Saturday, 6 April 2013

Sunday Circle: In her Shoes
April 2013

Joanne Cassar has courted public controversy in a highly publicised battle in the courts for her right to marry the man she loves. Here she speaks to Philip Leone-Ganado about her childhood struggles and her difficult journey to become the woman she always wanted to be.

As a small child, Joanne Cassar loved playing with dolls and spending time with girls her age. She had a nasty habit of injuring herself every time she played sports, and preferred following her mother, a greengrocer, to work, where she would pretend to set up shop and sell items herself. But many nights before bed, as she diligently thanked God for the day, she would cry herself to sleep, wondering why He had made her the way she was. The reason for her confusion was the very thing that set her apart from any other girl her age: Joanne is transsexual.

Moreover, having been embroiled since 2005 in a bitter and public legal battle with the Maltese government for her right to marry – a case that has now gone all the way to the European Court of Human Rights– she is one of the most high-profile transsexual women in Malta. But the person I meet at the beauty salon she owns in Fgura is neither a court case nor a tragic story. She is a soft spoken woman in her early thirties (though she cheekily asks me if I can edit her age down to 24), with an infectious warmth, and a drive and independence that you sense have served her well.

Joanne was born biologically male, but has always identified as female, socially and psychologically, and completed a biological transition in her early twenties. Today, she is pragmatic about her past. “I had a disorder that needed medical intervention to fix,” she explains.“There was a difference between my mind and my body.” But it wasn’t always so easy to understand. “For as long as I can remember I knew that I was different,” she says when I ask her about her childhood. “I knew that there was such a thing as transsexual people, and when I’d hear about them I knew that what I was feeling was the same thing. But I didn’t want to be like them. I spent most of my childhood crying.”

Joanne’s school days are a blur of depression and anxiety: skipping lessons to avoid her all-male classmates, and watching her academic performance slip as a result. She remembers two other children at school with situations similar to hers, but though she spent a lot of time with them because of the differences they shared, she didn’t speak to them about their condition. “How can you? You have so many questions about yourself that you can’t possibly open up to another person.”

 It was only later, as she left school and was confronted by diversity in the form of colleagues and friends that those questions began to resolve themselves. “I spent a lot of time in gay company,” she says. “You still stand out, but it’s comfortable because everyone’s different in their own way. In time, you start to come to terms with who you are.” Eventually, Joanne felt comfortable enough to come out to her family. “When I told my mother, she just hugged me tight. She was scared; she couldn’t understand what it meant.”

At 16, Joanne started hormone therapy, the first stage of her biological transition, but the physical changes, which included growing a bust, were not easy on her family, or on her. “By then my wardrobe was all women’s clothes, but I changed it three times. I was so confused; I stopped hormones and started them again. I couldn’t bear the thought of upsetting my family. I remember sitting in my room between my bed and my brother’s: men’s clothes on one side, women’s on the other, just trying to understand…”

In the end, Joanne is adamant that there was no real choice. “The procedure is expensive, and I knew all about the pain and the possible complications, but I couldn’t live another day in a male body. I’d rather be dead with ‘Joanne’ written on my tombstone than alive with my old name.” She remembers vividly the day she describes as the best of her life: the day she completed her gender reassignment surgery. “The doctor woke me up and said: Happy Birthday,” she recalls with a broad smile. “The next three weeks were hell physically, but it was worth it: I was a woman.”

The operation changed her life. Slowly, she began to gain the confidence she had lacked her whole life. “Back then, before going out, I used to worry that I didn’t look enough like a woman. Now I only worry about whether I look my best,” she giggles. Where before she would avoid the beach and other locations for fear of what people would say, today she enjoys the attention. She still encounters prejudice on a regular basis, but she is no longer intimidated by it. “You need to be strong, but if somebody’s offended by who I am, that’s their problem, not mine,” she says. Equally, though, she has no time for sympathy. “I don’t want people to ‘accept’ me. You either want me in your life as I am, or you don’t.”

Unfortunately, Joanne has not yet been able to fully put the unhappiness of her past life behind her. Despite local authorities recognising her as a woman on her ID card and birth certificate, the government continues to oppose her right to marry the man she loves.

Much has been written about the merits of the sevenyear case, but Joanne herself sums it up with disarming simplicity. “I’m a woman. I have every right a woman has. Who am I harming by marrying my boyfriend? Why should anyone get to decide how I live my life?”

The tragic irony is that the relationship she has fought so hard to formalise has long since broken down – a victim of the stresses of a drawn-out legal battle. “We loved each other deeply,” Joanne tells me, “but the court case was just too much.” So why is the case still so important to her? “When I look at my mother and father, and how happy they are together, that’s enough. Every woman dreams of having a family,” she smiles, “I’m no different.”

Joanne believes that her strength in seeing the case through to the end will pay dividends in opening doors for others in her situation. “Nobody should have to experience the hell I went through. You shouldn’t have to justify yourself to every new person you meet.” The key, she says, is education. “Society is a lot more open and accepting than it was when I was growing up, but people still don’t really understand. If we want a truly open-minded culture, we need to introduce children to diversity as early as kindergarten.”

My interview with Joanne ends with one more story. “I opened my first salon when I was just 19,” she tells me. “I had no phone, a single pair of scissors, and just Lm31 in the bank.” On the first day of opening, she had absolutely no customers, but Joanne was willing to do anything to boost her business. “I was young and I wanted the world. I never asked my parents for help, I was ready to work hard to get what I wanted.”
It is a similar drive that has motivated her throughout her life. And though there is still a final hurdle to overcome, today, she says with a smile, she’s at peace.

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