Transgender in Toronto

A growing number of transgender people are now living openly, but the struggle for equality is far from over. Violence, harassment and discrimination are regularly part of their lives. Here, five Torontonians tell their stories

(Image: Dave Gillespie)

Savannah Burton

A 40-year-old hotel concierge, athlete and actor who lives in St. Lawrence

I’ve always known there was something wrong with my body. I remember sitting in the yard outside my home in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, when I was four or five years old, and shouting, “I am a girl.” I was terrified someone would hear me, but I couldn’t resist the urge to say it out loud—to verbalize the acute discomfort I felt.

Sports became my escape. I started playing baseball when I was eight and continued through my teens. I joined Corner Brook’s senior all-star team at the age of 21. I spent the rest of my free time holed up in my bedroom, watching reruns of Friends and Seinfeld, and wishing I could trade places with the characters onscreen.

I moved to Toronto when I was 22, without a job lined up or a place to live. It was an act of desperation: I needed to transition from male to female, and I thought it might be easier in a big city. I spent a lonely week in a dingy hotel near the airport, then broke down in tears and called my mother. When she flew out the following day, I couldn’t find the words to explain what I was going through. I told her I felt like Bernadette Bassinger, the trans character in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but she didn’t get it. She just looked sad and confused. A few days later, she returned home.

And I got on my feet. I rented an apartment near Dufferin and Eglinton, and I found work as a sales associate at Toys “R” Us and as a courier, criss-crossing town in my beat-up Toyota Tercel. I met with a doctor at the Clark Institute (now CAMH) and started hormone replacement therapy. I was six foot two and 190 pounds, so it wasn’t easy to assemble a wardrobe. At night, I tried to muster the courage to go out in public wearing makeup and a dress. Most evenings, I stayed glued to my couch. I was trapped in my apartment and in a body I despised.

After a few years of trying, I lost the will to transition. I found a bachelor apartment at Carlton and Jarvis, and got a job working the front desk at a nearby hotel. I was pleasant but distant with my colleagues, never venturing beyond small talk. I spent the better part of the next decade going through the motions: I had no friends, no joy, no reason to care if I woke up the next day. In my lowest moments, I hoped I wouldn’t.

The one thing that kept me going was my weekly theatre class. I had a knack for pretending to be someone else—maybe because I’d been practising for 30 years. I made my stage debut in a play called The Splits, then did a few independent films and even some national commercials. As I got more involved in the acting world, I made deeper connections. One friend in particular became a mentor to me. With his encouragement, I signed up for night classes at Ryerson. Then I joined a dodgeball league. Soon I was getting out and meeting people, spending less time lost in my thoughts.

As my confidence grew, so did my courage. In my late 30s, I started flirting with the idea of transitioning again. The world had changed in the 15 years since my first attempt. Back then, I’d felt completely isolated. Now I could open my laptop and connect with people whose personal struggles mirrored my own. I started going to a bar on Church Street called George’s Play, which was popular among trans women. There, for the first time, I made friends I didn’t have to hide from. By my 37th birthday, I was living a double life: during the week, I kept up my male disguise. On weekends, I hit the town with my new trans friends, moonlighting as myself.

Eventually, I got tired of taking off my nail polish on Sunday nights. In the summer of 2013, I decided to live full-time as a woman. I took a four-month medical leave from work, and in December I made my professional debut at the staff Christmas party. I entered the room wearing jeans, makeup and a fitted blouse. My heart was beating out of my chest, but I also felt empowered. There were some shocked faces, but almost everyone was friendly and curious. I left feeling euphoric.

I’d love to say everything’s gone smoothly since then, but it hasn’t. Working in customer service is hard. For every guest who treats me with respect, there’s another who calls me “sir” in a snarky way, as if to suggest I’m being deceptive. On the subway, if there’s a group of teenagers nearby, chances are they’ll point and laugh. Actually, whenever I hear someone chuckle on the TTC, I automatically assume it’s directed at me.

Still, I’ve never been happier. My mother is supportive now—we talk on the phone at least once a week. Last winter, I tried out for the Canadian women’s dodgeball team and made the cut. I was worried my gender identity would be a barrier, but it wasn’t. In the world of competitive dodgeball, trans athletes need to provide legal documentation proving their gender. The same isn’t true of the Olympics or Pan Am Games, which require proof of sex reassignment surgery—something I wouldn’t have been able to provide. This past August, my teammates and I represented Canada at the World Dodgeball Championships in Las Vegas (we came fourth). I’ve also started acting again. The opportunities are scarce for trans actors, ­especially those who don’t “pass” as biological men or women. I get typecast a lot. One of the last auditions I had was for the part of a homeless prostitute on the Canadian crime show 19–2. But things are improving—there are more trans people on TV today than ever before. And I’m determined to become a successful working actor.

I still find it hard to leave my apartment sometimes. It’s difficult to reprogram your brain and heart, and every cruel joke or insensitive remark makes it harder still. But I’m trying. There’s a life out there. I don’t want to miss any more of it.


A 35-year-old post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) who lives in Bloordale

I came out as trans in 2010, two weeks after my 30th birthday. I was in the second year of my PhD at U of T and the first few months of a new research position at St. Michael’s Hospital. I’d just gone through a breakup with my girlfriend of five years, the woman I’d believed would be my partner for life. I’d been honest with her about my gender confusion, but it still came between us. She’d fallen in love with me as a woman and didn’t want to be in a relationship with a man.

When I was a child, my femaleness felt like an immutable fact, like my blood type or the colour of my eyes. My parents named me Ilona. I loved skateboarding and hanging out with my guy friends, but I also had long hair and enjoyed wearing dresses. It never occurred to me to question whether or not I was a girl.

In my 20s, that started to change. I felt like there was a boy living inside me, but I had no idea what that meant. All I knew was that it made me different, and I just wanted to blend in. I spent years resisting the idea that I might be trans, but eventually I couldn’t hold back any more.

The year after I introduced myself as Alex was hell. My parents had struggled to accept me as a lesbian, but they found it even more difficult to accept me as trans. My colleagues repeatedly called me “Ilona,” “she” and “her,” no matter how many times I corrected them. I’d been addressing the issue of LGBTQ youth homelessness for close to a decade, and my work caught the attention of the media. It was a professional coup but a personal nightmare. I tried to ensure that journalists used the correct pronouns to describe me. They often didn’t.

Taking public transit was torture. Strangers gawked at me, trying to figure out if I was male or female. The sneers made me feel worthless, but I was afraid to masculinize my appearance through hormones or surgery. I felt trapped: I couldn’t go back to being a woman, but I was terrified to move forward as a man. The daily discrimination was so agonizing that thoughts of suicide flashed through my mind.

Dating was complicated. With colleagues and friends, I could hide my suffering behind a smile, but real intimacy seemed daunting. Then, about a year into my transition, I met Caroline, a beautiful brunette with an infectious smile. She told me that she’d dated trans men in the past, and she was interested in me for me. Within weeks, we were inseparable. Suddenly, the rest of my life seemed less bleak. I got a prescription for a topical form of testosterone called AndroGel. The effects were subtle, but my thoughts became clearer and I started sleeping through the night. Gradually, the physical effects followed: my voice deepened, I grew facial hair, and I became more muscular. As my appearance changed, I began to feel more comfortable in the world. Two years later, in 2013, I underwent a double mastectomy.

These days, when Caroline and I are out in public, people don’t see a trans man and a queer woman—they see a cisgender couple (people whose gender lines up with their biological sex). But things aren’t perfect. I’m scared someone will realize I’m trans and attack me because of it. Medical appointments are stressful. Most doctors and nurses don’t know how to interact with me. They often call me “she” and avoid eye contact. And people feel like they have the right to ask intrusive questions about my body. When I bump into an old acquaintance, they’ll often say, “So, have you had the surgery yet?” If I weren’t trans, people would never inquire about my genitals.

Still, I’m optimistic. My parents accept me as their son, and having their support means everything. They love Caroline, and they’re ecstatic to see me in a healthy and loving partnership. We got married last fall, and we’ve started looking into our fertility options. The plan is to fertilize my egg with donor sperm, and Caroline will carry the baby. Finally, I’m looking forward to the rest of my life.


A 35-year-old cook and bartender who lives in Parkdale

My parents divorced when I was two. I grew up in Roncesvalles with my mother and grandparents. When I was five or six, I used to sneak into my grand­mother’s closet to try on her dresses, imagining I was a beautiful woman named ­Jasmine or Justine. I cringed anytime someone called me by my name, Daryl. When I was 11, I moved to ­Pickering to live with my father and his second wife. Years later, as a teenager, I’d lie awake at night and fantasize about living in the holodeck—a virtual reality chamber—on a Star Trek ship. It was the only place I could think of where I could be a girl and no one would care.

My adolescence was a swirl of depression and self-hatred, and I dropped out of high school in my final year. I spent my early 20s working dishwashing and retail jobs, struggling to suppress my feminine urges. I discovered a passion for photography and set up a small business specializing in wedding shoots. I was determined to live as a man, yet I’d have panic attacks just thinking about my appearance: the width of my shoulders, the shape of my jaw and the hairiness of my chest. Drugs helped. Whenever I felt a pang of anxiety, I’d smoke a joint until it receded.

By the age of 30, I’d built what seemed like the perfect life: I had my own business, a nice apartment and a beautiful girlfriend. But I wanted to crawl out of my skin. When the tension became unbearable, I’d come home from work and put on a dress. I’d feel immediate relief, then waves of shame and disgust. It was an agonizing cycle: every few weeks, I’d throw out my women’s clothes and vow to stop cross-dressing; then, the cravings would come back.

In 2011, my girlfriend and I moved in together. I’d been honest with her about my gender issues, but we loved each other and hoped we could make our relationship work. A few weeks after we signed the lease on our new apartment, my grand­father died. As I helped my family scatter his ashes, I came to a terrible realization: I was going to die and no one was ever going to know I was a woman. Three months later, I joined a support group for people ­questioning their gender. It was hard for my girlfriend: she identifies as a straight woman, and she loved me as a man. In November 2012, I came out publicly as trans. My girlfriend and I broke up three weeks later.

The first doctor I approached said he didn’t believe in trans people. It took five months to find an endocrinologist who would prescribe me estrogen and testosterone blockers. I couldn’t afford electrolysis or a nice wardrobe, so I bought dresses at Value Village and walked around with a permanent five o’clock shadow. Strangers treated me with open hostility and occasionally violence. Once, when I was riding down Parliament Street, a man pushed me off my bike and into a concrete pole. Even my family struggled to accept me. My father couldn’t grasp why I needed to change my name and live as a woman. “Why can’t you just dress like a girl in private?” he asked.

My business fell apart, seemingly overnight. Some clients cancelled their contracts outright; others demanded that I show up to their weddings dressed like a man. Within months, my cash flow plummeted by about 80 per cent. I tried to find other work, but I faced harassment and rejection wherever I went. At one interview, for a job as a line cook on Church Street, the owner blatantly asked me if I had a penis or a vagina. I was horrified, but I couldn’t afford to say “Fuck you.” I got the position, but my co-workers gawked at me and made jokes about my genitals. I quit after one shift. I started collecting welfare, but it wasn’t enough to cover the cost of hormones. I dabbled in sex work. The johns called me “shemale” and “tranny,” and I left each encounter feeling humiliated.

That was a year and a half ago. Since then, things have improved. But it’s not an easy life. I’m visibly trans, and that’s always going to affect the way people interact with me. My family is finally making an effort, but they still slip up and call me Daryl. The only job I can get is working the late shift at a queer bar for $400 a week, tips included. I’d like to get breast implants, but the ­surgery isn’t covered by OHIP and I don’t have $7,000 to spare. I’d also like an ­orchiectomy (surgery to remove my testicles, so that I can stop taking testosterone blockers), but there’s a two-year waiting list just to get a referral. I’m not interested in any other form of sex reassignment surgery. Who says a woman can’t have a penis?

I’ve lost faith that I’ll ever find love, with either a man or a woman (I’m attracted to both). Plenty of people are willing to have sex with me in secret, but no one’s interested in taking me out to dinner. I want a career I find fulfilling and a partner who will hold my hand in public. Eventually, I want to settle down somewhere quiet and raise a family. I’m tired of struggling.


A 56-year-old social worker, playwright and filmmaker who lives in the Annex

For the first decade of my life, I was a happy, confident, rambunctious tomboy. My name was Audrey. My father was a tank mechanic for the Canadian Armed Forces, and we moved around a lot, eventually settling in Gagetown, New Brunswick, in 1968. We’d been living there for about two years when my body began to develop in mystifying ways. Like other girls, I got my period and grew breasts, but I also sprouted facial hair. Decades later, I would learn about an intersex condition called progestin-induced virilization, which causes fetuses to develop both male and female sex characteristics in the womb. But this was the early ’70s in a village of fewer than 1,000 people. The word “intersex” wasn’t part of anyone’s vocabulary.

Overnight, I became a social pariah. My difference was written all over my body. Bullies punched me, kicked me and made my life hell. Terrified for my well-being, my dad quit his job, sacrificing his pension, and moved us to a remote corner of Cape Breton Island, hoping I’d be safer in a secluded location. I saw half a dozen doctors, but no one could explain what was happening to my body. One local doctor advised my parents to institutionalize me until I learned to wear dresses and makeup—otherwise, he warned them, I was at risk of becoming a lesbian. My parents rejected his advice. They loved and supported me no matter what.

By the age of 15, I was five foot six, 180 pounds and shaving daily to avoid growing a beard. I dreaded the hour-long bus ride to and from school: kids taunted me relentlessly. At night, I’d lie awake and fantasize about kissing my only friend, a girl who lived in the trailer park down the road. Despite what the doctor said, I didn’t feel like a lesbian—I felt like a boy with a crush on a girl. But what did that mean? I looked everywhere for clues. I became obsessed with Greek myths, particularly ones about Tiresias, who could change genders. I read articles about ­Christine Jorgensen, the first American woman to publicize her sex reassignment surgery. I wondered if there was a surgeon out there who could turn me into a boy. It seemed like a fairy tale.

After high school, I cleaned houses and restaurants to pay my way through a liberal arts degree at the University College of Cape Breton. There, I started identifying publicly as a butch lesbian. I followed a friend to Toronto in the early ’80s, hungry for more opportunities. I spent the next decade working as a line cook on Church Street, hanging out at dyke bars and ­writing plays. It was an exhilarating time to be young and queer in Toronto. On weekends, my friends and I spray-painted buildings and marched in anti-fascist rallies. I wrote plays about life, love and lesbianism, one of which was nominated for a Governor General’s award. The lesbian community became my home and refuge. Even so, I felt like an interloper. Some of my friends were die-hard separatists who didn’t want anything to do with men. They ranted about rejecting the ­phallus. I secretly wished I had one.

Meanwhile, I continued to encounter violence and hostility wherever I went. Once, when I was walking to a friend’s apartment near Sherbourne and Carlton, a man tried to throw me in front of a streetcar. Years later, during Pride, a group of gay men surrounded me and threatened to pull down my pants to see what I had between my legs.

By the early ’90s, the AIDS crisis had turned some of my closest friends into invalids. While I was helping care for them, I didn’t have time to keep up my daily shaving routine. My dying friends told me the stubble was beautiful and encouraged me to grow out my beard. I started identifying as two-spirit, an Indigenous term for people who embody both masculine and feminine characteristics. Then my mother, just before she passed away from cancer, told me I was part Métis—something she’d kept secret, having internalized the racism she encountered as a child. Another puzzle piece clicked into place.

I might have continued living as Audrey if the rest of the world accepted her. But I wasn’t safe. With boobs, a beard and a woman’s name, I was a walking target for bigotry and abuse. In 1998, at the screening of a documentary about Brandon Teena (the trans man portrayed by Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry), I met someone who was in the process of transitioning from female to male. It filled me with hope. About a year later, shortly after my 40th birthday, I started introducing myself as Alec.

My two-spirit identity is reflected in my legal name, Audrey Alec Whitewolf Butler. It’s also reflected in my body, which I’ve chosen not to alter through surgery. But life is easier now that I’m generally perceived as male. I can be Alec, out in the world, and no one questions or confronts me—I get called a faggot sometimes, but I don’t mind. This fall, I started a master’s degree at U of T in Aboriginal and sexual diversity studies, two subjects that didn’t exist when I was at university 30 years ago. My goal is to contribute to the canon of trans literature, to help ensure that genderqueer kids growing up today aren’t marginalized the way I was. My mother always told me, “You were born different to make a difference.” I hope she was right.


A 46-year-old IT manager and master of divinity student who lives in Leslieville

I grew up on a farm in upstate New York. My father loved hunting and fishing, and he’d hoped for a son with similar interests. Instead he got me: an effeminate boy who preferred dolls, horses and sticker books. By the age of about eight, I knew exactly who I was. The words played in my head on a perpetual loop: “You’re a girl, you’re a girl, you’re a girl.” But when I acted like one, I was punished. So I kept it a secret. I’d steal my mother’s bras and wear them under my T-shirts, terrified of the consequences if my father found out.

By high school, it had been drilled into me that I needed to act like a man. I pursued every masculine activity I could think of: I joined the Boy Scouts, played football and spent afternoons in wood shop and metalwork classes. Other kids sensed my difference and preyed on it. They hit me and called me a faggot.

Desperate to escape my tiny town, I joined the marine corps at age 17 and spent the next eight years in the armed forces. Part of me hoped that immersing myself in a hypermasculine world would teach me to act like a man. Instead, I found ­furtive ways to express my femininity, like dressing up as a woman for ­Halloween. I had girlfriends, but my relationships never lasted long: often they’d tell me I felt like a roommate. Over the years, I collected a secret stash of dresses and makeup, sometimes spending $600 at a time. Every once in a while I’d throw it all away. The scariest thing I could imagine was someone finding out.

I left the navy at 25 and spent the next decade bouncing between IT jobs, moving from Seattle to Dallas to Manhattan. By the time my company transferred me to Toronto in 2003, my gender identity had become almost impossible to ­suppress—I was like a bubble waiting to burst. I turned to alcohol, often consuming a whole case of beer in a single night. My 30s were a swirl of bars, parties and brutal hangovers. By my 40th birthday, I was physically and emotionally depleted. I knew it was time to get help. I’d seen psychiatrists in the past, but they’d all dismissed my gender issues as symptoms of mental illness. I’d been prescribed dozens of antipsychotics and anti­depressants, none of which had suppressed my innate gender identity. Finally, I found a psychologist who didn’t pathologize my feelings. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” she said. “You just need to come out.”

In 2013, with support from my psych­ologist, I started living openly as Rachel. I found an endocrinologist who prescribed me estrogen and testosterone blockers, and I put my name on the wait-list at CAMH for sex reassignment surgery. I also began assembling a women’s wardrobe, splurging on a nice interview suit. It never occurred to me that I’d have trouble finding employment—I was an IT professional with more than 15 years’ experience. Everybody wanted to hire me.

Except they didn’t anymore. I went to job interviews dressed professionally and armed with my impeccable CV, but no one would give me a job. I wasn’t experienced at applying makeup or presenting myself as a woman, and it showed. Potential employers took one look at me and made up their minds. In just a few months, I burned through my savings and my credit score plummeted. I couldn’t make the payments on my car, so I lost it. Then I couldn’t pay the rent on my condo near the lake, so I lost that too. I crashed at friends’ places. In public, strangers sneered at me and called me horrible names. Once, when I was shopping on the Danforth, a man dragged me into an alleyway and tried to sexually assault me. (Thankfully, I escaped.)

I realized there were only two ways forward: I could support myself through sex work, or I could go back to living as a man. Both seemed impossible, so I took my last $20, bought some fancy tins of food for my cats, Felix and Fender, and walked south to Lake Ontario. When I got to the beach, I kept on going, wading out into the lake until my face was under­water. Then I took a deep breath.

I’d been an atheist for most of my adulthood, but I’m convinced that God saved my life that night. As my lungs burned, I heard a voice telling me it wasn’t time to die. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the beach. I picked myself up and walked back to my friend’s place, shivering uncontrollably, but suddenly hopeful. Almost immediately, my life began to improve. A queer activist heard I was struggling and offered to rent me an apartment. Soon after, I found some short-term consulting work, which allowed me to earn enough money for groceries and rent. And I started attending the Metropolitan Community Church, where I discovered my vocation.

My life has never been better. I’m a full-time student at U of T, studying to become an ordained minister, and I’m in a relationship with a woman I love. I’m back in touch with my family after years of estrangement; my father has passed away, but my mother refers to me as her daughter. And I don’t experience daily harassment anymore. After years on hormones and multiple sessions with a speech therapist, my appearance and voice have become more feminine. I’m lucky to have “passing privilege,” meaning people don’t necessarily look at me and see a trans person. This past spring, I decided to have sex reassignment surgery.

I fantasize about living the life of a typical cisgender person. But there are so many people out there who are still struggling, and the world needs more trans voices speaking out against bigotry and discrimination. As long as that’s true, I’m determined to be one of them.

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