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A life reclaimed

The final symbolic step of transitioning

More Manitobans than ever are changing their birth certificate gender — often the final step for transitioning.

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It was an awkward phone call a year ago that forced Jeremy Barbosa to come out to his family as transgender.

Then living, unhappily, as a lesbian, the university student was sitting in the kitchen one day with his sister when the phone rang. It was his doctor calling back with a referral to a gynecologist. Barbosa couldn’t hide what the call was about and his sister asked.

"Holding a secret in, I couldn’t do it. So I finally told her. I got all teary and was like, ‘I have to tell you something’ and she pretty much knew already what I was going to tell her," said the 19-year-old. "Obviously she was mostly just worried that other people might not accept me, especially family members because we’re Catholic."

About a month after telling his sister he was transgender, during the Pride Winnipeg weekend, Barbosa came out to his parents in a letter. [Read the letter.]

"I was too afraid to tell them face-to-face. I knew they had handled the whole lesbian thing well but being trans is something completely different because I would no longer be their daughter, I’d be their son," said Barbosa, who went to a friend’s house for the night to allow his parents to process the news.

"There was a lot of tears for me and my mom, although mostly me. It was just overwhelming I guess because I had kept this secret for so long and now I was finally telling them."

Those conversations were the start of a journey more and more Manitobans are taking, one that involves altering their gender through surgery, hormones and ultimately a symbolic tweak to their birth certificate.

"'There was a lot of tears for me and my mom, although mostly me."

-Jeremy Barbosa

Last year, Manitoba saw a spike in the number of people seeking to change their sex, at least on paper.

For most of the last five years, only nine Manitobans asked Vital Statistics to change the male or female gender marker on their birth certificate, typically the last step in someone’s transition.

In 2013, that number jumped to 21, with most people transitioning from female to male.

It’s difficult to know how many of those 21 people had the full menu of gender-reassignment surgery to alter genitalia or remove breasts. That number is tricky to tease out because only some of the many sex-change operations are done in Manitoba or covered by Manitoba Health. It’s one of the many gaps in the network of services that still stymie transgender Manitobans.

As part of a joint project between the Winnipeg Free Press and Red River College’s creative communications program, student journalists profiled three people in various stages of transitioning.  Their stories follow below.

The three described a system that is considerably better than it was, but still forces trans people to travel outside the province for some surgeries, still saddles them with big bills and still imposes wait times that can be tortuous.

Ro Walker Mills, who began his medical transition from a woman to a man in 2011, said he’s never been happier with himself.

"But that doesn’t mean that it’s not scary, and that it’s not overwhelming, and that it doesn’t still give me anxiety, or that people don’t still bully me about it. You know the things that continue on afterward, after you’ve had your surgery and people are like, ‘you’re good.’ No! There’s so many things still happening and that’s where the resources are like, where are they?"

Mills is also an example of what can be the significant cost associated with transitioning. He took out a $6,000 loan to pay for top surgery in Florida because he said the surgeons in Manitoba would only remove breasts and not reconstruct them in a masculine way.

"Ain’t none of us supermodels."

-Shandi Strong

Trans patients who want to receive gender reassignment surgery — the most expensive and, for some, the most important part of the process — must start with one of the three physicians at Klinic Community Health Centre.

That’s where most trans people begin transitioning by first getting a psychological diagnosis of gender dysphoria. But, the wait-list at Klinic can be long.

"Our waiting list has been as low as four months and has been as long as eight months. Right now, it’s in the six to eight month range," said Dr. Ian Whetter. "We are doing whatever we can with the resources we’ve got."

For Shandi Strong, her transformation really began when she was a little boy and was pressured by friends to stop behaving like the girl she wanted to be. Later, as an adult, she struggled to keep her 20-year marriage solid while still living, at least part-time, as a woman.

"My life was spent as a woman," said Strong. "Anytime we socialized, anytime we went out anywhere, I would come home from work, throw some makeup on and go out."

Today, being a woman isn’t just a part time role that she takes on after work. She’s legally a woman and spends hours presenting herself as such, though children still will read her as a man.

"Kids, they don’t have that filter and they’ll go ‘is that a boy or a girl?’ I still get that," she said. "I want people to know that yeah, you’re going to have that happen. Ain’t none of us supermodels."


Updated on Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 7:53 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

April 16, 2014 at 9:31 PM: Fixes typos.

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