Butch lesbians ever meet female lesbians
From woman to man to woman
When and why did you think you were trans?
Sam I've never been overly feminine. I've had short hair since I was ten and I've only worn baggy clothes. Then the saying kept coming: “You look like a boy!” That's why I was bullied a lot. I've always been told that the way I look and how I pose is wrong. That made me an outsider and I developed a lot of self-loathing. Then a friend who is still living as a trans man explained to me that there is this way of transition. He recommended that I see a therapist who knows about trans people. I just wanted to talk to him to get some clarity. I wasn't sure I was trans at the time. I just thought there might be a way to make me feel better. Then after 30 minutes the therapist made the diagnosis that I am definitely trans. And that a transition will help me.
A diagnosis after 30 minutes? How old were you there
Sam I was 22. The therapist then immediately set everything in motion. He gave me the number of an endocrinologist and he immediately confirmed the diagnosis. I got the testosterone prescription that same day. And then I thought: If everyone says that with such certainty, then it will probably be so.
What happened next?
Sam It all happened pretty quickly. I had my first interview with the therapist in March 2013, and in April I applied for a name change. For this I needed two reports, both of which were positive. Incidentally, one of the experts said that he would support the change because I am into women and that would make me more or less heterosexual. The name change was approved in October. Then I applied for the operations. For this I would actually have needed two new reports, but the health insurance company accepted the old ones and approved the operations. And in January 2015, ten months after the diagnosis, I had the mastectomy, i.e. the removal of the breasts, and in May the hysterectomy, i.e. the removal of the uterus and ovaries.
How did you feel about it?
Sam Not good. On the one hand, it felt right at the time. It was an opportunity to get out of this victim situation and to switch to the other side, so to speak. On the other hand, I asked myself: Why am I doing this? Does this really help me? I had the feeling that everything was going too fast. Before the mastectomy, I wasn't really sure anymore, but I did it anyway. And before the hysterectomy, I was already in a process of rethinking. It was then that I slowly understood that my problem had to do with gender stereotypes. And that the fact that I have short hair and no “feminine” hobbies doesn't mean that I'm not a woman. So I wasn't sure I really want the hysterectomy. But I was afraid that I would have to pay the costs for the approved surgery myself if I withdraw from it.
That was an operation with very far-reaching and irreversible consequences.
Sam Yes, but I wasn't properly informed about that. Later on I looked up what it means to have your uterus and ovaries removed if you have not yet gone through the menopause.
Did you receive therapeutic support?
Sam No. I had three hours. Then the therapist said I should get in touch if I had any questions.
Hasn't anyone else, for example your parents or teachers, questioned the diagnosis?
Sam No. However, my mother said that she supports me, even if I should change my mind later.
How was your life as a trans man then?
Sam As a man, I was treated differently than before. For example, I worked in a packaging warehouse long before the transition. And then I was told super often: You can't do that anyway! This is too hard for you! You are too small for that! After my transition, I worked in a warehouse and nobody questioned whether I could do it. Although I was the same stature as before. That was of course pleasant. But still it felt wrong.
And how was that with you, Ellie?
Ellie I've also been bullied. I was a tomboy as a kid and other kids called me a "hermaphrodite". I have always been very tall and had broad shoulders. I played basketball for many years and had to be told that it was a boy’s sport. Always feeling like I wasn't like the other girls, I decided that as a boy I would fit in better. When I was 15, I came out as a lesbian to my parents. And that's when I realized that it felt strange to imagine myself as a grown woman.
What did you do?
Ellie I did some research on the internet and found a trans organization in Brussels. So I went to talk to them about what I was struggling with. The organization's therapist explained to me that there was testosterone and the possibility of having an operation. When I got out I was totally confused and felt that I wasn't ready for this. But the therapist had planted a small seed and slowly I was enjoying the idea of changing my body. I found many YouTube videos on the net of trans men telling about their transition and how they looked better and better and got more and more popular. I started to hate my female body. When I was 16, I told my parents that I wanted a male body and that I had to take testosterone.
How did your parents react?
Ellie My mother explained to me that when she was 16 she would make that decision too early. That made me very angry. After all, the message on the Internet was that such a reaction was "transphobic". I didn't understand that she was just worried about me. I then put pressure on me until my parents took me to a gender clinic. The therapist there explained that I was not trans, but the victim of the trans hype in the media. I then convinced my parents to take me to a therapist from the trans organization. He then explained that I was of course trans. My parents were very concerned about the long-term effects the hormones would have on my health. A gynecologist recommended by the organization told them there was no reason to wait with the hormones. The earlier you start, the better the result. And he said that all of the effects of testosterone are reversible.
But that's not true.
Ellie No. He lied and I knew it too. But I just wanted my parents to agree. Which they did then. When I was 17, I had the mastectomy. I am Belgian and there is no age limit for gender reassignment surgery in Belgium. You just have to find a doctor to do it.
And what were the consequences?
Ellie At first I was very happy with it. I thought I looked good as a man and I got a lot of compliments. I was comfortable with my body, but I was uncomfortable with my role. People treated me as a boy, but I had no experience as a boy so I always felt like I was playing a role. For example, I switched to the boys' group in school sports, and I found it very difficult to adapt to their expectations: to be so rough and so competitive.
And how was it with you, Nele?
Nele I hit puberty very early. I was nine and one of the first girls in class to have big breasts. I was turned on in the street and whistled after me. So my first contact with my female body was rejection. On the other hand, I was very adjusted and measured my self-worth by the fact that I liked men. I was a very feminine girl.
Then why did you want to be a man at some point?
Nele At first I really wanted to be thin. I wanted to lose weight to get rid of the breasts and hips. I then slipped into an eating disorder, I wanted to starve my body away. During this time I also noticed that I like women. Then I got more and more to the point that I could no longer identify myself as a woman. Today I know that it was related to the role models I had of women in my head. I didn't want to be so feminine, but at the same time I had the idea: If I am not feminine, then as a woman I am worthless.
Nele I started doing research on breast removal online because I was really disgusted with my breasts. Then I came to the topic of trans identity. I was wondering if that could even be the case with me because I had never been a tomboy. But then it was said that every trans person is different. And I knew that I had overcompensated with my extreme femininity, so to speak. And then it made sense to me that I was transgender, that is, that I was born in the body of the opposite sex. When I was in my early twenties, I came out and started therapy.
How were the reactions?
Nele My parents said that the most important thing to them was that I was fine. They couldn't have forbidden me to do so either, and they didn't want to endanger our good relationship. The therapist prescribed the testosterone for me after three months. He said he normally wouldn't do it that quickly, but he was more confident with me than with any other patient before. I wanted to do this myself very quickly because I thought: I've felt uncomfortable in my body all my life, and now I've finally found the solution! Why wait any longer?
Did the therapist ask you about your conflict with the female role?
Nele He saw the cause of the eating disorder and the depression in the fact that I was just born transgender.
Nele Yes. And then the therapy was only about questions like: How did you feel about being misgendered again yesterday (addressed as the "wrong" gender, editor's note)? Why are you wearing this t-shirt to make you look like a woman! The therapist said: If you want to be accepted as a man, you have to have short hair now. So he totally confirmed the gender stereotypes.
Why didn't you all three consider the possibility of living as lesbian women who don't fit the role cliché?
Sam I grew up in a small town and things are still relatively conservative there. I knew very early on that I was into women, but I never associated it with the term "lesbian". Lesbians have always been talked about negatively, especially butch lesbians. That's why I didn't want to belong.
Ellie When I realized as a teenager that I was into women, I looked for lesbian bars but I couldn't find anything. There was a big gay scene in Brussels, but no places for lesbians. And then I went to the trans organization with my questions. And that only gave me one option: I have gender dysphoria, I'm trans. And so my role models became trans men.
Nele I also didn't see any role models at all.
But there are now quite a number of openly lesbian women, from moderators to ministers. And there are series like “Orange is the New Black”.
Nele But this trans path is put at your feet like that. And I didn't know anyone who said: I've reconsidered it and prefer to live as a lesbian woman.
Sam The lesbians I know are 20 or 30 years older than me. At my age, women who are de facto lesbian usually describe themselves as queer so as not to appear transphobic.
Why do you appear transphobic when you say that you are a lesbian?
Sam Because you are saying that you are into biological women - and therefore usually not about penises. But trans women are often women who have penises. And since you are not into trans women as a lesbian, this is considered transphobic.
Nele I also called myself queer or pansexual.
Has anyone ever told you that as a woman you can also show behavior that deviates from your role?
Ellie My father told me that I don't have to behave in a role-compliant manner and that I don't have to take hormones to do this. But I didn't understand that at the time. I was also just through puberty and on a course of confrontation with my parents. And they were under great pressure from the trans organization and the doctors. It would have been so important that everyone would have said: Let's look at the different options you have!
Sam It's just super fast that you get this trans identity imprinted on - and also imprint it on yourself. You get the message from the trans community that it is transphobic when someone questions your being trans. That is why there are many parents who no longer dare to say anything at all.
Nele My mother asked me if there weren't other solutions. But I didn't show the slightest doubt to the outside world, because I was afraid that the chance to transition might then be taken away again.
Have you been informed about the medical consequences and risks of the hormones and the surgery?
Nele The gynecologist only spoke of the positive effects: the deep voice, the hair, the things that I wanted.
Sam Before the hysterectomy, no one told me what would happen if, for whatever reason, I could no longer take the testosterone. When I stopped taking testosterone after almost three years, I went to the endocrinologist because my body was no longer producing its own sex hormones. It was the endocrinologist who had previously prescribed the testosterone for me. But he only said that he didn't know what to do now either. It then took me over half a year to find a gynecologist who had at least a little idea. I am now taking estrogen tablets. But in the long run they attack my liver.
Ellie I had severe pain in my uterus. When I went to the gynecologist who had prescribed the testosterone for me, he said: “The uterus is just a painful organ.” And what many doctors claim is not true either: that a female body that is given testosterone , thereby becoming a completely male system.
Have you been informed about the increased risk of cancer?
Ellie I asked my gynecologist if testosterone increased the risk of cancer. He said there was probably a study that came to this conclusion, but it should not be taken seriously. Another doctor has already told me that my life expectancy is falling, but I didn't care. I was 16. I didn't think about my health at all. That came later.
Nele My endocrinologist said: “Testosterone is thought to increase the risk of cancer, but it is not true.” But I also have to say: Even if he had told me that the risk of cancer was increasing, I would not have cared at the time. I was at a point with my eating disorder that I could no longer go to college and had problems maintaining social contacts. For me it was: transition or suicide. And that is also a problem: That therapists and doctors waved this hormone through, even though there was a person with eating disorders sitting in front of them who totally rejected his body and showed self-harming behavior. They should have realized that at that moment I couldn't make a healthy decision for myself.
The guidelines for the treatment of children and adolescents are currently being revised. There is talk that doctors and therapists should only work according to the so-called affirmative approach, i.e. confirm the desire for transition. That was the case with you.
Sam If the therapist is not allowed to question anything, the meaning of the therapy is lost. And the point shouldn't be that you just get your wipe, but that you really get help. And if it turns out that the right path for you is that you make a transition, then that's okay. But it should potentially be possible that there could also be another way.
Nele The transition should not be forbidden to anyone, but great caution is required. Medical treatment has serious consequences, some of which cannot be reversed. I think therapists should be obliged to look at the underlying problems.
Ellie You also have to look at whose interests it is actually about. It is often said that it is better for a child to transition as early as possible. Then it doesn't have to go through puberty twice.But the question is: is it really about the child? Or is it about the child not disturbing our image of a “real” boy or a “real” girl. And then you have to weigh up. And that takes time. But it often all happens so quickly, as I've seen myself.
Sam When I read the statements of so-called experts who say: If the little boy puts on his mother's pumps more often, that could be a sign of transsexuality, then I'm getting too much. We have to get away from these stereotypes.
Nele I have heard many times from transitioners like us who have difficulty finding therapists. Because the therapists only work according to the transaffirmative approach and find it difficult to accompany and support someone on the opposite path.
Ellie Anything that is not one hundred percent transaffirmative is increasingly being defamed as "conversion therapy" (see p. 63). This increases the pressure on therapists.
Have you ever thought about suing your therapists or doctors for their carelessness?
Sam I tried in vain to get the cost of the second name change from my therapist because he made a misdiagnosis and didn't even complete the prescribed 30 therapy hours with me. But he simply entered the dates and I cannot prove that it was actually only three hours. I also thought about suing the hospital for assault because I wasn't properly educated there. But lawsuits against hospitals are very difficult to bring, and I'm afraid of losing such a lawsuit and having to face even more costs.
Nele I've thought about it too. In my opinion, the reviewers made a misdiagnosis and should at least refund me the money for my expenses. But I don't have the money for a lawsuit and even if I had it, I wouldn't have the strength for such a lawsuit at the moment.
Ellie I think the doctor who lied to my parents back then about the supposedly reversible effects of testosterone should be held responsible. I would like to do something about it, but I don't want to do it alone. And I don't know of any other cases so far, although of course there are.
What was the trigger for you that you understood: I want to go back, I want to detransition?
Ellie There were several reasons for this. At first I got health problems from the testosterone. I had vaginal atrophy, which is what some postmenopausal women get from lack of estrogen: itching, burning, inflammation in the vagina. In addition, cramps in the uterus. So I had to take estrogen, and I found it absurd to add more hormones to my normally healthy body. And then I also realized that I had never had the chance to get to know my natural body. In addition, I have an older friend who is a feminist and a lesbian. I exchanged a lot with her. She told me about her struggles in her own youth and I saw so many parallels between her and me. And when she asked me why I was taking testosterone, I was able to explain why I started - but not why I am still doing it. Another key moment was that after my transition I played in men's basketball teams and never felt comfortable there. When I joined a lesbian team, I thought it was great to play with a lot of lesbian women and I realized that I wanted to be part of them. And then about a year ago, after four years on testosterone, I knew: now it is time for me to stop the transition.
Nele Like Ellie, I got health problems from testosterone. But of course we also exchanged a lot about feminism. I realized that my eating disorder played a huge role. The testosterone boosts my metabolism and makes me thinner, it makes my hips and breasts disappear. And I understood that the oversexualization of my breasts was the reason I rejected my breasts so badly. And I questioned my role models: For me, women were lovely, nice, following people, always friendly, helpful and conflict-averse. I just didn't want to be that anymore. But just as I hated to be seen as a woman before, I then felt increasingly uncomfortable with being seen as a man, because it put me back in a new drawer. So it is also my political conviction: I understood that I could not live as a woman in this society because this society does not treat women well.
You have all been seen and treated as men. Now you've made up your mind to live as women again. You have to go through a physical change again. Certain changes like your deep voices or the removed breasts are irreversible. It will probably not be easy.
Sam As a man, I really wanted to pass through as an unambiguous man. By now I've decided I don't care how people see me. Today I think: If someone tells me that I am too masculine for a woman, or that I have to be trans because of that, then that is his or her problem. I now have the standing to deal with it. And I have a very supportive environment: my mother, my girlfriend, their parents, my friends. I feel good about who I am now.
Nele I stopped taking testosterone three months ago, which I had been taking for two years. So now I'm going to get hips again, and it's sure to feel weird and maybe not always good. But I can handle it differently now.
And how are you now seen by your environment?
Nele I have no idea! (laughs) I think everyone is confused and so am I. Recently I was at a buffet and completely filled my plate. There was a group of young women around me, and they all had very little on their plates. And at first I thought: God, my full plate, how embarrassing! Then it occurred to me that the girls perceive me as a man and was relieved, because as a man I am allowed to do that. But now I want to learn to take these things out of myself as a woman. I paid for the plate - of course I don’t like it!
Nele and Ellie, you launched the “Post-Trans” platform on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. How are the reactions?
Nele We also split our first post into transgender groups because we thought there would be detransitioners there too, or just trans people who find other narratives interesting. But we got a lot of negative reactions there. Friendships were also terminated, I was referred to as a TERF (= Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, i.e. radical feminist who excludes trans people, editor's note) and blocked in social networks. Some of our friends also reacted very positively.
Ellie We try to keep the platform as neutral as possible, which means: We only post the stories that people send us without changing them. Because our most important goal is visibility. We want the experiences of de-transitioners to be heard.
Sam It is very important that we educate so that other girls and young women do not end up in the same situation as us.
Interview conducted by Chantal Louis.
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