“There was always something in my mind that told me I wasn't like other kids but, in all honesty, I could never put my finger on it.”
Sasha Debono is describing her journey, which started around age 13, to identify as a female. Today, the pre-op transgender woman is 26-years-old and she has made great strides towards affirming the gender that she feels reflects her personality. It is a journey that has taken over a decade, bringing with it various challenges and obstacles.
“I did a lot of reading and research about transgender people and I spent years flip-flopping in my head about the issue. Was I really transgender? Or was it just in my mind? This state of affairs continued even after I had told a number of people about it.”
You’d think that by coming out, Sasha had surmounted most of the obstacles. However, for most trans, this part is only the tip of the iceberg and, even after they come out to the rest of society, life continues throwing significant hurdles.
“It took me 13 years to accept. The first step was the scariest thing I've ever done in my life – coming out to my parents, of course. But that was not the end of it.”
Besides the emotional aspect, Sasha also needed to deal with the physical side of things. She describes setting up an appointment with an endocrinologist as the second scariest thing of the whole experience.
“There was an onslaught of other medical appointments, including psychological and psychiatric counselling. My personal doctors were already aware of my situation, as I had already expressed myself about it before.”
But, once the first step of coming out to her family was done, Sasha found that she really had no reason to procrastinate any more. The next few months took courage but, Sasha says, the step she decided to take was definitely worth all the pain and fear.
“After a few appointments and blood tests, I got the go ahead to start hormone replacement therapy and here I am, about seven months later, feeling the best and happiest I have ever been in my life.”
In a way, Sasha was maybe luckier than most, in that the people closest to her all reacted well to the news, the bond with some of them actually becoming stronger.
“My parents are still struggling a bit to catch up with what I call this crazy ride. And, most of the time I'm still referred to as a ‘he’ and called by my dead name.”
My parents are still struggling a bit to catch up with what I call this crazy ride. And, most of the time I'm still referred to as a ‘he’ and called by my dead name
But it’s not just about sadness and pain. There is also the joy of finally being able to live the life you had always believed in. Sasha describes the feeling of being able to express herself as female as nothing short of amazing.
“It seems to me like this was the kick-start I needed to start living my life. I'm finally motivated to do something with myself. Before, I had never considered a proper career or interest, but now I have just started taking make-up courses.”
But, she is also determined to keep her feet on the ground for now. Seven months on hormone therapy, she tells me, is still “a very early stage for the whole transition process”.
The challenges that still make themselves felt, she tries to face one day at a time. Gender dysphoria, she confides, still plays a big role in her daily living.
“Certain aspects of my body still get at me when I look at the mirror. There is also the reality that, knowing my parents struggle a bit to come to terms with the whole thing worries me. But I know deep down they love me and that eventually they will fully come to terms,” she says.
And, although the more time passes the more our society is gradually becoming more inclusive, Sasha says that there is still a significant degree of prejudice against the trans community – even more shocking, she adds that this prejudice also comes from some other members of the LGBT community.
Her wish for a more inclusive society is for people to actually listen to what transgender people have to say.
Her final word of advice for those who are still going through the ‘coming out’ process is simple: do it. Do it, she adds, even if you're in doubt.
“As for those who already did, you are brave, brave people. Just continue pushing that pedal to the metal and do what you have to do to feel better with yourselves. If you don't, nobody will for you. Actually, they will probably do the opposite and try to drag you down.”
Strong words from someone who has needed to use every ounce of strength she had. But even so, Sasha doesn’t forget to mention the most important thing.
“Surround yourself by people who accept and love you for the person you are.”
And that, in a society which is too ready to judge, is everything.
Making sense of the new laws
Malta Gay Rights Movement coordinator Gabi Calleja sheds some light on the new developments.
What are the biggest challenges that transgender people face in today’s society?
Being trans still presents some challenges. Coming out can be difficult, particularly where the trans person faces lack of acceptance by family members. Trans specific health services are currently not available through state health care, meaning that trans persons can incur significant health costs for hormone therapies, surgeries and other necessary treatments. Even where cost is not an issue, access to the required treatment is difficult. Malta has a limited range of hormone therapies which are licenced and, if the person requires a different dosage or reacts badly to the particular brand available locally, there is often no alternative.
At the moment, it is also difficult for trans children to access puberty blockers. While attitudes within society are changing and there is a greater deal of awareness there is also still a lot of ignorance as to what being trans entails. There are still those whose view it as a choice or a mental illness.
Do you believe there is still a disadvantage when it comes to employment opportunities and so forth?
While anti-discrimination legislation is in place to protect trans persons from discrimination in employment, this may not always be enough. I do think, however, that the situation is improving and that more trans persons are taking up further education and entering a range of employment sectors which were previously harder to access.
Recently, there have been changes made to legislation – can you explain what these changes involve?
The Gender Identity, Gender Expression and Sex Characteristics Act introduces a right to gender identity for all citizens of Malta and entitles them to:
– the recognition of their gender identity as determined by themselves
– the free development of their person according to their gender identity
– be treated according to their gender identity and, be identified in that way in the documents providing their identity, and
– bodily integrity and physical autonomy
There is no age restriction to access legal gender recognition although for minors under 16, there is a court process. For those over 16 a simple declaration in front of a notary in the form of a public deed is sufficient.
A significant number of trans people say that an unaccepting society pushed them towards an underground life – do you feel that this is still a reality?
Trans persons have been over-represented in prison populations. Often this was due to early school leaving, difficulty in accessing employment and fewer opportunities. Trans persons are at much higher risk of being attacked and discriminated against, and often had few alternatives to sex work to make a living. Trans people are also more at risk of using drugs and other potentially harmful behaviours.
We recently had cases where children successfully identified as transgender and went on to live a fulfilling life – critics claim that for children it’s too early to know. What is your response to this?
There is now ample evidence that shows that children can identify as trans from a very young age. Gender identity is generally established by the age of six and, therefore, it is not surprising for trans children to assert a gender that is not in conformity with their assigned gender from an early age. Generally the three characteristics that one looks for is that the child’s claim is consistent, persistent and insistent.
What is your advice to young people who identify as transgender – what is the first step they should take both on a practical and an emotional level?
Each person’s journey is different. However, often, finding someone to talk to who can support them and provide them with the information they need can be a good first step. This can be a trusted adult, a parent, a counsellor, a member of the trans community or an LGBTIQ youth group.
This feature was first published in the November issue of Circle magazine