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English Version | The skin I live in

02 Sep 2021
By Pureza Fleming

We’re born into this world carrying one brain, in a given body, with certain parts. When someone is born with a form of cerebral sex different than their birth sex, then we have what is called transsexuality or gender dysphoria. It is a disorder that can carry a great deal of pain if not faced head-on. Although, today more than ever, it has a solution. Everything in the name of a more peaceful existence. And of a (happier) ending.

We’re born into this world carrying one brain, in a given body, with certain parts. When someone is born with a form of cerebral sex different than their birth sex, then we have what is called transsexuality or gender dysphoria. It is a disorder that can carry a great deal of pain if not faced head-on. Although, today more than ever, it has a solution. Everything in the name of a more peaceful existence. And of a (happier) ending. 

Let’s call him João (fictional name). For more than a decade, João was Joana, since everything indicated it as such: the gender in their ID, the sex they carried on their body, the long hair (not always appreciated), the painted fingernails (not always in goodwill), the boys they dated, the friendships they upheld – though this never meant, boy or girl, that they couldn’t keep being friends with the opposite sex. Like they recall to Vogue, João forced certain friendships. Why? To fit it, since that is what you do when you feel out of place in a society with too much of a square mind for such a rounded world. At 17, they confess: “I’ve always felt uncomfortable. When I was four, five years old, I started telling my parents I was a boy and ever since started to compare myself to every boy and every girl my age. I felt I didn’t fit into one nor the other. Then, I tried to fit into the girl side: I started wearing bikini tops, started trying to take an interest in boys, at a certain point I even painted my nails and let my hair grow longer. It was clear for everyone around me that, finally, I was beginning to act like a girl, that I was a girl. My biggest fear was that people would start noticing that I was transsexual, that I was in fact a boy, which is something I had known for a long time.” The fear that João recalls is the same one that pierces through the hearts of all youngsters that suffer with this dilemma: a form of cerebral sex that is different than the birth gender they were born into. Rita Torres, sexual therapist and doctorate in the Doctoral Program of Human Sexuality from the University of Porto, enlightens us: “The body is not its gender. But there is a gender associated with the biological sex, ever since the baby is inside the uterus. In many cases, this attributed gender doesn’t match with the one that a young person identifies with. This is what we feel, the part that might not correspond to the body. Thus, a young person in this situation can feel quite anguished, especially in a time where there are already enough turbulences characteristic of adolescence. If to this we add the relationships and structures that deny their identity, then this young person will fall ill. These people’s respect for the self-determination of identity and gender expression is a matter of health and respect for human rights. These youngsters will identify themselves with the opposite gender, others won’t identify at all with binary genders, and others will identify themselves with both. In other words, when they reach adulthood, some will want to resort to medical intervention, such as hormonal therapy or surgical procedures. Others will want only certain interventions, and some won’t want any treatment at all.” The therapist shares that, when she started practicing in this field, it was very rare to have someone transsexual come into her office: “Throughout this time it became more and more usual for these young people to search for support. It’s not unusual either for them to come accompanied by their families, that what to know how they can help.” To sum up, family support is essential. “I’ve always hated having my picture taken. I hated to look at myself and even see myself in the mirror. I didn’t understand why, only later, when I started suspecting I was transsexual, did I realize the discomfort I was feeling when it came to my image had to do with the fact that my feelings toward who I was did not correspond to who I was seeing in the mirror”, João underlines. 

According to the dictionary, the term “transgender” is: 1) denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex; 2) relative to those whose gender identity is not clearly feminine neither masculine. In a time when we’re discussing gender questions more than ever before, it is paramount that certain things are made clear. “What is attributed at birth is the sex, not the gender. The gender only starts to manifest itself later, around the three or four years of age mark. The manifestation of gender is a social construct, nothing more than a social manifestation of an individual, who is known by a certain gender. The manifestation of the sex of their brain. Everyone has the sex their brain dictates them to have.” The first explanation comes from the maxillofacial plastic surgeon, and specialist in surgery to change sex, João Décio Ferreira. “The transgender group includes transsexuals. However, these are the only ones that, because they feel they’re trapped in the wrong body, suffer from transsexuality/ gender dysphoria. A travesty, for example, might want to get mammary implants because they feel great with them – such as a woman might want to do so. However, travesties are, a priori, at peace with their body. Transsexuals are the only ones that completely rejected the body they were given and, thus, suffer. They live in constant pain, provoked by the discrepancy that exists between their cerebral sex and their birth one. And everything that encompasses pain and suffering fits the definition of disease from the World Health Organization.” The term transsexuality, despite its recent manifestation, didn’t come about only now. The responsible is Harry Benjamin (1885-1986), German endocrinologist and sexologist that emigrated to the United States. He was the first one to identify this discrepancy between one’s cerebral and birth sex. He concluded that, as it would be impossible to modify the brain and adapt it to the body, the only thing to do would be to adapt the body to the brain. Despite everything, it was only from the decade of 1960 that transsexualism clearly became a question of medical order. “When I came out, everyone thought I was a lesbian. It took some time for them to understand I was an actual guy and not a lesbian girl. I think they were surprised when they realized I was transsexual”, João shares. The sexual therapist advances that “nowadays, with more and more access to information, it’s easier for a young person to better understand what is happening to them and, sometimes, give it a name. The revelation of their nonconformity with the gender they are assigned to, depending on their birth sex, is another recurrent theme. The importance of this revelation is bigger within a familiar context. If those who are supposed to demonstrate the biggest affection and support don’t act accordingly, it becomes harder and harder to believe that others will. Hence why there are also requests to help manage the revelation in a family context. Sometimes, parents don’t have a clue and are caught by surprise. There is a bigger shock, and even denial period, where the family doesn’t really understand what is happening.” Sara, João’s half-sister, reports that it is not that easy to understand what goes on inside the head of a teenager during their misidentification period: “He was unhappy with many things, but we talked more about family and school, normal teenage things. The rite of passage that is adolescence is, in itself, something quite eventful and expected as such. If I recall it a little more clearly, he used oversized clothing to hide his curves and enjoyed playing basketball, but honestly, because I was a ‘tomboy’ in school – and today fashion is so fluid -, it didn’t even cross my mind that that could be a sign of anything at all”, she explains. The surgeon reminisces on one of his 600, 700 cases: “One time, in the ambit of an operation from masculine to feminine I was about to perform, I questioned the young girl: ‘Have you been circumcised? What is the size of your penis?’ And the answer was: ‘I don’t even look at that ‘thing’ down there, it’s terrible!’ The young lady added that she took medication to prevent nocturnal erections that usually happen naturally because they ‘disgusted’ her.” The surgeon points out something important, the fact that the suicide rate has decreased: “It was bigger when there was no solution in sight. What happens, though, is that even when all steps are taken – from the initial diagnosis to the approval by the Board -, there are other setbacks that push surgeries back at the very last minute. Some transsexuals become desperate because they wait and wait and wait… And end up taking their own lives.” This is why the new law for the self-determination of gender identity, gender expression, and the protection of each individual’s sexual characteristics, has helped raise the community’s awareness to gender questions within one’s steps of development. 

It is thanks to this increase in awareness and better distributed, clearer information, that cases such as João’s can end with the most wanted to all sentences: “And they lived happily ever after”. Not less important, and as aforementioned by the psychologist, is the support of one’s family. “The news was given to the family through our father, who ended up becoming the messenger. My brother talked to him, a couple of days before turning 15 if I’m not mistaken, and then he went on to inform the family. Despite the initial surprise, especially since they knew nothing of the subject, he was very well accepted. He is the same person and holds the same place in this family as he did before. […] I think I can’t even say I miss my sister because for me, they’re exactly the same person, no matter how weird that might sound”, Sara confesses. And she adds: “I give him space for him to be who he is, and he can count on me for everything within my reach. I also believe that justifying this or that with his transition wouldn’t be right, only demeaning. Even our dad, a traditional person with very well sustained ideals, is now the best-informed person on the subject and a real activist for the LGBTQ+ community. One example: my brother as a kid was a very perceptive kid, sensitive and brave. Sometimes I wonder if I would have had the courage to do the same thing, because it requires, above all, maturity, and self-awareness. He has all of this plus a ton of support. The rest, he will conquer with time.” Today, João feels at peace: “I was reborn. I became another person when I came out. Happier, more confident, more me. Some say that when we come out, we’re still the same individual, and that is true. However, we become a whole new version of that person. Someone who is much happier and that, with time, will be able to look in the mirror and not hate what they see. My dad says I became vainer with my colored shirts (before I used to dress only in full black), and with my earrings and colorful socks.” Life in color – as it is supposed to be. 

Originally translated from the New Beginnings issue, published September 2021.Full credits and stories on the print issue. 

Pureza Fleming By Pureza Fleming

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