Transgender visibility, risk and improving the transition experience
Juno Roche – writer, campaigner and woman living with HIV – shares her experiences of HIV and being trans for International Transgender Day of Visibility (31 March).
'I have lived these past 25 years with HIV, sometimes thriving, sometimes not. I engaged in sex work and addiction and existed for many years at the margins, butted up against the law and risk. I’ve often accepted this as being a part of ‘me’ – but is it? Am I inherently risky because I'm trans?'
I grew up with a space between me and the world, 'dysphoria', by any other name – a state of constant unease with life. The world seeing me as one thing, while deep inside, I felt entirely different.
I was raised as a boy but I only ever felt like a girl. Growing up there was emptiness, even the people who seemed to understand still couldn't see or encounter me as I really felt. It was beyond gender, rather, I never had the opportunity to grow up as ‘me’ – what people experienced was merely a shadow of myself. I was in a bubble.
I spent years pre-transition feeling lost and seemingly incapable of feeling. I once told a punter who punched me in the face that I couldn't feel a thing. I couldn't. It wasn't a lie. It is little wonder that rates of depression, self-harm and suicide are so high in the transgender community. Not being able to connect with others felt acutely painful. Drugs, heroin and crack cocaine washed away that feeling to a not-so-distant shore.
I was diagnosed with HIV at the time when I had started, tentatively, to begin the process of transitioning. Being told that I was HIV-positive and could possibly die within months was the lifeline I needed to bring me to my surface. I didn't want to die and be buried like this, I knew Juno was inside, somewhere.
Could people have helped, could they have made a difference?
When I first spoke out and told people I thought I might be transgender, they said not to be silly, that I was 'just' gay or that it was okay to be feminine – but femininity never came into it for me. People told me that being transgender would be a terrible life, that no one would want me or have sex with me. Someone once said, “You'll make an incredibly ugly woman, why do that to yourself?”
I wish I'd believed sooner. I wish people would listen to us and think about the words they use. Currently, our community is under such attacks from people denying our truth. It costs lives, it really does.
When I first started hormones, they flooded in and awakened me. I stopped hiding, my confidence driven by the soothing rush of oestrogen into my body. I could feel it bringing to life the 'dead-zone' that existed between me and the world. But it wasn't the softening of my skin, or the growth of my wide-set breasts, or the way I walked or talked – but the feeling that somehow I could let go a little.
I relaxed and exhaled, and then relaxed some more. My transition was about letting go and breathing. During the early days I took chances I never would’ve taken before. Reckless, silly risks, like travelling across the city to have sex with men whom I'd met online but knew nothing about, just desperate to explore this new phenomena of ‘feeling’ and ‘touching’. Grateful to be seen and to finally be able to give and (rarely) receive pleasure as me.
I never said no.
I sometimes think that those early days of my transition were the riskiest. As an ex-addict who’d been clean for years, I found myself in sexual situations accepting drugs. I said yes to whatever they wanted to do sexually, completely passive in the face of potential rejection. Exploring this freedom made me feel alive. I was becoming visible to myself, but not to the rest of the world, not in any real sense.
I think my saving grace, more than anything, was that I didn’t want who I’d become to be tainted by my past patterns of behaviour – their control over me made me feel empty like I did when I was not the real me.
As I began to occupy my body, I wanted it to be in a space I could learn to breathe in. I wanted to acquire the right to say “No” and to think I was worthy of making requests like, “Can you wear a condom?”, and “Please go easier, that hurts.”
Do I think being trans made me inherently risky or riskier than others? No, but I do think that feelings of dysphoria created a barrier for me, making it harder to look after myself, and take control of my body.
Ultimately dysphoria isn’t an inherent part of me, it is a product of society, which controls gender norms, and it creates a very real gap. Dysphoria isn't implicit within the trans body, but rather in the place where the trans body meets the world, and in that sense the world has a responsibility to help improve the transition experience for trans people. Stop expecting us to be 'feminine' or 'masculine' and allow us to be just like you – to choose how we become visible.
We are often judged so harshly in relation to gender stereotypes; either we are too feminine, trying too hard, not trying hard enough, not 'passing' as 'real women'. The dysphoria that started to leave me as I became myself was still sustained by society wanting me to fit *their normativity. Society wanted me to jump through hoops to prove myself even after finding the courage to come out. It would be a much kinder response to allow us to grow as individuals and not as gender stereotypes.
I am present now and visible. In the very moment that things happen, both good and bad, I make decisions with a real sense of knowledge and understanding of where risk can take us and how although sometimes risks are valid, we always have the right to say yes and the right to say no. The more visible we can become the more we can breakdown the stigma that is thrust on us by society.
Her book, Queer Sex, is out April 19th