When the frenetic creative force that is Engen Books founder Matthew LeDrew first proposed
that I blog my way through my forthcoming gender confirmation surgery, I did a major double
But by the time I got home from my weekly jaunt to the St. John’s Farmers Market (where
Engen has a weekly stall promoting their fine ware, FYI!), I was already sketching out entries in
While working on my forthcoming queer history of Newfoundland in the twentieth century
(Engen Books 2022), it’s been impossible not to contrast the past with my own experience of
the present. My book only focuses on the twentieth century, so blogging here gives me an
opportunity to share some of these reflections I’ve had in the course of researching and writing.
I’ve been on the wait-list for surgery since, well, long before I started work on the book. These
two experiences – writing and preparing for surgery – are two of the things that have most
dominated my thoughts throughout the pandemic. I’ll never forget how I nearly passed out
from excitement – crossing the street on Lemarchant Road – when I finally got the call from the
clinic in Montreal to schedule a surgery date.
As the date for my surgery grows inexorably closer, I’ve been interviewing Newfoundland-
based trans activists from the 1990s for my book. It’s been interesting to compare and contrast
our experiences. So much has changed in the intervening two to three decades. And yet at the
same time, much hasn’t.
I became viscerally aware of this mish-mash of past and present when I undertook the process
of legally changing my name. Although I grew up and spent almost my entire life in
Newfoundland, I was actually born in Ontario. And because every province has different rules
for how trans folk change their names and gender markers, this puts me in an awkward
category. I’m a resident of NL, but have a birth certificate from Ontario. So I need to apply to
both provinces to make the requisite changes.
Have you ever tried to get two provincial bureaucracies to work together? Dealing with one is
Changing my name in Newfoundland – the first step in the process – was actually fairly smooth. I submitted a form, paid a fee, and voila – a couple weeks later I received a fancy piece of paper, akin to a high school graduation diploma, informing me in large stylized font that my name had been changed (yes, I intend to frame it and hang it next to my degrees).
Changing my gender marker and sending me a revised birth certificate was Ontario’s job, once Newfoundland informed Ontario that they’d done their part. But this didn’t go as smoothly. After two months of waiting, and being told to sit patiently, I was informed that my application was unacceptable. Ontario, unlike Newfoundland, requires a letter from my doctor ‘proving’ that I am trans, before they will change my vital stats (the reason my letter was unacceptable was because it wasn’t obviously signed in ink by my doctor, who had emailed it to me because of Covid. Really, Ontario??). Requiring a doctor’s letter at all is a holdover from the past, when being trans was still treated very much like a psychological disorder (the World Health Organization only changed its classification in 2019, although many other jurisdictions and associations had already taken this step). In order to access surgery, and even hormones, trans people had to ‘prove’ they were trans, submitting to frequent and intrusive exams from boards of psychiatrists. These psychiatrists usually required trans women to visually perform a
caricatured stereotype of femininity, one that matched their (mostly sexist, male) gaze and
interpretation of womanhood. Deviate too far from this cliched lipstick-and-high-heels version
of femininity and your access to hormones and surgery would be jeopardized. It’s little wonder
so many trans women chose – or were forced – to turn to the black market for hormones
during those years.
It was all ridiculous, of course. Thankfully those backward notions have mostly been jettisoned
in Canada. But a holdover in Ontario is the requirement that a doctor send a note along with
your application for a gender marker change.
Newfoundland and Labrador requires no such thing, which is a more enlightened approach to
the matter. This is what’s sometimes referred to as the ‘informed consent’ model. On the other
hand, this province treats it as a bit of a cash grab – I had to pay a hefty fee to make my
changes. Ontario, by contrast, charged me nothing (they still have fees listed on the books, but
have indefinitely waived them for trans and non-binary applicants). Ah, the quirks of our imperfect federation.
Of course, this province wasn’t always so enlightened. Some of those I’ve interviewed from the
days when you still had to ‘prove’ your trans-ness attest to the grueling, bigoted attitudes of
‘90s-era doctors and psychiatrists who frequently denied them access to what are literally life-
saving treatments. The brave doctors who stood by their patients’ rights were a sometimes-
persecuted minority in those days. I personally knew trans people who left the province during
the ‘90s in pursuit of better treatment elsewhere (these days, by contrast, I’ve heard of folks
who were drawn here by NL’s informed consent model).
The past always impinges on the present. Progress pushes us forward in some areas, while the
past lingers tenaciously in others.
The daunting ordeal of battling the medical and psychiatric establishment in the 1990s was one of the things that deterred me from transitioning when I was a teenager growing up in
Newfoundland. Reading accounts of the ordeals trans folk went through in those days, battling
a system that was fearful, bigoted and ignorant, was not an attractive prospect.
But as I navigate my way through a much smoother system in 2021, I’m profoundly grateful to
those who went before me. Their ordeals and their struggles – while full of pain and frustration
– are the reason myself and others are able to engage with a system which, while far from
perfect, is still infinitely better than it was 20 years ago.
Hearing about these ‘transcestors’’ struggles and the losses of the past can be difficult. But
honouring their collective achievement in building a better world is a joyous task. I am
astounded at the presence of these trans heroes and heroines, many of whom now live quiet
and private lives in rural communities, their heroic activism unbeknownst to their neighbours.
The gains they made have paved the way for today’s generation of trans NL’ers. I am humbled
and awed by their stories, and cannot wait to share them in print. In the meantime, I thank
them for making my own journey so much smoother.
Rhea plans to blog her continuing journey here on the Engen Books site, so stay tuned for updates. Keep an eye open for Rhea's Queer History of St. John's in 2022, and preorder Acceptance, featuring a story by Rhea, here from Engen Books.