By Hayley Simpson
Ashley*, a Kingston graduate, is catching up with friends on a night out at The Hippodrome. During the night two bouncers corner him as he is leaving the toilet, demanding to know what he has been doing in the men’s toilets.
A quick check of ID and Ashley confirms what he has told the bouncers already: he is a man.
Ashley is a transsexual man- meaning he was born female but now, since coming out in his second year at Kingston, identifies himself to friends, family and society as male.
Pain and anguish
Misunderstandings in bathrooms and changing rooms have become a part of his everyday life.
When he was growing up, Ashley wasn’t always so sure how to identify himself. “I never thought about changing gender, it never crossed my mind. I was born a girl and that was that.
“At first you might be ‘it’ but then you are a ‘she’ or ‘he’ for the rest of your life. You don’t even get the chance to think otherwise.”
Ashley had always hated his birth name and associated it with a certain ‘type’ of girl with whom he did not identify with. When he turned 19 he decided to legally change it, believing it to be the source of the pain and anguish he had been carrying.
“I decided to change my name before I came out as trans myself, before I realised who I was.
“I asked my friends on Facebook what my name should be and I said I wanted it to be gender neutral or even male. That should have been a clue to me even then.”
Education and understanding
Even after changing his name, Ashley was still left feeling unsure.
He had friends, a loving family, his degree in a social science was going well but yet he still felt desperately unhappy.
He knew that the feeling of discontent that he was unable to shake had to be associated with his gender and that he didn’t feel altogether female.
Because of his own lack of education and understanding he became what he describes as ‘transphobic’ and tried to deny what he was feeling.
“It was literally an epiphany when I realised. It just clicked. At first I didn’t want to admit I was trans because of all the stereotypes and because there is no education.
I really didn’t know anything. While I couldn’t deny I felt the way I did, I also didn’t want to label myself as that.”
Anxiety and depression
Ashley’s unhappiness is not uncommon, with studies showing that transgendered people are more prone to anxiety and depression and a higher rate of suicide and self-harming than those who are not.
“When I came out, my family had to come out with me. My mum took a while and she wouldn’t even call me by my chosen name for well over a year and a half, which was upsetting.
“I had to sort of educate her about trans issues. Now she is good with it, but she still doesn’t talk about it very much.”
One of the lucky ones
Despite the initial heartache and shock, for both Ashley and his family, he considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“They had a hard time adapting, but they are very supportive now.
“I was quite lucky there was no huge backlash. I know a lot of people who didn’t have a good time coming out. Their parents have disowned them; their churches have turned their back on them. It is really sad.”
After coming to terms with being trans, Ashley began to change his physical appearance to appear more masculine.
It was then that he encountered the difficulties many transsexual people come across when seeking cosmetic surgery and the stringent psychological analysis patients must undergo before receiving treatment.
“NHS treatment is like a lottery. I feel as if they make you jump through hoops in order to appear like a ‘typical’ trans person.
“I know one lady who is 40 years old and she has been waiting for hormone treatment but they are putting her though something called a ‘real life’ test to be approved.
“To me, this means people are in danger because they can’t get safe jobs. She used to be in the army and she can’t get a safe job as a woman because she doesn’t pass as a woman very easily.
“I really feel strongly that they make people put themselves in really bad positions in order to prove themselves. It’s stupid, if you ask me.”
A new beginning
Ashley knew he would not fit the NHS criteria and so decided to go down the more costly route of private medical treatment, but it was a price he was willing to pay for the sake of his happiness.
“I began taking testosterone and it was so cool, like some kind of magic cream! You rub it on your shoulders and arms and it worked really fast for me.
“I wanted my voice to be a lot deeper: it used to be a lot higher. Another good change is that it stops you menstruating, which is great.
“I could also have a hysterectomy and top or bottom surgery but quite frankly surgery really puts me off. I’ve never even been to hospital, apart from a couple of motorbike accidents!”
After five months Ashley decided to come off the testosterone as he was beginning to change very noticeably.
His doctors had told him that, should he continue taking hormones, he would begin to look natively male- something he didn’t necessarily want.
The greatest change was within himself, and the confidence that has grown from finally being content with who he is.
Ashley is considered to be an ‘Atypical’ trans man by doctors and medical professionals as his story doesn’t follow a typical transsexual narrative.
Atypically, he does not want to look particularly masculine. He has no problem with being seen as feminine since the likelihood of passing as more manly is difficult after coming off the testosterone.
“Recently, there has been confusion from people just because I am looking a lot more feminine than I did when I first transitioned.
“Before, I wouldn’t get a second look in the men’s bathrooms. I may present more female, I just don’t feel like one. I feel like a guy…or something in between.”
‘Transgender’ is an umbrella term for all people who consider their sexual identity to be fluid and vary from traditional gender roles.
This may be self-identification from male to female, female to male, both or neither.
It is this idea of a ‘third sex’ or gender fluidity, about which Ashley wants to promote awareness, but he admits it can be difficult for many people to move past the transgender myths so often believed by those with less understanding.
“I am very much about raising awareness about the fact that there is more than one type of transsexual. I don’t really know anyone like me, apart from one person who is an extreme version of me and it is really cool to see how he can play with his own gender.”
Ashley considers himself to be ‘pan-sexual’, believing that gender and sexuality is irrelevant within relationships.
“I identify myself predominately as straight but really I don’t see gender when I am interested in someone. It is more complicated than bisexuality, as bi implies two and there are more than two genders.
“I want to break the idea that all trans men are ex-lesbians, which there is obviously but it’s not as common as most people think.”
Living in stealth
Ashley speaks fondly of his time in Kingston, where he played an active role in the LGBT society, which became not only a source of support and but also a platform to support others. He is open to friends about being transsexual and hopes that this can raise understanding and awareness of trans issues.
“There are a lot of different trans people in Kingston. Some are living in ‘stealth’. That’s what it is called if people are lucky enough to have been transitioning before they started at uni and see no reason to tell others.
“Living in stealth puts people under so much pressure to lie. It also adds to some people’s opinion that trans people are hiding something.
“What I believe is that we shouldn’t have to be completely open about our lives, but equally we shouldn’t have to lie about who we are just to fit in to the status quo.”
Hate crimes and prejudice
Ashley’s openness is inspiring, considering two-thirds of all transgendered people have been victims of hate crimes and prejudice.
Many report instances of being laughed at, called names, refused service in shops, restaurants or even hospitals, and being filmed on mobile phones by strangers.
“When I first came out and began transitioning it was my mum who had the hardest time.
“She was concerned about what other people would think of me but she soon realised that I really just don’t care!
“If people discriminate against me I don’t see why I should put up with it.”
Most people are comfortable with their gender and it is not something they will often question in their lives.
This month the docu-reality series My Transsexual Summer began on Channel 4 highlighting trans issues in a way that has not been done before and provoking reaction across Twitter, the media and in the trans community.
The series tells the stories of seven transsexual people willing to lay bare their medical and psychological journeys in order to realise who they really are.
Because that is precisely what being trans is about: not passing as a certain gender or fitting into social norms, but to just be who you are and happy.
Ashley’s story confirms just this. “In myself I didn’t change. I never changed into or became anything. For me I just became happier and the fog cleared in my head.”
*Ashley’s name has been changed to protect privacy