“I feel like I am an eternal pre-teenager” Alvar tells me. He is referring to his beard, or the lack of having one, and the way that his voice glides up towards a higher pitch with a lot more ease than it does landing in a lower one. Still, compared to just a few months ago, he is much closer now to becoming the man that he is.
Since the last post that we published here, many things have happened. Every step needs its own post, so this is a helicopter view of the landscape that we have crossed during the months that have taken us from winter to late summer. In February, Alvar got his referral to the gender clinic. In June, he had his first appointment with the gender specialist. In July, he had the second one, which has propelled him into several more meetings with the doctor, taking blood tests and having general check-ups to see if, and how, his body will be able to cope with hormone treatment.
When I asked Alvar what has taken him most by surprise, he says that it is the speed with which things have progressed since his first appointment with the doctor who wrote the referral for him. According to the gender specialist, Alvar’s body does not have any complications that would stand in the way of him beginning with HRT at the end of this year. Before this, the plan is for him to start having injections which will stop his periods from coming, something which will hopefully make his everyday life easier. At the gender clinic, the specialist has been focused on building things gradually. The first appointment that Alvar had, was entirely dedicated to creating a profile of him: his childhood, his family relations, his social and economic situation. I remember him coming out of the room looking slightly disappointed, although trying to keep his mood up by saying that this was only the beginning. During the next appointment, Alvar and the specialist went deeper into his own perception of himself, his gender identity, and what changes he would like to do in order to feel at home in his body. My guess is that the fact that Alvar has been very clear with what he is looking for, is the main reason for this process having been relatively free from friction. I know that this is far from the case for everybody, and I am grateful that so far, Alvar has not had to fight his way through any medical barriers in order to proceed with his physical transition. Earlier today, Alvar joked about the fact that he has had more problems with the public health system when trying to get his wisdom teeth removed, than he has had in taking steps towards his gender reassignment. It is astounding that things have moved so quickly for him, considering the shortage of gender specialists in the region; Alvar’s doctor works twelve hours a day, dividing his time between clinics in several different cities.
Apart from the medical advancements that Alvar has made, he has also become more open about his identity as a transman during these past months. In March, on the International Transgender Day of Visibility, Alvar announced his gender identity publicly in social media. A few weeks ago, he took another big step, by sending an email to his manager at work, explaining that he is in the process of transitioning into a man. This was after having a particularly difficult week at his job, where he kept being put to do tasks that nobody else wanted to do, even though these are things that are not part of his job responsibilities. On top of this, he felt that he was being regarded with suspicion, and questioned in a way that none of his colleagues were. I think that this is something that many LGBTI+ people have experienced – this subtle, unspoken air of isolation, which is too elusive to be pointed out as direct discrimination and which, more than anything, makes one doubt oneself.
In the beginning of the week that Alvar and I sat in front of the computer devising the email to his manager, the head office at his work had made a new policy official, stating that employees must take a whole day off as annual leave if they have a doctor’s appointment that they need to go to. Before the policy was announced, Alvar had been able to swap lunch breaks with colleagues, or work an extra hour or two whenever he had a doctor’s appointment. Concerned that he might have to start using his holidays in order to do the short blood tests and reviews that he is booked in for, Alvar decided to write directly to his manager to explain that his transition will require him to make regular doctors’ appointments, some of which will need to be within his working hours. He also pointed out that the company has a firm inclusion policy in place, and that he therefor trusts that he has his manager’s support in the transition.
I asked Alvar what has been the most difficult so far, during the transitioning process. He did not have to think long: “Abandoning my comfortable position. Changing the way that people look at me, and no longer being able to just go along with the view that people have of who I am.” Then he looked me in the eye and said that another difficult thing is to live with the fear of losing me, and of losing other people that are close to him. I know what he means – changing ones pronouns is an abstract thing to do, compared to having most of one’s physical features altered. The other day we got a lift from a lady who saw us walking on a country road (one of our weekend adventures). She said: “If you had been two men, I wouldn’t have bothered picking you up, but I thought to myself that these ladies look tired so I’ll give them a ride” Buckling our seat belts, Alvar and I met each other’s eyes and took care not to laugh. If irony were a person, it would have been sitting between us, stretching its arms around our shoulders.
The other morning, Alvar rolled the question over to me, asking what I think of all that has happened, and of what will happen in the future. I couldn’t answer him right away. What I am thinking now, is that courage builds courage. Alvar is brave, in the way that he lives his life, and in the way that he shows love. Still, I know that he worries sometimes. “The world isn’t ready” he says. “I know that this is a lonely path, changing like this. I am afraid of going into public bathrooms, or into changing rooms, I’m afraid of how people are going to react once I start growing a beard, while still having the chest of a woman.”
I get upset when I hear that there is still a debate about whether or not the process of gender affirmation should be covered by public healthcare. The discourse around gender reassignment in these cases is that it is a ‘first world problem’ (an expression which is problematic in itself), even though gender variation beyond the binary female-and-male can be dated back to the beginning of human time. Sometimes I have the feeling that being gender non-conforming is regarded as a bit of a curiosity, with an exotic tint to it, rather than a harsh everyday reality for people like Alvar, who have to be prepared to break just about everything in their life in order to be who they are.
Experiencing gender dysphoria has nothing to do with choice. Gender affirmation is not something one treats oneself to, like a foam bath or a trip to the cinema, or even a career path. I think of Alvar as someone who was always meant to have his voice drop, his facial hair grow, the lines of his jaw and shoulders more become remarked. It took longer time for him, that’s all. And in the meantime, he has done what all of us should do more: he has been practising courage.
© Picture: ‘Fire in the Rain’ by Alvar.