TV & Movies

What It's Really Like to Be Young and Trans in Canada Now

Stars like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox put the word "transgender" on everyone's lips this year, but behind the buzz, the reality is still complicated, particularly for millennials

Transgender in Canada Phoebe Cesinaro

Phoebe Cesinaro (Photo: Arden Wray)

Phoebe Cesinaro spent much of 2015, her grade 10 year, trying to find the perfect insult. Ruthlessly bullied, she Googled burns and memorized them. Every morning, she prepared to hurl them like grenades, in the noisy hallways of her preppy suburban Ontario high school. But she’d lose her nerve and retreat to the principal’s office for protection. Model-slim, with mile-long legs, spiralled cinnamon hair and a dusting of freckles across her cheeks, Cesinaro is, without question, gorgeous. She also has a dash of popular-girl charisma, someone a movie director might cast as the queen bee in a high school clique comedy. Yet, as a young transgender girl nearly two years into her transition, Cesinaro is an outcast.

“Walking down the halls at school, I sweat profusely,” the 16-year-old says. The same thoughts loop in her head: Oh my god, they’re talking about me. Oh my god, they hate me. She tells me her best friend is her guidance counsellor. Often, she’ll overhear people debating whether she is, in fact, a girl or a boy, all the time acting as if she weren’t there. Sometimes, she feels like everybody sees her as a sex experiment; boys have catcalled her to “suck their dicks.” She can’t go on overnight trips unless the school and parents agree that, as a girl, she can share hotel rooms with the other girls. There have been complaints about her using the girls’ washroom.

Every day, she tries not to show her fear. In the case of the washroom, especially: “I’m going to walk in there, ” she says, “I’m going to put on my mascara. I’m going to reapply my lipstick. I’m going to sit down to pee. I’m going to look at my butt in the mirror, like every other girl does. I’m going to smile.” But none of it is easy.

She didn’t expect coming out as transgender two years ago, in grade nine, to be so difficult. The previous year, when she was still using male pronouns, she told her family, friends and classmates she was a gay boy. Cesinaro knew the label wasn’t quite right—she was a straight trans girl, not a gay boy—but she thought the admission would ease everyone into the truth. At first, her plan worked: nobody was surprised to learn she was gay; her mom, Jennifer Shaw, had long suspected. She actually gained friends. Encouraged, she came out as transgender.

The negative reaction was swift. “Everybody wants a gay best friend—there’s that stereotype,” says Cesinaro. “As soon as I came out as transgender, it was like ‘nobody wants one of those.’ That’s how it felt.” Her friends disappeared, and her immediate family was shocked. Shaw says she felt as though her son had died and she suddenly had a new child. The adjustment has been slow; sometimes Shaw still slips and uses the wrong pronoun, but she’s accepting and supportive. She wants her daughter to be herself and to be happy. Cesinaro’s grandmother, with whom she had a close relationship, questioned her decision and thought it was just a phase. Cesinaro, of course, was sure. As a child, she imagined herself as a fairy and a princess, dressed in pink and carrying a purse. She would get mad at friends who told her she wasn’t a girl, like them. As a tween, she started wearing eyeliner, mascara and nail polish. More than once, she was sent home from school for cutting her T-shirt into a crop top. Long before coming out, she admitted to herself she was a girl many times. It just felt right.

Without a doubt, 2015 was the breakout year for transgender visibility in pop culture. Laverne Cox of Orange Is the New Black posed nude in Allure magazine, and Caitlyn Jenner, of America’s most famous family, came out in Vanity Fair. Trans models Andreja Pejic and Lea T were more in-demand than ever as designers embraced gender-fluidity. Glee added transgender Coach Beiste to its list of characters, and Transparent, now in its second season, continues to follow a family as their father transitions (the show also employs several trans people behind the scenes). In September, TIFF premiered at least two films centred on transgender characters: The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe, reportedly the first transgender woman to have sex-reassignment surgery; and About Ray, with Elle Fanning playing the titular transitioning boy. The casting of hetero, cisgender leads caused controversy in both cases—a sign of growing sensitivity surrounding trans representation right now.

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Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox at the Emmys. (Photo: Keystone Press)

But how does all this buzz translate into the everyday experience of today’s transgender millennials—those who are coming of age in this moment of seeming acceptance? Many of the people I interviewed in Canada’s transgender community say the reality is more complex and painful than the current conversation would suggest. “Everyone would like to say this is an accepting generation, but it’s not,” says Cesinaro. “People will throw personal questions at me, expecting me to answer. They’ll even ask what I have between my legs. I’m surprised I got this far on this path because it’s going to be a rough path.”

The most recent data capturing Canadian trans youth experiences is a 2015 University of British Columbia survey of more than 900 people ages 14 to 25 across the country. The first of its kind in Canada, the study examines all aspects of young trans life, from physical and mental health to community and family relations. It reveals some dismal realities. Those on the transgender spectrum are far, far more likely to be bullied (both online and off), to face violence and discrimination, to have experienced sexual harassment and physical threats, to be isolated from family members, to self-harm, to attempt suicide, to experience depression, to live in poverty and on and on. Only 45 percent of youth who participated in the survey say they live in their felt gender full-time. Many can’t access the support and care needed to transition, blocked by unwilling doctors or parents, sometimes both.

Encouragingly, Canada is beginning to build the framework to make trans lives better. When Cesinaro began her transition in 2013, her mom asked her daughter’s pediatrician where they could go for help. Her family doctor had no idea but made a call to The Hospital for Sick Kids in Toronto, which referred the family to its Transgender Youth Clinic, newly opened that year.

The clinic helps ease transgender teens and their families through their transitions, as well as deal with gender dysphoria, which experts describe as the “extreme discomfort experienced by such individuals.” Cesinaro, who was diagnosed with the condition, puts it this way: “You aren’t feeling like yourself. You’re trapped. You just want to change your whole self.” Doctors interviewed Cesinaro separately from her family to make sure she was confident about her decision and green-lit her transition after a couple of sessions. She started medical treatment as preparation for sex reassignment surgery, which she hopes to get at 18: monthly injections of Lupron, a hormone blocker (she now gets them once every three months), then low doses of estrogen that will increase over the next three to five years. She also regularly talks to a therapist who helps her deal with all the changes. Today, she and Shaw glow whenever they speak of the doctors at the Transgender Youth Clinic and their compassionate approach.

Only a few years ago, care was very different. Before SickKids, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) was the go-to for transgender services in Canada—and the only place where Ontarians could receive a referral for sex reassignment surgery. The controversial doctor Kenneth Zucker heads its youth Gender Identity Services division. Last year, therapists and activists accused Dr. Zucker of practising what they call “conversion therapy,” in which doctors essentially try to “cure” transgender youth. In a National Post feature, Zucker explained his approach: “We are trying to help a child feel more comfortable with the gender identity that matches their birth sex.” He added that the goal was to prevent future transition.

After more than 20 official complaints and a petition from current and former patients, CAMH finally put Zucker’s program under review in early 2015 and stopped taking wait-list patients. In June, the Ontario government passed legislation banning conversion therapy, spurred on by the suicide of a 17-year-old Ohio trans youth who was forced into it. And by this December, the review of CAMH’s clinic was complete: it found Zucker’s approach to be out of line with current practices. He has now left his post, and the centre is working with the transgender community to update its services. The Ontario government also recently announced it would expand the list of doctors who are able to refer transgender adults for sex reassignment surgery, which will help reduce years-long waiting lists. But, there aren’t nearly enough places that offer the kind of care Phoebe is receiving, says Dr. Carys Massarella, a transgender physician at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, Ont., who also runs an independent transgender care clinic geared toward youth. For those on wait lists or those who don’t have access to care, family, community and professional support can help: stats show trans people with support systems are four times less likely to consider suicide.

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Caitlyn Jenner wins Woman of the Year at Glamour magazine’s annual ceremony. (Photo: Getty Images)

One such community can be found in Edmonton. Camp fYrefly is an advocacy organization for LGBTQ youth that was founded in 2004, after kids at a Saturday night support group demanded a place where they could be themselves for more than two hours a week. Its co-founder Kristopher Wells originally ran it over Labour Day weekend, a two-and-a-half-day retreat he envisioned as a “booster shot to inoculate against homophobia and transphobia before kids went back into those hostile hallways.” The camp now runs in Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon, and Wells is hoping to expand to Ontario in 2016. Anyone aged 14 to 24 can attend, and the fee is subsidized so campers only pay $25. Unsurprisingly, it’s oversubscribed. Wells says the popular understanding of trans issues is where understanding of sexual orientation was 30 years ago, in that many transgender people are still thought of as monsters or freaks. But, he says, it’s getting better: “Our youth are fundamentally changing how we understand sexuality and gender in our society.”

Take Marissa Taylor, now 25, who spent her first week at the camp in 2013, after her psychologist convinced her she needed a community outside her family. At just four years old, Taylor knew she was a girl. When her mother, Carmen Gerrard, took her to the Calgary zoo one day, she climbed onto a rocky ledge, poised to jump, and said she wanted to die so she could tell God she was put in the wrong body. Shortly after, Gerrard took her daughter, whom she then thought of as her son, to a doctor who confirmed a diagnosis of gender identity disorder. Gerrard was immediately supportive, but helping her child become Marissa pushed the family into secrecy.

For the first few years of her transition, Taylor lived as her chosen gender only at home and went to school as a boy. But by grade 7, when it was time for Taylor to start at a new school, she had become antisocial and depressed. Gerrard went to the Calgary Board of Education and begged its members to let her daughter go to school as her true self—as a girl. They agreed, but only if Taylor kept her transgender identity a secret. “Marissa and I became very good at lying,” says Carmen.

Slowly, Taylor withdrew from socializing. By graduation, she had stopped coming out of her room. Gerrard now says she didn’t realize how damaging the secrecy would be. She thought the important thing was to help her child be accepted as a girl. Now she knows it’s equally important that her daughter be accepted as a trans girl.

When Taylor was 22, her psychologist told her about fYrefly. When she arrived at camp, an organizer gave her a big hug and welcomed her. Taylor wanted to cry. “I felt like I was at home,” she says. By the third day, she was comfortable enough to perform the song “Coloured Woman” onstage for a talent show (Taylor is black). Before she started singing, she told the audience, “Hi, I’m Marissa. I was born a boy and I’m a girl now.” When she finished, the crowd gave her a standing ovation. It was the first time she’d ever come out to people outside her family. “I felt free,” she says. Later, she told her mom, “I will never be the same.” She now speaks to schools about celebrating LGBTQ identities. She even sits on a policy advisory board, advocating for transgender safety in schools.

The Internet has played a huge role in advancing the public’s understading of trans lives. I spoke to a 24-year-old transgender woman in Toronto, Zara Ewen, who vlogged much of her transition—first on her personal YouTube channel, “ZaraHarley,” and then on “Trans* Youth Channel,” a support and awareness network. Ewen speaks openly about everything from her struggles to find role models to how she doesn’t like her speaking voice. She told me she also faced bullying, especially in her fashion program at Humber College, where she was constantly referred to as “he” by the other students (never mind that she was wearing a dress). Ewen flunked out after one semester. The unfortunate irony that she was bullied at a fashion school—typically a haven for outsiders and gay youth—wasn’t lost on her.

The hardest part, she says, is always the first time: the first time in a dress or wearing makeup. But it’s worth it to push through—slowly. For all the public saw, “Bruce” became Caitlyn in less time than it took “Hotline Bling” to go viral, yet she’s reportedly been transitioning for the last 12 years. And Ewen tells me the transition never really ends. She began taking a hormone blocker, along with estrogen a few years ago. She no longer needs the former because her body doesn’t naturally produce testosterone anymore, but she’ll continue taking estrogen until she hits the natural age for menopause. And she really wants bigger breasts. “They’re smaller than I would like,” she says, “but I’ve heard from a lot of women that they may go through a growth spurt after sex reassignment surgery. I’m waiting to see if that happens.” It also takes time to come out to yourself, then to your family and then to the world, Ewen says. A person may get to a point where they’re happy with their physical gender presentation, but just like any of us, her image is constantly evolving.

Or, as Cesinaro puts it, “You lose part of yourself to find yourself again.” And that takes time. She’s just happy she’s started her transition. This year, she made the cheerleading squad, a school first. She dreams of becoming a Victoria’s Secret model, but her backup plan is to go to beauty school for skincare. And she’ll be an advocate for the transgender community, too. “Watch out, I’m coming,” she says, snapping her fingers and pulling a classic “girl, you know it” face as her head bobs, sending her curls sproinging. “One day, I’m going to step out of my vehicle, like a supermodel, like heeey.” She can see it all happening, a sweet moment within her grasp.

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