When I first decided to write about transgender people living in Finland I made a few assumptions that turned out to be wrong. I assumed the topic would be easy to write about because it's received such widespread media coverage over the last few years. As a liberal, I also assumed I had an evolved understanding of trans people because that's what we liberals do; we understand and empathize with marginalized groups in our society. Sometimes this attempt at understanding, however well-intentioned, may be considered patronizing by some trans people who don’t see themselves as victims to be pitied.
My understanding of trans people was lacking because of misinformation and brought to bare my own stereotypes and misconceptions. I used to think that they are people born in the wrong body who undergo gender reassignment in order to make right what nature made wrong. I confused trans people with homosexuals, believing that one's gender identity and sexual orientation were somehow linked. In the past, I believed that gender was a fixed concept. Either you were born male or female. I found out that it’s not that simple. There are those who are neither male nor female in terms of their gender identity.
Trans means “beyond” or “changing thoroughly”. Therefore, a meaningful understanding of transgenderism means we have to go beyond a binary gender notion and accept a more fluid one unconfined by fixed definitions. After interviewing 4 trans people for this piece, I discovered that one-size-fits-all stereotypes are not only wrong in many cases, but often fail to consider the diverse personal experiences and perceptions of people who are in fact transgender.
The first person I interviewed was Kasper, 27, an easy going guy with a warm smile who drives a taxi in Helsinki. He talked about what it was like growing up trans, being in the right body and not the wrong one, and what he learned from living as a woman and a man.
Troy: How would you describe yourself?
Kasper: Do you mean gender-wise or otherwise?
Troy: You can answer however you'd like
Kasper: A taxi driver who loves tattoos and motorcycles. Someone who loves his girlfriend. But gender-wise, I'm a trans man. That means I'm in the process of correcting my gender. After it's done and I have the social security number of a man, then I'm just going to drop the “trans” and I will be just a regular man after that.
Troy: Is it typical for people to only keep the “trans” label until after they've transitioned?
Kasper: Well, no. It's probably 50/50. A lot of people do a favor to the community in the way that they will remain vocal about their “transgenderness” and keep posting pictures and doing interviews and that's probably what I'm going to do. I'm never going to hide my background. It's just that I prefer to not always be talking about transgender issues.
Troy: When did you know you identified as a male?
Kasper: A lot of people can say an exact age but for me, it's the opposite. I was born a male and at some point, maybe at around 4 or 5, I learned that I was not a boy to other people. So when the segregation started where boys go to one locker room and girls go to the other, and boys wear these types of ice skates and girls wear another type of ice skates, and also played different sports, I started to realize that there's something wrong with the way the world sees me.
I grew up on a farm where nobody cared about the clothes you wore. You wore the clothes you wanted to wear. Mom used to make me princess dresses and she did try to get them on me, but I always went to my brother's closet and wore his clothes and I was never punished for it or anything. My mom was kind of disappointed but was like, 'Okay. Fine'. So gender was not something I had to think about until I suddenly realized there was something wrong with the world. I didn't think the world thought something was wrong with me.
Troy: How did you come to realize that something was wrong with the world and not you?
Kasper: In kindergarten. I used to say I was a girl as a kid because the word “girl” didn't mean the same for me as it probably meant for other kids. It was just a word that I heard described me, but it didn't relate to my gender. It didn't relate to my clothing, my hobbies, what I wanted to do when I grew up, or the fact that I wanted a wife when I grew up. It was just a word.
Troy: I've heard and read in the media that trans people are born in the wrong body. Is that accurate?
Kasper: For some people yes. For some, the body itself causes a lot of frustration, but for me, I'm in the right body. It's just that my body has some features that aren't accurate. A lot of people can probably relate to that on different levels.
Troy: Are you at a disadvantage compared to those classified at cisgender? (Cisgender is a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex.)
Kasper: Some people tend to patronize us like, 'Poor you! Too bad that you have to go through this'. But I'm happy with who I am. If someone could have asked me in the uterus if I'd prefer to be a cisgender boy or girl or a transgender person, I probably would have said cis and not trans because it would probably be easier. But now that I've gone through this I realize it's a rare blessing that not everyone gets to see the world from both ends of the line. The world of a man is a very different place than the world of a woman. It's been a great trip to see both sides.
Troy: That's an interesting issue. Can you talk more about that?
Kasper: I'm not going to do any male hating here, but men and women treat each other differently. Both genders have their ups and downs. I'm a feminist and feminism is not only about women's rights. Men's rights are not equal in many ways either, but let's just say that the world has become a lot safer place for me as a man.
I started driving a taxi at 19 and wore a little makeup to try and fit in the girl's world in a way. For some reason, a lot of male passengers thought it was okay to start a conversation about rape in the middle of the night in my taxi and would be like, 'What would you do if I tried to rape you? I'm not gonna rape you, but what would you do if I tried to rape you?' I would say, 'How about we do not go through this conversation?’. Compared to how I feel now, I was never at peace. At all times, at any place, or location someone could walk up to me and focus on my body somehow. Walking down the street with my groceries on my way home someone might say, 'You should smile more or you should wear more revealing clothing. You seem to have a nice body'. You can't escape the fact that you're a woman when you're a woman. You're being reminded constantly. Of course, it depends on where you live and what you do for a living.
On the other hand, as a man, I've noticed that women can be scared of me, especially in a situation where it's only me and a woman and I can't talk to her. Let's say in the street in the middle of the night. She might be looking over her shoulder all the time. It's kind of sad. Plus, I also face the threat of violence as a man because guys tend to think it's okay to fight other guys. I'm not a violent person and I don't like hitting anyone.
The second person I interviewed for this article is Jamie McDonald, 38, a Canadian-born stand-up comedian, writer, and actor who is half Finnish and Canadian and who has been living in Finland for 14 years. I first met Jamie in Helsinki where he performed in a play that discussed transgender issues. Jamie explained the difference between gender identity and sexuality and what the transgender community considers offensive.
Troy: How would you describe yourself?
Jamie: Optimistic. Goofy. Curious. A witty person
Troy: How would you describe your gender identity?
Jamie: I would say that I've always been more comfortable on the masculine side of the fence than on the feminine side...if there is, in fact, a fence. When I was a little kid I identified with the boys in the stories. I was a tomboy. I was always playing marbles and riding BMX bikes and winning fist fights. Then puberty happened and everything went weird…
Troy: When did you know you were on the masculine side of the fence as you say?
Jamie: It's a really tricky question to answer directly. I can very easily think of myself at 4, 7, 12, or 20 and say I knew I was more like a boy. I knew I was not like the other girls. I felt more comfortable in male-dominated spaces. I felt more boyish. I was attracted to boyishness.
Troy: What I've heard in the media is that transgender people are people born in the wrong body. Is that accurate?
Jamie: I think that's accurate for some people as a description. For me, it's too much of an oversimplification.
Troy: Why do you think that narrative is sold to the public?
Jamie: Because it's easy to understand. It's one of the easiest to grasp. 'Why do you want to change your body?' 'Because you were born in the wrong one'. It's oversimplified but there's a grain of truth to it. It's hard for me to say I felt trapped in my body but, if I think of it, I'd say, 'Yes, I did. Especially as a kid'. I was often quite miserable going through the female puberty and not the male one. But of course, I didn't know it could be possible to have it any other way so I was resigned to it. I often think if I'd been born 200 years ago what would I have done? Would I have lived as a man just with clothing? Would I have been some type of spinster?
Troy: What's the difference between being a transgender person and being gay or bisexual?
Jamie: Sexuality means who you want to love or have sex with. Who you're attracted to is one thing but who you want to look at in the mirror is another. Who do you want to be seen as? How do you want people to treat you? How do you feel your body should feel and look and how do you want to use your body. Back in the 1970s, transgender was under the LGBT umbrella. Under the word gay were gay people, transvestites, and transgender people. So that umbrella term applied to a lot of different kinds of sexualities and gender identities. It was in the same 'soup' of 'different'.
Troy: I used to think that all those terms went together as well. For example, I used to think that those people who are classified as transgender were just extreme versions of homosexuals.
Jamie: That's kind of what I thought too and that's why I thought I can't be trans because I'm not a lesbian. I'm not into women so I can't be trans. There was this huge revelation when I met a trans guy who was gay. I was like, 'What do you mean?'. He said, 'I'm into men.' I asked, ‘You can do that?'. It's so nuts how we have these labels. You start to realize that labels are useful for describing people, but when we take them as prescriptions we feel like we can't step outside of them and that's so messed up. But I think a lot of young people are rejecting the idea of a gay or a bisexual label.
Troy: What terms are considered offensive?
Jamie: I think that if someone said, 'You're really a woman' or 'You can't change'. Then there's the word 'tranny', which I'd use on myself or let certain friends use on me, because I have positive associations with it and historically it's been a part of the gay scene, but many people have very negative associations with it and I'd absolutely never use it to describe anyone I didn't know well.
The third person I talked to was Satu (name changed), 41, an artist, salesperson, and freelance journalist who shared her journey of growing up as a trans woman in a highly religious family in the Finnish countryside. She also shares about how trans women are seen in the world compared to trans men.
Troy: How would you describe yourself?
Satu: I’m a very humanistic person interested in human rights issues. I’m also a very social person...you have to be if you’re doing sales work. I get along easily with different kinds of people.
Troy: When did you first realize you were different?
Satu: I was around 3 years old. That’s when I realized that I didn’t seem the way I felt. I told my mother one evening that I didn’t feel like I was a boy. I told her I felt like I was a girl. That was a really big shock for her. It was just about bedtime when I told her. I was really in a sad mood and crying.
Troy: Can you describe your journey for us from then to now?
Satu: I grew up in a religious family and they didn’t take it too well when I told them about feeling like I was a girl. It wasn’t acceptable to be different in this way at that time. When I was 12 or 13 I started to talk about this situation more with my parents because I was having problems at school because I was different. I was being teased and bullied about it.
I was about 13 when my puberty started and I felt I couldn’t handle it because it was so hard. I didn’t want to be a guy. That was the most horrible part about it because I didn’t feel like that.
My parents put me into therapy and I had therapy sessions a couple of times per week because they were really worried about me. It was also because I was being teased at school a lot. I got private tutoring when I was 14. At that time...I also tried to kill myself.
Because of that situation, one of my therapists recommended to my parents that it might be a good idea to start puberty-blocker medication to delay puberty to see what would happen. My parents thought this therapist was crazy or something to even consider that kind of treatment so I didn’t get it.
Troy: What happened as you got older?
Satu: When I was 16 they thought I was still going through a phase and they gave me an ultimatum: either go to a mental hospital or go study somewhere. I was 16 and didn't want to go to a mental hospital. My parents said I had to shut up about this thing or they would put me in a one. So I shut my mouth for a really long time after that because it’s a hard battle when you’re so young. It felt like everyone during that time was against me and didn’t help me...you’re in a corner and you can’t do anything or make your own decisions about your body
The school I went to first at 16 was a local Christian Art School and then, after that, I went to another art school in a different town for 4 years. I graduated at 21 and finally started my transition when I was 27.
Troy: What challenges do you think trans women face that trans men don’t?
Satu: Generally, in the media, it’s always about trans women. Always. It’s like 85% of the media coverage is on trans women. Trans women are also judged more than trans men, sexualized more, and thrust more into the media. I think it has a lot to do with this patriarchal system. If you become a man then it’s more acceptable. You’re moving up in the whole system by becoming a man, but if you become a woman you’re not.
The last person I interviewed for this article was Janna, 22, a student with keen personal insights on the concept of gender fluidity. Though she uses the pronoun “she” to describe herself, her gender identity is not restricted to “maleness” or “femaleness”. She teaches us that there are people in the world who transcend a binary gender identification and embrace a more fluid one for themselves.
Troy: How would you describe yourself?
Janna: One word that comes up immediately is androgynous. I think I’m pretty much a genderless person. I’m also very social and have a lot of friends. I never have any problems getting to know new people. I’m easy-going and happy.
Troy: Can you tell me more about your androgyny? Do you identify as a woman or as a man?
Janna: Because it’s so hard in this society to label yourself as nothing [genderless], I’d like to explain myself. I’m a girl or whatever...but I don’t really care what I am. It’s easier to describe myself as a girl to other people because I’m on estrogen and it makes me feel good. If I think of myself, I don’t really think of myself through any gender. I’m just me. I just happen to be on estrogen because I don’t really like testosterone. It made me really unhappy in my life.
Troy: When you say that estrogen makes you feel good what does that mean?
Janna: I can be at peace with my own body. I don’t feel like my body is fighting against me anymore.
Troy: Tell me more about how your body was fighting against you
Janna: I used to have really bad body dysmorphia. I used to really hate how my body was acting. My muscles were really tense and strong and I didn’t like that at all. I also had a lot of problems with eating and I used to think that if I didn’t eat I would turn beautiful somehow. Beauty was something I felt I needed to represent in order to be happy.
Troy: When did you first know you were different?
Janna: Well, I’ve always known I was different ever since I had memories. I always had this disconnect from other people or maybe with how other people viewed me.
Troy: How do you think other people viewed you?
Janna: They treated me as this little boy who had a lot of energy and always as a boy and this never felt right. The word ‘boy’ always had a bad ring to it and I hated that. I always viewed other boys as away from myself. There was this wall between me and boys and that was weird for me because I didn’t see myself that way.
Troy: Since you didn’t view yourself as a boy, did you view yourself as a girl?
Janna: No, not really. As I am now. What I am and who I am really has nothing to do with gender for me. I think that gender is irrelevant.
Troy: I think that’s interesting because the people I’ve interviewed for this article have either transitioned to being a man or a woman, but you have chosen not to do that right?
Janna: I really am not because, for me, there’s no goal in transitioning. I’m happy I’m on estrogen and I’m like, ‘This is cool. I feel good’. Maybe when the time comes, because there is a long wait for surgeries and stuff, I’ll think about it then...I don’t think it’s a good way to describe my situation as in from a boy to a girl because that’s not a thing to me. I don’t view anyone as something specific. There are like 7 billion people on the planet and there are only two genders? How is that possible? That doesn’t make sense to me.
Troy: So you think there’s variation in gender?
Janna: Yeah! Of course. Gender isn’t two things. It’s like a huge spectrum of colors.
Troy: What has been the general public reaction to your gender fluidity?
Janna: Well, I don’t explain myself to people unless they ask and, if they ask, I will tell them the whole story. For me, coming out was changing my name on FaceBook and people could react or not because I didn’t really care that much. Nobody has been against me in any way except for a family member who said I was sexually perverted and that something was really wrong with me and that if my father hadn’t died, I would be so much more different and healthier and sane. But they’re okay with this now and understand the situation.
Troy: Is the idea that you’re sexually perverted something you’ve faced in dealing with people other than your family member?
Janna: If someone has that attitude towards me, I don’t have to listen to that because it’s stupid. All my life my friends have been somehow ‘queer’. There’s not a lot of straight or cisgender friends. Everybody is free-spirited so it was easy for me to pursue my “transition”.
In conclusion, I decided to write about the transgender community because I felt it was my duty, as a card carrying liberal, to do so. I thought that sharing an understanding and compassionate article about the plight of trans men and women would give positive exposure to a group that has, for a long time, been considered “other”. My rationale was that my article would help, in a small way, contribute to the larger conversation that was already being had in the media. The problem is that my initial motivation, though well-intentioned, was patronizing because I made several incorrect assumptions before I interviewed anyone in the transgender community.
I learned a few important things during my interviews. Not every trans person feels they were born in the wrong body. Though trans men and women face unique challenges, they’re not a group to be pitied because of those challenges. Gender identity and sexual orientation are two distinct concepts that are often confused and wrongfully put under the same banner. Trans men and trans women are subjected to the same privilege and prejudice we all face in a patriarchal system and their experience reminds us that we still have a lot of work to do to when it comes to gender equality. Gender is not a fixed concept but a fluid one and society’s binary understanding of gender identity can’t be universally applied to everyone. The men and women who agreed to do this article shared very personal stories because they want to change the world and make it so that articles like this don’t have to be written in the future and I thank them for participating.
Troy L. Woodson