BY JULES HAYDON GUAITAMACCHI
When I was three months on testosterone I had visible patches of chin hair, broader shoulders and a deeper voice. I received a call one day and it was one of my clients who wanted to book me for a school talk, I answered the phone “god Jules, you sound terrible – are you okay?” I had to explain to her that I wasn’t ill and that my voice was breaking. I’d been very transparent on Facebook which helped to break the ice with the majority of people I knew, but there were plenty of tiring conversations such as people asking me when I was going to go by ‘he’ soon, and surely I wouldn’t need to stick to the ‘they’ thing much longer. Whenever I called out any of these comments, people would defend their ignorance by insinuating that it was my responsibility to teach them, as if I wasn’t finding this whole process difficult and confusing enough.
I decided to take the school booking not really considering what it would be like in my new skin. As I made my way to the school I felt the same anxiety I felt when I was 11 years old, on my way to school knowing I’d be tormented by classmates for looking like a ‘boy’. So, I anxiously picked out every hair on my chin before walking through the school gates. Teachers immediately introduced me as ‘Miss’ and I didn’t correct them. Instead, I took ‘the easy way out’ even though it would eventually corroded away at my self-esteem. At the end of the day, I felt so ashamed, as if I’d let myself and the trans community down.
I slowly started integrating my gender identity into my talks. I spoke to members of staff and I realised their complete lack of knowledge and awareness around gender diversity. I wondered how many transgender children must be struggling their way through school, feeling isolated and alone.
The more open I spoke about my transition, the more I’d learn that every school I attended had at least two transgender pupils. I began to encourage schools to book me to speak about trans awareness. I don’t think the teachers knew what to expect but they remained open to listening and seemed to absorb the information. It became clear that schools were dramatically under-resourced when dealing with the recent influx of LGBTQIA+ students that were coming out.
I considered myself an educator never really an activist but coming out as trans brought with it huge inequalities. The world around me changed. I lost privileges but gained others. It was bizarre. Identifying as non-binary caused a lot of confusion especially when my body started changing, I changed most of my identification to gender-neutral titles but couldn’t change the gender on my passport to anything other than ‘M’ or ‘F’.
I received another phone call and this time it was two colleagues I spoke in schools with. I hadn’t come out to them. I felt another wave of fear come over me as they asked me to fly out with them to an international school abroad. This was one of my regular schools, I had spoken there every year for the last five years. I met my colleagues at the airport and put on a facade, desperately hoping they wouldn’t notice any of my physical changes, I even tried to make my voice sound higher.
Like a chameleon, I adapted to every situation with the hope of being accepted. I guess I’d gone through so much abuse and bullying as a young person that what people thought about me was more important than staying true to myself. As I walked through security I beeped and was ushered through to the x-ray machine. Before I knew what was happening, a security guard put his hands on my chest and tucked his fingers around my binder. With an embarrassed look on his face, the security guard pointed straight to the exit to move me along. It took me a few minutes to realise what had just happened. I felt violated and validated at the same time. My colleagues had eventually gotten wind of what was going on. I came out to them both and they were incredibly supportive and curious as to why I felt afraid to tell them.
We had the usual faculty meeting in the morning. My colleague highlighted the fact that I was able to speak on transgender-related issues, which was music to the ears of the deputy head. He began telling me about several transgender students in the lower forms, one that was in the psychiatric ward. This was a school that boarded children from different cultures and backgrounds, from all over the world. I felt a sense of inadequacy and had to be realistic about my capabilities. All I could really do was to aim to improve these individuals’ school environment by educating their peers. Unfortunately, the school told me that many of the students’ parents thought the worst of trans people and even requested their children be kept away from them.
My addiction presentations became mental health and trans awareness talks. One student told me how her parents asked her to unfriend her trans friend but she refused. I looked into her eyes and told her how amazing she was to be able to look beyond her parents’ views and support her friend.
My experience in schools all over the country and abroad has shown me that the younger generation is far more open to embracing diversity. As referrals to Gender Identity Clinics have increased, we have witnessed a backlash from movements such as Mum’s Net accusing trans activists of brainwashing their children into some kind of trend. Unfortunately, the education system is being targeted by these groups who are seeking to suppress transgender voices and prevent young people from exploring their gender identity. Having personally experienced how damaging it can be to remain in the closet for so long I recognise that the work extends far beyond the education system. We are dealing with people who aim to remove our right to live happy and fulfilling lives, just like everybody else. Transgender people are the strongest most inspiring people I have ever met. Surviving in a world where there is so much hate, prejudice and erasure directed at you is not an easy task. My hope is that we pave the way for future generations so that one day they have a place within our society and will be able to live their lives free from discrimination.
Jules Haydon Guaitamacchi is a presenter, facilitator and coach