Joseph Schreiber is a transgender man from Calgary, Canada. He is a writer, editor, and blogger who is popular on WordPress by the handle- RoughGhosts. He has contributed to ventures like 3: AM Magazine, The Scofield and, The Quarterly Conversation.
On his first visit to India, he shares with us the journey of his transition and how he views the LGBTQIA scene.
Q. When did you first feel like a ‘man trapped in a woman’s body’? Did it affect your childhood?
Even when I was a 5-6-year-old kid, I knew something was different. I couldn’t quite put a finger on it for a very long time, but I knew. I was very pretty but was not allowed to grow my hair long and my mother was practical about clothing in the country. I used to imagine that if I had long hair, a feminine name instead of Jocelyn, and slim ankles, I would “feel” more feminine. Some of my favourite pieces of clothing though, come from the men’s section, they always did. I always felt there was a boy inside me. Back then, I didn’t know I had a choice to be something else. I also got along a lot more with men than women.
But no, my parents were never homophobic and I didn’t really face a struggle till I turned 18.
Q. How does the process of transitioning go? What kind of stages are there?
I had to go through several surgeries. I was visiting all kinds of doctors for almost 5 years- endocrinologists, psychiatrists, physicians, gynaecologists, gender clinics. The amount of testosterone that is injected, the fluctuating levels, it is difficult to explain the transition to outsiders. All of a sudden I was looking at people in a different way; I was getting attracted without meaning to. For a while, it just takes over you. It is almost like going through a second puberty. If not handled properly, the surgeries can have really uncomfortable after-effects.
My baldness (male-pattern) is a side-effect of my transition. After I was through, I got really weird about my body for a while and would resent hugging or touching anyone. But that was all 18 years ago.
Q. How was the LGBTQIA community treated in the 70s and 80s when you were in your teens?
That time, the term ‘faggot’ was extremely prevalent. It was supposed to mean the highest disgrace ever and was just thrown on people who had guts to come out as gay. In a town as small as where I lived, you could never think of doing something like this. Mostly because a lot of times people didn’t even realize they had options.
Teens and adults who were queer would secretly go to these pubs and bars that were sort-of downtown. That is how they managed.
The community is a lot more vocal now.
Q. How did your internal battle affect your marriage with your ex-husband?
In the initial years, when I was confused about my identity, somewhere I believed that if I married him, I wouldn’t have to try and pretend to date anymore and maybe it would confirm my femininity. That was part of the reason. I was attracted to him, but not as a woman. I would say that my struggles with sexuality and gender, in general, stressed my marriage. I cannot say that I wanted to be or transitioned to become a gay transgender man. I simply wanted to align the outside appearance of my inner feelings. Being gay is incidental. It reflects the fact that as a male I am still attracted to men/male people.
My ex-husband had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that his wife wanted to transition. We really did love each other and have a good bond. But he understood me, he was supportive. He helped me through my transitioning. He helped me maintain a good relationship with my kids.
We might have drifted apart over the years but there are no hard feelings.
Q. You had an 11-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter when you began your transition process, how did they react?
My children were actually pretty supportive. They tried their best to understand what was happening. I tried to make them meet a lot of families with trans parents, particularly trans-men so that they knew families can be normal despite parents having differences and that it is possible for me to still be a good, regular parent to them. My son actually saved my life a few years ago when I had a cardiac arrest. I am good friends with my daughter now.
Q. Is it hard for trans-genders to find a place in the LGBTQIA community and make friends?
There can still be pockets of resistance toward transgender people in the LGBTQIA community. We can be made to feel like outsiders. Most people do not know how terribly misogynistic gay men can be sometimes. Even the lesbians hold a certain taboo against the trans community. I still find it hard to make friends with queer people. Surprisingly, heterosexual cis people have been far more understanding.
Q. How did you go from Jocelyn to Joseph on paper legally?
I changed my name on my driving license, voter ID, and other stuff in a registry way before my transition surgery actually happened because I was sure I wanted this. I changed all of them to either just J or JM though. I retained Schreiber which was my ex-husband’s last name. I changed my sex to M on all the identity cards. I recently changed my sex on my health card too, after my hysterectomy.
It is a lot easier to do this stuff nowadays than it was 18 years ago. You even have the option of saying ‘not sure’ or being gender fluid in some forms!
Q. You are in your 50s now, how different is the hunt for a partner now?
It is really hard to meet gay men who will accept your non-cis identity and take you as a transgender man. Even harder to meet gay trans-men like yourself. I am looking for a stable partner to fall in love with but I don’t do bar scenes. I haven’t had a partner for a very long time now.
Q. How important is it to you to be able to pass as a cis-man in public?
Very important. Street level invisibility is vital, a matter of safety and an ability to exist without calling attention to myself. Because of my history (marriage, children, etc.) and my body, that invisibility can be and is surrendered with or without my control (if I need or choose to explain my past, or if I was to become incapacitated and need medical care, like when I had my cardiac arrest).
I also want to say that passing well buys one a lot of respect when you do out yourself. To look rather ordinary goes a long way. On the other hand, there is a part of me that feels unexpressed/inexpressible. I am not like other men.
Q. How does Trans-visibility feature in the Canadian scene as compared to India? Especially in the case of transgender men?
I think trans-women are more visible. There are a number of trans-men who are public, and a number of well-known gender queer trans male/butch personalities. There is some really cool crossover gender expression among First Nations and visible minorities (of South Asian heritage too). But I would guess many transmen are as invisible as I am. I still encounter people (even trans and gay people) who don’t know we exist.
I don’t follow the queer scene too closely now, being almost 20 years since I first came out as trans. Other life stuff takes precedence. I do not take part in pride marches because I don’t feel like wearing a t-shirt and publicize my identity. I will speak out if there is injustice but I will not publicize myself.
Q. Are there any spaces that you would feel are now inaccessible to you as a trans-man? Why is that?
Change rooms. Only recently has formal protection been passed with easing of gender restrictions. I don’t know if more non-cis gendered folk venture into those spaces. Personally, I would feel uncomfortable.
There are social spaces that I no longer fit in as a single male parent, or perhaps spaces that don’t exist, at least not in my relatively small city. Very few trans people I meet, have trajectories that mirror mine.