Fifty Shades of Gender podcast graphic with Charlie Caine

Episode 11

A conversation with Charlie Caine


34 min. Recorded on 10 September 2020.

Charlie’s pronouns are he/him, and he identifies as a gay trans man. Find out what that means to Charlie in this episode.

We also talk about gender identity & expression vs sexual orientation, gender roles, transitioning, dysphoria, gender identity clinic (GIC) waiting lists, trans visibility and activism, and how there is no such thing as a universal trans experience.

”Whenever I heard those conversations about surgery it would make me – personally – feel incomplete.” 

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TRANSCRIPT [expand to read]

Esther: Hello and welcome! What’s your name?

Charlie: Hi, I am Charlie and my pronouns are he/him.

Esther: And how do you identity Charlie?

Charlie: I identify as a man, I am a trans-man and a gay trans-man—so I made that identifier steadily longer each time.

Esther: Right. Tell us a bit about your journey, first of all, would you consider yourself having had a binary transition?

Charlie: Yes it is something I relate to. I mean my thoughts around gender as a construct is that it isn’t binary, in terms of how related that to myself, I always identified very much as a man, or as a boy from when I was a child, and once I transitioned that felt like I was complete, I suppose. Obviously, again like I said, I kind of think the gender binary is a bit of lie, in terms of we talk about gender in very different ways, there is your internal identity and there is expression and, in terms of gender expression, mine definitely doesn’t fit into a typical just binary-masculine, there are things that I think that are very feminine about me that I absolutely embrace, but in terms of that internal identity I quite easily fit inside that binary.

Esther: Okay, you said you have felt like a boy, since you were a very young kid, how did that effect your life growing up, did you get support in that or were you just, for a while, was it internal or were you just plain confused?

Charlie: Well, when I was very young, it is kind of a weird thing to explain, because of course, as a very young child, I am thinking about from my earliest— if you say to me ‘when did you have these feelings?’, it is kind of my earliest conscious memory really— it is like you know, but you don’t have the language for it. Now in that early stage of childhood, I was very fortunate in a lot of ways in that I grew up in a family that thought like me, these ideas of gender, and what a boy should be, and what a girl should be, were pretty rubbish.

When it came to my tastes, and my likes, how I wanted to dress, and how I wanted to present myself, and the hobbies I wanted to take up, it didn’t matter; there was no such thing as things that boys were allowed to do and things that girls were allowed to do. But I don’t think, obviously, my family, the people around me, understood that actually that was an internal conflict of identity. It was just, as far as they would say, they would have said that I was a tomboy and that was absolutely fine.

But I suppose it wasn’t until later, and of course at that young age again like I said you don’t really have the language to express it, although I think I did in some ways and I certainly know that, I remember when I was a kid I would get very, very, angry if I was out somewhere and I did present as a boy and so people who didn’t know me assumed that they were seeing a boy and if my parents or friends ‘corrected’ them (using those inverted commas) I would get annoyed at this and I wouldn’t understand why and I would want them not to correct this.

I think had I grown up today, with everything being so much more visible, I think probably the people in my life would have thought ‘oh maybe Charlie could be trans?’. But it wasn’t really something that was thought about then, certainly not in terms of young kids. It was sensationalised. I remember seeing things, there was a documentary called ‘the sex change’ on TV when I was a kid and that was something that, in terms of how the world saw it, well it was this middle-aged man that decided they wanted to be a woman, you know? That was kind of the thought process about what trans was then. But yes like I say, that childhood memory in some ways was quite happy in terms of gender, because I was allowed to present the way that I wanted and I wasn’t forced to do things that I didn’t want.

It is really, for me, I suppose, that teenage years— and the onset of puberty— was the real, internal, struggle and I have had this conversation with other trans-people, and it is certainly not a universal concept, but something that I found other transgender have said to me, and that I have found myself, my teenage years I find very difficult to talk about, not just because of trauma, because you are going back and revisiting trauma, I can kind of do that now I think form a little bit of a distance, but actually because there is very little memory of it there. I think that trauma, that has been my way, my psyche’s way, of dealing with that trauma of what I was going through as a teenager, has been to dissociate from it. So it is almost like it didn’t happen to me, it happened to someone else and I can’t remember that much of it. I have certainly had conversations with other trans-people who have said that they experience similar.

Esther: Interesting and when you say, you don’t remember much of it, and when you talk about trauma, do you mean/is that related to the changes in yourself or the way the outside world responded to you? Or maybe a combination of both?

Charlie: It is a combination of both, I think, but for me it was very much the physical. The way I always explain my gender and gender expression is I say, when I grew up, I wanted short hair, because boys had short hair and I wanted to present as a boy; and I wanted to wear trousers, because boys wore trousers and I wanted to present as a boy. If I had grown up in a society where boys were expected to have long hair and wear skirts that would have been what I wanted to do, it is that gender performativity. That was what I wanted to present to the world and yes it did hurt socially that the boys were changing in ways that I felt I should, and therefore those changes weren’t presenting to the world, but for me it was very much an internal physical thing, that was really the difficult pain, you know my body was changing in this way that it wasn’t supposed to change. And to this day I still don’t understand why that causes so much trauma, but it did, and that was the major cause.

Esther: And was there also an element of, you mentioned you are a gay man, and were you maybe confused about that at first, because you felt attracted to men, but there was also your identity. Did you find them conflicting, or interlinked at one point, or did you think ‘what is the difference?’, or is there even a difference there?

Charlie: The short answer is probably no actually. I grew up around the theatre and I suppose it is a bit of cliché, but therefore I grew up around quite a lot of gay men and so that to me was something that was fairly normal. It was interesting that at the age of, I suppose, about 11 or 12 I could very much see that I identified very much with these men. I kind of, I was someone that I think always really knew that their identity was that of a man, I didn’t really have that much internal conflict over it, there were sometimes but really, actually, I kind of knew and accepted that.

One of the things that I find interesting, is from taking to some other friends of mine, who are trans, and who aren’t gay or heterosexual, they have said that funnily enough their sexuality and again obviously the trans experience isn’t universal but for some of them they have found that their sexuality was the thing that caused more of that internal feeling of, not necessarily conflict, but I have heard various straight trans-men say, ‘I grew up, I came out as a lesbian, and I just assumed that this was what it felt like to be gay’, you know? So they were taught that, essentially, because of their sexuality, they were ‘the other’ and that was what the other taught them. Now although I know my internal sexuality as a gay man, to the world that would be ‘the norm’. So were I really a heterosexual woman I wouldn’t be having these conflicts around sexuality and gender so actually, in some ways, I think having that sexuality was more helpful to accepting my gender identity than it was a hindrance. It was certainly something I really embraced.

Esther: Oh that’s interesting. So at what age did you start your actual transition, where you were like: okay, this needs to happen now?

Charlie: I was 18 and it was pretty much as soon as I could, really. I had already, I wasn’t aware, I don’t think child services were that great when I was a kid, I mean they are not that great now but they are certainly better.

I had already, from the age of about 15, been in contact with and then going to Mermaids meetings and as a slightly older teenager I was able to do that myself. I did actually come out to my parents when I was in my teen years, I remember as I said earlier, that my teen years are a bit of a blank so even things like putting an age on something, can be very difficult for me but I think I was probably around 14 or 15. I think it was the same age that I was starting to find out about things like Mermaids. I think for me, this was in the mid-late-90s, so it was when the home internet was just really coming into being a big thing and that was a huge way I was able to explore and be, ‘Ah yeah, this is who I am and this is what I can do and these are the people I can get in contact with’.

Now my parents were very, very, supportive in the long run. To begin with my dad who I loved and adored and was, in the end, very supportive—and I say ‘in the end’ but it didn’t even take huge amounts of time, but when I came out at 14 he wasn’t really that supportive. And it is interesting because I think it plays back to what I was saying about my childhood being one where they didn’t believe in gender roles, they were like ‘yeah girls can do this, boys can do that, it doesn’t matter’. So therefore, when it came to me actually coming out as trans and saying, ‘well actually I am a boy’, my dad’s reaction was, ‘well you don’t need to stick yourself in this box, you can be whatever, you don’t have to be a boy to be this, this and this.’ So, funnily enough, that progressiveness was actually the thing that held him back. That kind of put me, not back in the closet, I suppose, for a few years, I came out to my best friend while I was still at school but that was about it, and then when I was 18 I tried to go away to college and that was when I knew ‘I just have to change, I just have to get this done now’. At that point my parents were really supportive and I think particularly once I started hormones, and they could see this change in me, as I was coming into being myself, my dad then apologised to me because he could see that I was happy and that was what mattered.

Esther: Wow, that’s really great that they came around and very interesting about what you are saying about ‘why do you have to do this, you can be who you want anyway, why do you have to change anything?’, right? So yeah.

Charlie: And, of course, I didn’t know the answer to that question {laughing}. I think nowadays, if someone said that to me, I could come up with all these answers about why I felt the way I did although I still…it is like saying ‘why are you gay?’ ‘I am because I am and that’s it and that should be enough’. That’s specially the answer but, of course, when I was 14, I didn’t have the confidence to be able to go ‘I know all that, and I accept all that, but that still doesn’t change it’.

Esther: Yeah wow, amazing. So how long did your transition take? Do you feel like you are very much done with that, do you feel like you have arrived there, when it comes to your gender and identity?

Charlie: Yeah I don’t like to talk about surgery too much because…

Esther: That’s fine.

Charlie: It is not just about my journey, it is about other people’s journeys I think, and I think the focus on surgery can make other people feel inadequate. For me I was, in the sense that you get people who don’t feel they need, or don’t want, for example, lower surgery and get sent these messages that therefore they are not really a man if you haven’t done that, and that is not true of course. Also, for a lot of trans people who haven’t completed their surgical route, that’s because the NHS, there are such huge waiting lists and some of the surgery options here they are good, they are really good, but they are not perfect and there are complications that can happen. So there are people who desperately want surgery but can’t have it for various reasons and so I always think when you are having these conversations it is kind of like, I want those people to feel secure, like no matter where you are in your journey, you are still valid. Also I understand that that causes a lot of pain and dysphoria because it did for me, you know?

For me, on a personal level, I didn’t feel my journey was complete until lower surgery. Now that is not the same for other people, but whenever I heard those conversations about surgery it would make me personally feel incomplete. I was fortunate in some ways when I transitioned because the waiting lists weren’t quite as long and, also, I started off going privately. So essentially what I did was I got a meeting with a private psychiatrist and within a very short space of time I had started hormones and within a few years, and again I really can’t remember how long it was, but within a few years I had kind of had surgeries.

Whereas now, particularly if your only option is to go the NHS route, then you are looking at a what, two-to-three-year waiting list, just to be seen for your first appointment and that doesn’t include you have to have several follow-up appointments, before they will even start you on hormones. So years and years, sometimes decades before you and whatever ‘complete’ means to you in terms of your surgical transition, that completion happens.

Esther: Wow, see that’s, I guess, I suppose almost a downside of more people feeling free to, or safe to, come out, there is obviously more demand on that and obviously if they are not picking up the pace with that, then it is like a bottleneck isn’t it?

Charlie: Yes, and you are absolutely right, it is the combination fo those two things. Obviously more people, and with more visibility that means that (and I have explained how I really knew my identity very young) if I had been growing up today, I would have seen at least some representation of that, mostly bad representation, particularly from the factual media, which I think has been appalling, but I would at least have seen some representation and I would have been able to go ‘that’s me’, and I would have been able to come out very young, even younger than I did. So yes, you have absolutely got people coming to that realisation much younger, more people coming to that realisation, but at the same time, number one our NHS is underfunded anyway, no matter what.

So trans-healthcare is really like a microcosm of our entire healthcare system, there are long waiting lists for us, there are long waiting lists for everyone, but it is kind of put under that even further because a lot of society doesn’t really care, you know? We don’t actually really want to know about the trauma that is causes to make people wait for surgery. And it is a real…once you have made that revelation to yourself there is this kind of, well certainly for me, this real need, ‘I know who I am and I need the world to see who I am and I need to be able to make these changes’. And for people to be waiting years and years and years and years is just cruelty, but I don’t think society yet sees or wants to see that.

Esther: That’s something that I have spoken with other guests about body dysmorphia and gender dysphoria, and I have heard that not everyone experiences dysphoria as such, but I guess a large amount of people do and I think once you have decided—well not even decided—once you have discovered and embraced who you are, you just want to get on with it, right? You just want to get on with living your life the way… yeah that makes sense, hopefully there will improvement on that at some point.

Charlie: Yeah ‘at some point’. But there will be, I think we are going through this…I think this happens with civil rights movements. I think I grew up in a period when not very much by society at large was known, but of course within the medical community a lot was known about trans-people, but, in the wider society, really it wasn’t something people thought about or talked about that much and in some ways that lack of visibility was quite safe, you know?

Now what I think I think tends to happen, is you get this kind of lack of visibility and lack of understanding of the issues for a group of people and then that kind of changes and it starts to come into public consciousness but, as that happens, there is a backlash. 2015 was known as the trans tipping point wasn’t it? Because there was a lot more visibility of trans people in our media, particularly in our fictional media, the person that I think really emulates that for me is Laverne Cox, you know this person who was a famous, trans-woman actress and also, you know, revered for her beauty but also her beauty as a trans person, and not her beauty despite the fact that she was trans. And, 2015, was I think also the year that the backlash really, really, started and it has been building since then with a rise in our media, as they would like to with every minority at some point or another, just focussing on the dangers, or the bathroom panic, and all exactly the same lies that were told about gay people in the 80s and 90s.

Funnily enough, that era, not that era we are in that era now(!), but 2015, that was the year that I decided to do my second proper coming out, I suppose. After transitioning, I was very much of the opinion that ‘I will just transition and then I will live my life pretty much stealth’, obviously people who were in my life beforehand knew and there were a good few people that thought it was a nice juicy piece of gossip and that liked to tell other people, but as a general rule I kind of lived stealth. But in 2015, I could see what was happening politically, I could see that that was going to be this political fight and I decided that I wanted to be on the forefront of it.

Anyway I digressed a little bit from my main point which was I think this always happens and I think eventually, you know, we are going to win and there might be some step backs on the way to winning, which I am slightly worried about, with things like the reform of the Gender Recognition Act, so society might take a step back or two. But 10-15 years time it is going to go the way that these social pressures always go, which is that we will look back at this era and we will look back in shame and I think that will be the time that really trans medical care, and particularly care for children and things like that, really starts to improve properly once there is this general understanding that actually treating us like dirt wasn’t okay.

Esther: So for you looking back, you said that you like to present as a boy, even when you were young, so you might not have a feeling of a major contrast here, but when you look back to a time before you transitioned, and after, besides the feeling that you have within yourself and with your own identity, do you notice a big difference in how the world around you responds to you? Or has responded to you in the past, before and after?

Charlie: Yes and no. Funnily enough in terms of gender not really and the reason for that I think is because, like you said, I knew my identity as a boy and I tried to present that to the world as much as possible when I was very young and I transitioned quite young so when I haven’t really had any adult experiences of gender other than that of a man. So I can’t really have much of that conversion and other people can, and I know there are some really fascinating stories that people have about how the world has perceived them, pre-and-post-transition, but it is not one that really echoes my own because of those combination of things.

But, the thing that I could say, two things, one, it is based around gender because once I had transitioned suddenly I was more confident, I was myself. And, also, weirdly with that, I was free to be feminine. And again this is something I would say that is, again not a universal point of trans-ness, but certainly a conversation I have had with other trans men who have said similar, which is pre-transition your whole , and certainly around gender, is presenting male to the world, and when you no longer have to do that anymore actually that is very liberating and suddenly those things that ‘I don’t want people to read ‘female’ here’, become things that don’t matter. And so actually that was really, really, liberating to be able to do that and to be able to embrace that side of myself.

I haven’t done it yet, but I would really, really, love to do a bit of drag and this is something that of course I would never have considered in the past, but it is why, to me, all those arguments about gender identity and gender expression basically being the same thing, that you do get from a certain type of transphobic people, you know ‘you are just trans because you think wearing trousers, being masculine, means man’. No I don’t think that, that is the performance, but for me I would say that is the one main thing, embracing femininity and becoming more confident and of course that confidence means that your interaction with the world is very different to how it was before.

Esther: That’s a great point actually. I know you are making a point of very much talking about your experience, rather than trying to be general about it, as obviously everyone’s experience is different, and that is why I always like to say (although I am not sure that I have said it in the last few episodes actually!) when I ask people how they identify, I ask them what it means to them, because it is very much an individual experience isn’t it?

Charlie: 100% and one of things I think about when people talk about what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman, and everything in between, let’s just take binary for simplicity here, although I don’t agree with it, for those of us that identity as either a man or a woman, I can only say, I can’t say what it mean to be a man, I can say what it means for me to be a man and my personal experience of that and that is the same for every man on the planet. Yes I can never know what it is like to be a cis-man but my cis-men friends don’t know what it is like to be each other, so it is very individual and I think that is one of the interesting things about being trans.

I find that, the thing for me, when you are trans, and particularly when you think about it a lot when you are young, you are thinking about those concepts of gender from your earliest memory, certainly that is the case for me. And so it is really interesting to see where those experiences unite with other people and all the similarities but also the complete differences and that is why it is so important there is no universal trans experience and there is no invalid trans experience: you don’t have gender dysphoria you are still valid. You didn’t feel like you were always in the wrong body, you are still valid. You don’t want lower surgery, you are still valid. You know? You know, all these different things.

Esther: Absolutely, I love that. I think that is a beautiful way to wrap it up. Do you have anything to add before we do?

Charlie: You know I don’t know who listens to these in terms of your audience. But I would imagine that you would get a few trans people…

Esther: Neither do I yet! {laughing}

Charlie: {laughing} But you know, I suppose if anyone is listening and wondering about their gender, I think it is just too important to reiterate that, you are the best arbiter of your own experience of gender and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fall into some box. And for me, although there have been a lot of hardships, because there maybe people listening to this who are still really going through those hardships and I certainly wish I had never gone through those, like the mental health issues that really can go along with being trans, simply because of the way society is, but simply that it has led me to have this really unique perspective on gender and on the world and something that I don’t think many people can have.

I certainly, I really am glad, and I feel fortunate, to have that and to be able to hold onto that and I think it is always good when you are feeling down about your identity and how the world sees you, to kind of be able to go: okay, well I have this kind of specialness about me, where other people see the world in black and white, where other people see gender in black and white, I can see it in multicolour and technicolour and I just wanted to put that out there if there is anyone out there listening and feeling insecure about themselves.

Esther: Lovely. Gender in technicolor, I love it! Thank you so much for talking to me and taking the time, that was great.

Charlie: No worries, thank you very much for having me.

About Charlie

Charlie is a theatre composer and lyricist from Norfolk. As well as his work in the theatre he is an LGBT+ and political activist. He was a founding member of Labour Campaign For Trans Rights.

You can find Charlie on Twitter @CharlieXCaine.

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