I am sure most of us are aware of how privileged we are to live in a city as tolerant and progressive as Toronto. Coming into contact with people from countless different backgrounds and cultures on a daily basis makes it abundantly clear that our beloved city has the extraordinary ability to look beyond appearances, where people base their judgments on far more important criteria (e.g. how long one is willing to hold a door open). This is part of what places Toronto at the helm of the world’s progression, a responsibility that entails a lot more than simple open-mindedness. Nevertheless, to push past our current hateful climate, we need to shed light on our weaknesses as well as our strengths, persisting in our pursuit of empathy by searching out the points of view outside of what we may be accustomed to. To help illustrate this, I had a lunch conversation with my friend Dane Ko, a fourth year transgender classical pianist, to discuss his experiences with gender and transitioning.
How would you define your gender?
A textbook answer would be that I identify as a transgender male because I identify with primarily masculine traits. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things in between that I don’t feel that dysphoric about, things that don’t necessarily fit into the two boxes. But I’m more masculine than anything else, so if I were to tell someone in a one-word answer, I would say I’m a male.
What kinds of things would you say you’re not dysphoric about?
Well, less dysphoric. I guess it has to do with the fact that I wasn’t very big-chested or feminine to begin with so I’ve never really had that urgency to get top surgery that so many people have. I’m probably getting a hysterectomy before top surgery. I’m also very comfortable not doing a lot of stereotypically masculine things, like sports or a lot of typically “masculine” behaviours. This used to be an insecurity of mine because a now ex-psychologist at CAMH was supposed to diagnose people before they got OHIP coverage for transitioning. He wanted to make sure everyone thought in a traditional way and he would hear about my lack of top-dysphoria and my non-binary gender views and put a note in my file making it more difficult to get funding. And I think most people don’t feel in binaries. Until I was on testosterone, I totally bought into his gender-binary thinking. I hated this female side of me and I wanted to be 100% male. I used to romanticize everything to do with being male, but now I’m a lot more comfortable having some parts still intact. I mostly just want to have enough masculinity to interact socially as my gender. But now that I have enough comfort in my identity and my expression, I feel comfortable not conforming to everything associated with masculinity.
How long did you know that you felt that way? When did you realize you had masculine tendencies?
In my earliest memories, seriously. I’ve known since I was like 4 or 5, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to clarify for myself how I felt, I didn’t have the right people to guide me, I didn’t have the resources to find out—I was alone in it. I spent my childhood in Hong Kong in a predominately female private school. I knew I was different but I didn’t even know this option was available. I did have one or two childhood friends who were tomboyish and we would hang around each other but I think I’m the only one that took that one step further and actually transitioned.
Would you say your gender is static? Do you think it’s changed at all over time?
No, I’ve never considered myself to be anything feminine. And when I did, it was never more than entertaining the thought hypothetically. But I have other trans guy friends who got off testosterone, because it was borderline too much. Because they realized that it was more than what they were comfortable with. Some stop and start again. I think it has to do with craving what you can’t have and then not being satisfied when you have it. Some cases are more complicated because gender and sexuality don’t necessarily correspond but I’ve only ever been attracted to females, so my case may be more black and white. If I pass in most peoples’ eyes then [my girlfriend] Vivian and I would look like a straight, CIS Asian couple.
Do you ever feel discriminated against because of your gender?
Well, sometimes not intentionally. When I first came out to people, some of whom I didn’t even know, especially before I was on T, they would refer to me as he/she/whatever, and things like that hurt. And when I heard that I was like, “How about no.” And I don’t even think they were trying to be malicious, they just don’t know any better. I’m quite lucky that no one is really malicious to my face.
Have you ever experienced any mental health issues related to your gender identity? How did you deal with them?
Well, I came into university pre-transition and no one knew during first year. Around January or February of that year, my now ex-girlfriend just cut me off. From that relationship, I developed a lot of self-hate. She always blamed our relationship not working on my not being CIS, and her parents weren’t supportive. She was sort of like my only asylum, the only one feeding my fantasy. She wasn’t necessarily supportive, but she understood, and she liked me for who I was, as a masculine figure in her life. And she identifies as straight so it was difficult for her to understand why she was attracted to me. We literally had a plan that I would tell my parents after I graduated and had a job so if they disowned me I would still have a job and I would still have her. After she left, I had a period of two to three months where I was just the most depressed I had ever been. I lost a ton of weight, couldn’t sleep—that’s when I started seeing a therapist and seriously considered transitioning. I realized that if she couldn’t help me, I’d have to help myself. Relying on someone else to feed your fantasy is no way to live. And that’s how it all started. The worst part mentally was when I was alone with just the fantasy in the months before I actualized it and told people. I saw my therapist up until about a year ago.
What advice would you give to anyone questioning their gender identity?
I would tell them to envision the future and talk to them about what they truly want. Because a lot of the time you don’t realize how much you want it and you don’t actualize it. I thought that it was in the distant future, but then I was there. “The future is now,” I guess. I would also tell them how to find help if they need it. When I called CAPs, they were giving me numbers to call just in case my parents kicked me out. If you’re financially dependent, they have stuff to help you out. Especially if you live here—Toronto will keep you safe.
Do you think there’s ever a good time to come out?
It’s like the analogy of conductors. A lot of people ask the conductor when the best time to come in is. European conductors conduct half a beat ahead so they seem out of sync. The conductor will tell you to come in when you can’t bear not coming in anymore. It’s kind of like coming out too. When do you know? I’d say it’s when you literally can’t wait anymore. If you can wait, and you have good reason to, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you know what you want before puberty, you can go on hormone blockers and avoid going through puberty in the other sex. But if you’ve already gone through puberty, it makes little difference whether you’re 17, 24, or older. All that matters is that you’re internally independent and that you feel you’re ready. Just know that if you know where you want to be, there’s always a way to get there.
I can remember asking my mother to buy me clothes and toys from the little boys’ section as a child because I felt out of place surrounded by delicate dolls and pink frills. I remember being made fun of in middle school because I would rather play football or rugby with the boys than play house with the girls. I remember feeling isolated in high school because make up made me sneeze and high heels made me stumble. When I finally found a neutral ground in which to express myself, it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and I could finally live my life outside of society’s narrow expectations. When my first sociology professor explained the socially constructed nature of gender to me, I felt like a limitless world had been revealed to me. I look back to the first time I told a friend that I didn’t want to ascribe to just one gender and she smiled and assured me of her undying support. I realized in that moment that there was more to humanity than conflict and animosity and hate.
As I walked home from lunch, I was filled with a newfound understanding of what it means to be growing up in a world expanding at a pace too fast for us to control. I was reminded of the complexities of the human experience and the issues that arise when we try to categorize how we feel. I found myself looking forward to building a world where we don’t have to define ourselves to coexist; in which we don’t judge each other based on what we see because we know that what is outside doesn’t define us. I look forward to living in a world in which we all understand that there are galaxies swimming under the surface of every individual we meet, just waiting to be explored. As I walked home, I strengthened my resolve to support a world free of prejudice, bigotry and hate. I can see this world of empathy and acceptance in the eyes of my friends and loved ones, and I can’t wait to see it become a reality for us all.