By Jacqui Jentzema
My name is Jacqui, but I was named John at birth. Over the past few months, I have gotten to know Jonathan Craig, our editor. He has asked me to write this in the hope that it may help somebody with the same problems or give others a look into the life of a person who is vision impaired and has had to undergo extraordinary changes to maintain their happiness and well-being.
Before I continue, please realise that I am not an expert in this area, and that everyone who undergoes major shifts in their lives will go through totally different experiences. My choices and feelings won’t match yours.
From my mid-teens, I started to feel a need to experience some of the changes that girls go through with the onset of puberty. I clearly remember looking out the kitchen window one sunny spring afternoon. It was a lovely day, a blue sky with fluffy white clouds and a warm breeze. In that moment, I thought “I wish I could have a period”. Before then, I hadn’t felt that way. I’d been raised as a male doing masculine things.
In my early twenties, strangers treated me as if I was a counsellor. Young women would talk to me intimately as one of their girlfriends. They’d even ask my advice on their gynaecological problems. They must have been tapping into my feminine side. In April of 2013, I realised something wasn’t quite right. I think that finally the penny was starting to drop.
I contacted a support group in Melbourne specifically for people who feel they need to express themselves in the opposite gender’s form in a safe environment.
The group’s President suggested that I may have a condition known as gender dysphoria. I was referred to Dr Fintan Harte, the leading Psychiatrist in Australia who has written the International protocols for the diagnosis of gender dysphoria. He diagnosed me officially as being just that, having been “born in the wrong body”.
I found Fintan to be extremely friendly and accommodating of my vision impairment. I saw him as a private patient, but he may well have seen other vision impaired people through the Monash Gender Clinic in Melbourne. I know of at least two other vision impaired trans women in Australia.
As I lived in Bendigo, a regional city, I had to travel down to Melbourne by train to go to support group meetings. I would stay in a motel overnight and go home the following day. I also had to travel down for my appointments with Fintan. At first, I wasn’t confident enough to travel on public transport as a woman, but eventually I gained enough confidence for it not to worry me. As it turned out, I’d used the group a bit like a steppingstone, finding that I didn’t need to go often anyway. Basically, I’ve found out that people take little notice of you as you go about your business. They’re too busy going about their own.
I did get a few compliments though about how nice I looked when I travelled; my style of dress, eyelash extensions, makeup, jewellery etc. Obviously, the travelling and accommodation costs put extra financial and mental stress on me. But those who were not disabled would have faced their own challenges.
In Victoria, before gender reassignment surgery, transgender people are required to undergo at least two years of psychiatric treatment, to ensure that they are stable enough to be making such a life-changing decision. They must also be on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for at least two years. HRT becomes a permanent part of life for trans people to maintain an altered appearance. After hearing about some catastrophes that have occurred overseas, I believe deviation from this process should be considered dubious. I heard about one trans person who changed their mind about their desired gender several times after surgery.
I had my operation in Melbourne rather than in Thailand, where after surgery care seems to be virtually non-existent. It isn’t uncommon for patients to fly home only two days after the operation, whilst I was confined to bed in hospital for eight days. Sometimes overseas, breast enhancement is done at the same time, placing a heavy load on the patient’s system.
My gender reassignment surgery was the same as anyone else’s. The recovery may have been a little more complicated though, in that I needed to have an extremely well organised and clean environment in which to heal. My recovery took around six to eight weeks, which is normal given that it is major surgery. Living alone, I had to make sure that food was quick and easy to prepare. Fortunately, my closest friends were always happy to help with shopping. I had people to garden and clean for me, so those things were covered.
My General Practitioner made sure that I knew a second doctor in her practice who I could see in the case of an emergency, as she simply wasn’t always available at a moment’s notice. A vision impaired person must be able to access medical treatment quickly if necessary.
When I first started dressing as a female in public, I was fortunate enough to have a supportive friend who took me to appropriate women’s stores. Between us, we decided on a no frills and understated style of clothing that suited me. I’ve found that staying with a classic style is more practical as a vision impaired woman. It is too difficult to keep up with constant changing fashion.
I use different types of technology to tell me clothing colours. Some smartphone apps do a pretty good job, but I don’t totally trust them. I also have a stand-alone device that does the same but again, it’s not perfect. I’ve found that being extremely organised is essential.
Trusted friends go through my wardrobe with me to help sort through the clothing and section off colours. But I have to make sure everything has its place and stays there.
I enjoy feminine things: shopping, perfume, jewellery, having my nails done and so on. Strangely enough, I learned most of these things from my mother. She isn’t at all aware of this, as she and the rest of my family basically don’t want to know me since my transition. That is a potential issue for all trans people. The general population just doesn’t understand our need to change.
I discovered very early on that it doesn’t matter what city you are in as to how well you’re accepted by others. I found complete acceptance in Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart and my now hometown, Bendigo. Whilst on a cruise, my girlfriend and I were both told how nice we looked when dressed and made up for Christmas dinner, by both genders.
One of my friends who had taken me dress shopping suggested that her youngest daughter, Shellie, might like to come along as well when she visited me. Shellie asked her Mum if “Jacqui would be wearing a dress. She’d apparently asked this in a matter of fact and excited way. I’m not confrontational and prefer to blend into the crowd. I think that might be the secret.
The best thing about being vision impaired and trans is that you can’t see if people are looking at you with disapproval. Sadly of course, you don’t see their looks of appreciation either. But you do come across those who are always happy to offer help and possibly, not politically correct, take your hand to guide you. Don’t resist or abuse them. They mean no harm; I think they simply feel less threatened than they normally might. You’ll find that it’s usually a woman who’ll do that. It’s so nice to know that there are still some truly nice people in this world.
So, in short, anyone, regardless of their disability, can transition as I did. Yes, you might face challenges that sighted people may not, but some determination will see you through. I would suggest that you let people who you trust know how you are feeling and openly ask for their help and advice. I met a blind trans woman who was dressed appallingly. Obviously, she wasn’t getting very good guidance.
Personally, even with the expense, and transitioning can be very expensive if you choose surgery, I have found the process very rewarding. According to other people and myself, I think I’ve transitioned extremely successfully. I’m the happiest that I have ever been.