Photos by Jason Harrell
Becoming a man takes more than just a testosterone-induced beard and a new ID. Three Berlin expats share their transition stories.
"I always felt bad. Like something didn’t match, but I didn’t know what.” For Jayrôme C. Robinet (photo), a 38-year-old writer who lived as a woman until 2010, the realisation that he was trans came gradually. Born in France, Jayrôme came to Berlin in 2002, where he – then Céline, and a “very out” lesbian – quickly became a part of the city’s queer scene, as a spoken word performer and published author. Even then, Jayrôme often challenged gender norms – on some nights she was a drag king, on others a queen; during the day Céline would sometimes go out with a DIY moustache under mascara-painted eyes. “Sometimes I was very feminine and it was very funny,” he says, “‘But then, I enjoyed presenting as a drag queen – it was actually a way to be masculine.”
Still, says Jayrôme, “I had this nagging feeling: I’m fake. There’s something wrong.” He turned to Berlin’s queer community to understand his feeling of alienation – and realised, slowly, that he might be trans. “I took two years to think about it,” he says. “And it just felt right.”
Making a change
Jayrôme took the German bureaucratic route: he visited a psychiatrist in order to get a certificate stating he was suffering from the mental illness “F.64” (gender dysphoria), after which he was allowed to start testosterone therapy, covered by his German health insurance. Since then Jayrôme has been living as a man, although not officially – as a French citizen, he would have to have his new gender officially recognised in France, where authorities require sterilisation. He’s used his transformation as inspiration for a new book, Das Licht ist weder gerecht noch ungerecht, which came out on March 23. (Catch the author himself doing a reading from the book at Buchkönigin on April 23.)
For Finn Ballard, the realisation that something was off started during childhood. Now 32, this young Irish historian with reddish hair, a beard and a wide smile says that he always felt uncomfortable as a female. “I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to be a man,” he says. “I only knew that I didn’t want to be a woman.” For Finn, who began his transition while living in England, finding support was difficult. “Many of my friends at the time told me I was a lesbian, and that I should just accept that,” he says. Moving to Berlin for work in 2008, he found many like-minded friends whom he now refers to as his family, and went on to undergo top surgery (breast removal) in Hamburg in 2010.
Berlin’s queer scene also played a supporting role for Skyler Braeden Fox, 36, a filmmaker who moved to Berlin from Canada in 2009 – only a few months after beginning to take hormones. The combination of geographic and gender relocation was difficult to handle. “My doctor didn’t recommend that I stay here so early in my transition without support, without close friends.” Skyler is thin, with short brown hair and tattoos along his arms. “But I decided to anyway, because I really wanted to come here.”
Adjusting to life in Germany, Skyler found that there was a positive side to transitioning in a new place: “I could start over new, didn’t have to explain much to people. Nobody in this city had ever known me as ‘she’, nobody in this city had ever known me by my old name.” Living in house projects and attending queer events, he was able to establish a solid social network, which proved helpful when his cheap travel insurance fell short: “A friend sometimes brought hormones back for me from Istanbul, because they’re sold over the counter there,” Skyler says. “So many people helped me out… I wouldn’t have survived without that.”
But while they all found support among their Berlin friends, Skyler, Finn and Jayrôme were on their own when it came to navigating the outside world as transitioning men. Being male, they found, was much more than stubble or a deep voice: it was about learning an entirely different code of behaviour.
Finn, who had a girlfriend at the time of his transition, says that when he first tried to act like a “typical heterosexual man”, he came to the conclusion that he didn’t know how to speak that ‘language’. Group situations could be weird: “I was sitting with men and didn’t really know how to talk to them. They were talking about football – really!” he laughs.
Eight years later, he still has a lot to learn. “I’m sometimes aware of my absence of male socialisation,” he says. “In certain situations where there are expectations of masculinity – you know, when I go to the barber and I’m surprised when he burns the hair out of my ears…” He laughs. “I wasn’t educated to expect these experiences. But the more of them you have, the more you can sort of catch up.”
Like Finn, Skyler feels he’s got some catching up to do. “Sometimes I don’t know the social codes of being a guy.” He was excited and relieved to be recognised as a man, but sometimes this happiness was accompanied by alienation. “There was one time on the street here where a guy said, ‘Was guckst du?’ (‘What’re you looking at?’) And I was just like…” He does a sharp intake of breath. “I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t look too long at a guy anymore.’” Jayrôme received this advice from a male friend: “It’s important that you look men in the eyes. Not too long, but not trying to avoid the look, because then they’re going to think you’re weak.”
Another female ‘weakness’: smiling. “The first time I really realised it was with someone in a shop,” says Jayrôme. “I just entered, beaming, and they said, ‘Was grinst du so blöd?’ (‘Why are you smiling so stupidly?’) I was just used to smiling – ‘as a girl’.” Once he began to be seen as a man, Jayrôme says he felt less pressure to be cheerful and friendly.
More baffling for Jayrôme was the discovery that being seen as male changed the way people perceived his skin colour and made him the target of racism. Jayrôme, who is from northern France but has a Sicilian background, says that as a woman, people saw him as white. Now, as a man, he looks ‘foreign’ – with all the unwelcome connotations that come with it. “Before I was seen as exotic and sexy,” he says. “And now I’m seen as exotic and dangerous. I’ve been shouted at in the street – men coming and trying to fight with me. Or telling me I have to go back to my country.” He recalls walking into a Neukölln tearoom with a broken window. As he stood by it waiting to order his tea, the owner asked derisively, “Is that your handiwork you’re looking at?” Jayrôme adds, “I realised that, as a woman, the shop owner would never have thought that I might have thrown a stone at the window.”
But life as a man also has its unexpected benefits. Jayrôme says that, now that he is seen as male, people pay more attention when he talks. “I’m always really aware of that,” he says, “so I try not to take up too much space.” Finn believes that he experiences a certain amount of male privilege: “It is easier for me to walk through the world as a man now than it was to walk through the world as an androgynous person,” he says.
“As a woman, I was seen as exotic and sexy. Now I’m seen as exotic and dangerous.”
Entrance into the male world can also come with unwelcome insights, speaking volumes about the rampant sexism that exists there. Both Jayrôme and Skyler recount stories of men casually tossing off generalisations like “Never get married, women only want our money” (to Jayrôme, from a man who sold him a fridge), or “Women are just not logical” (to Skyler, from a co-worker). In both cases, they felt impelled to say something. “I had to out myself to him,” Skyler says. “I was like… Do you know who you’re talking to?” Interactions like these present a paradox: on one hand, they represent a kind of success in passing as a man. But for an individual who spent a long period of his life living as a woman, they’re unacceptable.
Although trans men may occasionally experience male privilege, Jayrôme says that he only feels this when people don’t know he’s trans. “Being able to live your life only as long as you don’t say who you really are is not a privilege.” He recalls one of his first-ever experiences in a men’s locker room. “This guy was showing me a pair of very, very big sports trousers, and he was saying, ‘Can you imagine, these were mine two years ago? I was so fat – but then I did sports.’ And now he was very good-looking, very sporty. And I was internally laughing, thinking, ‘Should I get out my mobile? Should I show him pictures of me with makeup and long hair and a dress and say, ‘Can you imagine that was me before?’”
None of them have opted for bottom surgery (genital reconstruction), and the new challenge for Jayrôme, Finn and Skyler is to find a way to live as both male and trans – as men with a vagina and a female past – forging a new concept of manhood in the process.
“Sometimes when I meet new people who see me as just a dude, I feel like that’s not exactly who I am. That’s not all of me,” Skyler says. “I don’t know, I guess I just want that part of me also to be known.”
Jayrôme often challenges gender norms in his spoken-word performance – both with words and by dressing up. Unlike Finn and Skyler, Jayrôme didn’t have surgery to change his chest. Sometimes he wears a binder, and sometimes he wears a push-up bra. “A lot of men have a chest that’s big enough for them to use a bra,” he points out, grinning. “So what’s the difference between me and them?” Despite the bra, Jayrôme says he also likes to be very masculine sometimes. “But the queer scene can also be normative in its own way – if you are just presenting as a man you are going to be seen as so ‘binary’. It’s so much cooler if you wear make-up and a tie! But for me, it’s like, ‘Okay, can I just have a tie?’” he laughs.
Finn, too, resists being classified as ‘just a guy’. “The word ‘man’ doesn’t feel right,” he says. “I guess what I wanted to be before, and still want to be, is a trans person. And I think that is something I’ll always be, all my life.” Finn still doesn’t think he’s reached the end of his transition. He adds, “I often think about this idea that every seven years all the cells in our body are replaced. We’re all in constant flux. For every person, trans or not, there’s a process of realising their personality.”
READING: DAS LICHT IST WEDER GERECHT NOCH UNGERECHT by Jayrôme C. Robinet, Thu, Apr 23, 19:30 | Buchladen Buchkönigen, Hobrechtstr. 65, Neukölln, U-Bhf Schönleinstr.
Originally published in issue #137, April 2015