Beautiful inside & out – Two stories of gender transition
A couple of weeks ago, express set out to do an issue based on beauty. We’ve spoken to those who have made external beauty the focus of their careers, but it’s important to remember that beauty comes from within. So we decided to change this issue to focus more on body and soul – because we all know it’s impossible to be beautiful inside and out until we are truly comfortable with who we are. With this in mind, Hannah JV spoke to two bright, young, intelligent people who – after many years of soul searching – have become comfortable with who they are through gender transition.
If you’re looking for Kestin Stewart, chances are he’s at Rainbow Youth. He facilitates the gender questioning support group at the centre, helps out education coordinator Priscilla Penniket on school visits and sits on the Rainbow Youth board. “I go to high schools with Priscilla, tell my life story and then answer questions from the kids,” says Kestin. “The kids react pretty positively but I think that might be because of the way I tell my story – I’m not too serious but I tell my story matter-of-factly. I want them to think, ‘If you don’t think it’s a big deal, why should I think it’s a big deal?’ We get anonymous questions – the kids ask me a lot of physicality-based questions, but they also ask me about how my parents reacted, about my relationships, my sexual orientation and more life stuff too.”
So when it comes to telling his story of transition, Kestin’s pretty well practised – completely open and upfront with a story that is funny at points, uncomfortable in others, but all over a damn good listen. I wonder whether Kestin’s laidback attitude to his history comes from telling it so often, or whether telling his story has brought him a certain level of catharsis.
“I first thought about who I thought I was when I was about five, but I put it to the back of my mind because I couldn’t really understand what it was,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t a girl, but I didn’t think I was a boy; I knew what I wasn’t, rather than what I was. From there I just thought of myself as a tomboy and didn’t really think about it again until I was about 19. “I’d moved to Auckland and was at animation school; I’d just left home, had gone flatting and was discovering my own independence. I remember being at home one day and I just had an epiphany – I felt like I didn’t have a gender. So I googled that! I found a whole community of people who felt that way too.”
Kestin transitioned in his third year of animation school. At the time he was an out lesbian and the only out person in a school of close to 200 people. These odds appear a little stacked against him in terms of acceptance, but Kestin says he was really fortunate to have support from tutors and friends and didn’t have any problems with anyone. “Animation is a more male dominated industry, and so I thought that I was going to get a lot of jokes but people were actually pretty supportive,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate to experience very little discrimination or harassment.”
From there, Kestin spent around a year-and-a-half reading about gender transitioning, trying to learn more about himself, his identity and where he fitted in the scheme of things. “I knew from the get go that I wanted chest surgery, but the idea of hormones and the big irreversible changes freaked me out,” he says. “As time went on I started thinking about [hormone therapy] every once in a while, then every other day, then every day, then every hour and every minute! I knew then that I wanted the voice and I wanted to pass as a guy. It had started to become an issue that I couldn’t pass as a guy, so I decided to do something about it. I started coming to Rainbow Youth and started going to the GenderQuest group and met a transguy for the first time. Rainbow Youth was a great place to transition – I could interact with some great people in an awesome environment.”
Support from Rainbow Youth and friends at animation school were invaluable for Kestin, who initially didn’t receive a lot of support from family. He says when he came out as trans his mother was still of the belief that his lesbianism was a phase. He laughs as he retells the story, which is great – it’s good to know he can look back light-heartedly. “I didn’t get a lot of support from my mum when I was transitioning because a lot was going on in my mum and step dad’s lives. They couldn’t deal with a lot of things and so I didn’t really talk to them about anything for ages – it was this huge elephant in the room. Because they weren’t dealing I was kind of cold with them and didn’t see them for a while.
“About four months after I started testosterone injections I went down to Christchurch for Christmas and I’d just started passing as a guy, but I hung out with my dad for five days travelling around. We had to go see one of his workmates and he asked if he should refer to me as his son – he was great about it.
“There have been issues changing pronouns within the family, but because I have a unisex name I’ve kept it. People always called me Kirsten or Kristen growing up, now people pronounce it how it looks.
“My older sister says I haven’t changed much – she says my voice has changed and I’m hairier. She’s had the biggest problem dealing with it, I think. Her main problem is ignorance; she just doesn’t get it. She says, ‘Why couldn’t you just be a lesbian? It’s so much easier.’”
This otherwise uninformed comment from Kestin’s sister raises another question – what happens when one begins gender transition? Do they have to redefine their sexual orientation too?
“These days I consider myself bisexual, and in a way it was kind of annoying to have to question my sexuality again when I transitioned,” Kestin says. “You get taught that once you come out, that’s it and if your feelings change and you change your sexuality later, you weren’t really that way in the first place. There’s a real stigma surrounding changing sexualities – even though it can change, and it does. I am convinced that I was only into girls, but back then when I was a female, options were fairly limited to me. Another thing was that being with a guy exaggerated my femininity; in a lesbian relationship that idea was negated.
“Nowadays I’m attracted to all sorts – queer girls and queer guys; people outside of the mainstream. Being queer is comfortable to me, and being around queer people is comfortable for me. “Another thing that kind of made transitioning a longer process for me is that I’m very much a feminist and I thought I was a traitor to the cause,” Kestin laughs. “I wouldn’t say I’m a hardcore feminist but I do have those values. I don’t have any issues with femininity or the female kind at all, but it comes down to the fact that I wasn’t right in this body at all. As a guy I think it’s actually good in a way – there are things that I can make more of a difference to than I think girls can. As a guy, you have more of an opportunity to change how some guys think!”
Kestin is now on the waiting list to undergo physical surgery, and should get chest surgery within about five months. Right now, he’s focussing on working with Rainbow Youth in schools and gearing up for returning to university next year. “Going into schools has changed what I want to do with my life a bit – I’m on the board at Rainbow Youth, a facilitator and I speak in schools. Working with youth has become a real passion for me and I’m going to go to Auckland University next year to do a bachelor of human services majoring in youth work. I’d love to marry my two passions – youth work and animation – and I think I can. I have ideas for short animations or children’s books that educate kids on sexuality and gender issues.”
Wherever life takes Kestin, I can tell he’ll approach it in the same relaxed way he tells his life story. “I’m a very happy person naturally, and once I figure out how I’m going to do something, it all makes sense to me and I can move on,” he says. “Just like transitioning – once I sorted out what I was thinking and what I knew I felt – I was fine. To me, this life is just the hand I was dealt – being trans for me feels no different than having brown eyes, brown hair, or the odd bit of grey that’s coming through.”
Jaimie Veale works as an intern psychologist with Counties Manukau DHB while she finishes research for her doctorate. It’s almost full circle for Jaimie, who saw a psychologist when she first decided to transition. But that’s not where her story starts.
“I grew up in Ashburton, just out of Christchurch. I had a very happy childhood. It was… I don’t like using the word normal, but I would say that I had a very good life growing up and it was pretty positive for me. I had a few thoughts towards questioning my gender as a child, but I didn’t really start to explore those thoughts and feelings until I was about 12, when I was at boarding school and becoming more independent. At first I toyed with the term crossdresser, and thought of myself in that way for a little while, until I finally settled on transsexual when I was about 15. I guess from there it was a pretty slow journey towards transition.”
Jaimie first told her parents when she was 17, and told her sister some time later. Unfortunately for Jaimie, reactions from her family were initially quite negative. “Both of my parents didn’t really know what to make of it,” she said. “They said to me that it was just a phase and that I was too young to be making these kinds of decisions. They said at the time that I should finish school, go to university and find myself a nice girl to ‘move past this phase’. My mother got better over the years and has been much more accepting, but my father never really came to terms with who I am, and he unfortunately passed away last year.
“I first tried to get on hormone therapy when I was 17, but I needed parental consent, so that was a bit of an obstacle for me at the time. I tried again at 19 and that’s when I started treatment – I saw a psychologist and discussed my decision. Transitioning is definitely not something to take lightly – it’s a huge decision – so we went through everything I’d been feeling and the changes I wanted to make, and then it all started from there.”
Luckily for Jaimie, the trans community was there to support her from the get go. Despite still being at high school, she started talking to the local Uni-Q club, and met the first trans person she’d ever met. She later moved to Auckland and started going to GenderBridge and GenderQuest at Rainbow Youth. She now works as the chairperson for Genderbridge, supporting others as they begin transitioning. “It’s been really great to meet so many supportive people in the community and through my connections to these guys I’ve met some really good role models,” she says. When describing her journey, Jaimie says transitioning for her has been a very slow, very gradual process. “There are trans people out there who transition rapidly, but for me I’ve made small, subtle changes over the years, so there wasn’t really a time when I suddenly started ‘passing’ as female,” she says.
“Passing is a pretty fluid experience – there are places where I completely pass and other places where there is still the odd question. I have been really fortunate that I haven’t had much in the way of discrimination or negativity, but that’s partly because I’ve tended to shy away from situations where I could encounter discrimination. I guess it’s very much a part of who I am to be a bit cautious – that’s why transitioning has been such a gradual act.
“My name is another good example – I toyed with a few ideas for names, but settled on Jaimie because it’s a bit of a variant of the name I was given at birth. I liked Jaimie because it’s gender-neutral, which is something I very much liked being quite gender-neutral myself when I chose it. A few years back when I began fully presenting as female I thought about changing my name to something that was more traditionally female, but I’d come to really like Jaimie – the name had stuck with me and it’s a definite part of my history now.”
Having been a part of GenderBridge for so long, Jaimie has the knowledge to speak about trans issues in general, as well as her own experiences. One issue she has heard a lot about has been troubles with customer service; call centres in particular.
“There are instances in the community where people have trouble accessing their bank accounts over the phone, and the phone something that poses a lot of problems for the trans community, but I have generally had very good experiences with phone operators. In fact, one of the first jobs I had after I began transitioning was at a call centre – the people there were very respectful of trans issues and the community, and I think I was attracted to the fact that I could be myself on the phone.”
When it comes to workplaces, people in the GenderBridge group can rattle off a number of horror stories. But for Jaimie, working at Counties Manukau DHB has been a positive experience. In fact, Counties Manukau DHB has just launched a rainbow support network, a new initiative to support GLBT staff. The new group brings the DHB closer to fulfilling the recommendations made by the Human Rights Commission’s transgender report, a report GenderBridge was instrumental in putting together. “There are a number of really important issues that the Human Rights Commission brought up in the transgender report, so there are likely to be changes to the way services are provided to the community over the coming years,” says Jaimie. “Health services for trans people around the country are different depending on where you are, and the commission has recommended that there be more consistency in the provision of these services countrywide.”
Jaimie will be looking for work next year – by the time she finishes she will have been at university for nine years!
“I didn’t always want to be a psychologist – when I was in first year I studied a whole range of subjects, and settled on political studies and psychology, which I got a double major in at bachelor’s level. I’ve been studying psychology at post-graduate level ever since, and this year I’ve had an internship at the Counties Manukau DHB. “Working towards a career in psychology and working with the community are goals for me. I think being trans will give me a unique perspective, and it would be a definite benefit when working with the trans community. That’s the goal, but I have to get through this year first!”
| Hannah JV