The Malta Independent 25 June 2017, Sunday

‘I am who I am, and I am happy with who I am’ – the story of Michelle Sullivan

Helena Grech Sunday, 20 September 2015, 10:30 Last update: about 3 years ago

In this day and age, transgender individuals are willing and able, more than ever before, to speak out about the issues surrounding their day-to-day lives. Michelle Sullivan spoke with The Malta Independent on Sunday about her experiences as a transgender person; the way society has treated her over the years, as well as advice and guidance for any individuals who are experiencing a similar situation. Ms Sullivan is a successful computer security engineer, a photographer, an active blogger who also just tied the knot yesterday evening.

A transgender individual is somebody whose gender identity, gender expression or behaviour does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male or female, and with certain individuals the gender they identify with internally is not necessarily the one they were assigned to at birth externally.

Ms Sullivan said that she identified with the female sex, albeit being born a male, from when she was a child, that it was never a question of choice, but of being true to herself. Ms Sullivan grew up in a small, conservative village on the western coast of England, and spoke of the difficulties for anybody growing up there who was the least bit different. She recalled a memory from her childhood when a homosexual couple moved into the village, and how they had to move just after three weeks, because no grocery store would serve them. Growing up in an area where people were heavily ostracised for not conforming to social norms made it very difficult to speak out.

Ms Sullivan said that this situation made her “absolutely afraid to speak out”. In addition to growing up in a very conservative and traditional village, the conditions of her home life meant that she could not confide in her brother or sister. She went on to say however that this was all a long time ago, and the situation has changed for many transgender people around the world.

On being asked whether she played with traditionally female toys as a child, Ms Sullivan said that she was never one to play with dolls, that her favourite thing to do was taking apart various appliances such as radios and televisions and putting them back together. She said that she has “always been into engineering”; an interest that could be construed as being traditionally male dominated. Ms Sullivan made a point of saying that in her opinion such interests are “gender independent”, and that her personal interests have no bearing on her identification with the female sex.

Ms Sullivan left her parent’s home when she was 18, and said that until she came out she would dress as a female in secret. It was not until 2003 that she confided in someone about her gender identity issues. In 2007, at 37, she decided that “it was time to stop hiding” and proceeded to reveal her true self to her family and friends. At the time, the only support she received came in the form of an Australian transgender radio group, where a community of transgender people came together through an online forum and shared their photographs and experiences. Ms Sullivan explained how she used this online forum to seek the support and advice she needed.

In terms of receiving support through formal channels, Ms Sullivan said that there was none available at the time in Australia, where she was living, and that government health agencies recommended seeing a psychiatrist. After consultations with a doctor, she was prescribed hormones and the external process started there. She was viewed as a classic type-2 transgender, meaning that there were no mental issues, and that wanting to start the external process was a result of genuine identification with the female sex, and that no other motives were in play. The doctor saw that she was an intelligent person who had thought deeply about what she was asking and that she had not sought medical advice on a whim.

Turning to the subject of gender identity and sexuality, Ms Sullivan said that she has always been attracted to other females, stating that in the past she had tried to make relationships work with men, but ultimately she was always drawn to other women. She said that “when I made the choice to come out I knew full well that I could be spending the rest of my life alone because I wasn’t interested in men”. The trade-off between living as an unhappy heterosexual man or a transgender homosexual woman was discussed. Ms Sullivan said she was always aware of the trade-off, but the commitment to being true to herself and living life as happily as possible was always the ultimate goal.

For a big portion of her working life, she presented herself to the world as a man. On being asked about her experience of working in a company after she came out, Ms Sullivan said that there were mixed reactions. There are anti-discrimination laws in place that prevent her from being treated unjustly, however not everybody respected those laws and her life choices. With the company she was working for in Malta, Ms Sullivan said that the situation was worse. The majority of staff treating her with the respect she deserved, however staff members closer to the top treated her unfairly, when they are the ones who are supposed to be setting an example.

The most frustrating aspect of day-to-day living as a transgender woman is when people deliberately continue to use the male pronoun, said Ms Sullivan. She went on to say that over the phone this is understandable; however when people look you in the eye and persistently and deliberately continue to use the male pronoun, even after being repeatedly corrected, is extremely offensive. She said that “most of the time I will correct and correct, and get more abrupt while doing so. In the past I’ve had to talk to people’s supervisors at work for this reason.”

In the past, Ms Sullivan had friends who kept her at arm’s length, because they feared that colleagues or other individuals would single them out, and hold them back professionally because of their friendship with her.

What is also extremely offensive, said Ms Sullivan, is when people purposely grab her in order to check if she has male or female private parts. She added that “some people think that being transgender gives them the right to automatically grab your private parts”.

Ms Sullivan is very vocal online about her life, her job and her process of transitioning into a woman externally. Her blog, entitled ‘Michelle’s Blog’ started out as a technical blog, but was then updated to include all aspects of her life.  She said that it was both a platform for self-expression as well as a way of helping others in a similar situation. A section of the blog, called ‘Transgenderism’ talks about health aspects, resources, transitioning and weight-loss. Ms Sullivan said that the health section, outlining the physiological changes brought about through hormone treatment and other medications was “specifically to help other people in similar situations.”

In the past she had been contacted by other transgender individuals, some seeking advice, some companionship and others for the sole purpose of dating a transgender person. Ms Sullivan explained that it is an experimental desire, that there are men who would like to have homosexual relations with a person who has the appearance of a woman. She added that it is offensive to be viewed as someone’s “experiment”.

Ms Sullivan has been with her partner, Gabby Cioffi for just over two years. But on numerous occasions people tried to pressure Ms Cioffi into breaking off the relationship, even though these people did not know Ms Sullivan personally, or had any vested interest in their lives.

When they met, Ms Sullivan said she had noticed Ms Cioffi immediately and was concerned she would not return the same feelings. As it turned out, after their initial meeting Ms Cioffi had taken a look at her blog and, after a few chats, Ms Sullivan invited her out on a date, and to her delight the invitation was accepted. Now, just over two years later, they have tied the knot and can look forward to a happy future together.

When asked about how she copes with discrimination, Ms Sullivan said: “Bigoted people will never learn... I am who I am, and am happy with who I am. I can do a lot for people, I can help them with computers and security, I can be a loyal friend, I am an intelligent person with a lot to say”.

In conclusion, Ms Sullivan’s advice to anybody who is going through what she has gone through is: “Be true to yourself and do not worry about what other people think. At the end of the day, being true to yourself is the most important thing for you to be a happy and stable person. People will discriminate against you for a variety of reasons, and if you listen to them they win.”

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