The transition to a new identity

Between coming out to friends and family and changing your mindset, taking on a new gender identity or sexual orientation is a complex process

Transitioning can entail everything from physical changes to your body or mental adjustments in order to take on a new gender identity or sexual orientation. Matt, ArtSci ’13, transitioned to being gay.
Transitioning can entail everything from physical changes to your body or mental adjustments in order to take on a new gender identity or sexual orientation. Matt, ArtSci ’13, transitioned to being gay.

“We’re born naked, and from there it’s all drag,” RuPaul, the famous American actor, drag queen and model once said. How people perceive sex and gender is always changing because everyone experiences these concepts differently.

Shannon Coyle, MA ’10, said transitioning individuals are among those with unique experiences.

Coyle’s area of research involves transgender individuals and their access and personal experiences within Ontario’s health-care system. She’s a graduate student in the gender studies program.

“Transitioning is a term used by the individual who is in the process of changing genders,” she said. “It’s also used by the medical professionals who help to council, and medically treat trans individuals.”

Coyle said the term doesn’t have to refer to a person who has started any type of Hormone Therapy (HRT) or have undergone any surgeries, adding that it’s more of a term used when the person has individually decided to engage in the process of changing their biological gender to that of the opposite, in most cases.

There are different kinds of transitioning, Coyle said. Some trans-individuals only partially transition by choice.

“It’s individualistic in terms of what a person can afford or has access to in terms of medical care and resources.”

Coyle said there are different transitioning stages, in terms of a medicalized model of going from 100 per cent male to female or vice versa.

“I believe most transitions begin mentally,” she said. “There’s an actual model to follow for transitioning individuals for all medical professionals.”

Support can vary for individuals depending on what path they take to transition and where they’re located, Coyle said.

“I think this question varies from person to person and is entirely dependent on how out they are and what city they live in, and what doctor they choose to see—if any.”

Jean Pfleiderer, human rights advisor, sexual and gender diversity coordinator and facilitator of the Positive Space Program, said transitioning doesn’t have to involve hormonal treatment or surgeries.

“Some people who transition to a different gender identity without undergoing physiological changes of any kind may simply be adopting the role in appearance and attire they want to move to,” she said.

Queen’s began thinking about these issues in 1998, when The Transgender/Transsexual Policy Group first formed, Pfleiderer said. The group consisted of faculty and staff who worked to develop policies in residences and around campus promoting sexual and gender diversity such as the Gender Variance poster campaign. The group today consists mainly of students working on instating more gender-neutral washrooms on campus. Campus currently has 27 accessible, gender-neutral, fully-functioning washrooms.

There’s an assumption about normativity and gender, Pfleiderer said, in that we each belong to one or the other, making it hard for those who are transitioning.

“Gender identity is something people always think about when they see other people,” she said. “It’s a socially automatic division that we can make and it often confounds people when we can’t.”

Pfleiderer said in a social context, it can be a difficult process.

“There’s a potential that people will be in physical and emotional danger,” she said. “At the end of the process, that may go away but it’s psychologically rough to get through.”

Although transitioning usually refers to physical change, for Matt, ArtSci ’13, it can also refer to sexual orientation.

Matt, who asked that his last name be withheld to maintain his privacy, said transitioning, for him, means he’s able to fit in somewhere new without forgetting what he learned and was taught before.

“The process is basically just having to make decisions and seeing how you react to different situations,” he said. “For example, I don’t get offended when people say comments like ‘That’s so gay’ because after three or four years of saying a comment, I can’t expect someone to change something they say overnight.”

Having always known he was gay, Matt said he’s never truly felt attracted to the opposite sex.

“Obviously, I was confused and didn’t understand so like most gay guys I developed ‘crushes’ on girls,” he said. “However, when guys come out it’s assumed if they ever had ‘crushes’ on girls when they were still closeted they were devised plans or not real. It’s actually the opposite ... I had platonic crushes on girls.”

Matt said it was a gradual process for him to come to terms with his homosexuality.

He said it’s hard enough for someone to leave home and be forced to look after themselves, but having to deal with coming out as well can make the process more difficult.

“It’s even that much harder with friends that I’ve known for only a few months because you don’t really know how people are going to react,” he said. “Dealing with such a contentious issue … is that much more difficult.”

Matt said his parents have been open-minded and supportive of him, but out of his three siblings, only his older brother knows.

“It has, in a way, made us a lot closer,” he said. “He was completely shocked and didn’t expect it. ... He hasn’t acted differently towards me which is something I’m so proud of.”

Coming out only a few months ago to a few close Queen’s friends, Matt said it wasn’t a big deal.

“We were all hanging out and I just told them,” he said. “Their reaction was that they already knew, and jokingly, were waiting for me to realize. They have been so supportive and haven’t been anything but there for me.”

Matt said the only thing that feels different about being gay is that he finally feels he has nothing to hide from the people who matter most.

“Transitioning will probably never stop,” he said. “Once I leave Queen’s I will have to transition to the way this affects me with the workforce, higher education, or whatever comes next.”

Matt said he still doesn’t feel fully out because his younger brothers and extended family don’t know. Because his family is of Middle Eastern descent and is faithful to the Christian religion, their acceptance and exposure to other sexualities isn’t as open.

“My extended family has never had to confront any of these issues with the family,” he said. “For my safety I feel that I will never be able to tell them my lifestyle.”

Despite this, Matt said he doesn’t hold anything against them because it’s what they’ve been taught.

“No one should be judged for believing things that were instilled from birth and had no control in choosing what to believe.”

Matt said despite the difficulties of coming out, he’s grown a lot.

“It has only made me stronger and forced me to be more mature, even about other things that don’t really overlap with being gay.”

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