Charlie Smith shared her story about the highs and lows of gender reassignment surgery.

Community in profile: Navigating the world from a non conforming perspective

A Kelowna woman discusses her experience with gender reassignment surgery for Transgender Awareness Week, which runs from Nov. 14 to 20.

For transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, small cities like Kelowna haven’t always been welcoming—but times have changed and so too have attitudes.

Fewer people are looking at this city for its discrimination and alienation in the workplace, and overall rejection. It is increasingly being lauded for inclusivity.

For one 30 year old woman, in particular, Kelowna has offered stability is a time of great change. The Kelowna Capital News discusses her experience with her for Transgender Awareness Week , which runs from Nov. 14 to 20.

The event is annually celebrated across North America and, according to GLAAD, helps “raise the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people, and address the issues these communities face.”

The week finishes with the Transgender Day of Remembrance, held every Nov. 20, which honours the memories of those lives lost to transphobic violence.

Meet Charlie

Charlie Smith looks like your average, 30-year-old Kelowna woman.

Her clothes are in keeping with the fashions of the day.

Her haircut is a bit edgy. She’s tall, courtesy of a boots with a two inch heel.

There’s nothing unusual. No reason to stare.

“It wasn’t always like this,” she said, over a coffee at Starbucks in Orchard Park Mall.

“When I was first starting to transition in 2008, I found who I needed to talk to, got on the drugs to change over and I thought I was OK. But back then people were clocking me.”

“Clocking,” she explained, is what happens in the early stages of a gender transition when strangers struggle to figure out what’s what and say as much with furtive glances, gawking or painfully blunt remarks.

“Kids are super perceptive and have no filter,” she said.

“If they see something they don’t get they always say something. They don’t have ill will, but they’ll ask; ‘Mom/Dad is that a boy or a girl?’”

Such innocent commentary isn’t exactly welcomed.

“It’s very disheartening at first because you’re trying so hard,” she said.

“It really knocks you back.”

***

Fast forward a couple more years and the features that made Charlie a young man named “Charles” had slipped away.

The medications to make the gender transition had taken root and she was smooth skinned and living as a woman.

All that awaited was a new name and gender reassignment surgery.

The former adaptation, unusually, may have caused more consternation among her peers than the latter.

“People knew my new name, but they were calling me by my old one,” Smith said.

“Even the pronouns were off and eventually I had to say, ‘Please, respectfully. Just stop.’”

They didn’t, so she moved to Vancouver for a year, where she studied esthetics and met people who only knew her as Charlie, a woman.

“It was the reset I needed,” she said.

Then in 2014 she had the surgery. It’s not something all transgender people choose.

The waitlist is long because there is only one clinic in Canada that performs complex genital reconstruction surgery, the GRS clinic in Montreal.

Men transitioning to women typically need to wait six to eight months to begin surgery at the clinic, while the wait time for the more complex female-to-male surgery is between 18 months and two years.

The other problem is that until recently there wasn’t a lot of support.

Smith said she’s been lucky with doctors.

One she liked, but was too busy. Another was lacking. The most recent, she said, has been a great advocate.

“She’s a mama bear,” Smith said.

“If something goes wrong, she’s in our corner.”

Having someone in her corner was just what’s needed to get through the many complications arising from gender reassignment surgery, which is a mixed blessing.

“I thought it was going to be great,” Smith said. “But healing from the surgery is a really long process and for the first few months I was really depressed.

“They tell you in literature, this is what the surgery will be like …out of the gate this is what it will be like.”

There’s a difference, she explained, from what you see, what you’ve done and what the reality is.

“When I got out of that slump, I was mostly fine,” she said.

“The person I’m with now really helped me.”

***

Eight years after starting the journey toward womanhood, life is better for Smith but not uncomplicated.

For one, her interactions with the world have been on continually shifting ground.

First she spoke and was spoken to as a boy. Then as a gay man.

Then as a man transitioning to being a woman.

There’s nuances in each that most people don’t have to think about, she explained.

The biggest learning curve, however, was when she became a woman.

“What I’ve learned being a woman is that you can’t take b*llshit at all, so a woman’s confidence is very natural to her,” she said.

“That’s what I needed to learn and I didn’t have that. Some men have a lot of bravado that hides who they are.”

She’s also had health complications relating to her surgery and, because local healthcare has yet to adapt to the needs of gender reassignment patients that’s meant another trip to Montreal.

“This has been the most trying thing for me as it has taken a year and a half to even get through, to have corrective surgery,” she said.

The surgery is paid for by the government, as is the place she will stay in the immediate aftermath.

But the cost of recovering is on her, she said, on a GoFundMe page that outlined everything she’s had to endure. (https://www.gofundme.com/2sk4r2zk)

“I’ll most certainly using EI sick leave to ensure I can keep a roof but those pay cheques are barely survivable by today’s standards,” she said.

“What has prompted the creation of this campaign is the lack of confidence I have returning to the work force in January as retail jobs are not the most secure as we all know.

“So I am creating this campaign in all honesty to ensure a host of things: I still have a place to live, a functional car which I can gas up, food, rent in case money becomes too tight and enough buffer cash to pay for any other medical costs which can arise.”

Smith said that even making the request was humbling, but the situation this time is far too fragile for her to feel confident in handling this all by myself.

“We’re just people,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for eight years and it’s still a struggle… I don’t regret it… but it’s a struggle and I want to help other people understand and realize these things and become more open.”

Politics and pride

Okanagan MPs support the idea of enshrining the rights of transgender people by adding gender identity and expression to human rights and hate crime laws.

The House of Commons voted by a margin of 248 to 40 in October to pass the legislation, known as Bill C-16, at second reading.

It is now heading to the justice committee.

Kelowna Lake Country MP Stephen Fuhr’s vote is recorded in favour, while Central-Okanagan Similkameen-Nicola MP Dan Albas didn’t vote because he was travelling on Parliamentary business as the Finance Committee was conducting pre budget consultations.

If he’d been there, he too would have offered his support, he said Thursday.

The legislation would, if passed, make it illegal under the Canadian Human Rights Act to deny someone a job or otherwise discriminate against them in the workplace on the basis of the gender they identify with or outwardly express.

It would also amend the Criminal Code so that gender identity and expression would be included in hate speech laws.

“It’s something that obviously we want to support so everyone has the same access to justice,” Albas said.

“I do think that people, especially now with the internet, are more understanding.

“They know someone who has suffered with intolerance. So it’s important that our institutions are current and they speak to each one of us.”

Albas also added that the Okanagan he knows has always been an accepting place, but there have been strides to greater inclusivity in recent years.

“There are issues that came up in attitudes and casual remarks and I don’t see that anymore,” he said.

“People are more aware and socially conscious. We respect each other work with each other and institutions need to do the same thing.”

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould brought forth the bill which will ultimately have to get through the Senate.