Declan Henry is a creative non-fiction writer and a registered social worker. He is also gay, and was ashamed of how little he knew about the T in LGBT, despite being considered part of this community. We asked him what he learned from writing about the experiences of trans and non-binary people for his new book, ‘Trans Voices.’
Why did you feel that there was a need for a book that presents the real experiences of transgender and non-binary people?
Up until two years ago, I’d never met a transgender person – or certainly not knowingly so. I wanted to explore why somebody would be so unhappy about their gender that they would seek to change it. I wanted to speak with transgender people and hear their stories. I wanted to demystify the wrongful image that the media has portrayed of some people having ‘sex change’ operations on a whim. Writing this book took me on an extraordinary journey. I travelled all over the UK and Ireland to interview trans people and listened first-hand to their life experiences.
The book covers four different groups of people; trans women, trans men, non-binary people and those who cross-dress. Why did you choose to speak to these 4 groups in particular?
Because those are the four main categories under the wider trans umbrella. Although cross-dressers are not transgender they form part of the trans community. They are completely satisfied with their gender, and are mainly heterosexual men who enjoy dressing in female clothes for relaxation and enjoyment. But it was important to include them because they are often confused with trans women and vice versa. Whilst cross dressers and trans women share some brief similarities, overall there is a distinct difference between both groups.
You interviewed over 100 different people for the book – were there any stories that particularly surprised you? Or that have stayed with you?
I remarked on the bravery of all the people I interviewed and learned so much from each person. The age group of my interviewees included a 19 year old trans man in Dublin to a 79 year old trans women in Bedfordshire. It was interesting to see how easier it is becoming to ‘come out’ and transition to the opposite gender these days, in comparison to how difficult it was twenty, thirty or forty years ago. From those I interviewed I was also able to demystify societal myths about trans people, including the misconception that being trans is a lifestyle choice, that trans people are really gay people dressed up as women/men, that trans people are confused and it’s a phase they are going through, that all they are interested in is sex or that they are mentally ill. Clearly, none of these are true.
How did you go about reaching out to the many people who contributed to the book?
I contacted transgender support groups in the UK and Ireland outlining my book proposal. I explained that I wanted to write a book to raise greater understanding and awareness of what it meant to be trans in today’s world, and in the process, I would challenge the misconceptions that people have about trans people. I asked questions about their childhood, transitioning process, reassignment surgery, social networks and lifestyle, emotional health, sexuality and discrimination. They liked my approach to the subject and showed great appreciation that somebody who was not trans had taken the time to write about such an important issue.
The book is essentially an introduction to trans and non-binary issues, so along with first person perspectives, you cover a range of subjects that affect these communities like mental health, transphobia and sexuality. Some of the accounts of transphobia are particularly saddening. Did you feel as though most people you spoke to were keen to share their experiences with you?
Sadly, transphobia is still very prevalent in society. Nearly of all the trans people I interviewed were able to recall incidents where they encountered name calling, staring and sniggering at some point in their lives – to more serious matters of physical assaults, threats and harassment. Simply, it would seem that there are always going to be people who go out of their way to be unpleasant to those who are ‘different’ because of their own fear and ignorance– but I hope this will improve with greater trans awareness and visibility. Also it is worth noting that there are fewer trans people murdered in the UK and Europe that in places like America or Asia. Trans Remembrance Day is on the 20th November each year, where trans people who have been murdered are remembered in special services amongst the trans community.
You open the book with the statement ‘As a gay man, I decided to write this book because I was ashamed of how little I knew about trans people.’ Would you agree that people often assume that gay and trans people face the same challenges? (Perhaps because of the label given to both communities – LGBT.)
Absolutely, up until a few years ago I knew very little about trans people and now I consider myself a bit of an expert thanks to the many wonderful people I met whilst writing the book who graciously shared their stories and experiences with me for the book. It was this way that I discovered that gay people do not have to endure the same difficulties as trans people. Coming out as trans results in a complete identity change along with lifelong hormone treatment and sometimes multiple surgeries to bring the new gender into physical reassignment. I’m not saying gay people don’t face rejection and homophobia in society but trans people, more often, face greater intolerance through transphobia.
It seems as though trans men and non-binary people are still very much underrepresented in our culture and in the media, whereas trans women have experienced more visibility recently – probably due to high-profile trans women in the public eye, such as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. Did you notice such an imbalance when speaking to trans and non-binary people for Trans Voices?
Historically, trans men have come out as trans earlier in life than trans women, although up until the last couple of years there were fewer trans men than trans women. That is changing, however, with recent statistics indicating that these days there are as many trans men as trans women transitioning. Non-binary people are also coming more to the forefront of the trans community. But generally this category consists of younger trans people who do not identify as either men or women, depending on their gender assigned at birth, or those who consider they are both genders. There are more than 20 non-binary terms/descriptions in this category to help explain gender internalisation and how this dictates the way the person presents to the world. It is noted though that there is a steady increase too in the number of people identifying as non-binary in recent years.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
This book is really for everybody, whether they are part of the LGBT community or they have somebody close to them who is trans. The book also serves as a guidebook for professionals working with the trans community. It’s written with the intention of imparting greater awareness and tolerance towards trans people who are becoming more prevalent and visible in society. Any person with an interest in trans people – either personal or professional – will be able to pick up this book and gain a deeper understanding of trans issues. My book educates and informs people about transgender issues, ranging from trans people who haven’t come out yet, to family and friends of trans people who want a greater understanding of the subject. Currently, the majority of people haven’t encountered a transgender person but this will change in the years to come because more and more people are coming out as trans than ever before – and some are coming out early in their teenage years.
Trans Voices is available to buy online.
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