One woman tells her story of life and gender changes
It was in Second Grade when Cadence Cohen first found out she was different. Growing up with two sisters, a mom and a dad who was often away at work, Cohen had always known she was “just one of the girls.” But, as grade school and playmate judgment took hold, Cohen soon learned it wasn’t okay when she wanted to play with Barbies, dress-up clothes or a tea set. Cohen, in fact, was born male.
Fast-forward to her life as a 31-year-old curvaceous woman, and Cohen says she has men hitting on her more than women ever doubting her true femininity. She is just two years into her post-op life: a choice that saw her taking hormone supplements, psychological evaluations and completing a surgery that gave her the anatomically correct body she always wanted. But Cohen’s story isn’t as easy as that. She’s suffered judgments, lost close family members and even lied to her friends in an effort to preserve who she thought she was. Now, the Islander is facing her greatest stigmas head on by releasing a book about her experience in the hope that others will finally understand her story.
Coming clean with the truth
Cohen has written Real Life Experience (currently with an agent and being shopped to publishers), a book that chronicles her transition from man to woman, discovering her truth, recovering from surgery and all the harsh criticism she faced in between.
“I can still remember coming out to my family about my transition, and the first thing my mom said was, ‘Why are you doing this? This is a choice you are making.’ But I’ve never seen it as a choice,” says Cohen. “It’s something I had to do: it’s coming clean with the truth, and with myself.”
By being true to herself, Cohen is forced — along with others in her shoes — to decode the mystique that still exists around trans people, whether she wants that job or not. People still wonder what the difference is between a transvestite and a transsexual, she says, but the answers can vary for each individual. However, while the first one commonly deals with sexuality (a transvestite is often a straight man dressing in women’s clothing for erotic pleasure), the latter steps away from the sexual (a trans woman, born a man, might still like women, for example) and focuses strictly on gender identity. A transgendered person, then, is typically the distinction made when someone has undergone surgery.
Only decades ago, Gender Identity Disorder, or GID, was classified and remains listed as a mental illness — along with homosexuality, which was only recently removed from the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems list. Yet 2011 medical research on the brain structures of transgendered individuals shows that some have the physical brain structures that resemble their desired sex, even before hormone treatment. The science behind her decision never mattered to Cohen, though: she considered herself a woman, through and through, from the start.
“It’s true, I don’t have to buy pads or tampons, but in every other way I am and have been living as a woman for as long as I can remember,” she says. “The only difference post-surgery, is that you can look in the mirror in the morning and finally breathe your sigh of relief and say, ‘Yes; now this looks right.’”
A life of alterations
Cohen was raised in Metchosin, in a Christian family. Her dad was a hard-working pro sports athlete and businessman who moved the family from trailer-park to private-school status with one deal gone right just as Cohen was entering elementary school. Since her operation, however, her dad has spoken to her only twice, and one sister has cut her out completely. Cohen remains close to her oldest sister.
“In many ways, I was my dad’s only son — I was the one he was supposed to throw a football with, the one who was supposed to go camping, fishing, work on cars. But none of it interested me,” says Cohen. “The best afternoons I can remember growing up is sitting with the girls in the kitchen while dad was at work, drinking tea, gossiping, just being girls.”
But when Cohen learned that “just being girls” was unacceptable in outer society, she started locking that part of herself away. She never told her parents how she felt, and when they refused to buy her dolls, like her sisters, she asked for He-Man and She-Ra figurines instead. As a teenager, she learned how to play the “jock” role for a while, and even had a few girlfriends before coming out to her family as bisexual, then later gay. Those were “hard pills for them to swallow,” she remembers, but says it was nothing compared to what she would admit to those around her next.
“One of my major regrets was getting ‘locked into’ the gay scene. There’s a culture of wonderful and loving people out there, but, once you’re in, people have judgments about you, and who they think you are,” says Cohen. “Even still, people really aren’t ready to accept trans people. Yet it’s even harder when you want to break away and just live as you are: a woman. I don’t want to be stuck with the label ‘trans person.’ I want to be me.”
Just before Cohen completed her last evaluation for surgery, she made a life-altering decision: to test out the level of tolerance she could find off the Island.
“I knew that I’d fit in fine in Victoria and Vancouver, but I wanted to see how I would do elsewhere, so I went to Chilliwack,” she says. “It’s basically the Bible belt of B.C., and I can’t say there were a lot of trans people there, but people were wonderful, and no one even suspected me — they all believed I was a woman, even before surgery.”
With the conviction of her experience, she decided to return to the Island and finally complete her surgery. Now, two years and one book later, she says she’s finally found a kind of peace for her life that she never knew she would have the grit to create.
“Everyone makes transitions in their life, and all of those are about moving forward — not about being stuck in what or who we were in our pasts,” Cohen says. “This story isn’t about my life as a trans person. It’s about my life as a woman, and what it means to have the courage to finally become who you know you were meant to be.” M