Maverick Life

Transgender in Focus: Adrift – Tamarin’s story

By Marelise Van Der Merwe 18 June 2015

Caitlin Jenner’s recent Vanity Fair shoot made headlines the world over. But does her transformation represent the reality of ordinary transgender people? MARELISE VAN DER MERWE has been interviewing transgender South Africans about their lives. Meet Tamarin.

Tamarin* comes across as strong, articulate, self-assured. She is analytical; coming from a psychology background, she knows something about human behaviour, and also moves in reasonably permissive circles. Her family is supportive and accepting, she says. When she told them she wanted complete surgical transition, all they asked her was whether she was sure.

She was sure.

Tamarin is disarmingly intelligent. She cuts through the most ambiguous issues with a disconcerting level of clarity. She has stood up for transgender rights and has, from the beginning, described herself as proudly trans. She has never hidden away. Which is partly what makes her story so unsettling.

“I feel that I am hidden in plain sight,” she says.

Tamarin’s story is one that throws into relief some of the complexities of the dialogue around transgender lives. Talking to her, some of the more hidden and more terrifying pitfalls that face transgender people – especially transgender youth – come creeping to the surface. Tamarin, in some ways, was a casualty of not enough conversation, therapy that was not thorough enough, and medical care that was not nuanced enough.

And the unanticipated human capacity for change.

Tamarin began her transition when she was a second year student, in 2010, when she was fed up with being misunderstood as just being “metro”. “I was telling everyone around me that I was a girl,” she says. “I was getting frustrated with everyone who called me metrosexual. I started hormones about six months into that. I was on anti-testosterone meds.

“At that time, my mom sent me to a psychologist. I did that throughout my undergrad. It felt good, but hmm… Knowing myself now, I wouldn’t be as feminine as I am if I knew there was that option. The sexologist I went to was quite binary. I’m learning more and more that I’m non-binary.”

Tamarin had been frustrated, feeling that she was not purely male. For her, a hugely difficult part of adjusting post-surgery is the realisation that, to her surprise, she is not a stereotypical female either. In our conversation, which inevitably involves Caitlyn Jenner, Tamarin expresses frustration with the pressure that transgender people are – ironically – under to conform to cisgender and/or heteronormative standards of attractiveness. Equally ironically, Tamarin conforms to these standards exceptionally well. She’s postcard-pretty.

“When I presented as male there was a feeling I didn’t feel. As I started transitioning there was an awareness about myself that I didn’t like and I didn’t know what it was. The more you are proud of being feminine, the more you conform, the more you get applauded and the more you feel bad about it,” she says.

“I haven’t really followed the story [of Caitlyn Jenner] because I knew the direction it was going to go, and I knew that was going to be the response.”

In the early stages of our conversation, this frustration with the pressure to conform is expressed mostly on a cerebral level. It’s a theoretical discussion. At this stage, I have no idea the depth of suffering that Tamarin has gone through.

“The most difficult part of my transition was being able to communicate with people who weren’t able to [understand it],” she says. “I presented this binary female. I had two guys come up to me and ask how I had the guts to do that. I talked to them for hours.

“I felt quite isolated at that time. I did feel like the only trans person.”

And then the bombshells begin to drop. I ask Tamarin about the process of transitioning.

It’s difficult to express the sense of isolation that comes through as Tamarin tells her story. Abused at the age of fifteen, she descended into a deep spiral of hatred of, and dissociation from, her body. At the time – and probably still now – she did not know to what extent the abuse played a role in her understanding of her sexuality. What she does know is that it caused a deep split between her psyche and her body, and that her emotional distress was so deep that she was willing to go to almost any measure to escape the body she was living in; the body that had been abused. It was a process that took years. In many ways, she ultimately felt she was living two lives. (It’s a feeling, incidentally, that has not gone away, only it’s different now – there’s the pre-surgery life and the post-surgery life, and the difficulty of stitching them together in an understandable narrative for others. But that’s another story.)

At the time, she was in therapy, but her therapy was woefully inadequate. For starters, her therapist crossed more than one boundary, sometimes making inappropriate comments or moving into flirtatious territory which – at her age – Tamarin was ill-equipped to navigate. At the same time, her therapist’s partner was in a serious accident and she was suddenly handed over to a new therapist at the eleventh hour, which jeopardised her therapeutic evaluations prior to transition. In short, she was left adrift.

A further complication lay in that the sexologist who treated her had very different views on gender identity to the views that Tamarin now holds. Her sexologist led her in the direction of a strongly stereotypical femininity, whereas Tamarin prefers to identify in a far less traditional way. “Being trans is trans,” she says. For her, rather than providing her with the identity that she has always wanted, surgery has simply highlighted that she would prefer to live without labels, in a non-binary way.

More struggle was to follow. Tamarin’s deep discomfort with her body at that time was exacerbated by the nightmare that she faced after surgery, when severe complications left her with – instead of a new self – a still broken sense of self living in a broken body. For Tamarin, confronting the abuse that she suffered has been a long, painful path which she has had to brave in the years following her surgery, and the journey back into her body has been both convoluted and excruciating.

“The drastic measures that you will go to just to get people to… to communicate who you are,” she says. “I [previously] tried to communicate with other trans people. When that didn’t work, I thought I would just do it on my own. And the message in the media…” She trails off. “My parents are very accepting, but the message in the media doesn’t give them any understanding of what it really means. My dad has joined [Facebook support group] CtrlAltGender, which has been amazing. If I can’t express it, he can maybe see someone else say it. At the same time, I personally sometimes don’t want to be trans. It’s almost as if I use my [psychology] degree to try to find a way out; to try to learn the human psyche so that I can almost go back in time. After my surgery, I think I understand that some people do it [for the right reasons]. That it is valid in some people. But for me, the isolation drove me to make the wrong decision for myself.”

Perhaps, one might argue, surgery forced Tamarin to confront the pain that she was attempting to escape. But it was an excruciating and fraught route.

Tamarin’s complications were so severe – and in some ways so humiliating – that despite being interviewed anonymously, she requested that Daily Maverick not print the details. But the surgical complications left her struggling to function normally for over a year and she only adjusted to her physical limitations last year.

In telling her story, she is deeply cautious. “If I can help in any way, if I can warn other young transgender people about the risks that there are, then it is worth telling my story,” she says.

At the same time, however, she is careful to underline that her experience is not the experience of all transgender people. “For some people surgery is the right decision and it works,” she points out.

The difficulty in telling a story like Tamarin’s is that it is so easy for the transphobic to latch onto it as a cautionary tale for those who veer towards non-traditional gender roles: You see what can happen! It’s also difficult for Tamarin herself to articulate the struggles she has faced without risking an accusation of internalised transphobia. But, in as much as counter-activists like Walt Heyer – whose decision to transition back to a man after living as a woman for some years was the springboard for his movement – have become a rallying point for transphobic scaremongers, it’s important to note that educating the public about transgender issues can, to some extent, prevent struggles like Tamarin’s. Had there been a wider variety of sexologists available who catered to a broader range of gender identities, had there been a more nuanced and uninterrupted therapeutic intervention, and had Tamarin herself felt able to speak out about her gender identity earlier, perhaps her story could have developed very differently.

“Up until recently I haven’t really faced what it means to be trans,” she says. “And now I’m beginning to face it…I don’t think I could ever process if I didn’t accept it. In terms of Jenner and Cox, I don’t think those images do anything for trans people, because it takes so much work to get there. I do think that particularly the alternative media and Laverne Cox herself have beautifully articulated what it’s like to be trans in the spotlight and it has great value for opening up the discussion. But that certain kind of beauty ideal is unattainable for so many due to cost and practicalities, and beauty is something we all love, but it’s just as misogynistic in a trans context, if that’s what the media portrays. Are those images in Vanity Fair authentic? Whose idea was that? Was it Caitlyn’s idea to do that shoot, or was it an artist? That’s the image portrayed in the media, because that’s what people want to see, but it has no basis in reality. Is that how we want to live? No, we fucking don’t.”

It’s important to note that – as the Facebook group CtrlAltGender’s slogan puts it – “there’s no right way to be trans”. Tamarin identifies as trans, regardless of the struggles she has faced, and probably would even if she were presenting as male. For some, the process is going to result in an ‘Aha!’ moment that just feels right; for others, its’ going to be part of an ongoing process of healing; and for others, it may be a dark, confusing and sometimes bewildering path to walk, with no easy answers.

For Tamarin, it’s been the latter. She remains committed to standing up for transgender rights. She’s not sure, at this stage, whether she wants to continue presenting as female or whether, given the option, she would follow Heyer’s path and reverse what she could. For her, having taken the long path of confronting the pain of abuse and the self-hatred that followed, the physical transition is perhaps no longer as prominent. She sees herself as trans, yes. But ‘trans’ does, after all, refer to crossing to the other side. Trans: transient, transcend, transform. The other side is there, and she will reach for it. DM

* Tamarin is proudly trans, but wished to remain anonymous owing to the personal nature of some of the details she revealed in her story. To protect her privacy and on request, Daily Maverick omitted her age, location and all other identifiable details. Her identity is known to Daily Maverick.


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