This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity
Joe: Hi, my name is Joe. For the last few years I've been involved with facilitating Q-topia, which is a queer support network for queer youth, and it runs in Christchurch. We have kids aged between 13 and 25 coming along every week, and we basically just hang out, have a bit of fun, occasionally we do a few workshops and things, and we do quite a lot of cool stuff because we do a lot of fundraising. So if you want to come along, go for it!
Gareth: How did you get involved with Q-topia?
Joe: I kind of got kidnapped by my flatmate who was a facilitator at the time. At the time I was identifying as a lesbian, and I got dragged along to a meeting one night and, "Look! I found a lesbian!" And that was it. I was the only female facilitator, so that was it, I wasn't allowed to leave.
So yeah, it's been five years, and I've kind of shifted my focus to the offshoot of that now, which is Forge, which is for trans youth, but I think it's one of those things you never really leave.
Gareth: So, can you tell me a wee bit about Forge?
Joe: Yup. That was put in place by one of our facilitators, Evan, probably late last year, and it was just sort of out of a need for trans youth to have a bit of their own space, because some of them don't identify as queer, and a lot of the issues that trans youth and trans people have are different to the ones that queer people have. So, we thought we'd start something up for them and just see how it goes, and it's going really well at the moment.
Gareth: What are some of the different issues that are different from being queer?
Joe: Well, everybody struggles with body image, but for trans people that can be a lot more of a big deal. And also, for trans youth, being taken seriously is quite a big issue. When you come out as queer a lot of people get: Maybe it's just a phase. You're so young you don't know what you're doing.
But if you want to realign your gender to how you feel inside, it's a huge, big deal, and a lot of the time their parents struggle with it a lot more, as well.
Gareth: So, what kind of an age group are we talking about?
Joe: I think the youngest we have in Forge is 16, and around until about mid-20s, I think. Yeah, the facilitators I think were both 28, but we've got quite a few young people around the 16 or 17 mark. I never figured it out that young. It's amazing!
Gareth: Can you talk about some of their perspectives on life and trans issues? Does that surprise you, some of the stuff that they're coming up with?
Joe: It's amazing that some of them just don't seem to struggle with it the way that I remember struggling with it. I don't know; maybe it was the age thing. I wasn't really thinking about it until I was in my mid-20s, but they, at 16, are so sure that this is who they are, this is what they want, this is what they're going to do, and it's just that simple for them. They're like, I'm a guy; I'm a girl; and that's really just as simple as it is. And that's just really amazing to see 16 year olds with such assurance about themselves.
And just some of the stuff they say, like: Oh yeah, I'm a guy, and they just say it like it's the most natural thing in the world, whereas I was just a mess for ages about it.
Gareth: Where do you think that assurance comes from?
Joe: I really don't know. If I knew I would be going to get some myself I think, actually. [laughs] Maybe it's something they've been thinking about for so long.
And also I think having the trans space helps them a little bit because when they come along they automatically get gendered correctly, called by whichever name they want, treated the gender they want, and I think that helps them feel a little bit better about it, too. We might be the only people who are taking them seriously, so when they come along they automatically know that they're going to be treated the way they want to be treated, and I think they really like that.
Gareth: Can you relate some of the experiences they've told you about what it's like to be in the school system at the moment?
Joe: We've got one young trans guy, and he's just finding it really, really rough at school being trans. He won't be called by his preferred name by any of his teachers, and his guidance counselor is probably the only support that he really has. And I can't really imagine what that's like because I didn't come out as trans until I was in my mid-20s, but it must be really isolating because people, especially young people who haven't really had too much life experience are just sort of lumped in all in with the queer thing, or they get the whole fetishized transvestite kind of thing. And it's just not really like that.
And a lot of the time they just feel really ignored.
I think, actually, most of the kids we've got are finding it really, really rough at school at the moment, and a lot of them just haven't even come out at school because it's just not worth it. They think they'll just wait until they leave school, hit university and sort of do a change then, which does make a lot of sense. Trying to change that in the last couple years of high school would be a bit of a mission, I think.
Gareth: So, what are they like at the first point of contact, when they come into contact with the group?
Joe: They're usually pretty quiet. We're sitting there going: Oh, how are you? What's your name? and all that sort of stuff, and they're just monosyllables, which is not that uncommon in queer youth anyway. A lot of the time they really don't want to talk that much.
But yeah, once they realize that we're not actually trying to preach at them, we're not trying to change their mind, we're not trying to educate them, they just really get into it and we just talk about all sorts of stuff. And I think they find it a relief that we don't think they're crazy, like it's not really a massive support group like we think they're nuts or anything. We just want to hang out and have a space where it's kind of tacit that you don't really have to say you're trans all the time and talk about trans stuff all the time. Most of the time we just talk about movies and stuff, but it's just really nice to know that people understand what it's like, and it's sort of freeing just to not have to talk about trans things. It's really cool. We just talk about whatever.
Gareth: Did you have anything like that when you were coming out?
Joe: No. I didn't even know how to be gay when I came out. I just kind of thought, well, I'm gay; now what do I do? I hit the dating sites – bad idea – but never mind. I didn't even know where to start, so I just started at the wrong end and went from there.
And there was nothing when I was first questioning, when I was 18 or 19, there was only one group at university, and I went along and there were just some middle-aged women there, and I thought, no. So I just kind of had to find my own way, which was really, really hard. And if there'd been something like Q-topia out there then, I would have probably not had quite so much of a nightmarish time in the first couple of years of being out.
But a lot of our facilitators have started working with Q-topia because there was nothing like that when they were coming out, and they think it's just such a good thing to be doing. And especially with the trans thing, it's Christchurch for a start; it's just unheard of; people don't talk about it.
And really the only thing we've got is Agender, and that does have an older-person focus. It's not really geared towards really young people, so it's quite good to have something out there that sort of focuses on young people and what issues they might be having with being trans. Agender sort of feel like they have to cover everything, but with just a specific focus on the trans stuff, I think that's quite valuable for our young people.
Gareth: Does the youth group have any tie-in with Agender?
Joe: We're working on having a bit more to do with them. They've got quite a lot of really valuable resources, and I think a lot of the trans people who are within Agender would be really, really good for our kids to talk to, as well. I know that teenagers aren't often that keen to talk to people about things, but everyone's story is different, everyone's transitional journey is different and I think it might be quite good for them to hear quite a few different opinions on it.
That, and they have so many different books in the library, and I think we have the national Agender library at the moment, and I think it might be quite good to just put a few books in the kids' direction and say: have a bit of a read. It would be good for them, and it's good for us, too. So, maybe a little book group or something.
Gareth: So, what's Christchurch like in terms of the queer and trans scene?
Joe: It's conservative – a slight understatement. It's getting a bit better because there are obviously really strange people like me floating around stirring things up, or trying to when I'm awake. But it is quite gendered: lesbian, gay, and there's not a lot else that goes on, at least not publicly, which is a bit of a shame.
The trans scene is really, really small. There's really not that many of us around who actually... Well, I mean, we're always around, we're everywhere, but we don't really get together much, so you have to sort of find your own friends where you can find them and just stick with them. I've got quite a few trans friends and we all just hang out together, but it's taken me a long time to find them.
I don't think we really get taken that seriously on the queer scene, which is a shame. I don't know; when I go out people still think I'm a lesbian, which is unfortunate because I never liked being called lesbian anyway. Could you at least call me a homo? That would be great.
But when we want to do stuff the trans people just go to the other queer stuff, and people just make what they want of us, which is, unfortunately, usually incorrect, but never mind.
But yeah, it is very conservative here. We don't have a lot that goes on, on a regular basis, it's just during Pride Week, and occasionally there will be a big event, but it's really not that often so people just kind of do their thing quietly in their everyday lives – which basically sums up Christchurch, actually. We just kind of keep to ourselves, which is a shame. It would be nice to see a bit more community, but we're working on it.
Gareth: Did you come out, both in terms of sexuality and gender, at the same time?
Joe: No. I thought I'd do the ultimate shock value with my parents and do it twice, which is the ultimate torment.
The sexuality came first and I sort of settled into that, and then I was like, no, no, there's something still not quite right with this picture.
It took me another, probably, five years in between the two comings out. So yeah, it took me a little while. I kind of settled into being queer, and people would label me as a lesbian and I'd think, no, no, I don't quite like that. Why do I prefer being called a homo? Now, why is that? And eventually I figured it out anyway and came out again and made my mum cry again, but it's all good now.
Gareth: Which do you think was hardest, or were they both equal?
Joe: I think the trans was actually easier in some ways. It's harder to be taken seriously because I haven't transitioned yet. I'm still not taken seriously a lot of the time, which is fine; I don't really care any more.
The sexuality was harder because that was sort of the first shift from being what was considered normal, but by the time I'd been living the queer lifestyle for five years already and I was already out there doing Pride Week and drag king, drag queen, drag everything I could get my hands on – just really, really, really gay. Anything I did after that was not going to be as much of a shock.
And most people in my life have been really good. I think it's harder for mum and dad because they're losing a daughter and they're gaining a son, but that's hard for them. But in general, I don't think I really could have shocked them that much more. I was already pretty weird, so saying that actually I'm a guy wasn't a big a deal as I thought it would be.
Gareth: How did that conversation happen?
Joe: I just said I'm coming over and need to talk to you. And I just sort of sat on the couch and looked miserable for about an hour, and eventually mum just said, "All right. Okay, what?"
And I said, "Well, you know how I've been really depressed lately? There's a reason for that – I'm transgendered."
She said, "Oh my God, no!" and just kind of ran out of the room. And dad was sitting there saying, "What's that?" [laughs]
"It means she wants to be a man!" Like, oh no.
But a couple of hours later, and lots of crying and lots of hugs, and I had to try and not overload them with too much information straightaway because it's just huge. I'd been their daughter from when I came out 26 years, so I tried not to talk too much about what the transition process would involve. I just sort of tried to focus on: this is how I feel about it, and to let them know it takes as long as it takes for them to get used to it. I'd thought about it for God-knows-how-many years before I came to terms with it, so if it takes them at least that long, then, cool, whenever. But they're getting their heads around it now and helped me choose my new name and everything, so they're kind of helping me get involved in stuff, which is really cool.
Gareth: When did you start having gender identity thoughts?
Joe: I think it would be the first time I dressed up in drag, as a drag king, when I was maybe 21. I think it was the first time I actually bound down my chest, and I was like, ahh, that's what it's supposed to be like! This is cool!
And I'd go and do shows and stuff, and I'd spend hours and hours and hours in drag at home practicing, and then I realized it wasn't actually practicing; all I was doing was just looking in the mirror thinking, yeah, this is cool.
And eventually I realized I didn't actually like performing, either. I hate it. I get really bad stage fright, so I thought, why am I doing this then? It was an excuse to dress up like a guy. And I thought, well yeah, I could just be a guy all the time – simple. So once I started thinking about it like that it kind of went downhill pretty quickly from there; and probably only about six months after I really started seriously thinking about it I thought, right, this is how it's going to be now.
So yeah, I think it was about the beginning of 2009 when I finally sorted it out. I was heading up to Wellington for the KAHA hui then, so I thought, right, try the new name, try the new gender and see how it goes, just because I was going to meet so many people who didn't know me, so I wanted to see what it would be like to be gendered correctly and called by my new name, and it was just fantastic! So I've never looked back from there.
Gareth: What are your thoughts when you see somebody coming along to the support group as a 16 year old, and they're just very definite about their gender and things like that?
Joe: I'm like, oh my God, I'm so jealous of you right now! I didn't figure it out until 10 years after they'd figured it out. And I always think, with the transitional process, which is so long and so painful and so expensive and time consuming, they can start so much earlier.
But then again, that's not always a bonus, because I had an extra 10 years of maturity. I see a lot of young trans people who are like: I have to do this right now! I need my hormones, I need my surgery, I need this, I need that, everybody has to call me by my right name all the time, and that kind of thing. And they're just so desperate, and I think the added experience has made me just a little bit more patient. Things take time, endo appointments take time, surgery takes money, and I've lived enough of my life already to realize that patience is the key. It's taken me how-many years to get used to the idea. It's going to take another how-many years to transition; and that's absolutely fine. It's cool.
But these young people, I always think even if they can just start the process when they're 18 they're going to be amazing by the time they're 25. They'll be done. I hadn't even started when I was 25, so I'm so jealous. [laughs]
Gareth: Can you talk a wee bit about just the practicalities of transitioning, and you were saying how it takes time and money. What are those kinds of requirements nowadays?
Joe: The first step is to get a referral to a psychologist from a GP, so you have to convince your GP that you're serious enough to be sent to a psychologist. But most GPs should realize that it's not their place to make the judgment, and that's why you're paying four million dollars an hour for a psychologist to say, yes, you're actually transgendered.
And you need a psychiatric letter from the psychologist, and that's usually a couple sessions worth. They just sort of make sure that you know what you're doing, know what the consequences are and make sure that you're in your right mind and able to take on the... It is a massive thing to be doing, so they just want to make sure that you're okay about it, doing it for the right reasons and that sort of thing.
Once you have that, you can get a referral to an endocrinologist. Well, it's different wherever you go. In Christchurch you need a psych assessment first. I think in Wellington you can just go to the endo, but you need to get your psychologist letter after that. So in some respects I'm ridiculously jealous because I could have just gone to an endocrinologist and got my testosterone already if I was in Wellington, but it's just the way Christchurch is quite backwards like that, so psych assessment first and then the endo, which is just a huge period of waiting.
It's a six month wait for an endocrinologist appointment here, which is ridiculous, but it's just the way it is, so I can wait. And if I wanted to be awful, I could play the mental health card and say I'm really depressed; I need my testosterone right now. But I don't really need it. I want it really badly, but I don't need it, whereas some people who go to the endocrinologist actually have something really seriously hormonally wrong with them. And why should my wanting to transition be put above what they need physically, to be alive? I'm pretty healthy. I'm alive and my body may not look the way I want it to, but I can wait a few months for my testosterone, so waiting it is, and that's absolutely fine.
The surgery is just a money thing, and it's a preference thing. For a trans guy to get his chest done it really depends where you go. In New Zealand it could be up to $15,000, $18,000 maybe. I know a guy who recently got his done for about that much.
I'm personally looking at going to Australia. There's a really good surgeon over there and it will be about $10,000, and she does some really good work.
I know a couple of guys who have gone to Thailand and they've had results that they're happy with.
And one of my friends went to America to one of the best surgeons for chest surgery that he wanted. So it's really just a preference thing, but for me, depending on the size you are to start with, you might need a revision or something, and I don't want to go to America and then have to go back to get it fixed up, so I'm thinking Australia.
But yeah, that just sort of depends on how you want to pay for it. I don't personally want to take out a loan, because I've just paid one off and I've nearly paid off my student loan, so I'm looking at saving. And it just sort of depends on the comfort level. Some guys with really big chests just really need it gone, and I can understand that, but I'm quite lucky. I don't really think about it that much because it's easy for me to hide mine, so if it takes me a couple of years to save up then that's fine, I'm really not that worried about it.
Also, I'm quite comfortable with my body. It's not the way I want it to be, but I'm quite comfortable with it at the moment, and if I have to live with it like this for a couple of years then that's sweet.
Gareth: You mentioned earlier that when you were coming out to your parents in terms of the gender, that you had had depression for a while. Was that specifically because of what was going on in terms of the gender and the sexuality?
Joe: I get depression quite badly anyway, and I think a lot of the problem was that I'd been out as a guy, living as Joe for a year, and I still hadn't told mum and dad. I was thinking: These are two of the most important people in my life. Why haven't I told them? I really wasn't sure what sort of reception I'd get, but I don't like keeping things like that from them, and they've always been really good to me. We've always been really close, so I felt kind of shitty about it, of why haven't I told mum and dad?
And I knew that once they got used to it they would probably be my biggest support, and that I would need them. To do the transition thing I needed them to be onboard. So it was sort of like the pressure got to me in the end and I was just a mess and thought, all right, I just have to tell them.
I'd been doing this for ages and it was getting to the point where I'd have girlfriends who didn't know me as Ange, the girl; they knew me as Joe, their boyfriend, and I felt like I couldn't bring them over to introduce them to my parents because my parents still called me Ange, and they'd be like, who's that? And that would be really confusing for them and really uncomfortable for mum and dad and them.
So I thought, I'll just tell them. The sooner they've got a chance to get their heads around it, the better, and I sort of felt like I wasn't giving them enough credit, thinking that they wouldn't cope. I mean, they're my mum and dad, and they've always supported me through everything, and I've put them through hell and back, so why wouldn't they support me through this? So I thought, at least give them a chance, and they have been good. They've been really good to me.
Gareth: Has the depression gone away?
Joe: No. It's always there. It changes a bit; it gets worse, it gets better. At the moment it's rough. Maybe next week it won't be so rough. But I think growing up a little bit has helped me manage it quite a lot better, as well, just knowing what I need to do to take care of myself. And if I keep the rest of my life in balance, then the depression is okay. It's only when things get a bit out of control, like if I'm having stress at work or a bad relationship or something, that it's quite hard to keep it managed, and I do lose it a little bit sometimes. But generally speaking, I just have to be a little bit vigilant and make sure that I'm looking after all the aspects of my life, which is a bit tiring, and I really wish I didn't have to do it. But at the end of the day, I have depression, so it's really my responsibility to manage it, and if that means just taking two pills a day and that makes me a happier guy, then that's worth it.
Gareth: Do you see many mental health issues in your youth support group? Is that something that is frequent?
Joe: It is surprisingly frequent, and I'm not sure if it's just a result of being queer or if it's just something that's happening in general with more young people these days, and people eager to make diagnoses and put people on pills and all that sort of stuff. It just seems to be that every second kid in the group is on some sort of drugs for ADHD or depression, or they're into the self-harm thing. It's just actually really, really sad.
I don't think it was recognized as much when I was 16. I don't really know anyone who was depressed except myself, and now it seems that just about everyone is. But it doesn't really seem to bug our kids that much, which is amazing. When you think about depression you quite often think you can't get out of bed, you're sad all the time, and these kids are taking the same medication that I do and they're fine. They come around and they're just buzzing, and they're all jumping around with their friends, and it's really cool. They don't really seem to let it bother them. It's just sort of like another fact of life: yeah, I'm queer, I've got whatever mental illness they've labeled me with today, and they're just cool with it.
I think maybe they don't make as big a deal out of it as older people do. I think older people live their diagnosis a little bit more, maybe. Young people just think, oh well, you're labeling me anyway. Whatever. But older people are: I've got depression, I've got this, I've got that, and they seem to focus on it a little bit more. Young people seem to feel like they've got too much to live for, and who cares about being depressed, and that sort of thing, so that's quite cool.
It makes me sort of look at mine a little more positively, too, I think. I just think, well they don't let it bother them, why should I be miserable? So I think it keeps me young.
Gareth: Do you think it's easier coming out now than it was when you did?
Joe: Yeah. I think it must be about nine years since I came out, and even now it's just so much easier. When I came out my mum and dad and my friends didn't really know any gay people, and now like every second person is queer, which is cool. I think it's awesome. We should take over the world.
But there's so much more queer stuff going on in the media. You know: Oh! Isn't that Ellen DeGeneres queer? Isn't she a lesbian? and that sort of thing. And everyone was like: isn't that guy on American Idol gay? You know, everyone knows of someone who is queer, which is fantastic.
And even trans stuff is getting a bit more out there. The movie TransAmerica and stuff, I got my parents to watch that and they thought it was great. So I think people are getting a bit more aware of it, which is quite cool, and it's just not such a huge, big deal any more.
People are making such different lifestyle choices to the choices they were making even 10 years ago. People are just doing what they want to do to be happy now, which is cool, so I think it would be a lot easier to come out now. Like, if I could come out now to my parents, I'm sure it would be a lot better.
Gareth: So when you were coming out, what were the things in the media, like on TV or in films, that you remember as being queer?
Joe: I think when I came out it was around about the time of that program, Bad Girls, where the prison officer was in love with the inmate kind of thing. I was like, oh, she's so hot. So I was like, that's the gay stuff. And I think The L Word was just coming out, too, although I thought that was kind of misleading, because that's not really like real life. Everyone was like, is that what it's like to be a lesbian? And I was like, well, I wish it was, but unfortunately no. [laughs] So, there was that going on.
There wasn't really a lot of lesbian stuff going on then. It was more, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert had just come out and was playing in Melbourne, or something, and everyone was like, oh cool! And I'd just hear about a couple of New Zealand celebrities who'd come out as gay – oh, this weather man's gay, kind of thing. But there wasn't really a lot going on then. I think The L Word was the worst bit, though, because everyone was like, is that what you're like? No. [laughs]
Oh, and the Topp Twins, which is... I don't know. I think my mum was scared I was going to end up like that. I said, "If I was going to be like one of the Topp Twins I'd be like that already," but I think people just thought I was going to change or something, but I was just exactly the same person, I had just told them about it was the only thing that was different.
Gareth: Can you yodel?
Joe: No. I can sing, but I'm not yodeling. It's really not my thing. I'm more like barbershop and jazz. [laughs]
Gareth: Hey, we were looking through some of your old photographs just before we started recording. What is it like seeing yourself as a young girl?
Joe: I think I was cuter then than I am now, and I don't really look at it and think, oh, that was so wrong, that was so wrong! A lot of trans people sort of felt wrong their whole life. I didn't really feel wrong. I was a happy kid. But I think with a lot of young kids, they don't think about their gender at all. Like, you get labeled as a boy or a girl, and you think, cool, but you don't actually care. It's just not important.
And it wasn't until it really started mattering, when I was a teenager, that I even thought about it. So I just think, oh yeah, that was just me when I was a kid, and I was just really happy. And I was a really happy kid. I had a great childhood, so I just like looking at the photos. It seems weird seeing me with long hair, but apart from that it's cool.
Gareth: If there was anything that you would say to somebody coming out now, either for sexuality or gender, what would that be?
Joe: I would just say that there's no right time to do it, there's no wrong time, there's no right or wrong way to do it, and it's different for everyone. Just get support from wherever you can, find your allies and stick close to them. And just be really patient. It takes time. You may have been thinking about it for years, but often the people you're telling won't have been thinking about it, so you give them a bit of a break. I know it's really hard when you're young and you want everyone to understand, so desperately, but people won't always, or it will take them time, and it does hurt when the people you think are going to understand, don't. But, you could be really surprised by people you think that won't get it who are just amazing. So, just be who you are, stick with the people who care about you, and give people time.
Transcript by cyberscrivener.com