It was back in 1970, in Welwyn Garden City in England.
She was four when she told her mom she was given the wrong name.
At the time, she couldn’t understand why she had a male name instead of a female one – after all, she felt like she was a girl, which did not match her assigned birth sex.
Her mom did not agree with her.
In 1976, she and her family immigrated to Canada due to the religious disputes and crusades that were happening in their home country, which didn’t make them feel safe.
Three years later she felt relief.
As Cait Glasson was talking to a librarian – the “Google search bar” of the time, as she described librarians – she finally discovered the word “transexual.”
The librarian fetched a biography of Christine Jorgens, who transitioned in the early 1950s, right down to having surgery. Jorgens was the first person to have transition surgery and become well known for it worldwide.
Glasson immediately went home and told her mom about it.
“I figured out a word for me today,” she said excitedly.
Instead of being supportive, her mom sent Glasson to conversion therapy.
She was 13.
“It turned out to be bog-standard conversion therapy,” said Glasson.
It involved a lot of mild, but painful, electric shocks on the inside of her wrist.
And a lot of shouting at her.
“You’re a boy! You’ll always be a boy! People can’t change sex!”
“Obviously, it didn’t work.”
When she was 15, her father died in a car accident.
Glasson and her sister were also in the car but they survived.
“I spent the next five or six years trying to live up to what I thought he (her father) wanted me to be,” Glasson said.
She joined sports teams, such as a soccer team and a hockey team, and eventually entered the military.
When she was 21, Glasson went to jail.
“They (the army) caught me being myself, basically,” she said. “In those days (1987), it was against the law to be gay or queer in any way.”
According to Glasson, they had no idea what to do with her, so they just threw her in jail for a few weeks and then threw her out.
In September 1987, she went to Carleton University for one year for an undergrad degree in modern language and linguistics and then transferred to McMaster University, where she graduated.
In 1992, she went to the University of Waterloo to get her graduate degree in Russian literature.
That is when a common mood disorder among the transexual population got to Glasson.
She was depressed.
She dropped out.
She ended up in the hospital.
She was tired of looking in the mirror and seeing a “he,” when she knew deep down that she was a female.
She decided it was time to transition.
“At that time, you had to prove not only that you were established in your new gender, but you also had to convince the gatekeepers that you would do it in an invisible way,” Glasson said. “You had to be able to be stealth, right? You had to be able to completely hide the fact that you are trans.”
According to her, that is why it is not common to see many trans people who are in their 50s or older, who transitioned a long time ago.
“You see some older trans people who transition at 65 or 70, but you don’t see many who transitioned in their 20s and are now in their 50s,” she said.
In November 1992, she finally transitioned.
The depression was greatly reduced.
But life kept throwing rocks at her, like she had no feelings. Like she was an object.
“There’s nothing inherently bad or hard about being trans. In itself, there’s nothing difficult,” Glasson said. “What’s difficult is how other people react.”
She called her mom and her mom’s husband at the time, to tell them she had transitioned.
“Don’t call us anymore. We’ll call you when we’re prepared,” they said.
The call didn’t come for 12 years.
“Now that relationship (between her and her mom) is really broken,” Glasson said.
Just after transitioning, she lost her general administrator job.
The company she worked for at the time was flexible with her hours, so she could work and take a couple of classes to start her masters at the same time.
However, they fired her and immediately said, “We’re not going to give you a reference letter because nobody by your name worked here. We can’t honestly say anything about Cait.”
She couldn’t continue her academic career.
“They (the university) wouldn’t change my name on my transcripts and things like that,” Glasson said.
She said she also got beat up a few times.
However, Glasson doesn’t regret it.
“It was pretty unpleasant in some ways, but it was still the best decision I ever made.”
Two years after transitioning, she met her partner Janelle Mifflin Starkey, who already had a 10-year-old-boy, Alex, and a seven-year-old-girl, Michelle.
They all ended up moving in together and Glasson helped her raise the kids.
They also took in a foster child, Jennifer, who was 15, the same age as their son.
“She showed up on our doorstep one night near Christmas in the snow and said, “Look, I’ve got nowhere to go, can I stay with you guys for a bit?” So she ended up staying for three and a half years,” Glasson said.
She had been kicked out of her mom’s house for being bisexual.
“She’s still in my life. She still calls me Mama Cait,” said Glasson, smiling.
Glasson took up work as a part-time self-employed translator – after all, she speaks six languages.
Starkey was working full time, so Glasson stayed at home to take care of their children.
“We were together for 12 years and then we broke up,” she said. “After 15 years, we’re still really good friends.”
Nowadays, she is a transgender activist and The Spectrum‘s president in Kitchener.
She is on disability benefits, due to a car accident she had when she was 21, which damaged her back.
“The degeneration since has made it worse and worse,” she said. “Between that and my depression issues, the province saw fit to recognize my disability about three years ago.”
She gets $1,160 a month from the government.
“It’s tight,” Glasson said. “I’m lucky I have somebody who is renting the spare bedroom, so that offsets it enough so I can eat.”
Nowadays, Glasson, 53, is a white “tomboy,” as she describes herself. Her melancholic eyes show that there was a lot of suffering in her past, but with her scratchy voice she makes sure she speaks up for herself and others.
She wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to film videos for her gaming YouTube Channel, “Old Lady Plays,” while the city is still quiet and she can control the lighting better than during the day.
She also volunteers her time by teaching people about transgenderism in the community and across the country.
“I get money from the government to keep me alive, and in return, I give 20 to 30 hours (per week) of my time to my community, which is pretty much all my body can take anyway, so I think that’s a fair deal,” she said.
In her opinion, the “differences between women and men are largely sociological” and it is all about how people are socialized.
Transsexualism: being treated as a woman vs. being treated as a man.
The word “transsexual” refers to someone who went through surgical procedures and/or use of hormones to change their sex. Because of that, they have the experience of being treated like a woman and a man by society in their lives.
According to Shannon Dea, a professor of philosophy, who teaches a gender and social justice program at the University of Waterloo, “There’s some interesting information from trans people about how they get treated differently and have different expectations about them when they present as different genders. That tells us a lot about our expectations about men and women.”
Even though it is still unclear exactly how many transgender people there are in Canada, according to Trans PULSE, “Trans people in Ontario report a full range of ages, occupations and are geographically distributed across the province proportionally to the population. They belong to all ethno-racial groups, and seven per cent identify as Aboriginal … Forty-four per cent are in a committed relationship and 24 per cent are parents.”
Trans PULSE is a research study of social determinants of health among trans people in Ontario, which has been used by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and is cited in the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s 2014 report.
According to the study, among young trans people 16 to 24 years of age “who reported their parents were strongly supportive of their gender identity or expression, four per cent reported attempting suicide in the past year.” While the study said this is still far too high, it went on to say “it is 93 per cent lower than suicide attempts among trans youth whose parents were not strongly supportive. Within that group, 57 per cent attempted suicide in the past year.”
But what are the natural differences between men and women?
Jane Veska, 40, a Kitchener woman, has been married for almost six years and she has two boys.
According to her, the differences between women and men are clear.
“The thing that I’ve learned the most being married is that we (women and men) see reality differently,” Veska said.
For her, even when it comes to something as simple as financial situations or the way both sexes do problem-solving, they are very different.
In her opinion, women have an easier time thinking outside of the box.
“One example of that is when I had a renovation done in my bathroom and the guy couldn’t figure out how to stop my bathtub from squeaking. Then, I said, “What about just shoving some shims in there and just closing it up?”, and he was like ‘Oh, have you done this before?’ Like, no! I’m just using my brain,” she said laughing.
However, are these differences from nature or nurture? Are women and men, after all, naturally different?
“Already, that question assumes a certain kind of standpoint. It assumes that the categories of men and women are natural categories, as opposed to social categories,” the philosopher Dea said. “So there’s lots of debate about this, among philosophers and among gender theorists. If you ask five different philosophers and gender theorists, they will give you five different answers.”
One view that Dea sympathizes with would be the one that says “it would be a mistake to think about full bodies as having a particular sex.”
According to her, it might be more accurate to think about chromosomes as having a particular sex, or organs to have a particular sex. That is because when scientists look at human populations, not everybody has perfect alignment between their genetic level, their hormones/hormonal constitution, and their reproductive organs.
One popular case showing this theory might be valid is Caster Semenya, a two-time Olympic champion at 800 metres from South Africa.
Semenya had “naturally elevated levels of the muscle-building hormone testosterone,” according to the New York Times. Because of that, nowadays she can only compete with other women if she takes testosterone-reducing medication.
“So there’s this interesting debate about whether a whole body has a particular sex, or whether different biological features have different sexes that end up getting clustered together, more or less often when you look at a whole big population,” Dea said.
What is the role of socialization in all this?
Once Glasson was hosting a class about sexuality and family.
There weren’t many men in the room, but she decided to ask them to read a screenplay of a conversation between several trans women.
“I asked the men in the class if they would be brave enough to try and read it as though they were trying to be perceived as women,” Glasson said. “I said, “Let’s say you woke up this morning and you know that you have to transition. What’s the voice you can use?” … Remember, in 1992 (when she transitioned), I had to get it right for the first time or I would be in trouble. I wanted them to understand that fear.”
As they started the exercise, there was a lot of giggling. However, it quickly settled into a pattern where the females in the group started to find ways to help the males to achieve their goals, to the point where Glasson doesn’t do this exercise in class anymore because it interferes with their learning process.
“They (the women) were so hard wired to be caring and looking after people that it overrode their speed and instinct to listen. That’s the power of socialization,” Glasson said.
In her opinion, if a child is socialized as a girl from the age of five, that person will turn out to be an adult woman in that society most of the time, because they’re going to absorb the personalization that was taught to them.
“I, as an adult woman, don’t have any particular overreaction to the word “fat.” Anyway, I’m fat. I’m OK with that. That’s what I am. It’s not a pejorative. It’s just a word, you know?,” Glasson said. “But then, I haven’t been trained my entire life that, in fact, that is the worst thing you can possibly be. Right? I got that message starting when I was 26 (when she transitioned). But that’s very different from starting to get that message when you are two.”
For Dea, the philosopher, it would be impossible to tell what people are actually like without that socialization.
“I would say that most of the stereotypes that I encounter about gender look a little shaky to me,” she said. “I mean, I’m a confident feminist woman and surrounded by queer and feminist gender-non-conforming folks, and I don’t see the women around me being delicate and emotional and lacking in assertiveness or anything like that.
“I don’t see the men around me as being less emotionally nuanced or any of those things that are associated with men.
“And that has a lot to do with a particular subculture that I belong to and how we’ve all been socialized and socialized each other.
“But I think that if you spend a lifetime raising girls with Barbies, and putting bows in babies’ hair because you’re so afraid of your little girl being mistaken for a boy, then girls are going to act early (like girls) because that’s exactly what you’re training them to do.
“There might be some biological differences. It would be unsurprising. But I think that a lot of the differences we see are socialized.”
So how many genders are there? What about sexes?
“Right now, how many genders are there? More than two, I would say. I think people identify with more than two genders. Are there five? Are there seven? I don’t know. I think that it’s not super helpful to try to figure out exactly the number,” Dea said.
According to her, it is not worth it to nail this down because this is a topic that is still “evolving based on some changes that are happening in society right now, but also changes and how people are thinking about themselves.”
As for how many sexes there are, the philosopher thinks they are a little less “fluid” than genders.
“I don’t tend to talk so much about two sexes because I think people so readily confuse sex with gender, then that can lead to unhelpful oversimplification,” she said. “But I am perfectly happy to admit that if you look at patterns within large populations, the vast majority of the human population is divided into people whose biological features cluster around categories that we historically described as male or as female.”
Dea believed the question about how many sexes there are depends on how and why someone is asking that question.
“I think that in the medical context, for instance, it can be useful to know about somebody assigned sex at birth … Whatever their sex was at birth is going to tell us specific things about their risks of certain kinds of cancers, heart disease symptoms and so forth.
“(However,) most of the time that we want to know what somebody’s sex is, if we’re not doctors, it is probably none of our business. So, it’s not worth nailing down how many there are, or what the actual sexes are.”
And as for the future of genders…
“I think we are going to see massive changes in the future,” Dea said. “I think the new generations are way more creative, open, and brave around gender than previous generations. As they start to raise the next generation, they’re going to be even more creative, brave, fluid and so forth.”
For Glasson, she doesn’t really care how she will be remembered.
“What I want, as my legacy, is that trans kids will be believed the first time, and that they will be supported by their families, by their schools, by their churches, by everybody, and that they get to grow up without all the baggage that I had.
“If you want to get a sleeve tattoo, and you’re 18 years old, nobody will blink an eye about it. You want to get your ears stretched out and make giant holes on them? Nobody will stop you … You want to be a trans person? OK, that will take two doctors and a psychiatrist. They all have to sign off.
“Why? There’s no danger to society from people changing their bodies, or from being asked to be called “she” instead of “he,” or whatever people want you to call them. It costs nothing. So why not allow us bodily autonomy?”