Belinda: Between Sex and Gender
interview by marie chung
At times, sex and gender are not coupled with conventional ideas of what sexual organs a female or male should have. Belinda is on her way to complete transition. Born a boy and discovering in her youth that she was uncomfortable in masculine expectations, Belinda intensifies the tensions between sex and gender. Her dynamic identities and experiences of gender dysphoria take us through the steps of a child who was outcasted for not being able to subscribe to the few labels available in school. As her narrative unfolds, so does her strength in ‘figuring it all out’ and presenting herself today as a captivating young woman.
Your parents moved to Australia from Poland awhile ago now, why did they do that?
Poland is a shithole and is highly corrupted. There is a lot of poverty and crime, and politics within the church. We moved here because of the poverty and lack of jobs – a lot of polish workers moved out into different European countries. Socially, politically and religiously in my opinion, it is not a place I’d want to live. Given my particular situation and my identity, I would’ve been dead years ago.
When I was a kid I was shy and introverted, nothing really made sense in my head. I was quite self-aware but it made me ask a lot of questions. I spent a lot of time in my own head and I didn’t really make any friends throughout primary school. I spent a lot of time alone which didn’t help me with language – it also made me an outcast. Even when someone tried to speak to me, I couldn’t speak to them. I didn’t know how to connect with someone, even on a child’s basic level of connection.
What caused that dissociation with others or inability to connect with others?
I had an acute feeling that I was fundamentally different from everyone else. I couldn’t figure out what it was that made me different. I told a friend in school that I thought I was gay after having a few confusing dreams and strange thoughts that came out of nowhere. I’d been exposed to pornography around the age of 10 or 11. It was fairly heteronormative pornography and I had mixed feelings of sexual orientation with gender identity. I thought, “I want to do what that woman is doing, which means doing sexual things to a man, which means I must be gay”. My friend didn’t respond well to that. He got really uncomfortable and we didn’t speak for weeks.
At some point I discovered transsexual porn. It was a new concept to me, I didn’t know it existed. Prior to that, there were only boys and girls, and then men and women – that’s how the world worked.
I thought, “well, what is this?” There was a mix of genitals. This put a new question in my head but put me off doing anything about it for many years.
When were you able to begin exploring your sexual identity?
When I was 14 or 15, I had a long distance girlfriend and I confided all of my thoughts to her. Then the term transsexual and crossdresser was spoken of. I thought about what those terms meant and what consequences identifying with those terms would have. When you are identifying as a crossdresser, it basically means that you have a stash of clothing as a different gender and you bring that out once in awhile. However, if you are a transsexual, the chances are that either you are going to have to leave your current life behind or tell everyone this big giant thing. It is terrifying because there is a lot of rejection around transsexual people. Transsexualism is something that is seen as more out there, more taboo and more evil. For a few years I drifted along, coming to terms with potentially being a crossdresser and thought if I put on a frock and a skirt, I’d be happy and I would be able to go on in my life. But that wasn’t the case.
Did your parents know?
No, not that I know of atleast. I had some clothes, I purged, I threw them all out and then I’d get some more. This process is really common with people with that identity issue. At some point I was dating this girl and I told her that I thought I was trans and will have to transition at some point. We were both stagnant, nothing really happened as a result of that. What ended up happening is that some cross dressing was incorporated into our sexual life but ultimately I found it really demeaning and dehumanizing. I was using this big important part of my identity and expressing it in a purely sexual way – it made it terrible. This stopped and we broke up. At that point, I realized I was depressed, anxious and mentally unstable and that it was time to do something about all these feelings that I had for the last twenty years. At 23, I thought, “fuck it, I’m going to transition”. So I began the process and started on hormones off the books, acquired some clothing, I moved out of home, thought about alternative names and all of those bureaucratic things.
What’s the bureaucratic process for transitioning in Australia?
Officially, you go to a GP who refers you to a mental health specialist. Ordinarily, they have no concept of gender identity dysphoria. They will give you a few evaluations and you would get referred to an endocrinologist who checks your levels of potassium, kidney function, liver and blood. Typically the endocrinologist gives you a prescription for hormones and monitors you.
I’m curious about when you were referred to a mental health practitioner, what kind of questions do they ask you to clarify or legitimize your readiness to transition?
They are trying to establish that this is not a flippant thought. It should be consistent and you should understand the perceivable consequences of transitioning. These are things like having to come out to people and also the difficulty in finding a job, the possibility of not passing as the gender you are expressing and quite often thinking about the discrimination and violence targeted towards transsexual people. Basically, you have to be aware of what happens when you make these decisions and also all the irreversible possible things that can happen. The mental health practitioner needs to ensure that you are not going to change your mind two years down the road which can be extremely traumatic and also very complicated.
So you started transitioning at 23, how long did it take for you to start seeing changes in your body?
Actually it didn’t take very long at all. Basically, knowing that the contraceptive pill had some sort of a form of oestrogen in it, I just got friends who were on the pill to give me spare tablets and took that for a few weeks. Within two weeks I noticed some changes. The first major change I notice was lowered libido and no more morning erections, which is great! Then about 4 weeks in, I had a lot of nipple sensitivity so I could no longer sleep on my front anymore.
I loved it. I started seeing a psychiatrist who actually specifically dealt with people with gender identity dysphoria. This is the medical term they are currently giving to transsexuals which is completely incorrect. The issue isn’t gender, it’s body dysphoria – your gender is fine, it’s just your body is wrong.
I saw the psychiatrist for 6 months before he gave me a referral to the endocrinologist. He then prescribed me exactly what I’d been taking and then I was on that steadily for a year and a half. It took three months to have noticeable chest development. Then skin became softer, hair finer, I put on a fair bit of weight, I went from 48 to 76kgs without changing my lifestyle patterns. I had more weight on my hips.
How have your personal networks received the transition?
Generally well. I didn’t get any giant lectures of “you’re a freak, I hate you, you are a sinner”, because I never make friends with religious people.
What about your family?
Family? So my eldest brother, who I don’t speak to anymore, completely disregards everything. He says it’s all in my head but in an illegitimate way.
Growing up as a boy, how did your father bring you up?
I have an issue with the term parents when regarding those who gave birth to me because there was a lot of negligence on their part. All my dad ever really taught me (and this is going to get a little depressing), was that you don’t kick men between the legs, and the only way to express emotion was to be drunk and angry. I had a lot of trouble being expressive when I was younger because my dad had a very short temper and my parents were alcoholics so they were always drinking. There was no real range of emotion, or at least to us kids. Even as a boy, there was no “alright you are 15, you are starting to get some bum fluff, I’m going to show you how to shave”.
There was no shaping you as a man?
There was no real guidance of any sort.
When I was quite young, I remember being young about three or four and asking my mum for dolls to play. She said, “boys don’t play with dolls, you can’t have a doll”. I remember that years later and I realized, “wow hang on, this has been there for awhile”. That was one of the forces that pushed me over the edge in deciding to transition.
It wasn’t gendered as such, the parenting style. There were certainly things we couldn’t do because we were boys. I think once I was standing with my hands on my hips and my dad said “don’t stand like that”. I thought, “why? Why not? I’m comfy, I’m not stabbing anyone as I’m doing this”. I can’t translate exactly what he said because it was Polish but it was something to the equivalent of “you look like a faggot”.
At first, my parents loved my girlfriend Angela who I’d been with for three years. Eventually, there was a theory going around that she was my beard because at that time, my parents thought I was gay. They thought I wanted to conceal my sexuality which is why I had a girlfriend, to make it seem like I’m into girls.
How long did it take for you to expose your transsexuality to your girlfriend?
It was quite early in the relationship, because I’d been having a lot of trouble with everything in my head. It was in the first few weeks actually, we went to a park and sat down, had a nice date and then I started crying. Let out this sort of “so here’s the thing”. She was accepting at first, she confided at that point that she was bordering bisexual but had never acted on that.
If she was heterosexual, how did that work with you acting in a feminine way?
It didn’t really impact me. I’d sit down on the train somewhere, and cross my legs but then realize that people might think I’m gay, so I’d have to spread them or sit down slouched. Typical masculine shit. I had to think about my mannerisms, how I spoke, how I walked. Apparently a lot of people who met me thought I was gay. Some were surprised when I came out as trans because they thought “well that makes a lot of sense”. As it turns out, I am attracted to women.
I am keeping it simple. If you are a woman, cool. I don’t mind what’s in between your legs. If it is an alligator I might hold some issue but if it’s genitalia, cool.
When you moved here at the age of 6 and started school here, what was it like having this identity fuzz and also being a migrant? There would be a few different issues to deal with and essentially it would be a mind-fuck.
Basically yes. The most common and cliché issue was physical education and getting changed in the change rooms. Even in primary school when we did swimming lessons, I felt really uncomfortable changing around the boys. Boys were so aware of their bodies at that point and would try and cover up their genitals. There was this one boy that I ended up staring at and thought it was interesting because I’d never seen someone else’s before. I never felt like I belonged in that change room. I tried to reconcile not giving the slightest shit for sports or getting into fights and generally not being a typical boy with the fact that I like women. Typically, if you act feminine and you are not into sports, you are assumed to be gay.
With the migrant thing, I was bullied very heavily throughout school – that made it really hard to make friends because talking to me was a form of social suicide. Also, with being a migrant and specifically learning a language, it took me awhile to figure out words for these feelings. I had these concepts but there was so much I couldn’t formulate. When I heard the term transsexual, I could connect things with that word. Then when I heard words like polyamorous - the love of many or more than one. When someone first said that I thought “that’s what that word is! That’s what I am!” Then all the synapses joined together and things made sense. Just having to learn the words and terminology actually did in a sense give me an identity in itself. If you are male and have a girlfriend and another one, people would say “you asshole, you are cheating on one or both of them”. If you explain that you are polyamorous, and someone knows what it means, they are cool with that. Another stereotype about being polyamorous is that you are indecisive, unable to commit, really sex hungry because people don’t distinguish recreational sex from a sex for the sake of intimacy and connection, that is basically the difference between being polyamorous and being in an open relationship.
I fall into a lot of stereotypes and I tend to challenge those stereotypes because there are groups of poly people who fuck freely (which is fine), but I’m not one of those people. There are also people who are transsexual who identify strongly as being a transsexual, and there are transsexuals who will identify as their sex (either man or woman) who happen to be trans. This is fine but you can get lumped easily into these categories.
It comes to a point where others purely identify you on sex and sexuality.
People take what they have heard about transsexuals or kinksters and apply it to you. “Oh so you like chains and whips and stuff”. No actually, that’s not what being kinky means.
There is a lot of stereotyping on all aspects of that identity where people don’t grasp the depth of what labels can mean. Labels aren’t always bad things but they can be when they are used negatively.
When you date, are these from online dating sources?
Mostly, about 80%.
What happens when you meet a female who is probably a lesbian, and you get into the bedroom? What are their expectations in bed? Generally there would be the assumption that the bedroom would involve two vaginas.
It depends on how familiar they are with queer issues. The girl I went on a date with last week, she was very apprehensive about touching me around the groin because we hadn’t talked about how I’d feel about that area. Some women have sort of treated it as an interaction with a male – which has worked. It just depends.
I dated a girl who had been seeing cisgender girls, and she did not know how to act around my genitals. At this point, I should state that it’s pretty obvious that I’m pretty operative. Until it got to sexual things, she had to take it slow for her to process, but it was okay. She didn’t freak out or anything. Some trans women are very sensitive about their genitals and how they are used. Some are okay with it, some don’t mind using their genitals to penetrate.
For me, generally people have been okay. Some have gone down and grabbed me and been straightforward, and I’ve thought, “hang on, is this okay? Are you going to have a panic attack?” I’m okay with it. I see it as it’s there, I can’t get rid of it so I might as well get some sort of pleasure out of it. I’d rather it wasn’t there but it is, and I can’t do anything about that.
It’s a whole new concept to take onboard.
There are a lot of new things to think about. If you are talking about specific things that someone likes being done to their genitals, it’s a learning process. You know the sort of things someone would like done to their vagina, you want to do it in a particular way. When someone has an issue with their genitals, it kind of takes things through a different way. There are things you have to think about and it gets tricky.
We’ve been talking a lot about sexuality, do you feel like it plays an important role in your everyday life?
I’ve gotten relatively confident in my body so long as I can cover things. It was terrifying at first when I was presenting as female because I felt like everyone was staring at me, I still get that paranoia. Basically whenever I feel like I’m being rejected, I often associate that with a trans thing – that they are transphobic or do not understand the trans thing. I’m a lot better than I was, I can make it out of the door when I plan to. I was fairly agoraphobic. Now I can go out most days, I’m fortunate in that I don’t need make-up to pass.
So in terms of gender, how do you identify yourself?
As a woman who happens to be trans. It’s predominantly female, but I am trans as well. Whether I have surgery, I will still be trans. All that has really changed is my external appearance. I mean my attitudes have changed but my identity hasn’t evolved in terms of gender identity.
Do you plan to take the next steps in surgery?
When people think of transition, they think firstly that you cross dress, then take hormones and finally you have surgery. That’s not the case. Some people choose not to have hormone therapy or can’t for health reasons. There are all sorts of different paths people take, all different sorts of orders. It’s not a matter of the next stage because it’s a continual evolving process which is funnily enough, what all human goes through – it’s not really any different, it’s just a part of who we are that we work extra hard on in figuring out.
There is a correlation between trans people and mental health issues. Largely because there are concepts that they cannot articulate or attach words to, it causes a lot of issues. The services available to trans people aren’t great, I know six trans people who have borderline personality disorder. One of them is bipolar as well; a lot of people with serious mental health issues need strong medication and lifetime therapy. With trans people, when they haven’t come to terms with being trans yet, it makes it very difficult with figuring out what the problem is and treating it.
You are constantly identified according to your sexuality, through what other lens would you like to be looked at?
As fundamental and vague as it sounds, I’d like to be looked at as a human being. I don’t want someone to go “oh did you go to Mardi Gras?”. I want someone to ask “what video games do you like?”
It shouldn’t really change how you have a social interaction with me. It would probably change how you would have a romantic or sexual interaction.
I mean that’s not expected from everyone that you meet.
That’s the thing, if you put a label or stereotype out there, people put you in a little box and they tailor their actions in a certain way that is dehumanizing because you are seen as this label rather than a person who happens to fall under x amount of labels. Ultimately, you can ask a gay person how their day was, just like you can ask a straight person how their day was – that question should basically come out the same and have no impact.
If you just fall into a label, that is all people see you as. Otherwise, if you don’t fall under that label, it’s because you don’t conform to what people’s idea of what that label means.
What I’d like to happen is for people to get to treat people as people. Whilst they may fall into whatever category – IT technician, gardener, someone earning $100,000 a year, Uni student, transsexual or pansexual – whatever it is, they are still people. Whatever labels applied to them can mean very different things and you can’t box people in those labels.
Transsexuality remains under the radar and remains a complicated issue because there are minimal public platforms that talk about it. We can see how transsexuality is suffering from our inability to neatly categorise individuals as male or female. Belinda’s personal experiences reveal that others are not willing to easily accept her as normal. It was fortunate for Belinda that she was able to negotiate her relationships and persist in determining her own identity – for others, I imagine the insecurities still prevail.
By the end of what was one of the most refreshing conversations I have had, we commuted together before departing to separate locations. It was heavily raining outside and drenched commuters were dripping on and into the trams. A middle-aged lady commented about Melbourne weather to her friend, and without hesitation, Belinda joined in the conversation. A cordial banter emerged and social boundaries had dissolved. For Belinda, it was a common everyday interaction. For myself, it was a window into her world of self-assurance, stability and self-determination.