A trendy time to be transgender?

Harmonie Faerielove strides into Angel’s The York pub with the air of someone who has oozed confidence from the moment of birth. With her arms outstretched she laughs openly, unashamedly filling the somewhat empty pub with the sound of her voice. “I haven’t been here for such a long time,” she exclaims. “Let’s get drinks.”

Harmonie is a middle-aged transgender female, with the energy and wit of a 21-year-old. Dressed in a tartan skirt with bright blue tights and matching aqua eyeliner she hardly blends into the background, and after a couple of drinks (non-alcoholic, I might add) I’m beginning to notice that her story is just as colourful as her outfit.

“I brought my kids up for 17 years on my own, I was a single parent, and then I became too painful to live with. I was an addict, an alcoholic and I was out of control. I wanted to kill everything, especially myself.” She trails off, avoiding my gaze. “It must’ve been horrible for my daughters. They upped and left and told me I was a waste of space, and that was it, off they went.”

Harmonie knew from a young age that she was different. She felt like a female, but suppressed these emotions and continued living as a boy.

“I slept with somebody for the very first time, and I got her pregnant,” she tells me. “It was like pregnant – get married, you know, do the right thing. It lasted a year and a day, we used to call it the Owl and the Pussycat, from the day we got married to the day it finished and we had a baby in that time as well,” she pauses for dramatic effect. “Then she ran off with one of my mates.”

Harmonie admits to taking drugs since the shocking age of 7 and began using heroin at 13 years old. She later attended a course designed to help her sober up.

“I went on this one month course, rock climbing, canoeing, and then I met this girl on there who was as insane and crazy as I was, and we just caused trouble on this entire course. I was on there to stop taking drugs and drinking alcohol and I drank and took drugs every day I was on that course. Without them knowing. And when I left the course I gave them a great big bag of all the empty cans and bottles, like ‘Sheffield station have all this, take that back to your fucking centre’”, she laughs. “They were really shocked.”

She takes another sip of her lemon water and giggles. Composing herself, she continues. “On the very last night the girl I was with came to Kingston with me and we ended up sleeping together. And guess what,” her smile widens and she snorts with laughter. “She became pregnant.”

Harmonie FaerielovePhotograph of Harmonie Faerielove by Christa Holka, used with permission. © Christa Holka

Her eyes twinkle at my look of disbelief, motioning to me that there’s more to this tale. “We split up, because well, I wasn’t a man. And then I used to go and visit her and my child, I set them up with a house, and I used to go and see them. And then this one day, we had something to drink and we slept together, and… she became pregnant again. And we had our second child.” Her manic laughter stopped now, with a hint of sadness clouding her expression. “It wasn’t a good relationship. I put my hands up, we fought and I hit her, it was horrible.”

Although Harmonie is especially open about her identity today, that was not always the case. Throughout her early teenage years, she struggled as a young boy to come to terms with her feelings of displacement.

“Originally I went to a grammar school, and when we did games we all had to have showers with the boys, so I wanted to kiss them and stuff because I felt like a girl. And I thought I had the wrong body, it was my first recognition that I didn’t feel right in my body and that’s when the dysphoria started, and all the self-harming.” Even as the years passed and she experimented with makeup and colourful hairstyles, living as a punk, she was treated callously by people in her town.

“If you actually look at my nose, where it’s all broken, I used to have a really big nose. I got my nose bitten and then when he came off it he went bang—” she mimics a punch. “Right into my face. So…I got a free nose job! Actually did me a favour.” She laughs, her smile not quite reaching her eyes. “They chopped my cat up, and one of them was in the local pub with one of its paws hanging off his denim jacket. Poor little Smartie,” she says wistfully, my look of horror going unnoticed. “They’d smashed all the windows in of my house, ripped all the radiators out, and smashed the toilet in, water pissing everywhere. Wrote ‘paedo’ all over the walls.” She sighs.

As she talks I wonder how somebody could have experienced such a journey and still smile as brightly as she does, until it dawns on me that she will have what she has wanted all her life in a matter of months: gender reassignment surgery.

“I’m seeing a surgeon next Friday for female feminisation surgery. I’ve had my entire body lasered, so I’ve got no hair anywhere. I didn’t find it so painful down there,” she points to her genitalia. “Because each time the laser was used it was like each bit was killing him.” She pauses for a moment, fiddling with her necklace. “The worst part was when I got my anus done. It was like someone sticking a hot iron up my arse. I had to have 8 sessions for that.” She jumps off her stool and heads to the bar to get another drink, and as I watch her walk away I wonder if my jaw had ever hit the ground so many times during one conversation.

The 2004 Gender Recognition Act, which first came into force in April 2005, allowed trans people to apply for a gender recognition certificate. With this, their acquired gender would be legally recognised in the UK.

Official statistics from the Gender Recognition Panel (GRP) show that by the end of June 2015, 3,999 full gender recognition certificates had been issued by the GRP. By December 2014, 3,779 entries were made into the Gender Recognition Register, of which 3,485 were from England and Wales. This includes 2,673 people who are now legally female and 812 people who are now legally male.

But a recent report from the House of Common’s Women and Equalities Committee argues that the UK is still failing trans people. Evidence gathered found discrimination to be a part of daily life for trans people, in some instances including being harassed, sexually assaulted, and beaten.

In a time where everybody links the word “transgender” to Caitlyn Jenner, it’s difficult to tell whether the rise of this identity is due to media attention or simply because people feel that they can finally be themselves without getting thrown in a mental house or burned at the stake. I’m kidding. Kind of.

A sense of belonging is important to all individuals in all time periods. Historically, however, social identity has been more clearly linked to class or religion, but now there is a much wider range of groups and identifiers that people affiliate themselves with.

The same can be said within the transgender community. In order to understand what it means to be transgender, it is important to embrace all forms of this identity. Let’s take the transgender and the faith communities for instance: have we ever thought there could be a correlation between the two? This February, Islington Museum saw the opening of Britain’s first exhibition featuring trans and gender non-conforming people of faith, showing trans Christians, Muslims and Jews.

The small space was dimly lit, with reflected light rebounding softly off every portrait that encircled the room. Each contained the story of a transgender person of faith, demonstrating how their gender identities were affirmed by their devotion to their religion.

Captured by Christa Holka, the photographs are the first of their kind in the UK, marking a step forward in the LGBT community. The exhibition was organised by Twilight People, a project that explores histories of trans and gender-variant people of faith.

“People were just walking into this space and breaking out into tears of joy,” laughs Surat-Shaan Knan, Twilight People project manager. “Everyone was touched and moved and inspired.”

Surat-Shaan KnanPhotograph of Surat-Shaan Knan by Christa Holka, used with permission. © Christa Holka

Each visitor was handed a voice recorder and headphones to enjoy the audio installation available exclusively for the opening. While examining each striking portrait, visitors had the opportunity to hear that subject explain their relation to their faith and how this affects their gender identity. The intrinsically intimate nature of this sensual collaboration made the event almost chilling and truly unforgettable.

Such a variety of people filled the room that had someone not known the nature of the event it would have been almost impossible to guess: from the eccentrically dressed with loud colours and ear stretchers big enough to put a few fingers through, to the 70-year-old woman slightly flinching at the loud frequency of the headphones.

I was warned not to take photographs of certain portraits because the people who modelled in them would be in physical danger if they were identified.

Intensely passionate waves of clarity washed over me, and I realised just how brave these people were and how much they had put on the line just to be who they wanted to be. I thought about how my biggest fear could be accidentally forgetting to shave my legs and heading out with serious stubble, but the people at this exhibition were bearing their souls for everyone to see, and that kind of courage was almost unimaginable.

“While I was doing the project I realised that somehow of this narrative, the gender stories beyond the binary were missing,” Knan explains. “What does it look like in other faith communities? Is it the same or is it different? So I started wondering, and while I was wondering I came out as trans myself and started transitioning. I realised I could not find my narrative in this, so I thought I have to create that because I want to be a part of history as well.’

As glasses of wine were topped up and conversation flowed, every person in that room seemed somehow linked to each other, as if experiencing this exhibition together had been some liberating moment in history. Somehow, a Church of England priest who happens to be transgender seemed nothing out of the ordinary.

Gender roles are constantly being challenged in modern society, but it was once the very foundation of how people lived their lives. The male goes to work, the female stays at home, does the dishes and looks pretty. Yadda yadda yadda. We get it.

The early French sociologist Emile Durkheim believed that modern life had introduced differences in values, beliefs, and backgrounds between individuals, which would ultimately work against social unity and cohesion. On the other hand, the work of contemporary sociologists like Anthony Giddens stresses that modern social conditions now provide individuals with more freedom to design and mould their place in society. Real stick-it-to-the-man type stuff.

Social norms can, in fact, be the very thing that makes being transgender difficult to fit in, which means these norms have to be broken in order for these identities to be celebrated. Gender expectations surrounding beauty pageants are a good example of this. Pageants have been around for centuries, and while they are arguably problematic for the women’s movement are centred around the idea of celebrating and rewarding conventional female beauty.

Miss Transgender however has only recently surfaced and it has brought about a lot of controversy along with it. It took the idea of a beauty pageant and gave it a transgender twist that made it all about celebrating the women the contestants had become. The winner was offered £5,000 and all-expenses paid gender reassignment surgery in India. But some people believe that a beauty pageant like this could only add to the stigma trans people already face. By placing them in a stereotypically feminine role this may make them feel confined to it, and the pageant then simply becomes about how ‘female’ they can be.

Miss Transgender Photograph of Miss Transgender pageant by Shell Coe, used with permission. © Shell Coe

This could be said for Jai Dara Latto, who was crowned Miss Transgender UK in September 2015. She imagined her winnings to culminate in celebration and a blissful ascent into trans womanhood, but only six months later she was left bitter and crownless, stripped of her title because she was “not transgender enough”.

“I will not be reduced to a female stereotype in order to hold a crown,” says Jai. “I will continue to do what is right for me and to transition at my own pace and continue, to be honest with others about who I am.”

This is a statement that has led many people to become confused as to what it means to be transgender and to question whether the beauty pageant has stopped becoming about empowering trans women and instead works to pigeonhole their individuality.

“It’s discrimination,” Jai adds. “Do I have to dress and act in a way that conforms to female stereotypes? Wearing women’s underwear, wigs, lipstick and getting my nails done? In my opinion, these things do not make a woman.”

Gender dysphoria is a condition where someone’s emotional and psychological identity is felt to be the opposite of their biological sex. I spoke to Dr Philip Jai Johnson, a scholar of LGBT health at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, to learn more about what causes it.

Dr Johnson believes people are beginning to feel as if they no longer have to conceal their true identities. He says “people might be recognising that it may very well be a cultural phenomenon, where it’s like ‘I don’t have to hide’ or ‘this is an option for me, gender dysphoria is not an option but the option to live the way that I want to’, now that it is getting more acceptance than it was before.

Having worked with families I’ve had a couple of parents who have expressed that they think their child is going through a phase, or it’s for attention, and the truth is gender dysphoria is a kind of experience that is accompanied with a lot of sadness and stress, it’s very difficult to not feel right in the body that you were born into,” he explains.

“The amount of stigma that people face because of gender dysphoria is extraordinary. Yes we’re seeing a lot of media attention but that doesn’t necessarily mean the level of prejudice is going down, it’s still a very stigmatised condition with high rates of bullying, people are very afraid of what they are not familiar with and the unfamiliar is treated with violence, it’s treated with confusion, it’s treated with hate and I think that’s what it’s about. It’s not something you can change, and you can’t force it either.”

As I walk Harmonie Faerielove back to Angel station, she stops in her tracks and looks at me as if a thought had just struck her. “You know, everybody saying ‘oh people are becoming transgender to be trendy’ is the biggest load of bollocks. When I was younger and I became a punk, yeah lots of people became punks too for a couple of years but then they grew out of it. Once you have a go at something and you find out how hated you are, you won’t carry it on unless it really is who you are. Nothing about this is trendy.” As I hug her goodbye she leaves me with a question that has resounded in my mind ever since. “Living in fear means your prison is in here,” she points to her head. “So, are you going to just live in prison for the rest of your life?”

Editor’s note: Quotations from interview with Harmonie Faerielove have not been marked with [sic] so as not to disturb the flow of the piece.

Featured image Miss Transgender pageant by Shell Coe, used with permission. Image has been cropped slightly to fit this website. © Shell Coe

Kiran

Kiran is a film and art enthusiast who believes that creative expression is key to personal wellbeing. She enjoys writing culture pieces and features on minority groups, as well as reportage on mental health and sex.