— By Ray D. McEachern, as told to Derek Bedry
Being transgendered is about small victories.
I don’t take little affirmations of my gender presentation for granted; right now, they are few and far between. My friends who knew me before — real friends, the ones who’ve stuck by me — sometimes slip on the pronoun and let out a “she,” despite their best intentions. At the grocery store, clerks call me ma’am. And because I’m a gay trans man, I’m challenged by the fact that when I do pass for male, I still present on the feminine side. The type of man I’m attracted to isn’t usually attracted to the physical male type I embody, let alone my female genitalia and the breasts bound under my baggy rock band t-shirts.
That’s a cruel irony. Shooting yourself in the thigh with a needle full of testosterone once a week sends your sex drive through the roof.
I — that is, girl-me — used to be a guy magnet. People tell me she was beautiful, and I see that, but it’s someone else in those “before” glamour shots that I keep on my phone for fun. I like showing her off. She’s a drag queen, made up and teased and airbrushed. When that kind of attention comes to me for who I really am, it won’t be a minor victory.
I was born Raylene Dawn McEachern in Kelowna on August 28, 1989. My mother and I always had an extremely strained relationship, and she never wanted me to leave the house without “enough” makeup on. She wanted me to present myself the way society expects females to (and I had bad acne as a teen), so Mom would say, “Why don’t you put on some more coverup? Some more blush? Why don’t you try some mascara?” I know she thought I was beautiful, but under that constant pressure, I never felt it. Telling her I wasn’t sure I even belonged in a female body seemed out of the question.
As soon as I was able, I fled Kelowna to Vancouver in 2007. Still living as female, I got into film school (with hard work and a full scholarship) while honing my passion for photography. I made friends, I was around like-minded people, but it wasn’t the release I was hoping for. I didn’t quite know what yet, but something didn’t fit. I didn’t fit. I was lost, hiding in shadows.
“You were sweet as bunny’s ears, but there was no depth,” says my friend Kelsey, who held my hand for half an hour as I tremblingly worked up the nerve to take my first T (testosterone)-injection. “You weren’t a girl anyone would lean on, you never showed an opinion or an original thought. I didn’t see a person worth knowing until the masks started coming off.”
It wasn’t until 2010 that I started poking around on the internet and came across trans videos on Youtube, finding a huge community of support there. Things people were saying in the videos resonated with me deeply; when one Youtuber said he’d always imagined growing up what he’d look like as a man, it clicked.
Soon, I cut my hair, started donning boy clothes, and got a transition doctor. I came out to my father in August last year. It made sense, he said; I was always his tomboy, I always did like playing with trucks.
“I never saw you as my daughter. I just saw you as Ray,” he said. “But don’t tell your mom yet.”
Nevertheless, when I went back to Kelowna last Christmas, there was no hiding my new appearance. But Mom said nothing. Maybe she chalked it up to normal college-age experimentations, I don’t know. But the night before I was to leave for Vancouver again, I resolved to tell her she had a son.
I was in my pajamas, and she was having a last drink before bed. Shaking from the anxiety, I sat down on the other end of the long couch from her, our feet together in the middle.
“Mom, ummmm,” I stammered. “I’m um. I’m, um… Mom, I’m transgender. I feel I have always been a boy.”
Finally: “You mean like Cher’s daughter? Er, son?” Mom said. “Like how she was Chastity but now she’s Chaz?”
We talked until the initial shock subsided — hers and mine. Mine, because she wasn’t angry. She didn’t yell or curse me or disown me or ask what she’d done wrong. She was worried about what I’d have to go through, afraid the social and physical rigours of the transition would be too traumatic for me. When I’d explained I knew I was making the right choice, she told me she’d always love and support me, no matter what.
That release overwhelmed me. We held each other for a long time, and cried.
Now, my mother and I talk much more freely. I can be myself around her without fearing judgment. She asks questions, wants to be updated on my progress, and she’s even done lots of her own research. I visited home about two weeks ago, and when I walked in the door she joyfully exclaimed, “Oh, there he is!” That felt great. She still struggles with pronouns occasionally, but coming out has really strengthened our relationship. She gained a son, and I gained a mother.
Since that fateful Christmas, I’ve been blessed during my public coming-out with massive support, both online and in the real world — partly because I no longer feel the need to surround myself with people who don’t accept me.
“Now I see your courage, your strength, so many qualities I respect so much,” says Kelsey. “Your confidence has increased. You seem grown-up, not that lost little kid you used to be. You share your opinions now, you get respect, and you’re not afraid to show yourself. Since you started transitioning, you’re becoming a complete person.”
The road to a complete transition is long and hard. If I nick a vein in my leg when shooting my testosterone, I could give myself a heart attack. It could be years before I qualify for expensive top surgery to remove my breasts, so I can’t enjoy the beach the way others do. Bathrooms suck; I get looks no matter which gendered bathroom I enter, if I’m lucky enough to be spared hateful jibes.
My mother was right to worry that it would be easier not to live this way. Tiny things cisgendered people (people who identify as they gender/sex they were assigned at birth) barely notice can make or ruin my day. I rejoice in every new chin hair, I’m stung by every thoughtless denial of my male presentation. But there’s no life in hiding. I have to live day by day, as me, whoever I discover that to be; I’m meeting him in increments, with each passing moment, or perhaps with each moment I’m passing.
The other day on the bus, the driver said, “Welcome aboard, sir,” as my ticket popped out of the fare box, validated.
Small victories. I live for those.
You can keep up with Ray’s progress on Youtube. Ray McEachern is a prominent supporter of Vancouver’s live music scene, photographing countless events around the city. Music lovers can follow his coverage here.