“When I came to grips with who I was and I came out as a transgendered person, everything just fell into place. … As much as there’s this fight, fight, fight, there’s the other side of it, things are becoming easier as well.” – James Gardner
Because he can now be true to himself, all things are more authentic, says James Gardner.
“I always felt like I had a … filter so that anybody who got to know me, wasn’t getting to know me. And it wasn’t that I was consciously hiding anything but now I’m open, I’m genuine.”
Unlike many people who have gender dysphoria, it took Gardner 50 years to come to the realization that he was in the wrong body.
Born Sheila Gardner, in Edmonton in 1958, Gardner began her radio career at age 20. Moving from Alberta to Vancouver in 1987 and to CFAX radio in Victoria in 2010.
“Most people do know when they’re younger that they’re transgender, but I didn’t. I just felt different, but I didn’t know what it was,” says the popular news announcer.
It wasn’t until he was in his 50s that the realization dawned on him. “It was that feeling. I don’t know if I cried, it was a happy feeling. Oh. My. God. All of a sudden it just, it was like a bolt of lightning: This is who you are.
“I didn’t know my name yet, I didn’t know who I was yet, but I just knew there was this part of me and I just embraced it.”
He immediately acted on the realization, getting a referral to psychiatrist Gail Knudson, BC Medical Services Plan’s surgical assessor for gender-affirming surgeries.
He began hormone treatment and the process of explaining to family, friends and coworkers what was happening.
“Men transitioning to female, it’s more noticeable because the clothing’s different. As a female I didn’t wear dresses, but I wore a blouse and dress pants so I didn’t have to change that much. I always had short hair (taking) testosterone, you can actually lose your hair. Both my brothers are bald – I always liked my hair,” he says reaching up to touch his thinning, closely cropped scalp.
He knew his voice would drop quickly with hormone treatment and as a radio personality, made sure he told his employer about the transformation.
“It was definitely a milestone. … They were very respectful. It felt like I was Sheila one day and James the next – I didn’t really have to change the way I dressed too much except I put one of these on for the first time,” he says, tugging at the knot in his tie. “It was a milestone but I already felt like James.”
A year later he started thinking about surgery. He began with a hysterectomy and just a few months later, traveled to Florida for top surgery, which included a double mastectomy. “I got tired of waiting,” he says with a sigh. At the time there was a two year wait list to get the surgery in BC.
Living as a transgender man gives him freedom and happiness he never felt before. “It’s just a whole lightness. There was a heaviness before and I guess that’s what allows me to do the advocacy. I don’t know if I could have done it before when I felt really crappy, and I didn’t know why I felt crappy. I just always had this heaviness, something wasn’t right. Then it was like all the pieces of the puzzle come together. They’re all scattered on the table through your life, then all of a sudden they start to fit and that’s got to feel good. Everything just kind of snaps into place.”
Making the decision to transition, begin hormones and have the chest surgery helped him feel more aligned with himself, he says. The next step, phalloplasty, surgical construction of a penis, has been more difficult.
“I started hearing for bottom surgery for guys (the wait) was anywhere up to 10 years,” he says, stress creeping into his voice.
The province didn’t begin funding gender confirming surgery until 2012 and then, restricted it to five per year.
“I have my ear on the pipeline,” says Gardner, growing more animated. “I knew no guys were going. No guys were being phoned up. I know most of the guys on the waiting list – that’s when the government said, ‘nobody came forward.’”
Two years after the BC Ministry of Health lifted a ban on “gender alignment” surgery to transform females to males, not one surgery had been funded by the Medical Services Plan.
“Now I’m stuck again. I’m stuck not finishing with my physical transition,” he says.
Although the cap on the number of surgeries the province will fund was recently removed and jurisdiction over the surgery has moved to the Provincial Health Service, Gardner says there are still close to 90 people waiting for a date with the one Canadian, Montreal-based Dr. Pierre Brassard, qualified to do the surgery.
Gardner recently received a letter referring him to Bressard and in May he travelled to Montreal for his first consultation. He was able to afford the flights and accommodations, but learned the surgery is done in four stages, which means four more trips across the country and expensive after-care – none of which is paid for by the province. He estimates his personal cost will be $10,000 and he’s pushing to have the government cover those costs for BC residents requiring the surgery.
Gardner recently received an email from the BC Ministry of Health confirming a steering committee has been established to address urgent concerns, including reducing wait times for assessments and increasing options for access to (bottom) surgeries and coverage of after-care costs in Montreal.
“I think the fire’s been lit, I don’t know if there’s anything more we can do,” says Gardner. “People just need to know we’re fighting our own fight physically with our own bodies. We’re trying to get our own bodies to a point where we’re happy with ourselves. It’s very hard for us to step outside of that and have to deal with the larger picture.”
A recent study by researchers at Western University in London, Ont. found one in 167 Canadians try to kill themselves, but for transgender people the rate is an astounding one in nine. “I’ve struggled with depression because I can’t get my surgeries. I’ve thought about suicide. I think about it. Sometimes I get to the point where I just want to give up.
“What keeps me going? Talking about it. Talking about the injustice,” he says, pushing his shoulders back. “The spark of advocacy is there now, which I never had before. Something that I’m very passionate about is getting this right. Getting this right so that (younger) people … don’t have to deal with all of this crap. That’s what keeps me going.”
He feels that completing a medical transition through surgery will alleviate the depression.
“I have a lot of hope. I think it’s just going to take a year or so to get the machine moving. I think within about a year – maybe two – it’ll be where it needs to be. It’s just, you know … waiting.”
Read more about Gardner at his blog Journey to James transitionalmale.blogspot.ca