Though they may not be the first to leap to mind - gender and social inclusion are important determinants of health.
Socially excluded Canadians are more likely to be unemployed and earn lower wages. They have less access to health and social services. Discrimination, based on gender expectations, leads to stress that has serious health effects. Earlier this week, we shared a blog from Amanda that talked about how important it is to eliminate gender-based discrimination.
Today, we are honoured to share Laura's story, which highlights how important it is for our communities to be safe and supportive spaces and the need for improved access to health services for transgender people.
I was a happy child, but always unsure
I think this is a statement my parents and siblings would agree describes me. My childhood memories are generally happy ones. One traumatic event does stand out though; when I was 3 years old, our house caught fire with myself and two of my sisters inside. Our mother braved the immense heat and danger and after several trips back into the house, carried us to safety.
Throughout my life, thinking about the strength and bravery my mother drew upon to plunge into that burning building, with great physical sacrifice on her part, is where I gain strength from in times when I’ve felt like giving up.
"He is a good boy"
This is a statement that hasn’t ever sat well with me. Being assigned male at birth, but being a transgender woman, has been the struggle I have faced from an early age. The deep disconnect between who I was and who I had been assigned to be affected everything about my life and left me with feelings of self-doubt. In the last few years, as I’ve approached my 50th birthday, I have taken ownership over my own health and identity and things have begun to get better.
I was born in the early 1960’s and grew up listening to the homophobic and gender binary slurs that abounded during that time. As a result, as I moved from adolescence into adulthood, I kept my feelings of something not being right to myself. The fact that I was more comfortable in the female than male spectrum of our society’s gender binary wasn’t something I felt I could express or share with anyone.
The gender binary is the classification of gender into two distinct, opposite and disconnected forms of masculine and feminine
The constant discomfort and hiding of my natural affinity for the feminine led me to battle anxiety and ultimately, depression. I felt that my need for emotional expression was a weakness. I saw my desire to talk about and express my full range of emotions through tears or gleeful exuberance as unacceptable, because men were not supposed to cry or be open about feelings.
For most of my life, I blamed my internal struggles on external factors, like high school, university, relationships, and my career. When I was 44 years old, there was a dramatic turning point. Sure that I was having a heart attack, I rushed to a doctor. He ran some tests and realized it wasn’t a heart attack, but an anxiety attack. After this diagnosis, and the prescription of anti-depressants, I realised that there was still a barrier to overcome on my journey to health. I would not able to recover without being truthful (to myself, as well as my wife) about to the underlying cause of my physical and mental health issues, which was the disconnection between who I was assigned to be and who I felt I really was.
Photo by Torbakhopper
This was the beginning of a very difficult few years. My family and I began to work through what me finally opening up about this meant to our lives. The medication I was prescribed after my anxiety attack made me extremely lethargic and very distant from reality. While medicated, my sense of self got even duller, and when you’re struggling with your self-identity, anything that distances you even more from who you are is very scary. Because of these effects, I decided to stop taking the medication after only a few weeks. After going off medication, I felt more present and able to function somewhat normally, but I was still experiencing extremely high levels of anxiety.
Nearly a year after my trip to the doctor during an intense anxiety attack, while at a mandatory physical for my Class 1 licence, I told my family doctor that (I felt) I was transgender. I explained that I had never dealt with these feelings, because I had never seen someone like me in society. I was afraid that by talking about it, I might lose my family, my friends and the financial stability that my wife and I had spent decades struggling for.
The conversation that saved my life
When my family doctor said the words, “I have a lot of reading to do”, I felt profound relief. He continued, saying “I know nothing about transgender needs, but we will find you the help you need.” Then, he paused and looked at me and asked “Where do you want to start and what can I do for you today?” This conversation saved my life. At that point, I was suicidal and had that conversation gone differently, I’m not sure I would have made it.
My doctor referred me to Dr. Donna Hendrickson, psychiatrist. Unfortunately, that referral would take almost 9 months to turn into an appointment. My wife Pat and I discussed next steps and thankfully, she saw through my “It’s ok, I can wait” words. My need was immediate. Pat found a psychologist in Regina (150 km from where we live) who was willing to take on a patient with transgender issues. Pat made me make the call and that day, good fortune was on my side.
Dr. Helen Morgan Traqaur answered her phone that day and could hear in our brief conversation my urgent need. So, it was without the assistance of Saskatchewan Health that I went under Dr. Traquar’s care. Initially going a few times a week, then weekly, and by 6 months, monthly, I worked through my identity issues. I went from hoping to be fixed to embracing who I was. I was able to say that I’m transgender and express that I have always felt feminine and was mis-gendered at birth. I was able to claim my identity as a woman. Above all, this was so important because I had lost who I was. I had never been able to feel comfortable in my own skin or express any sort of self-love. Looking in the mirror to acknowledge and accept myself was a huge step.
Finally meeting with Dr. Hendrickson was the next good development. She listened to me explain where I was at, and after a few appointments, Pat started to accompany me. Pat and I were able to work through many things through these appointments, falling deeper in love through the process. With Dr. H’s help I was again able to move forward and I headed toward my public transition. With a referral to Dr. Wilson, an internal medicine specialist, I started my medical transition less than a year after my first appointment with Dr. Hendrickson.
Just 5 months after I started hormone therapy, Dr. Wilson retired. My hormone treatment was going very well and fortunately, my Family Doctor, Dr. Manyande was willing to take on my care. Though I have faced many obstacles in my journey towards full physical and mental health, there have also been so many points at which people came alongside me at crucial moments.
We have come a long way, but we still have very far to go
I have been extremely fortunate to have the love and support of my wife through this journey. I am also lucky that we were, and continue to be, financially stable enough to pick up the costs that were not covered by our health care system. I had a support system that helped me to find the help I needed when Saskatchewan Health let me down with the lack of support and resources for transgender health care in this province. With only the supports provided by our health care system, I would not have survived.
I am now an advocate for change in our province. I hope that someday soon we will see changes, both big and small, like information for transgender people on the Saskatchewan Health website. Though I was able to find supportive and helpful health care providers, many in our province have not. It is time changes are made so that more transgender persons may enjoy the care and support I have had the good fortune of receiving.
We have come a long way, but we still have very far to go.
Laura and her wife Pat and their son Jake live on a farm just outside the community of Kelliher, SK.
Want to read more on this topic?
How a Pink T-shirt became a catalyst for change by Amanda Guthrie - "For the past five years the Avenue Community Centre has run a campaign focused on eliminating bullying. This campaign is called Pink Revolution and this year it ran alongside Transgender Awareness Week – a powerful coincidence that led to a strong message about ending bullying based on gender and sexuality."
Removing Barriers One Step at a Time by Miki Mappin - 'There are many issues impacting transgender people that have serious implications for our health; caused by intolerance, discrimination in housing, employment, education and in accessing health care."