Ray wanders out from the seaside cafe where we’ve arranged to meet, milkshake in one hand, reaching out to receive my handshake with the other. He’s tall with crew-cut hair and a cool lip piercing, and is casually dressed with a not too baggy T-shirt so as not to accentuate his chest area. He celebrated his seventeenth birthday yesterday and I ask if he’s hungover (I would have been at seventeen, I tell him) but he promises me he’s not – he’s had a low-key one with his boyfriend Luke, who’s also here.
He’s handsome, bright, eloquent and frank; unconcerned about what the people on the next table might think if they overhear us talking about his journey from girl to boy.
Ray knew he wanted to be boy since he was about the age of 10, when he was Bekah. His teens have been plagued with the spite of school bullies and their “tranny-boy” and “woman with a penis” slurs – as if adolescence isn’t hard enough without the added uncertainty and confusion of not knowing whether you should be a boy or a girl.
Mercifully, Ray says that since leaving school and mixing with older people in different social circles, including Exeter’s punk community, he’s encountered less prejudice. However from time to time he does encounter disgraceful acts of discrimination and misunderstanding, and hearing Ray’s recollection of when he was recently discriminated against in his home town this summer, made me cringe at the level of intolerance and ignorance transgender people have to put up with. “I walked into a barbers shop one morning and it was completely empty,” he tells me. “One guy was on his phone, the other looking completely bored; but when I asked for a haircut, offering to wait, they said they were really booked up. But when I walked past half an hour later they were still virtually empty.
“So I tried another one,” he continues. “I walked in and asked for a haircut, and they said, ‘we don’t serve females, you’ll have to go down the road to the female salon’. I said, I’m a trans-man, so I’m as much of a man as anyone. And he just said, ‘sorry, we don’t serve females’. I had really tried that day to be as masculine as possible, so this was such a massive slap in the face.”
The fact he has had so much grief, just for being the person he believes he was meant to be, pains me greatly as he shares his story, which is far from unique: Ray receives treatment from the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, one of the world’s leading mental health trusts, based in London, and the only NHS Trust in England and Wales currently treating under-18s with gender identity issues through the NHS Gender Identity Development Service.
The trust, which is due to feature in a three-part documentary series about its work on Chanel Four this autumn, has reported a 1,000 per cent increase in referrals UK-wide in the last five years: in the 2010/11 financial year, the trust received 139 referrals which steadily grew to 697 in 2014/15 before more than doubling to 1,419 in 2015/16. Referrals in the South West reflect this national trend; there were 10 referrals in 2010/11 and 155 in 2015/16. The trust says there is no clear cut reason why referrals have increased so rapidly, however it could in part be down to an increase in awareness and recognition of transgender and gender variance in society.
By the age of 13, Ray had decided upon his new name and asked his peers and teachers to stop calling him ‘her’, and he ‘she’, and start using the pronouns that sat more comfortably with him.
“It kinda all started properly towards the end of primary school,” Ray, who officially changed his name in April, recalls from the sunny beachside veranda in his home town of Exmouth. “Although up until that point, occasionally I would think to myself, what would life be like if I was a guy? Which turned into, what if I’m meant to be a guy?
“I’d never enjoyed playing with girls toys,” he continues. “I never had Barbies or My Little Ponies or anything. I’d much rather sit and read. And I never connected with my female friends on a feminine level, so it was difficult to socialise as a kid.”
The first people Ray told about not wanting to be a girl, were his friends at secondary school, when he was just 11 years old. Despite their lack of comprehension, Ray says they took it far better than a lot of adults he’s come into contact with since.
“I just said to them, something doesn’t feel right, I don’t like what I’m turning into – I’ve been feeling for a while now that I shouldn’t have been born like this,” he continues.
“I decided on the name I wanted and then one day, I said to the teachers, and everyone else, not to call me Bekah anymore or to use female pronouns. And I told them they could take the piss as much as they wanted, but this is the way things were.”
He still hadn’t mustered the courage to tell his parents yet though. “I wasn’t sure how my parents were going to react,” he admits. It came out in a sort of fit of rage – they were asking me why I was so depressed and shitty with them all the time and I just yelled, I feel like I should have been born a guy, ok?
“My dad grew up in a generation where transgender didn’t exist, and my mum thought that transgender was something that only manifested as a much younger kid. Initially, my parents thought my transgender issues were to do with my sexuality – they didn’t want to use my new name or the male pronouns. I think they have got used to it now.”
Ray said his three younger siblings, two sisters and a brother, “weren’t bothered at all”. “It hasn’t changed anything about me,” Ray adds. “So they didn’t care – apart from having to get used to my new name.”
Being reserved for the only time in an otherwise entirely open conversation, Ray admits he would have liked his parents to have been more supportive. “I suppose they didn’t want me to rush into anything,” he says. “And because my little sister has cerebral palsy and won’t be able to have children, I think maybe my mum was worried she wouldn’t have any grandkids.”
Ray, who, having finished GCSEs, is now studying forensics and biomedical sciences at Exeter College, agreed to share his story in the hope it may help other young people who are struggling with their gender identity – a condition known as gender dysphoria, as well as go towards challenging stigma and promoting awareness. As a bisexual, Ray’s sexuality has played only a small part in his gender journey.
“I just wanted people to understand,” Ray continues when I ask him how the bullying affected him. “I’ve never taken the stance of ‘oh poor me’ – I actually felt bad for them – sorry for them that they were so closed minded and ignorant to go out of their way to make someone’s life, which is already difficult, even more difficult; that they’re such arseholes!”
Except, despite the defiant way he recalls being treated like a subhuman, just for being human, things did get to him. Such was his identity crisis, that depression and self-harming set in soon after starting secondary school and he was referred for therapy. But despite regular pleas for help, it was only after a year that his therapist – keen to see if the resolution of any other issues may eliminate Ray’s gender identity uncertainty – referred him to a gender therapist aged 13. Since then, Ray has had ongoing sessions, involving three-monthly appointments with a trust therapist who would make the trip from London to Devon.
Medically, Ray explains that the only other intervention he was aware of was a drug that blocks the flow of hormones. But specialists were loath to prescribe the “blocker” because Ray had days when he felt the need to be pretty – Ray tells me that this was more a desire to feel good about himself, and since he was technically a female, this involved “working with what he had” to achieve this. So, Ray has had to wait until now, his seventeenth birthday, and the transferral to adult mental health services (because gender dysphoria falls under mental health care), for the next stage of his journey.
Ray says he now faces an indefinite wait for physical intervention as the swap from child to adult care plays out. He says testosterone could be on the cards, and eventually, top, then maybe bottom, surgery.
“I want to get on testosterone as soon as possible,” says Ray, completely aware that this will trigger puberty – again. “And I want top surgery as soon as possible. As for bottom surgery,” he adds. “I don’t mind waiting for this because what is available now is appalling – the end result does not look normal, so I want to wait until there is something available that actually looks like a penis.”
The psychological and emotional side of gender dysphoria has proved unyielding. The physical side of things has not been easy either. He calls his menstrual cycle (contraception measures haven’t eliminated his periods completely) the “bane of my life”, not least because you can’t wear sanitary towels with boxer shorts. And he’s been binding his breasts since he was 14.
“Binders are expensive as they’re a niche product and pretty much all manufactured in America, so the cost of importing them is added on,” Ray explains, warning against ordinary bandages for binding. “I want you to include this in the article – people should never ever use ordinary bandages,” he affirms. “They deform your ribcage, compress the soft tissue and make it incredibly difficult to breathe.”
Ray was given his first binder, a second hand one, from a charity. “It wasn’t great,” he recalls. “The elastic had stretched a bit, and the first time I put it on I had to move myself around so I didn’t get a mono-boob, and I was like, I can’t breathe! So it took a couple of minutes, but once I’d learnt how to adjust myself, I looked at myself in the mirror and felt so much better about myself. When I don’t bind, my boobs get in the way!”
Ray tries to avoid unnecessary grief from ignorant strangers, like the ones in the barber shops, and gives an extremely regrettable reason why he also avoids men’s toilets. “I’m genuinely scared of having the crap beaten out of me,” he says. “You hear about it happening, and I’m not going to put myself in that situation. I try to use disabled bathrooms when I can. And I generally use female changing rooms,” he admits. “I don’t feel comfortable using men’s yet.” Ray puts it another way: “I don’t feel comfortable with people not feeling comfortable with me feeling comfortable in my own skin.”
Ray’s rock is Luke, who over their year-long has proved an extremely positive support (even though he does steal his chips throughout the interview). They’re affectionate, and not afraid to be. This is refreshing to see. Although they admit they get “funny” looks – but only here in Devon.
Ray goes for a gender fluid label, Mx, or if he has to then Mr, and whether he ticks the male or female box depends on the form and who’s asking.
“I just want people to understand that it’s not easy,” he says, explaining that his coping mechanism through all of this has been to throw himself into studying, and not bottling things up.
“I talked to people I trusted and who were understanding, like my teachers,” he adds. “I would much rather people ask me about gender and talk to me about it, and learn about what it means, rather than judge me in silent ignorance. They say ignorance is bliss, but it’s not when it’s affecting someone else’s life.”