by Alex Antoneshyn
Finding Family offers a glimpse into the lives of three sets of individuals, all of whom are working to forge relationships that defy the same social pressures they face as members and allies of the transgender community. While one couple is left to fill roles abandoned by others, another exercises their right to share love how they please, and a third individual sacrifices part of the present for her future. At some point, each has seen their livelihood threatened by their connection to Brandon, Man. — but it is also these ties that have allowed them to find what they are looking for.
Kathy and Ed have opened their home to transgender youth who are looking for information, counselling, medical aid and advice.
(Photos by Colin Corneau
/ The Brandon Sun)
Her hands are restless on the sea-blue tablecloth, dancing over vinyl lobsters and ships from her phone to the cuffs of her black sweater, back to her phone, and then to pick at her nails. When she’s less anxious, Erica can afford herself a lean-back in the chair, although her hands dive into the pockets of her sweater — forever? — balled with nerves. And when she’s feeling better yet, Erica will sit up and rest her elbows on the table. When she’s not OK, her right hand stills on the surface and waits for Kathy’s left.
For as many meals she’s shared and as many tears she’s shed in this kitchen, it might as well be her own.
With her hand firmly in Kathy’s, Erica recounts her story from the beginning, including years spent in her father’s abusive home and moments left alone with his friend. It’s with a quiet desperation that they hold each other: Erica for the strength to continue, Kathy for the strength to endure a helplessness beyond what she’s already offering. Erica’s voice occasionally wavers, but it’s the older woman’s cheeks that sparkle with tears.
Ed leaves the screen door bouncing as he walks into the kitchen with a box of foot-long zucchini and cherub tomatoes. He drops the garden load on a couple of lobsters and moves on into the house.
“You know when you guys leave you’re taking some tomatoes,” his words trail behind him.
It’s hard to know whether he’s truly oblivious to the air humid with emotion or if he has simply acclimatized.
Of the estimated 1.3 million people in living in Manitoba, more than half — nearly 705,000 — live in its capital city, Winnipeg. Brandon clings with pride to its title as the second-largest city in the province, but that sounds impressive only until you run the numbers. With a population of less than 50,000, it has just a fraction of the population Winnipeg does and even fewer services. Winnipeg is thought of as the province’s black hole, leaving scarce funding, professionals and amenities for those outside the vacuum.
For that reason, Kathy and her husband Ed have turned their home into a valuable resource, unbeknownst to those who are lucky enough not to need their service but unfortunate enough to not know them. The people who walk through their door seek information, counselling, medical aid and advice. Yet they come to Kathy and Ed because they are not willing to trade their dignity for such supports.
Where administration sits in an office building, a kitchen table awaits its next guests. Rather than a cooler of stale water and paper cone cups, warm bread and fresh borscht greet their guests. Where staff is sometimes too clinical and often judgmental, all this couple has to offer is their unconditional support. There aren’t dozens of informational pamphlets lining the home, but family photos on these walls — though they communicate the same reassurance: Don’t worry; it’s going to be OK. We can help you.
On the table underneath the east window sits a photo of the day they celebrated Ed’s retirement, and brothers Phil and Chris pose with graduation caps in the hallway. The deep freeze in the dining room corner can’t be used much because a handful of frames sit on its surface, documenting weddings and parties that warrant a family get-together now that the kids are grown.
“Chris is the one with the beard,” Ed had pointed out earlier.
“The bearded wonder,” his wife had chuckled.
But pictures alone don’t offer the truest version of this family’s story. In hardly any of them does Chris look younger than a high school graduate or university freshman. There’s one baby picture in the hallway of him as a young girl. Kathy says minutes prior to the snapshot he’d been crying in a pink crocheted dress and only stopped when he sat naked, save the diaper and a crooked ball cap.
Dozens more family photos sit in a Tupperware bin and a hatbox in the attic. What a quandary, Kathy said, sorting through the photos that would be OK to keep and the ones that only reminded Chris of his most uncomfortable years.
“You put one child away — you have to — and you welcome the new child,” she shrugs.
Ten years ago, the couple’s two kids had planned a weekend in Alberta. Alone in the house, Kathy and Ed discussed the likelihood their daughter was gay and planned to talk to her after the trip. The little house tucked in Brandon’s side streets is as unassuming as its appearance; Kathy and Ed say no topic — drugs and sex included — was off-limits at their dinner table.
So that Saturday, each carried on with their day, which, whenever her kids were gone, meant Kathy headed to tidy their teenage rooms.
“Everything important in his life used to end up under his dresser,” she explains. “We used to have a lot of problems because he didn’t want to go to gym classes, he didn’t want to go to girl guide camps and he didn’t want to do all these things — and all the permit slips wouldn’t be where they should be.”
That day, Kathy didn’t find any of the usual permission forms or bras or Chris’s ID that she had come to expect, but a letter addressed to his friends.
“I came down to (Ed) and I said, ‘It’s more than being gay.’ And Ed goes, ‘What’s more than being gay?’ I said, ‘He’s transgender.’ And he goes, ‘I don’t think I know what that is.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think I do either.’”
When Chris came home, Kathy said, “‘I cleaned your room.’ And he said, ‘Ah.’ You know, I often kind of wonder if he just left it there on purpose.”
Her words tumble into each other slightly, muffled by half the hand that cradles her chin. Though Kathy is speaking of the past, she uses words that belong to the present. Chris is her son, and that he was her daughter for the first 18 years of his life is insignificant. She doesn’t consider him transgender anymore; he’s just Chris.
But that weekend, 10 years ago, things weren’t so clear. Ed and Kathy couldn’t relate to what their child was experiencing so they turned to the Internet, and by doing so, became some of Brandon’s staunchest LGBTTQ* supporters.
Today, a search of what it means to be transgender yields as many helpful results as it does horrifying ones.
Between the definitions and the news articles and the peer forums are the numbers that say transgender individuals experience hate crime, suicide and depression at a higher rate than average.
For example, a study, in which the Trans PULSE Project Team polled transgender individuals in Ontario, found 34 per cent of its participants had been verbally threatened or harassed because of their gender identity. Another 20 per cent reported being physically or sexually assaulted.
Kathy hugs Erica, part of the ongoing support at the Brandon home for Erica, who has been shunned by members of her biological family.
(Photos by Colin Corneau
/ The Brandon Sun)
Additionally, the researchers found that as the severity of attack increased, so did the likelihood victims would struggle with depression and suicide. Of the trans Ontarians who had been verbally harassed or threatened, 35 per cent seriously considered suicide while eight per cent attempted to take their life.
Those numbers grew to 56 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively, when the victim had been physically or sexually assaulted.
Ten years ago, Kathy and Ed became advocates when it was their child who faced the grim possibility of these numbers, but it’s the youth who have been rejected by their families, shunned by their communities and neglected by service providers who fuel their drive today.
Every desperate knock on the door, phone call choked by tears or strained parent meeting is as a reminder of what it means to be transgender in southwestern Manitoba.
Both Ed and Kathy are retirees — he from a job that saw people at their most regrettable, and she from the medical field — yet their calendar is the fullest it ever has been. A sort of open-doors policy exists in their household: When they’re needed, the pair is sought out. Sometimes, it’s teens who have been kicked out of their house, a bag of belongings thrown over one shoulder. Other times, it’s those in the midst of their transition who show up on the stoop, wondering: Is Kathy around to help with my hormone injection? Often, it’s a parent wrought with inability to reconcile their child’s gender identity. Instinctively, Kathy believes you’re either a parent or not — pick one — but almost every day she comes across a situation in which that simplicity has been challenged.
At any given point, Kathy and her husband are working with seven to 14 kids (both minors and unofficial adoptees) in addition to the fraction of parents willing to confront their own prejudice. The number rises and falls; there was a stint last year when two or three outcasts knocked on their door each night.
Kathy’s kitchen table tells no tales.
Erica is one of those individuals who see Kathy and Ed on a regular basis. She first met the couple through Chris’s social circle, but each now considers the other family. Erica's real name has been changed by The Brandon Sun to protect her identity within the community.
As a Grade 11 student living in Neepawa with her father, Erica sought help from the school’s guidance counsellor. Then a teenage male, she was in the process of understanding her emotions and experiences, and often wanted to present as the opposite gender.
Aware from a young age she wasn’t comfortable identifying as male, Erica had taken to growing out her nails and rimming each lid in heavy eyeliner. On trips to Brandon, she’d sneak into the women’s side of a department store to shoplift tank tops or skinny jeans, or go to La Senza and pretend to buy bras for a friend.
At home, her strongest insecurities had her cutting her wrists, or standing in front of the mirror with a serrated bread knife, its tip tracing the skin around her breasts. As if willing herself a different body, she’d tape her genitals down and out of sight.
“Why isn’t my body working the way it’s supposed to?” she remembers thinking.
It was her blurring of the gender binary that finally earned Erica the attention of her parents. Her dad warned her to stop.
“I told him no. That’s not how I’m going to do things,” Erica recalls. “He grabbed me by the throat and threw me through the table.”
After years of dismissal, her transgender identity appeared not the origin of her mistreatment, but fuel thrown on an ages-old blaze.
After confiding in the school professional, Erica was moved by Child and Family Services to her grandmother’s house in Brandon. Her mother had chosen to be all but non-existent during Erica’s earlier years, and stayed so when it was time to decide where Erica would live until she turned 18.
In this way she differs from some of the others who have found Kathy and Ed: Erica wasn’t kicked out, but flushed from the house she had a right to call home.
“At an early age, I had already started becoming really aware (of) how people were,” Erica says. “Just because you’re, like, family, doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a connection.”
Whether or not she truly believes this now is hard to tell. Over the years Erica has continued to fight for a relationship with her biological relatives.
She keeps in closest contact with her half-sister with whom she grew up in Neepawa, but rarely sees other family members. Christmas this year was an exception, even if her mother’s disregard of her presence was anything but exceptional.
I’m used to it, Erica says. For the most part, any effort at reconnecting is fruitless.
On her father’s birthday, she left him a message on his work phone. He never returned the call.
This is what she calls the human experience; the growing ease of realizing some people won’t be in her future. Nonetheless, it’s heartbreaking.
The tablecloth whispers as Kathy’s hand slides across its surface to grab Erica’s wrist.
“All you can do is try, and keep trying,” she consoles. “You can’t take responsibility for how they’re going to respond, and you can’t leave your heart out there to get bruised.”
At any moment — any time Erica is ignored or insulted or burned in some other way — Kathy could tell the girl to give it up. Forget about this family who’s been anything but. Walk away. Don’t put yourself out there. We love you; is that not enough?
Yet she doesn’t.
Instead, Kathy travels across Manitoba to provide education on the importance of knowing and respecting what it means to be transgender. If she reaches only one person that day, she marks it a success; she’s stopped them from hurting someone else tomorrow.
She aims to speak with the institutions transgender individuals and their families are supposed to be able to trust but often can’t: the education system, medical services, government agencies. Her presentations consist of stories and family mementos, framed photos that demonstrate Chris is a regular guy with a beard. Sometimes she’ll pass around a school assignment: a poem he wrote in Grade 10 about committing suicide.
The teachers marked it and handed it back, she tells her audience, some of whom will be educators within a year. She and Ed failed to see the signs, but this was kid asking for help, Kathy says to them. Be that shoulder they can lean on.
A few years ago, Kathy approached the high schools with an offer to share her presentation. École secondaire Neelin High School welcomed her while Vincent Massey declined the offer.
Crocus Plains, where Chris graduated, also refused, Kathy says, telling her that the school had neither transgender students nor any problems with them.
In the 10 years since Chris’s graduation, the school has experienced changeover in both its staff and operation.
Chad Cobbe, the second-year principal of the 1,100 Crocus Plains students, says the school is fortunate to have two guidance counsellors, two social workers and a resource team available to students who need such resources. Staff are given opportunities to access LGBTTQ* resources from community collaborations, the school’s union, and the provincial teachers’ association, and the school’s GSA staff supervisors are working to arrange more partnerships, including a possible one with Kathy.
Yet, the school’s transformation into a transgender-friendly environment is a “work in progress” that Cobbe says is challenged by financial realities — like the expense of improving the school’s gender-neutral washroom locations.
“I think there’s many miles to go for all of us in terms of working with children who are dealing with these realities, so I 100 (per cent) support the work that is going on at Crocus, but I’m not about to say that (we’ve) got it covered,” says Cobbe.
Additionally, he says the school has an active gay-straight alliance (which are known within the Brandon School Division as GSAs) that administration looks to for feedback on the perceived safety of the school grounds.
“In terms of bullying behaviour, I have not seen it directed in any greater amount towards students who are questioning or working through some level of their sexuality any more than it’s targeted towards anybody else,” says Cobbe.
But Kathy keeps her memories from 10 years ago close and they inspire her every day now.
“Well you had one. You almost lost him. And you’ve got more,” Kathy remembers replying to the principal who claimed the school had no transgender students. “I know you do, ’cause this is what we do. I know you do.”
Corinne Mason, right, and Rune Breckon embrace in a neighbourhood near their new home in Winnipeg in this August 2016 photo.
(Photo by Alex Antoneshyn
/ For The Brandon Sun)
“They, like, like us?”
The sentence is half statement, half question, mutated by bewilderment.
“We have a dog and a baby belly, and like, straight white people? They’re interested in us on the street,” Corinne Mason laughs, her voice lifting slightly with puzzlement at the thought of appearing sympathetic to Caucasian heterosexual cisgender individuals.
It’s not just the intermittent ignorance of this demographic that makes Mason different. She’s a queer cisgender activist who teaches Brandon University students exactly what that means and, as a feminist, how to respect it.
For the sake of clarity, a cisgender individual is defined as a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with the sex they were born with — essentially the opposite of a transgender individual.
That she and her genderqueer partner, Rune Breckon, were mistaken as part of the world that so often and so easily dismisses their own people was an unfortunate development of their pregnancy. Granted, they may be safer because of the perceived “normalness” their family now displays, but the misrecognition cleaves a hollow between them and others in the LGBTTQ* community. It stings to go unnoticed by other queers on the street.
To each blissfully and ignorantly conventional pair, Mason thinks: “You have no idea what it took to make this baby — and also how this baby’s going to rock your world.”
She, Breckon and their child have lived in Manitoba’s capital city, Winnipeg, for just under a year, but the family saw its start in the province’s second-largest centre, Brandon.
With a population of nearly 49,000, the Wheat City pales in size to Winnipeg’s 705,000, but trumps it in prevalence of conservative attitudes.
It is only the family’s history, Mason’s job at Brandon University, a few friends and some uncomfortable memories that keep them connected to the Wheat City.
As activists who worked for safer public spaces in Brandon and had been living together there for less than two years, Breckon and Mason were familiar with the discrimination that existed in the Prairie city — but as a queer couple trying to conceive a child in early 2016, they found themselves the target of it.
Admittedly, many of the professionals the pair came across were kind, but most were unknowledgeable.
Physicians often spent the majority of an appointment quizzing Breckon about their body and transition (despite the decade that has passed since) while Mason, who would become the gestational carrier, went largely unacknowledged. One doctor offered Breckon a hysterectomy, and another referred to the couple as women and lesbians.
In another instance, Mason had called a midwives group to inquire about their experience with queer and trans individuals for reassurance her family would be in safe hands. Lacking exactly this, the group turned to the Sexual Education Resource Centre in Brandon for the LGBT co-ordinator’s help.
Unfortunately, Breckon had been filling the part-time SERC position — Brandon’s “gay-for-pay” job, the couple says — since their move to Brandon in the fall of 2014. The midwives had asked for help from the very person whom they were supposed to service, but didn’t know how.
Soon, their professional lives began to encroach on their personal time. Although Breckon and Mason’s jobs placed the pair as educators in the community, the partners found themselves working beyond required hours. For Breckon, their part-time job at SERC morphed into an overtime week, and there was no time of day others believed it was inappropriate to approach Mason for questions or help.
Fearful of harassment and proposition, the couple began to avoid public spaces. Mason had been in Brandon for less than three years, and Breckon two, when takeout and TV became their date night.
Still, the pressure of holding an entire city accountable to its gender and sexual minority population grew. As they did in their private lives, Breckon and Mason often witnessed acts of discrimination and injustice in Brandon’s public sphere. The only difference between the two realms was that there were more individuals and institutions to be held accountable within the community.
Many times, the couple felt tokenized, as though their place on a board or committee was simply the check mark in a box labelled “diversity.” It seemed their usefulness didn’t extend to Breckon’s capacity as SERC’s LGBT co-ordinator, or Mason’s career in women’s and gender studies.
And regardless of formal qualifications, both had become experts in their own experiences.
“Breckon had been living both the triumphs and consequences of identifying as transgender since the day they came out over a decade ago, while Mason, no less a part of the LGBTTQ* community as a queer woman, understood the restraints often placed on gender and sexuality in society.”
Each had the education and experience to make valuable contributions to Brandon’s community, yet Breckon says they weren’t taken seriously.
That they were being half-heartedly told to fix a problem — of which they were occasionally victims — was the seed of an idea, sown with the sweat of the couple’s exhaustion and concern for the future.
“Rune and I are really resilient, but our child didn’t have to be.”
Pregnant in early 2016 and facing a future that didn’t only include themselves, the couple feared bringing home all of their stress to a child who was otherwise oblivious to the world’s difficulties.
“If I was exhausted after a day of work and I came home to a kid, (I) wouldn’t want my kid to sense or feel any of the bullshit — shall I say — that I experienced while working in and for the community,” Breckon says.
But Winnipeg didn’t receive any serious thought until Mason miscarried that spring.
“I couldn’t create a living thing in my body because I was not living in that moment. I was just reacting to everything that was happening around me,” she recalls.
- Corinne Mason
Just try again, said caregivers at the hospital. You’re young, you can just try again.
“You can’t say that to queer and trans people because that’s not what’s happening in our world,” Mason says.
“To anyone needing assistance,” Breckon adds.
“We’re not just having sex … To just tell people to try again?” asks Mason. “I don’t think would feel good to anyone who’s miscarried, but (it) has a particular sting when you’ve spent thousands of dollars trying to get pregnant in the first place and have gone through so much discrimination along the way.”
Mason and Breckon had endured the medical blunders and social ignorance at what they thought was their own expense, but the miscarriage proved the pervasiveness of social rejection in rural Manitoba. Though they knew their community would be losing two of its largest defenders, Breckon and Mason left at the realization it wasn’t big enough to support them through this time.
They left Brandon a revitalized, though still hushed, LGBTTQ* community for a well established and welcoming one in the bigger city last July, expecting an addition to their family once again.
The physical move completed, the only indicator of burgeoning change for Breckon and Mason was her expanding stomach. By the fall, it had become ritual for the couple to turn to the Internet each week for an estimate of how their baby was growing. With the web’s help, they could see which fruits and vegetables were of comparable size to their child, or an animation of the two-thirds-formed fetus.
The move to Winnipeg was an attempt to improve their chances of surviving the phobias that had plagued Brandon — and it proved successful at first.
The hunt to find a trans-friendly doctor, which took two years in Brandon, lasted only one month in the capital city. They weren’t denied a rental unit because of their queerness and, shortly after moving, the partners found three midwives who operate with feminist values.
“There’s a rainbow sticker on the door,” lauded Mason. “And we didn’t have to give them that rainbow sticker — ’cause, by the way, that’s how people in Brandon have rainbow stickers.”
In Winnipeg, Mason and Breckon are two of many facing the same hardships and working toward the same cause. They say the city is no less phobic, but that there’s a larger community with the power to offset negativity. They have no fear of new initiatives being dismissed as too “big-city.”
But the move didn’t mean they had escaped it all.
In Week 30 — “cabbage territory” — the couple hosted a baby celebration in the city they had newly started to call home together. Some partygoers were from the capital city, while others, like Ed and Kathy — introduced in Choosing Family Part I — were from Brandon, from which the couple had fled.
The party went smoothly, but was an example of how public outings carried the potential to manifest some of North American society’s greatest gender expectations. Throughout her pregnancy, Mason had been prey to been-there-done-that moms full of advice, while Breckon got a slap on the back and a “Way to go, man. Your job’s over.”
Others wanted to place money on the whether the baby would be a boy or a girl, but this was an opportunity to learn that the baby wasn’t going to be gendered publicly — and also the difference between gender and genitals.
If a person said to Breckon, “You and Corinne must be really excited to be mom and dad!” Breckon gently reminded them: “Yes, we’re excited to be parents,” placing emphasis on the gender-neutral label.
In addition to a dozen other ways, these moments in their pregnancy were a lesson in how to handle future conversations with a child. Their current network in Winnipeg may be bigger and the list of resources longer than it was in Brandon, but the two know it’ll still take effort to counteract societal teachings with their own.
There’s also less concern that their child will grow up the black sheep surrounded by traditional families. Unlike their own raisings, The Kid — Peanut — Nugget — Little Baby — will grow up in a diverse environment that celebrates differences. Their child will be raised with the knowledge, skill sets and experiences of not one or two people, but dozens who are cultured in the power of community.
“Choosing to build queer family, intentionally building these kinds of connections with people who (you) are not necessarily blood or biologically connected to means that our structures are so solid,” says Mason. “They have to be. They have to be solid for us to survive.”
- Corinne Mason
Their child may face confrontation about the way their world works, but will be better equipped for it by parents who have spent their lives learning the same skills. According to Breckon, each attack or cruel word or daggered gaze inflicted on them or Mason can be seen as an opportunity. Although perhaps painful, each situation is a learning-lesson moment from which the skills used to handle it can be taught to a loved one.
In a previous conversation about how they met online, Mason had turned to Breckon: “How did I find you on the Internet?”
At the end of August, just nine weeks from the due date, the same adoration was present when they spoke about the things they’d do with their child. Breckon’s arm rested on the back of their partner’s chair, and Mason’s hands on her belly.
“There’s not pressure on queer and trans people to have children. In fact, there’s pressure on queer and trans people not to have children,” Mason says. “Intentional parenting means that just the same way you choose your partner every single day in world that tells you that choice is not OK — that’s not the right choice or you could be making a different, more easy, more acceptable choice — the same goes for children.
“It is a thing you’ve actively chosen over and over again every single day, even when the world tells you that it’s not an OK choice.”
Kathy and Ed Bull have opened their home to Erica (seen here in the couples' art room) a trans woman who's navigating health services relating to her transition alongside dreams and hard work for her future career. They've worked hard to make their home a safe and welcoming space full of warmth.
(Photos by Colin Corneau
/ The Brandon Sun)
The wait for her fourth puberty has been a long one.
December 2016 marked nine years since Erica, a transgender woman living in Brandon began hormone replacement therapy to undergo a male-to-female transition. The program, regardless of which sex a person is transitioning to and from, is a long and expensive journey in which a person effectively re-enters puberty and waits for science to work its magic.
In 2007, when Erica began the hormone replacement therapy program, the process required a diagnosis of gender identity disorder, which meant a person’s gender identity did not match their sex. (Four years ago, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders rebranded this as gender dysphoriabin an attempt to remove the stigma associated with the word “disorder.” Gender dysphoria was also characterized by the “presence of clinically significant distress” and clarified that gender nonconformity is not a mental disorder. Patients wishing to undergo sex-reassignment surgery are now assessed for gender dysphoria.)
For Erica, and many other transgender folks, the diagnosis was and remains a double-edged sword: few are willing to be classified mentally ill for identifying with a different gender, but the diagnosis enables them to receive coverage for transition costs.
As a child, her mother had abandoned her, and as a teenager living in Neepawa, Erica had been trapped in an abusive home with her father. Her inclination to dress and act like the opposite gender was one of many triggers of his anger, and so she had been stuck in a battle between survival and natural inclination.
After finally confiding in a school guidance counsellor of the situation at home, Erica was moved to Brandon for Grade 12. On Halloween that year, Erica arrived at school dressed as the person she wanted to be known as, and in the days that followed, just simply didn’t stop.
She says coming out was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating, but it was because she was living in Brandon that her journey of transitioning had been allowed to begin.
In 2007, with a psychologist’s examination, 18-year-old Erica was able to start hormone treatments while living in Brandon with her grandmother.
Today, minors in Manitoba who want to follow the same path are not able to do so without jumping more hurdles. While the Wheat City has a number of services that offer support to transgender folks in terms of education and counselling, there is only one specifically dedicated to medical care.
This is the Trans Health Klinic, a two-year-old partnership between Klinic Community Health and the province’s public health system, and it opens for transgender clients one evening a month for roughly three hours.
Jane Skinner, a public health nurse in the Brandon Regional Health Authority’s sexual health program, said the clinic focuses strictly on trans health issues so every client is recommended to also have a family physician.
“Strictly trans health issues” may be identifying a patients’ goals— whether that is helping to arrange a gender dysphoria assessment with one of two psychologists (located in Winnipeg) whose services are eligible for reimbursement, or beginning hormone therapy and organizing surgeries— as well as ensuring the individual is connected to the resources and supports they need. Additionally, the clinic’s professionals provide education to other jurisdictions of the medical health community.
“Every time I tell anybody in Brandon that all our clinics have been full, they look at me, always, saying, really?” says Skinner. “I think just educating people that there’s a trans population even in the Prairie Mountain Health region is important.”
The Trans Health Clinic is able to help a client through all steps of the transitioning process, save the psychological assessment, surgeries, and electrolysis, so long as they are 17 years old.
While the Trans Health Klinic offers one evening a month specifically to transgender patients, they must refer youths to Winnipeg where a doctor is willing to see them — who might have to wait months to get in. In some cases, a youth has elected instead to wait until they’re old enough to enter the adult program and do a straight referral then.
Skinner called the restriction an issue of informed consent. While she acknowledges that some 16-year-olds are very knowledgeable, such cases have the potential to develop liability issues, particularly when a youth’s parents aren’t supportive of their wishes.
Few professionals — and none in Manitoba outside Winnipeg — are willing to risk trusting a kid who says they want sex re-assignment surgery.
This makes a couple who offer support services in Brandon scoff. For the last ten years, since finding out their own child was transgender, Kathy and Ed have helped dozens of individuals, and occasionally their parents, sort through the legal and social obstacles of wanting to transition.
Kathy and Ed have sat through numerous surgeries in Winnipeg with trans folks whose parents refused to be there. And knowing difficulty of even getting to an operating room— from helping Erica and dozens of others— they struggle to understand why more help isn’t offered to teens.
“That is the most painful procedure you can go through. Bar none. And you don’t do that just for giggles. You do that because you need to fix who you are,” Kathy says.
Yet, Erica understands more clearly the significance of making an informed decision now that she’ll soon be turning 28 and still hasn’t undergone sex re-assignment surgery. The delay has been her choice, but she wonders how things would be different if she had been given more options when she was just 18.
Then, with her diagnosis received, prescriptions filled, and name legally changed, Erica had begun hormone therapy.
She searched for jobs, though they were hard to find and harder to keep. For a brief time she moved to Winnipeg to be closer to an active LGBTTQ* community, but substance abuse was prevalent among the crowd she found. Erica considers the decision to move back to Brandon life saving.
Erica learned she enjoyed gardening.
“I’m around stuff that I can give my love and attention towards and it’s not impartial to it. It’s just, you grow the garden, you give it love, and it gives you love back. (There’s) no real complications to it, there’s no backstabbing to it, there’s no having to break down people’s guards, there’s no trying to understand (if) a person’s wearing a mask when you’re trying to get to know them as a friend.”
Erica shows some of her favorite pieces of jewellery. The Brandon trans woman is navigating health services relating to her transition alongside dreams and hard work for her future career.
(Photos by Colin Corneau
/ The Brandon Sun)
She began to build business plans involving natural products and outdoor recreational space. She dreamed of entering property management so that she would be able to afford to invest in these interests.
And, years after starting the process, Erica had finally noticed what she calls physical progress, too. Her curves began to accentuate, and a vocational speech therapist complimented her for a range that is close to a female’s naturally.
Although she still had to figure out how she would fund the trip and bottom surgery in Montreal, Erica had reached a point where she felt confident about how she looked, and wasn’t dedicating so much time to earning her family’s relation.
Then, two years ago, she stopped.
For the longest time Erica had questioned why anyone would bring a child into a world that had rebuffed her existence since the beginning, yet she found herself attracted to the very idea.
With confidence had come the desire to share it with a partner and family — but this was no easy decision. The idea was only that— an idea— but eventually she began to discuss what options she had left with her doctor in Winnipeg.
For years, Erica had taken medication that, in effect, worked to sterilize her reproductive organs. Continuing the transition would mean losing potentially the last chance she had at forming biological family bonds — but setting it aside couldn’t guarantee a viable sperm recovery or successful deposit. Should she freeze sperm only to have it later fail to impregnate, Erica would have unnecessarily delayed her own transition.
According to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, this is why it is important to discuss a client’s reproductive options prior to the initiation of medical treatment for gender dysphoria.
In the case of a female-to-male client, the client’s options include egg or embryo freezing, but the chance of recovering their ovaries enough after ending testosterone treatment depends on their age and the length of time they had been treated.
For male-to-female patients, like Erica, her options were limited as soon as she began hormone therapy. WPATH cites cases in which the testes of a patient have recovered after stopping estrogen, but their best case is to preserve sperm before even beginning.
“I was dead set against a family because of how I was treated growing up,” Erica says. “(I had) that view that I don’t want to bring a child up into this world if this is what it’s going to be like.”
Despite the odds and despite her history, Erica chose to start her own family — or at least allow herself the possibility of one day doing so.
“I think you’re still looking for that family, too, hey? A little bit?” asks Kathy. She and Erica sit together, as they have many times before this, in the kitchen of her and Ed’s home. Regardless of story or circumstances, everyone is sat down at the kitchen table. This is Kathy’s method.
“And I think you have also finally figured out that you can have a baby and raise it and not have it be raised in a family like you were. Like, you can make a change.”
At first, Erica only shrugs, but a few seconds later she takes a deep breath and releases with the air what she recognizes as reality.
“I can be a successful parent and I don’t need your support,” she says to the family who are absent. And in reference of the family that has yet to arrive: “I made this decision on my own. I brought this child into this world and you know, I’m making the decision whether or not you’re a good influence.”
The summer of 2016 marked two years since Erica had quit her hormone replacement therapy program but she remains confident in her decision. After two years of working to reverse the hormonal process of transitioning, her doctor says her body has returned to a state that she could bank sperm.
But she’s hit a different roadblock: how to afford banking it and whether the costs can be covered.
When a person inquires about transitioning, Erica says, there’s no warning that it could erase your ability to have kids, or that if you think family is in your future you should set aside biological material before starting hormones.
Had she been more educated at 18, when she was first undergoing treatment, Erica could have taken the time to set sperm aside then. This thought leads to concern for others who were once in her position, and may be again without more caution.
Regarding only the physical factors involved in an individual’s transition, WPATH says adolescents may be allowed to start puberty suppression treatment in stages two through four of the James M. Tanner school of thought, when a teen’s genitalia is developing.
What about these youth, Erica wonders, who know they want to transition at a young age and have the support and resources to do so? Are they being informed of the consequences of either decision they make?
These questions, among many others, are the reason Erica has signed her name on a human rights complaint regarding the access to healthcare she and so many other transgender individuals in Manitoba have failed to find.
Although the complaint has months, or perhaps years, until it is put to action, she hopes that it improves access to resources for other transgender folks in Manitoba, specifically those who could live anywhere in the province outside Winnipeg and struggle to get the aid they seek, or those like herself who require more information about fertility and reproduction options.
But even if the experience has delayed her goals, it has signified growth for Erica in other ways.
“The fact that later on in life… I’ve had not only my grandmother for support, but also Kathy — they gave me hope that the world doesn’t necessarily have to be as bad as I think it is.”
» The Brandon Sun