person, and I respected them.
This was a crucial time in my life: hormones were starting to kick in, changes had started happening to my body, I started to grow breasts, my shape started to change, I was no longer allowed to run around without a shirt on, and then to top it all off, I started to menstruate. I spent the next six years feeling suicidal, just getting through life, just staying alive.
Throughout my childrehood, I developed few close friendships. One friendship was with a girl called Nicola, who went to the public school while I went to the Catholic high school. We were very different, yet remarkably similar. Nick was weird – she dyed her hair, had strange haircuts, and wore different clothes. She was an outcast and everyone know it. I was also an outcast but no one knew it. I was popular at school. I stayed at people’s places, I was invited to parties, we all went to the movies together, all the things that kids in high school do. I got along with everyone. I had friends in the popular crowd, the smoking group, in the computer nerd crowd, I was friends with the good girls and I was friends with the bad boys. I knew everyone and everyone liked me, and this allowed me to hide. I had many friends, although none of them close friendships – I didn’t want to let people inside because I didn’t like me, so how could they be my friends if they knew?
When we were about fifteen, Nick told me that she was a lesbian. She didn’t like men sexually, so I thought that must be me too, I must be the same. So over time, we talked and I came out to her. At the end of the year ten, when I was sixteen, I started work at the Reserve Bank of Australia., which was my first full-time job. There were several lesbians in the department where I worked and I managed to sit and talk to one of the older ones, Jane, one day. I told her that I thought that I might be a lesbian and that I had a friend, Nick, and that she was “out”. I also wanted to tell my family. Jane suggested that I work things out a bit more before I tell my family, and suggested that I go out and meet some other lesbians. She knew I was not comfortable with the label.
So it took a while, but one night I went to a bar and met some other lesbians. Around the same time, Nick had fallen in love with one of my co-workers and they started spending a lot of time together. Through then I met a whole bunch of dykes, and I started seeing Doris. I was only sixteen. I was young and naïve; I liked Doris and I enjoyed the company, but again there was nothing sexual in it for me. She tried to get me sexually involved but I wasn’t really interested. She was around for a while, but eventually the relationship broke down.
So for the next few years I had flings with straight girls, I worked and studied, and had a miserable existence. Very early in life I learned to smile, regardless of how I was really feeling; even now when I am having a hard time or a bad day, it is difficult for me to express that.
I felt like I was living two lives: one where I was dating straight girls in an attempt to find my identity, and another life where I was dating straight guys, wearing skirts, and being a girl, to keep society happy. I tried very hard to be the person everyone wanted me to be, to play the part that society expected, but I couldn’t. I felt like I was going mad!
So at eighteen I decided to leave, to go searching for my true self, as I knew that I couldn’t find myself in Sydney. I had to break away from my family and everyone I knew be by myself. I was petrified. On my last night in Sydney, I cried myself to sleep. I was starting to allow myself to feel, I was starting to allow myself to “be” and that was scary. I knew that life was about to change, but I didn’t know how or why. I clearly remember the morning that my mother drove me to the bus station. As we reversed out of the driveway, I knew that this was no longer my home; I was leaving the safety net of my home to start an incredible journey.
I left Sydney and started to backpack my way up the coast. I stayed in backpacker hostels and met people from all over the world. For the first time in my life I felt like no one had any expectations of me.
This was probably the first step toward discovering my gender diversity. It was a strange time for me – I was excited about the journey I was on, but at the same time, deep inside me was a profound sadness. I was grieving for what I could not be, I was grieving because I was different but I didn’t know why. I was lonely, but for the first time, I felt a sense of freedom.
After several months of travelling, I landed a job on Hamilton Island. This is where I met Althea, while she was on holidays visiting a friend. For the first time in my life I was attracted to someone. She was a female and I was a female, so I must be a lesbian – I thought I had found my place in the world at last. She went back to Brisbane, and a few months later my friend Tracey and I followed.
We arrived in Brisbane in December 1992; I was twenty. Althea and I started seeing each other and I fell in love. During this time I met and formed friendships with a group of women known as the West End dykes. Some of them were butch and behaved in a masculine way. But although they looked masculine, they didn’t want to be men – actually they were happy being women. I found this very confusing, as I wasn’t like them. One of the women I met was a male-to-female transsexual, and the moment I met her I knew it was gender that I had issues with, not sexuality. I knew that I wasn’t a woman, so I thought I must be a man. I felt that I really was a man inside. The more I thought about gender, the sadder I was. I thought that my whole life would have to change, my family would disown me, my friends would not talk to me, and I would be an outcast forever. I had never met any FTMs, I didn’t know much about transition – I knew nothing. I had spoken to Deni, my MTF friend, but I didn’t really know much about transsexuality. I felt that my only choices were to transition and lose everyone and everything, or stay living a miserable life where I didn’t feel right. I decided at that time to stay female and revisit the gender question in a few years. Deni had said to me, “You will be sitting on a cliff with a gun to your head and then you will know what to do.”
At the time, I thought this was a bit melodramatic; however, I never forgot that statement and eventually I understood it. I devised strategies to get me through the next few years. I decided to broaden my friendship circle, to move slightly out of the West End dyke community, and start a carpentry apprenticeship. I thought if I allowed myself to be as masculine as society accepts, then maybe I would be happy.
I really enjoyed carpentry. I enjoyed being on a building site with the blokes, and the blokes accepted me. One day I turned up to work on a new site. I went to the supervisor and introduced myself. I realised that the supervisor through that I was male. When he was told my true gender a week later, he went into a bit of a spin; he kept coming to me saying, “I can’t believe I don’t’ know the difference between a bloke and a chick; maybe I should see a psychiatrist.” This was the first time that I thought maybe transition is possible and not as hard as I first considered.
Around the same time, my friend Althea went overseas for a couple of months, which meant that for the first time I was thinking about myself and wasn’t worried about her reaction. And a guy called KC came into the community. He had known some of the West End women years before, when he was female. This was an interesting time. I watched his friends talk about him behind his back. They talked openly about transgender issues, KC and what they thought about “sex changes.” Of course they didn’t know I was transgender and that I was contemplating transition. They thought I was just like them – a woman.
Deciding to Transition
The next few months became harder and harder. I couldn’t stop thinking about transition; I couldn’t stop thinking about gender. I couldn’t concentrate on anything, my life was falling apart; I knew that I couldn’t keep up this charade forever. I got to a point where I decided that even if all of my family and friends disowned me, even if I ever had another intimate relationship and spent the rest of my life alone, that would be better than living my life as something that I was not. I was sitting on a cliff with a gun to my head.
In March 1994 on International Women’s Day, I made the decision to transition, while visiting friends in the country. For the first time in a long time I was smiling. At twenty-two I started my journey of gender exploration. I went to see my GP and told her everything. I got a referral to a psychiatrist, as she was not prepared to start any treatment until I had seen the psychiatrist, and I had to wait three months for an appointment. I got myself a dog, Talaska. Just in case everyone walked away, at least I would have Talaska to keep me company.
So, I started telling friends about my transition. Most of them were OK. Some of them said things like, “Well I don’t think that is the best idea and if there was any chance we could talk you out of it, we would.” But they knew I was determined to go ahead with it and they would stand by me. There were some people that I didn’t bother to tell, particularly after witnessing the way they talk about KC behind his back. Althea was one of the last friends to be told, and I was worried about her reaction. When I told her, she said, “I thought so. Well, let’s have a beer and toast to your future.” We talked for a long time, and over the next few months our friendship was tested, but we survived.
I was still working as a carpenter, but it was getting harder. I wanted to start my new life, so I took twelve months’ leave from my carpentry apprenticeship and went back to work full-time in an Indian restaurant that I had worked casually in over the years.
Eventually three months passed and I got to see the psychiatrist, who prescribed me testosterone tablets, referred me to an endocrinologist, and a few months later I was testosterone injections. This is when the physical changes started. I looked in the mirror every day searching for facial hair, but the changes were slow.
I was petrified of telling my parents about my transition, as about this time my grandmother was quite sick. I didn’t think that this was the time to tell them, and I certainly didn’t want to tell them on the phone. My voice was starting to change, so every time we spoke on the phone my mother would say, “Do you still have that cold?” The situation was becoming very difficult. My housemates were calling me Jack and using the pronoun “he” but when my family called they would have to call me Jean and “she”. Friends would often speak to me without using pronouns because they didn’t want to get it wrong.
Life was very exciting at this stage; I was being treated as male by most of society. I had changed my driver’s license, and life was progressing nicely. It was also a very stressful time, as I had to get used to society treating me differently. How do men interact with each other? What are the rules when entering male toilets? How do men interact with women? Society has many unspoken rules – I had to go through a whole childhood and adolescence of learning in one year.
As I was working evenings in the Indian restaurant, it meant that I had a lot of time on my hands during the day, so I started to get involved in the Brisbane GLBT Pride festival. This is a festival that happens every year. There are discussion forums, art exhibitions, films and a march through the city, followed by Fair Day and a big dance party. I joined the Pride committee and was involved with organising Fair Day, which was a lot of fun and got me out and about in my new gender.
One of my friends decided to organise a fashion parade as part of the dance party, and I was asked to be a model. The group involved with the fashion parade got together, and this is where I met Michael. He was the hairdresser and makeup artist for the night. I remember at one of the organising meetings sitting next to Michael, and we talk and laughed. I felt something that I had never felt before. I was high – I was on cloud nine after talking to him; we connected. This was really strange for me. I had only dated girls, I had never thought about men sexually.
For the first time I was contemplating a sexual relationship with a man, with a gay man. I really didn’t think that he would be interested in me. If he was a gay man, then how could he be interested in a man without a penis, or more to the point a man with a vagina? With clothes on I could pass as a male, but naked, how could he possibly find me sexually attractive?
So we went on a few dates and we talked about different things. I was incredibly confused. When deciding to transition, I had come to the point where Idecided that I would probably never have another sexual relationship. I thought that no one would ever find me sexually attractive and then I had this man pursuing me. Gender and sexuality are very different things, but they are linked together. So at a time when I was still trying to sort out my own gender identity, I was also forced by circumstance to try to sort out my sexual identity.
Heterosexual, gay, lesbian are all identities based on gender – by definition you have to be two women to take on the identity of lesbian, two men to take on the identity gay, male and female to be heterosexual, and I wasn’t sure how I fitted into these definitions. I had always thought that I would have intimate relationships with women, because that is what I had done in the past. I was way outside of my comfort zone, and I didn’t know how to proceed or even if I wanted to proceed with this relationship.
In August 1995, after a night out, Michael asked me if I would consider having a relationship with a male. Unfortunately at that point, I laughed because I was thinking: “how can I ask him if he would consider having a relationship with a trans man?” He got out of the car and ran into his house, as he thought that I was laughing at the prospect of having a relationship with him. Oops. So I got out of the car and followed him inside and we talked. I said that I didn’t know if I could have a relationship with a man, but that I was willing to give it a go. This was the start of a long relationship; we are still together seven years later.
My biggest concerns were being naked in front of him and having sex with a male. So, we proceeded slowly. I had only been on hormones a short time; it was only five months after the decision to transition and I had only had one or two hormone injections, so my body was still very female. I was uncomfortable with my body and I was worried about how he might react, so we took things one step at a time. Michael stayed over for a few nights and we slept in the same bed; slowly over the next few nights, I took off articles of clothing. As I felt more comfortable with him I was able to expose a little bit more of my physical body until he had seen it all. The whole way through this process, I expected him to get up and leave – I expected him to say, “You are not a man, you are a woman; no… you are not a woman, you are a freak and I cannot be with a freak.” I guess this says more about my state of mind at the time. You see, when I was seen as female, at least I had a body to match and everyone thought that I was normal, but by deciding to transition I was telling the world that I didn’t match. I felt like a freak. How can I be a man with breasts and a vagina? It took a long time for me to understand how Michael could still see me as male, even when I was naked.
When a trans man starts hormones, a number of things occur. Fat redistributes around the body to give a more masculine shape, muscles develop, hair grows in a male pattern (which includes male-pattern baldness for some), facial hair starts to grow, the clitoris grown into a micro penis, and the person’s voice deepens. If you see a picture of a naked trans man, particularly after his breasts have been removed, you probably would even notice that he doesn’t have a penis. It was only after I had seen such a picture that I could understand how I could be seen as male, even when I was naked. At this point in my life, it was important to me to be seen as a man.
Telling My Parents and Friends
In October my parents came to visit. I didn’t want to have to tell my mother at this time, but the changes were happening, and when they saw me, they knew something was different. I think parents, especially mothers, know when their children are having a hard time, so my mother had been worried about me for many months. So I took them out for coffee and told them what I was doing. I talked all about the transition, the psychiatrist, and the endocrinologist. They were upset, but they kept it together and we parted on good terms. When I walked them to the car, they got in and drove off. I never knew if they would speak to me again.
A few weeks later I got an amazing letter from my mother. I still have it. She wrote and told me that she loved me and she would always love me. She said that she recognises how hard it must have been to make such a big decision and that I can always count on her for support. She had always been there for me and I love her dearly.
Over the next year or so, I spent a lot of time seeing doctors and psychiatrists, and changing documents. I spent a lot of time trying to understand transition and myself. Michael and I spent a lot of time together – we did all the things that new lovers do, we discussed gender and generally got to know each other.
About one-and-a-half years after I started my transition, Michael and I moved to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. This was the first time that we had lived together. The move was one of the best things we have ever done. We had been living in inner-city Brisbane in the queer ghettos. Moving away allowed me to enjoy the environment (we lived a short walk to the beach), and I started to look toward the future. When I was living as female, it took all of my energy just to survive, just to get through the day. I never had any concept of the future, or even thought what I might be doing years from then.
It was also a chance for me to start making friends with people who didn’t know my past. To these people I was a man and that was all. At this time I still had breasts. Early in transition I decided not to have any surgery for the first two years, as I felt that this would give me time to adjust to all the other changes and to preserve my mental health. The two year time restriction that I had placed on myself still had six months to go, and my mental health was declining. I needed to have surgery; I needed to have my breasts removed. I went to see a doctor who had operated on only one FTM before; I like him and could afford his fee. I only had to wait six weeks from the first consultation for a surgery date – I was so excited.
The day before the surgery, my mother picked us up and took Michael and me to Brisbane, where we stayed with my sister overnight. Early the next morning we went to the hospital. The doctor warned me that after surgery my chest would be heavily bandaged. He told me this was that I didn’t panic and think that they had performed the wrong operation and put in breast implants! Mum and Michael sat with me while we waited for them to wheel me off to surgery. The next thing I remember is waking up in the recovery ward; I was still groggy and I kept pulling the blanket down. The nurse would walk past and pull the blanket back up; I would then pull it back down. This happened several times until I managed to say, “I have been waiting my whole adult life to be in public without having my chest covered, now go away and leave me alone.” At this point they decided that I was OK and sent me back to the ward.
I slept for the rest of the day, and the next day I was able to go home. Mum and Michael came to get me, and home we went. Mum stayed for about a week to look after me, but after a few days, I was fine. My chest was bandaged for a week, but eventually the bandages came off and I was able to see the results. My chest was incredibly bruised and sore (I had a reaction to the elastoplast and my skin was raw) but that didn’t matter – my chest was flat. So home I went and life continued as normal, but with less stress.
While living on the Sunshine Coast, I completed a diploma of applied science in community and human services. This was a two-year course. The class started with more than fifty students, and only eight of us graduated after two years. We because a very close group, going out together, studying together, and going camping during one of the semester breaks. No one ever questioned my gender, and when I eventually told them, their initial reactions were of disbelief. I never had any problem with using public toilets or anything else. One time when we were camping, one of the women said to me, “Why do you walk all the way to the toilet block? Why don’t you piss on a tree like the other guys?” I replied simply, “If you were a tree, would you want me to piss on you?”
After completing my studies I started working in the community sector. Five years after starting this journey, Michael and I moved to Sydney, and I immersed myself in the transgender community. This has been good for me, as it has allowed me the forum to discuss the ideas and issues that I face as a trans man. It has also give me the opportunity to explore my identity in a safe place with people who understand. I now have a balance of people in my life – those who know I am transgender and those who don’t. Some of the people around me are transgender and others don’t even know what the word means.
It has now been seven-and-a-half years since I first started my transition, and my thoughts and ideas on gender have changed dramatically over this time. I would like to leave you with some of my thoughts.
Many people have trouble understanding how I could have relationships with women and then start having a relationship with a man. I don’t have relationships with men or women, I have a relationship with a person that I love, a person that I am attracted to for many reasons – I do not love Michael because he has a penis, and his genitals have nothing to do with my attraction. I think that most people are attracted to people. However, we are raised with such strict rules about how men should behave, how women should behave, how all people should behave, and who we are allowed to be attracted to. When we first meet somebody that we are attracted to, we do not know what genitals they have – all we can do is assume. We attracted to other qualities.
When I started seeing Michael, I briefly identified as a gay boy; however, I quickly lost that identity because it simply didn’t fit. I don’t have anything in common with the gay scene, and as a whole I don’t objectify men. I have never liked the term bisexual, as it implies two genders – I know that there are so many more than simply male and female. Gender is much more fluid.
So I have taken on the sexual identity “queer”. I do not believe that ether is much difference in the sexual practices of lesbians, gay men, or heterosexual men and women. People are individuals and participate in different sexual practices; society would benefit enormously if people were open about sex.
During my life, I have had the opportunity to be part of women-only spaces, to talk with women about women’s things, to be involved with women intimately as another women. I have also had the opportunity to be part of men-only spaces, to talk with men about men’s things, to be involved intimately with men as another man. I have also had the opportunity to be part of a gender-diverse community, to talk with people about things we commonly share, to be involved intimately with gender-diverse people as another gender-diverse person. I have found that men and women are not fundamentally different. There are some differences, but I believe most of the differences are barriers put in place by society and reinforced by us. If we believe that men and women are different, we don’t have to take responsibility for not trying to understand each other – we don’t need to share our thoughts and feelings, our beliefs, our hopes and fears.
These days I see myself as Jack. Some days I am more feminine than others; some days I am more masculine than others. I have a wide variety of interests and skills. What I am doing and who I am with will depend on how I am and what personality traits dominate. When I first started this process, I thought I was male and believed this for a while.
Then I read something and I realised that I thought that I was male because I knew that I was not female. Once I realised this, my life opened up: I didn’t need to take on the identity of male; I could be me, Jack. Jack is definitely masculine and presents to the world in a masculine way, although I do not consider myself to be a man. I am reluctant to use any labels, especially a label like man; everyone (except me) knows exactly what it means, yet no one can define it. I don’t think that the label man adequately describes my reality.
You see, there are many things that I have and haven’t experienced. I know what it is like to be treated as a man and as a woman in this society. I do not know what it is like to grow up as a little boy. I don’t know what is its like to go through puberty as a teenage boy. I don’t know what it is like to have a penis or to orgasm with a penis. However, I do know what it is like to go through puberty as a biological girl. I know what it is like to have a vagina and to orgasm with a vagina. So, somehow the title man doesn’t adequately reflect my experiences. I have lived my life as a female in this society, and I have lived my life as a male in this society. I believe this is something to be cherished, and I feel privileged to have had these experiences.
For me, being transgender means more than identifying as male and/or female. It has allowed me to see gender as fluid and in doing so has given me the opportunity to really look at myself. This has not always been easy. I have found parts of myself that I don’t really like, and I have had to work really hard to change those parts or to accept them if they can’t be changed. I feel that I have grown enormously from the gender diversity in my life, and I would not change any of it.
Powell J (2003) Jack’s story. In K T Fox & T O’Keefe (Eds.), Finding the Real Me: True Tales of Sex and Gender Diversity (pp 168-178). San Francisco: Jossey Bass
Shutterstock photo used for illustration only.