The Malta Independent 22 July 2024, Monday
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‘It was a do or die situation’ - The story of a Maltese transgender woman

Malta Independent Sunday, 20 January 2013, 08:24 Last update: about 11 years ago

Rebecca* looks at me calmly, ready to tell her story. I’m the one who’s slightly nervous since I know I’ll be stepping on personal territory in this interview. I’ll be bringing back her past of which I’m sure she would rather let it stay where it is. Yet there is no hesitation in her voice, no awkward pauses here and there and this is because she is a strong woman. A brave woman who is happy, loves life and isn’t shy about opening up to me. A woman who was born a man. A woman who underwent a life-changing experience in order to live. This is her story.

“Till I was about five, I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Going to an only boys’ private school, I remember feeling I was different from them. Apart from that, certain things used to happen but I wasn’t exactly sure if they were right or wrong. For example, when watching fairytale films like Sleeping Beauty, I used to associate myself with the princess not the prince!” she laughs. “Also, although my parents used to buy me trucks, footballs and other toys typically associated with boys, I preferred playing with my sisters’ toys, (she has two sisters; one older, one younger). So yes, even at a young age I did feel that I was slightly different from everyone else… I just wasn’t sure why. Entering puberty at 13… that’s when I became more aware that there was something, not wrong with me, just… different. First of all I noticed that I was attracted to men… but I would like to point something out that just because you’re transgender it doesn’t mean that you have to be attracted to men. You can be transgender and lesbian at the same time.

“As I got older, I came to the conclusion that I was gay. Let me point out that I was brought up in a very conservative Catholic family. My dad was quite strict, so talking about things like homosexuals, sex and such was out of the question! So everything I wanted to know, I found out all on my own. I lived my teens in the 80s and from what I was seeing on the television and with the success of the gay icon that is Boy George, I just said ‘Yep that’s it, I’m gay!’ So when I was 20 I got into the gay scene… going to gay clubs and meeting new people. But I still wasn’t feeling quite right… the whole situation was just making me uncomfortable.”

How did your parents react when you told them?

“My parents didn’t know at the beginning that I was gay, since at that time that’s what I thought I was! My mum was the first to know… she accepted it immediately and it was like she knew all along. She then told my dad who didn’t take it well and didn’t really accept it till the day he died. During that time of going to gay clubs and the like, I used to meet a lot of transvestites and drag artists, both totally different from each other and from being transgender. This is something that I want to emphasise since a lot of people get them mixed up. Transvestites are men who like to dress as women when they go out but go back to living like a man when they’re at home. They are happy to be men and it wouldn’t cross their mind to do gender reassignment surgery. Drag artists are gay men who are happy to be men but they just dress as women for a show or cabaret. Hanging out with these people, I began to feel more comfortable with myself even though I wasn’t like them and had no intention of living my life like theirs… though there was a time when I also used to do drag shows in certain establishments in Malta.

“Because of how I was raised I never knew that there existed the possibility of a person changing his or her gender. So for quite some time I was confused… living a gay life but knowing in myself that I wasn’t really gay. This became even more evident when I started going out with a gay man who didn’t really look gay… he didn’t live up to the stereotype if you know what I mean. And I was attracted to this. I used to like talking to him but when it came to being intimate I just wasn’t comfortable doing anything! I used to see these things as disgusting and even when we used to kiss I used to think ‘How strange two guys kissing!’ Now I don’t have anything against gays and I accept everyone but I just couldn’t get comfortable with him, because I wasn’t gay! So that relationship didn’t last long!”

So what was it that made you realise that you were transgender?

“Once I was in a club where I used to do drag shows and an English woman was there… she was on holiday and we got talking about our lives and she drops this bombshell that she was born a man and had undergone gender reassignment surgery to become a woman. I was shocked! I had no idea something like that existed! That’s when I thought ‘Ok that’s me. That’s what I’m supposed to be.’

“But it was easier said than done. I had no idea from where to start or what to do, so I decided to go to my GP without my parents’ knowledge. After opening up to him about my situation, he told me that I was showing symptoms of being transgender but he didn’t have enough qualifications for something like this, so he referred me to a psychologist and psychiatrist who could help me further. From the psychologist’s analysis he came to the conclusion that I don’t have any psychological problems, I’m not gay… I was just born a woman in the wrong body. My problem wasn’t psychological or emotional… just physical. The psychiatrist told me the exact same thing so the next step was to refer me to a specialist who had contacts with hospitals abroad since this operation doesn’t take place in Malta. Something I must say is that our government doesn’t help in any way when it comes to this specific situation. Not financially, neither psychologically. Nothing. I had to do everything on my own and that just shouldn’t be the case in my opinion.

“After meeting with the specialist and undergoing a physical check-up, as well as having the go-ahead from the other doctors, he told me I had Gender Dysphoria. However, he also said that in order to be 100 per cent sure that this was the option for me, I had to take a course of hormone pills as well as live completely as a woman for two years. This meant I had to dress as a woman from day to night, sleep in a nightdress and go out with family and friends in the role of a woman. Basically I had to do everything as a woman. The reason for this was because if I felt uncomfortable living like this, then the operation wasn’t for me and I had to stop this whole process. Luckily, I felt at ease in my own skin from the beginning and I was looking forward to the day that would completely change my life. The only unfortunate thing about it all is that I lost a few friends along the way, but they weren’t really friends or else they would have supported me. Others stuck by me and accepted me and I’m still friends with them today.

“Apart from living as a woman for two years, I was also taking hormone therapy and that changes a lot of things. First of all it changes your figure… hips get a little bigger and obviously the chest grows as well. Body hair gets lighter or falls off. My hair also became stronger and nicer and my cheekbones more pronounced. All in all, the therapy really changed the way I looked and I began to look like I am today… however I was 26 back then so there is a bit of a difference! Naturally, this strong therapy did have some side effects, the most prominent being mood swings and hot flushes. But those two years passed and I was ready to do the operation.”

I can’t even begin to imagine the enormity of such an operation… it’s literally life-changing. So I ask her if it was a difficult decision to do the surgery and she tells me that she had no choice, no way-out:

“A lot of people think that it’s a choice whether to have the operation or not but, I’m sure people like me will say the same, it’s not a choice but a do or die situation. The only choice I had was either to live a lie and remain trapped in my own body or do the surgery and have a normal life just like anyone else. It’s not a choice. I never used to look at myself when taking a shower because it used to upset me. That’s not living is it? So it wasn’t a difficult decision to do the operation. What was difficult was knowing that the recovery post-op was going to be painful. That’s what scared me the most.

“The surgery was going to take place in a private clinic in England. They sent me a letter with the confirmation date, which was 7 May 1992...a date I’ll never forget, also because it is my mum’s birthday! Along with the date they also sent me two other papers. One detailing what I should take with me such as towels, underwear etc, and the other outlining the process of the operation, including something that terrified me. There was a 30 per cent chance that I wouldn’t make it through the operation. This did scare me I admit, but it didn’t make me change my mind…I was dead inside anyway. 

“It might be hard to believe but I went to the UK on my own and came back on my own too. My mum didn’t have that kind of money to come with me back then and I was lucky enough to know the English language and to have relatives living there. My grandpa, who was close to 70, lived there and he was with me through it all and supported me even though you would expect a man of his age to not understand what I was about to do and why! But he stuck by me and accepted me as a woman from the beginning and I will always remain eternally grateful to him for that.”

I tell her that all of this must have cost her quite a lot and she replies, telling me she “had to pay Lm3,000 for the whole process. This included a blood test I had to do as soon as I arrived in England, another session with a psychiatrist in England before the operation, the consultation with the surgeon and the actual operation that lasted six-and-a-half hours. There was also the treatment post-op, which lasted 12 days in the clinic. I had to pay another Lm1,000 for my flight to the UK and back and a two-week stay at a hotel pre and post-op. So in all, everything came up to Lm4,000. It might seem a little nowadays but back then it was very expensive.”

What happened after?

“I came back to Malta ready to face a nightmare but it had to be done. I had to change all my legal documents...birth certificate, passport, ID, licence, credit cards…everything! Every single thing that had my previous name and gender had to be changed. After the operation, the clinic gave me a certificate confirming that I had undergone gender reassignment surgery and that I now was physically and psychologically a woman. But our ridiculous legal system wasn’t happy with just that.

“I had to open a case and take the government to court… a case which cost me around Lm600. Not only that, but I had to speak about my personal life and what I went through in front of strangers! Fortunately, I won the case even though the government then appealed. I appealed and I won that also.

“And they finally changed everything. So on my birth certificate, something that is very important to me, you will see that I was born a woman. There might be some people who won’t understand this, saying ‘How can it say you were born a woman when you were actually born a man?’ The thing is, the way the courts reason is that since I was born with Gender Dysphoria, I was supposed to be a girl although physically I was a boy, so the certificate says I was born a woman. After finally getting that certificate I could go to the other departments and change my details. Once I had everything in order, life became easier. I was free and ready to live my life as a woman.”

Has your life improved?

“My life improved drastically after the operation but it’s because I made it happen. You can’t just believe life is going to be great without putting in some effort. I had to be strong and make people accept who I am because whatever you do, society will still look at you and say ‘Hey that’s the woman who was born a man.’ Some people still refer to me in that way!” she says with a light laugh. “I had to integrate myself in society… I couldn’t expect people who didn’t understand my situation to accept me blindly. It doesn’t work like that. I made my mum and sisters get used to me as a woman even before the operation and though they did make a few mistakes here and there, I was never angry with them. I just corrected them and they soon got used to me. In fact a while ago my sister told me that she couldn’t even imagine how I was before! I also can say that when it comes to my work life I managed to not only integrate myself but also become a local personality. I’m not being modest when I say this, but I think years from now when these things will be more open they would say that Rebecca* was the first transgender radio and television personality. And I’m really proud of that!”

Were you ever picked on or insulted?

“There were times before the operation when I used to wear a wig… I used to dress up because I didn’t look completely like a woman… and people could be so mean. They would make fun of me and hurt me emotionally, though thankfully never physically. Nowadays I couldn’t care less what people think of me. I did this for myself and not for anyone else.

“Before the operation I didn’t have any relationships because since I was sure I was a woman I couldn’t go out with a gay guy and a straight man wouldn’t go out with me because I was a man dressed up as woman! But funnily enough there were a few men who were straight and wanted to go out with me. I would talk to them as friends and if they asked me out I would tell them my situation, but that didn’t put off most of them. There once was a guy who I went out with a few times and he wanted to kiss me but I told him better not since I hadn’t done the operation yet. He didn’t seem to mind and he kissed me just the same! But it ended shortly after because it obviously wouldn’t have worked out.

“Relationships became easier for me after the surgery and it’s important to say that I only go out with straight men. I’m a woman just like any other woman who was born a woman. And even though the past is the past and I don’t have to explain myself, I made a conscious decision to tell any man I go out with my story. A reason I tell him is because I can’t have kids, even though I have the same genital part as any other woman. I just don’t have a uterus. Fortunately I’ve never had any problems. There was never a man who told me no because I had the operation. The problems I do face come from the people around the man… his workmates, family etc.  He might really love me but if his parents are giving him a hard time and they don’t accept it, it can put a strain on the relationship and therefore it’s best just to end it.”

What’s your view on the Catholic Church?

“Irrelevant of what the institution of the Catholic Church says, I know God loves me and accepts me the way I am. I’m a practising Catholic, I go to church every Saturday and form part of a prayer group. I also know that God appreciates that I did something about my situation in order to give myself a better life. When it comes to marriage, I can get married in a civil court but I hope that one day I’ll take a stand and try to change the ban on getting married in a church. I understand why the church won’t change its thinking on two gays getting married…I don’t expect them to accept that. But I’m a woman who will get married to a man so why they’re against that is beyond reason. Right now I’m not in a relationship and I don’t know if I even would want to get married in the future, but at least I have the option!

“Something that fascinates me is how people make a big deal out of what I did. For me it’s a very simple straightforward thing…I was born one way, I changed it and now it’s over. I got on with my life. But that amazes many people. When someone asks me what I felt inside before I became a woman I give them this example: Imagine you’re a woman and one day you wake up and even though you know you’re a woman everyone you meet refers to you as a man and you can’t understand why because you know you’re a woman. That’s what happened to me!”

And with that I end the interview, fascinated by a woman who risked everything to begin an even better, new life as the person she was always meant to be, Rebecca.


*A fictitious name has been used at the request of the interviewee

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