Transgender in Headwaters
Olive Pascal shares her journey of growing up in Orangeville and coming out to her friends and family – and offers important advice for transgender kids and their parents.
“Your kids are already transgender, and they don’t know what that means, and they’re scared, and they need help.”
Olive Pascal is an Orangeville kid who made good in the Big Smoke.
The 31-year-old has a cool career as an animator for television, and a nice little house with her 90-year-old Italian grandmother next door. She has a packed social calendar, and recently travelled to Calgary with her boyfriend to attend a wedding. In her off-hours she indulges a passion for role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. She’s a confident, well-spoken person who leads with her heart and her humour. Somewhere the Mary Tyler Moore theme song plays over her credits.
Olive also happens to be a transgender woman.
According to a widely accepted 2016 U.S. estimate, 0.6 per cent of the adult population identify as transgender – which works out to about 600 people in the combined 2011 population of Caledon, Dufferin and Erin. The actual number may be lower, as transgender adults tend to migrate to large urban centres. But transgender people are born here and spend their childhoods here at the same rate as everywhere else.
One of Olive’s favourite episodes of the sitcom South Park cleverly coined the term Cissy. It refers to cisgender people – that is, people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. So the more of a he-man or she-woman you are, the bigger a cissy you become.
I sat down with Olive to talk about some of the emotional and personal issues that have come along with having a transgender identity. Hers is but one perspective in the very diverse trans community. She is thoughtful, open, funny and brave. And her key message is one of hope: “It can go absolutely right too.”
Jeff Rollings : Thank you for doing this. Was it a difficult choice?
Olive Pascal : A little. Only because some people in the trans community see media coverage as just cis people saying, “We’re so cool with trans people.” But it does help, I think.
jr : What does the word discrimination mean to you?
op : That’s hard for me, because I haven’t really experienced it. Of course, a lot of trans people have. But I’ve never felt discriminated against for being trans, or being a woman.
Discrimination to me means being made to feel like there’s something wrong with you because of what someone else believes. Sometimes it feels like you’re against the entire world, even though that’s usually not the case. It’s just a few loud people.
Another reason I don’t notice discrimination a lot is because I’m oblivious. When I’m with friends who do notice it, I’ll think, “Really?” When it comes to just living, like going to a store, or getting a job, I haven’t had a problem. Yet. I’ve only been going full time as a woman for just over a year, so there’s plenty of time for that to happen.
There’s some wisdom I like to live my life by –always assume someone is stupid rather than evil. They aren’t doing it on purpose. They’re doing it because they’re misinformed. There are going to be a few evil people out there that just want to see other people in misery, but that’s rarely the case.
The way Hollywood is portraying trans people more often is good, but they aren’t to the point where it’s normal. They are getting better though, and a lot of people get their education from movies and TV. Society in general is also becoming more comfortable with it, and that group of loud people is shrinking. At least it is in Toronto.
jr : What made you realize this was something you wanted for yourself?
op : Looking back on it, it was really obvious. I’ve always been a woman. Even when I was five years old, I was friends with the girls. Eventually people at school started making fun of me for that, so I shut that part of me down, found some guy friends, and hung out with them all the way through high school.
When puberty hit I started cross dressing, behind the scenes. I’d get home first and have the house to myself, and I’d wear Mom’s clothes. I was so scared of that side of me, and of anyone finding out, that I told myself it was a phase. But whenever Mom threw out clothes I’d steal them from the garbage and hide them for me to use. Eventually I’d get so scared that I would throw them away, and think, “Never again.” That happened five or six times. Then three months later I’d be doing it again.
jr : Is it fair to say it’s not something you realized, it’s just something you are?
op : Exactly. It’s been at the core of my being since the start of everything.
About six years ago I felt like I needed to do something to make sure. I got more informed on the Internet about what being trans means, and what I was going through. I went to a store called Take a Walk on the Wild Side, where they’ll gussy you all up. Then I went out in public and saw a movie. That’s when I knew this was something I need to do. I was so much happier, and so much more confident. It was like, this is the real me.
I read an article where some transphobic person said, “Oh, your kids are only trans because it’s in right now,” and I thought, “Whoa, no one would willingly do this! Do you know how hard this is?”
jr : Have you lost friendships? Are your high school friends still your high school friends?
op : They are. I’m a big nerd. All my friends are nerds. Nerds know what it’s like to experience discrimination. We were all made fun of in high school. But there’s one good thing about bullying. When you’ve been bullied, you’ve got so much understanding and empathy that it’s really hard for you to be a jerk later in life.
jr : What was coming out like?
op : The first person I ever told was my mom. We got really close after I finished high school. We were on our way to Manitoulin Island. Halfway there I took a deep breath and said, “Mom, I want to have a sex change.” I know now that’s a bad term, but at the time I didn’t understand what being trans meant.
Mom caught me dressing up two or three times, so she kind of already knew. She just didn’t know how far it went. We kept chatting the whole trip. While we were at the cottage, Mom saw that a women’s clothing store she likes was having a sale. I said, “Can I come?”
We ended up spending the whole day shopping together. That was what sealed it for her. She said, “Olive never wanted to go shopping before.”
I said, “No, we’ve just been shopping for the wrong stuff.”
So I told my mom, and that was a great experience. I told my brother and sister next, and that didn’t go as well. They saw me as their nerdy brother and my old image was so cemented into them they couldn’t believe it at first.
Then I slowly told my friends. Every single friend’s reaction was, “Oh, okay. Let’s just continue on with what we were talking about before.” It was so normal; they didn’t even bat an eye. I don’t want to downplay it as though they weren’t supportive – my friends are all amazing. And I had been going a bit more androgynous with my clothing, so a lot of them saw it coming.
The last person I told was my dad. I had already started on hormone replacement therapy at that point. He was really cool about it too. He said, “Oh, I thought something was up. You have painted nails.” He impressed me a lot. No one close to him was trans, so it wasn’t a world he was familiar with.
The media had taught me that people were going to react badly, but in reality people don’t care. If they love you, they want to be supportive about it, and if they don’t, they react with, “Whatever. Go away. Why are you telling me this?”
jr : We’ve talked about some of the things that have gone right for you. What are some things that have gone wrong?
op : I needed information earlier. Education about transgender people is not going to trick your kids into becoming trans. Your kids are already transgender, and they don’t know what that means, and they’re scared, and they need help. They need information. It helps everyone.
The other thing that was hard for me was finding a doctor. Eventually I found one who is part of a team that works with LGBT people. She knows about balancing hormones and all that stuff. I’d be curious to know what would happen if I went to the hospital in Orangeville.
jr : What interesting things have you noticed as a result of having lived in two different genders?
op : Men’s clothes suck, jeans specifically. Men, try women’s jeans. They’re way more comfortable – you don’t know what you’re missing. The fabric they use for men’s jeans is crap. Seriously, though? Both genders pee on the toilet seat. I don’t know how women do it, but they pull it off.
jr : I thought you might have noticed something about male privilege.
op : I haven’t noticed that. There hasn’t been a drop in how much I get paid. In my last two jobs I was fully transitioned, and interviewed for the job as a woman. In fact, I got paid more for those jobs than when I was male. I have more experience now.
jr : Sounds like moving away from Headwaters was not connected to being trans.
op : Not at all. I’ve been back many times and everyone has been great. Again though, Miss Oblivious here. Maybe people are snickering behind my back, but I’m kind of okay with that. Don’t do it to my face.
I think there are three factors when it comes to trans people leaving Headwaters. When you realize you’re trans, the first thing is to get a support group. Trans people in smaller communities feel the people around them either can’t or won’t support them. The second thing is you need a doctor. If there were a doctor in Headwaters who said, “Hey, me. I can help trans people,” I bet they’d get a huge influx of patients. And the third thing is when a lot of trans people transition, they hide away somewhere. There’s a metamorphosis into a new person. Then they appear in a new community, under a different name, and they cut all ties to their previous lives.
jr : Is there more acceptance in the city than the country? Does it matter?
op : You find all types everywhere. Take that cottage trip where I went to the women’s store. The ladies that work there – this is Manitoulin Island, 30 years behind the times – were cool with it. They didn’t say, “Why are you going into that change room with those clothes?” It was the most freeing experience. I was dressed as a guy when I went in there.
The only time I’ve been insulted for being trans was by a homeless guy who walked by me here in the city. He was set in the mindset of the 1970s where you yell at transgender people. That was very early in my transition process and it made me feel terrible.
Again, overall I’ve been so lucky. I know a lot of people who haven’t, and I wish I could help.
jr : Do you mean people living in bad circumstances now, or people who have traumatic experiences in their past?
op : Both. One of my best friends is trans, and she comes from a religious family. She can’t turn to them for help. She’s afraid of them, of what they’ll do to her, and she doesn’t have any contact with them. How could you do that to your own kid, regardless of their gender? It’s awful.
jr : What about life now? Being trans is only one part of your identity.
op : I work my 40 hours a week. I animate TV shows. I worked on Ever After High for two years. That’s where I started transitioning. I began hormone therapy and had to tell my boss, “By the way, I’ll be growing boobs soon.”
In my off-time I’m into role-playing games. Dungeons & Dragons helped me to come to terms with my gender identity. Dealing with imaginary characters in different situations as a woman really helped me prepare. I’ve never played a male character since. I played a male character in real life for 25 years. I’m not doing that anymore.
I would suggest cisgender people try playing a game like that as the opposite gender, or even as a trans person. You can learn a lot from that kind of thing.
jr : Has transition worked out like you thought it would? Do you have any regrets?
op : I regret not having started sooner. Friends who knew me both before and after will say I was a completely different person before. If someone insulted me, my reaction would be to either get really snippy, or really withdrawn. Now it’s, “Whatever, I don’t care what you think.”
I’m way more confident in myself and my abilities, and I’m more productive. I’m just happier. I was miserable before. Pretending you’re something you’re not is never good. If you’re a cis person who thinks that trans people are somehow faking it, try dressing up as your opposite gender for a day and go out in public. See how scary it is. People don’t do this for fun.
jr : What are you proudest of?
op : I’m proud I transitioned. I’m proud of the life I’ve made. I hope that sharing my story might empower other people who are still on the fence because they’ve heard nothing but bad stories. It can go absolutely right too.
jr : What can cisgender people do to support trans people in a meaningful way?
op : We need to be teaching about transgender people in high school health classes. It’s important stuff that a larger population than you think needs to hear. Gender is a spectrum. Everyone is different and needs different information. And don’t turn your back on family members who come out.
jr : There’s a statistic that 41 per cent of transgender people have attempted suicide, compared with 1.6 per cent of the general population. And research shows family support is key to prevention.
op : I had one day where that seemed like the answer. So I walked up to the edge, and I walked away. I didn’t stare down there very long, but I know a lot of people who have. People who have tried to jump over that edge multiple times, in fact. I still get my bad days. They come less often now. Body dysmorphic disorder is a big thing. You just feel like you’ll never be able to live a normal life because you’re a puzzle piece that doesn’t belong.
One thing cis people sometimes do that gets me is say, “Well, I don’t understand trans people, but I support them.” You understand. You know what it feels like to be human. We’re not a different species. You know what it feels like to not belong somewhere, or to be judged. It’s easy to understand trans people.
jr : You seem so strong. Does anything still scare you?
op : Last night I had a genuine fear about getting beat up. I was on my way home, and there’s a bar next to the bus stop. It had a lot of middle-aged guys, they’d been drinking, and they were out on the sidewalk smoking. It seemed like they could be a problem, and I had to weave through them. I know a few people who were attacked just for walking by a bar.
I had another recent scary event that I’m proud of. My friend got married in Calgary, so I flew there, met a whole bunch of people, went to church for the ceremony, went to the reception after, and I was totally terrified. But it all went really well.
I have a long-distance boyfriend, Jonathan. That’s another big fear for me right now, meeting his family. They think I’m a cisgender woman. They’ve seen pictures, but they’ve never heard my voice. He lives in the state of Georgia in a tiny little community. I might send a copy of this article to his parents before I meet them.
See Your Child Be Happy
Emilia Perri is Olive Pascal’s mother. The owner of Maggiolly’s Art Supplies in Orangeville raised all three of her children here in the hills.
From the outset Emilia embraced her transgender child. “People should only not be accepted if they’re spewing hatred,” she says. “But they should never not be accepted for their sexual orientation or their gender expression.”
There were early clues about Olive’s gender identity (she was called Oliver then), but Emilia says, “I never really made anything out of it. I thought it was a phase. That’s what Olive thought too. That it was all going to be over some day, and she wouldn’t feel like that anymore.”
Then six years ago the two went on vacation to Manitoulin Island. Olive revealed the full extent of her transgender experience in the car on the way there. “She came out to me on the way up, and I was, ‘Well, okay.’”
While at the cottage, the two went to a women’s dress shop that was having a sale. After some awkward moments, Olive had made her selections and was ready for the cashier. When she tried to give her debit card to her mother to go pay, Emilia said, “No, no, no. You’re going to go up to the counter and you’re going to pay. You’re going to do the whole thing here. This is the way it’s going to be for you.”
Emilia’s open, supportive approach has continued ever since. “They’re going through so much already,” she says. “To have a parent say, ‘That’s fine. I’m still going to love you, you don’t have to worry about that. I’m going to be with you on this every step of the way.’ You know how much that means to them?”
By contrast, she adds, “For them to walk around and feel, ‘I hate myself,’ and then to have a parent say, ‘I hate you because you’re not being a proper person,’ it’s easy to see how they start to think, ‘What’s the point of my life? My parents hate me. My brother and sister hate me. Everyone hates me. And I hate myself on top of it. So why go on?’”
Indeed, the statistics back her up. An estimated 41 per cent of the transgender population has attempted suicide, compared with 1.6 per cent of the general population. Recent research indicates familial support is a key factor in prevention. “That’s really sad because it’s so unnecessary,” Emilia says. “Just by giving people support and love, all those people could still be with us.”
Emilia has a good friend who also has a transgender child, and she says that support has been invaluable, adding, “It might be helpful to start a parent group in the area for people whose children are going through this kind of thing.”
She also has a word or two of advice for those parents: “Don’t take it lightly. Kids would never make that up. This is really happening. Your child is not the gender they were born in. And it’s a great and beautiful and wonderful thing that they discovered it, and that they’re going to talk to you about it and express themselves in this way.
“You’re going to be able to see your child be happy. It’s so important. Olive is happy. Every time we get together, we laugh and laugh and laugh.”
A few terms
cisgender / This term is used to describe people whose gender identity matches their gender assignment at birth.
transgender (or trans) / An umbrella term used to describe anyone whose anatomical gender assigned at birth does not match their gender identity. Widely accepted research suggests about 0.6 per cent of the population are transgender.
intersex / People with intersex conditions have anatomy that is not considered typically male or female. This may or may not be apparent at birth. Though the two terms are often confused, intersex people differ from transgender people in that transgender people have typical anatomy, but have an internal experience of gender identity different from that which was assigned at birth. Some estimates suggest intersex people make up about 1.7 per cent of the population, roughly the same as people who have red hair.
deadnaming / This means referring to a person by their birth name instead of their chosen name. It can happen accidentally, especially if you’ve known someone by their birth name for a long time. If it does, apologize and correct yourself. Deadnaming is also used as a form of transphobic bigotry. Think of the instances in which celebrity Caitlyn Jenner was intentionally referred to by her birth name after her transition.
transition / Transitioning from one gender to another is a complicated process that occurs over a long period. The exact steps involved in transition vary from one person to the next, but can include coming out, using a new name and pronouns, dressing differently, changing legal documents, hormone therapy, and gender confirmation surgery. It’s important to note, however, that not all transgender people choose to undergo surgery, and even if they do, it is only one component of the transition process.
gender-nonbinary/genderqueer / Gender-nonbinary (some prefer to use genderqueer) people experience an identity that either falls somewhere between the stereotypical boundaries of male and female or outside those concepts completely. Gender fluid people see their identity as something that evolves over time.