‘This is your life, you only have one of them to live’: Halifax woman shares her journey of transitioning

Rae O'Neil pictured in Halifax on July 19, 2018. Steve Silva / Global News

Halifax resident Rae O’Neil says she began living as a trans woman in 2016, after being inspired by a friend’s similar decision a week beforehand.

She posts on social networking websites and also blogs about her experiences of settling into her gender identity.

One of her aims is to inspire others, O’Neil said.

She was interviewed on Thursday in Halifax about her journey. The transcript, including one question, has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you decide to transition from expressing and identifying yourself to others as a man to a woman?

I decided in July 2016. A friend of mine who I had known for a number of years had come out to me, that they were beginning to transition, and it took me a bit by surprise. At first, I didn’t even believe them. I felt really bad in retrospect, but then they explained what they were doing, how they were doing, what the process was they were going through, and they had no idea when they were telling me this that we had that in common.

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I was certain I could suppress this my whole life but, looking back, every single time I went into a massive depression over it, it got worse. It never gets better. You can’t win the war. It keeps coming back in eventually. For the longest time, my life was effectively forfeit to me. I didn’t care if I lived, but I didn’t want to die because I had friends and family who wanted me around, so I didn’t want to die and make them sad. That was the worth of my life.

I didn’t know, really, what the process was in Nova Scotia, how feasible it would be to go through it. It broke a lot of those doubts in my head. I ran into a massive existential crisis. My brain wouldn’t shut up for at least a week. Once I decided I’m not going to keep this secret anymore, I’m going to take steps, I knew I was going to go the distance.

What was that like to start transitioning at age 34?

Interesting. I often joke that I was a 30-something-year-old teenager. It’s really tricky. You realize how little life experience you have in living in your true identified gender. I had to learn how to put makeup on, and I had never put makeup on in my whole life. Clothing was its own havoc. I’m 6’2″, it’s not the easiest size to find. Looking through my old pictures, I basically went through the awkward teenage clothing phase that usually takes years, within the span of months. Growing up, my mom never taught me how to be a girl [she thought I was a boy].
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It’s really tricky. Still worth it, but tricky.

You’ve written that you knew you were trans since you were a kid, why did it take you decades to take that next step?

When I was a kid, I didn’t know trans was a thing. They didn’t teach us this in school. TV and movies did a terrible job of conveying trans people existed. Throughout most of my childhood, I thought I was a freak or a strange pervert. I would pray every night, wishing that God would turn me into a girl or take these thoughts away, one or the other. I would do this every night. Every shooting star, I’d wish. Every birthday cake, I would wish.

Then, around my teen years, I started wondering if I should say something, or should approach someone, or should take some steps. I almost did decide to. I’m not sure if ‘coming out’ is the right [phrase], but I definitely was thinking I was going to talk to someone about this, and then [Ace Ventura: Pet Detective] came out. [The movie], was very popular at the time, and the major plot point at the end of the movie is that they reveal that villain had gotten a sex change. They show that this actor is tucking, AKA they have male genitalia, and then everyone proceeds to throw up. That was the conclusion, and that shoved me firmly right back in the closet.

I then made excuses. Then it switched to — this is very dark — I’ll do it someday I no longer have any family to disappoint; that was the thought in my head. The excuses I gave myself altered. When my friend came out to me, and I saw how foolish some of those blockers I had given myself were, and they started tumbling and the wall cracked, that’s when I finally decided to come out. Many of those worries were unfounded. My family’s been enormously supportive. As much as I gave myself that blocker of ‘Oh, I don’t want to disappoint my family,’ they never really intoned that they would be, so it was a fiction that I had built up to reinforce my resolve in not to do it. It took a lot of years to get through those blockers, and it took a lot of years to get to the point where I think, societally, I felt safe enough to do it.

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What are the some of the challenges you’re facing in this journey?

Some of the challenges have to do with the medical system, including the coverage of different surgeries and medications, and accessing mental health care. Another big challenge, of course, is just getting past some of my fears. Going out into the world as a woman and kind of owning it and not being afraid of being who I am required developing a fortitude for it, developing a confidence to it. My options for just clothing myself can be very difficult. Hair removal is a long, expensive thing. And just fitting in sometimes.

And the successes?

I’m out. I’m happy I’m out. I feel a lot happier with myself. I’m a lot less shy. I used to avoid being in pictures. I don’t avoid it as much anymore. I’m not ashamed of myself as much. I’ve rediscovered friendships, like being able to go [to] my friends as myself and not have this deep secret that I’m keeping from them. I’ve met new people on this. I’ve met such wonderful people; other trans women, other trans men. One of the funnest parts is rediscovering me. There was so much about me that I didn’t know because I didn’t want to venture into anything that might give me up.
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You’ve written and posted about your transition on your blog and social media accounts. Why share those details?

When I was really early on [in transitioning], I had read an article [about] comic book writer Magdalene Visaggio. She was proud, and she was sharing parts about herself and some of the struggles she was going through in transition and such, and that meant a lot to me because it showed me someone else who’s, like, owning this.

They don’t teach you this in school. They don’t teach you what puberty two is like, right? They teach you about the first puberty you run into. There’s so much you’re not certain about. I started following a lot of trans women on Twitter. We cheer each other on. It was very important to see. They’re showing some of their early transition stuff, and it’s like I was just as clumsy and weird and awkward and uncertain as you were. This is normal. You are going through this.

I originally was just going to journal my transition for myself. When I realized how much those helped me, I figured I was going to make a lot of this public, so that if someone else is going through this, or is thinking going through this, or has gone through this, [they’ll] know that some of these things are normal. Even if they don’t go through the same experiences I do, they can at least see of the experiences I went through and understand that, you know, like any puberty, it’s really awkward and really bizarre, and it takes a lot of figuring out.
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Are there any misconceptions about trans people that you’ve encountered?

Yes. I’ve had people tell me that I should go on birth control. Spoiler alert: I’m not going to grow a uterus, so I can’t actually bear children. That was kind of a fun one. A lot of people, myself included when I first started, [assumed] that I was just going to look like old me in a dress, and that’s not the case. Even if you don’t go on hormones, you do change.

A lot of people assumed that my sexuality shifted; that’s a common misconception. I grew up attracted to women, and they assume that if I was transitioning into a woman, it was because I was attracted to men, and I’m not. Sorry, guys. I’m a lesbian, and sometimes that’s hard for people to understand.

People still assume I’m wearing prosthetic breasts and, two years into transition, they’re not prosthetic anymore, but people didn’t know that you can grow them at a later age.

I find there are still a lot of bad portrayals in the media of trans people. There’s still this perception that a trans woman is a man in drag. I’ve heard far too often someone say ‘transgenders.’ That’s not what we are. We are transgender, but we’re people.

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Another misconception is my voice. They assume my voice is going to change magically and, God, I wish it did. But you can change your voice, and this was a misconception I had. I’m still in the process. I still have a lot of work to do, but I’ve been doing voice therapy.

For people in the same boat you were in before your transition, what advice would you give them?

Remember that it’s never too late. You’re never too old to transition. If that’s what’s holding you back, don’t let it. As hard as it seems, and everyone has their own battles to face, remember that this is your life, you only have one of them to live. If you truly believe that you’re living the wrong life, live the right one. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to be scary, but you’re not the only one who’s gone through it. There’s a community out there.

For people with friends, family members, or other loved ones transitioning, what should they keep in mind?

Remember that it’s very hard for them to even come out. It takes a lot to decide to do this, to make such a massive shift in their lives. I would ask them to be patient with them. You and them are going to mess up. If you accidentally misgender them, you use the wrong pronoun, don’t make a big deal of it. The less of a big deal you make about it, the less it will be awkward for everyone involved.

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Give them help when they need it, if you can. They will, if they’re very early [into their transition], be super awkward. They’re going to be super nervous. You might even think they’re doing worse for a bit because they are under higher stress, but it’ll work out, and the person that comes out of this will be happier. You’ll likely enjoy them better for it. They probably need you if you’re close to them now. Friendship is enormously helpful. Family is enormously helpful. Honour their requests. Understand that they’re going to be going through some stuff. Just make them feel welcome.

They’re still your friend, they’re still your family. They’re just going through a bit of a thing.

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