I’ve been following Sophia Gubb’s personal development & activism blog for the last few years reading how her life has transformed as she’s gone from living in a male identity to answering to Sophia… although her blog doesn’t just focus on that by any means!
Louisa: Hi Sophia, let’s start with trans 101. When I went to school we all re-enacted the Rocky Horror Show so everyone is pretty much ok with what transsexual is, but then it gets shortened to ‘trans’ and many people don’t really know what that’s short for.
Sophia: When you shorten to trans, it isn’t really clear whether its short for transgender or transsexual, it has a slightly different meaning to me – the meaning of the word trans as opposed to the other two words. I like to use it more than the other words because it’s a little bit more inclusive. Transsexual seems to suggest that you’ve had a full physical transition including surgery. Or at least you’ve been on hormones; whereas transgender can be quite open and might be talking about people who don’t transition at all or have gender identities which don’t fit into the male or female box.
So if I just say trans, it can be any of that. It doesn’t seem to imply that I have gone anywhere with that. I usually identify as a trans woman. I don’t so often use the word transsexual or transgender for myself.
Louisa: So it’s quite an open label and more encompassing than anything other.
Sophia: I find it useful, yes.
Louisa: And I thought we might talk a little bit about how sexuality relates to gender, just so that people can get a clearer idea of this.
Sophia: Well your gender identity and who you are attracted to are two rather different things. I am mostly lesbian myself. So obviously the fact that I decided to reshape my body in a more feminine mould didn’t have anything to do with me wanting to have sex with more men… and it never does. When someone transitions, it’s because someone wants to be themselves. It has nothing to do with who they want to have sex with. The statistics about whether trans people are attracted to their own sex or another sex are quite different compared to cis people – cis meaning non-trans. About 20% of trans people are straight. In case it’s not clear what that means, that means that if I were straight I would be attracted to men. A similar proportion, I think about 30%, are gay, only attracted to their own sex. Most of the rest – there’s a few asexuals in there – but most of the rest like 50% are bisexual, and that would include me although I am more towards the lesbian end of the scale. I don’t really know why that is. I’ve thought that maybe it’s something to do with the fact that I was exposed to testosterone when I went through puberty which made me attracted to women more and that hasn’t changed. That’s a theory I’ve had, I don’t really know.
Louisa: A lot of people might ask how would you know if you were a lesbian in a man’s body, how exactly would you know that there was something not quite right? If not via your sexuality?
Sophia: Being transgender has a lot to do with your body and how you feel your body should be. I find that I have this sensation that I know my body is a female body and my brain understands it that way. Every time I see something that contradicts that it’s kind of a shock. This has been proven by some studies, it’s quite similar to the phantom limb phenomenon where if you lose a limb you still feel like you have the limb there. You have pains in it even though it isn’t there anymore. And they had a look at men who lost their penis, because of accident or sickness or surgery, they usually had a phantom penis sensation. They felt the penis was there when it wasn’t; whereas trans women, who have had surgery, who have lost their penis and gained a vagina, they usually do not find that they have a phantom penis sensation. There might be one for about a month or something but it always disappears…whereas phantom sensations in cis men do not disappear.
So it’s as if our brain has this idea of what our bodies should be. Generally I feel like I don’t have a penis unless I specifically look there and every time I look there it’s kind of a shock. In fact in a recent conversation I had I was starting to say ‘I would never talk about my vagina that way’ and then I suddenly I remembered I didn’t have a vagina.
Louisa: Ah well, I never used to even be able to say the word vagina! And I have one. So you’ve got one up on me. Let’s talk about your body and how weird and amazing it feels to be finally at home in it. I read on your blog that you liked to cup your boobs!
Sophia: Yes! As my boobs have been growing over the last few months, I’ve been rather ecstatic about them. I’ve finally calmed down about it a little bit. But until now I’ve been pretty much every day looking at my boobs in the mirror and just being so happy that I have them.
Louisa: That’s strange! For many people who were got boobs as a teenager as opposed to those who have grown them later, boobs have been a source of concern mostly. At least for me. When boys looked at them I felt embarrassed, invaded…they’ve even betrayed me when I was a teenager because they were so sensitive that anyone who would brush past me would illicit an unwanted reaction. I didn’t like the fact I had boobs growing up. And I think that many teenagers feel that way. We hunch our shoulders over so you notice them less. The fact that you love your boobs and your body is really liberating!
Sophia: I guess after so long of being uncomfortable with my body once it finally started changing the way I wanted it to, I got very happy about it. I remember that I wrote on Facebook how much my butt had been growing. And I was really happy about it, because previously my butt had been very small which is what men’s butts are like (compared to women’s butts) and I’d been very uncomfortable with the size and shape of my butt. And with hormones it grew to about three times the size. I wrote how happy I was and many of my female friends really were shocked and surprised that someone could be happy about having a big butt. I think it caused a lot of them to think in a different way about their bodies.
Louisa: So you’re not only a thought leader for the trans community but also for the cisgender female community. You’re going to teach us how to love our bodies! Because most of us don’t.
Sophia: I find that the trans experience has a lot that can teach trans people and also cis people about many different things. About our bodies, about feminism, about gender itself. I’m very happy to be in the position where I can communicate my thoughts to people.
Louisa: How much of a downside have you experienced in a female body? You’ve mentioned that you’ve suffered aggression and harassment at the hands of men AND trans people. I have suffered harassment and aggression as a cis woman. Is it not out of the frying pan into the fire?
Sophia: It is. Nowadays people can’t tell I am trans normally. Certainly not when they are passing me on the street. So I don’t get the sort of aggressions I got before when people would just be shouting shit at me or staring at me. But I do experience sexual harassment and the feeling of being unsafe in public spaces which I never felt as a man. The feeling of just walking home alone at night knowing that some guy might want to bother you or worse is a really different sensation now, even though I don’t genuinely expect anything really horrible to happen there is a tiny part of myself that’s just a bit more alert than it used to be. A bit more aware of the possibility. I’m never as relaxed as I was before. Of course I’ve had to deal with sexual harassment and recently I went to an Esperanto event in Germany where I was sexually harassed in the space of a week by two different men. That felt really incredibly uncomfortable and that particular week I would say it was worse being perceived as a woman than to be perceived as a trans person.
Louisa: I’m sorry you’re going through that.
Sophia: Yeah. It’s rather a rude awakening; when living as a man you don’t really know much about this. Perhaps you hear a bit about it. But it’s never so present or so clear as when you are experiencing it yourself.
Louisa: And you and I have talked about micro aggressions in the past. What are they?
Sophia: Well particularly when I was visible as a trans person I would be experiencing people staring at me in a funny way or people putting on a weird expression when interacting with me, perhaps just avoiding me in a subtle way, forgetting to use the right pronouns, in a way that it didn’t feel like they were really forgetting it, I felt like they really wanted to let me know that I wasn’t fooling them – that I was really a guy. That was my life before hormones. Really having many constant little reminders that I wasn’t being accepted by society for who I am. And of course nowadays being perceived as a woman there are aggressions because of misogynistic feelings that might involve someone sitting a bit too close to me or being a bit too pushy a bit too loud, like how men often dominate conversations. And I don’t really feel like being aggressive so I can get into conversations. Occasionally building themselves up whilst tearing me down in very subtle ways which have to do with the fact that they feel entitled to more respect as a man than I do as a woman. Most of all when I was visible as trans it built up and I was pretty much approaching burn out by the time I started taking hormones and it was lucky for me that it happened then and not later. It can really dominate or create an uncomfortable negative background of emotion in our lives.
Louisa: I just picked up on something in your blog, that you have Crohn’s. Both my boyfriends have Crohn’s! I don’t know of course but the slow level of emotional stress might be a contributing factor. Stress kills, isn’t that what they say?
Sophia: I think so. From what I’ve seen from other Crohn’s sufferers, they’ve almost always had a harsh childhood or some serious shit to deal with. I think that somehow it’s a contributing factor to why they get sick. As I’ve been able to heal some of my long term emotional issues, my state of physical health has improved.
Louisa: Yes for sure. Going back to your blog, I’m going to discuss something that you wrote in the past that you no longer agree with. You wrote ‘I don’t mind using phrases ‘when I was a guy’ and so on, it depends how you define being a guy and also I haven’t always felt my female identity with the same intensity. Sometimes I felt like a guy. The difference for me is that I don’t like feeling like a guy, it feels ugly or just out of place.’
Sophia: I think that was my response to a lot of what I’d been reading in the trans community and how I reacted to it with my perspective at the time. This is one of the first few articles I wrote as I started my transition. Since then I have very much changed my perspective in many ways. I sense nowadays more clearly that I have always been a woman. Besides feeling that I feel that it’s somehow important to make people understand that I’ve always felt like a woman. In a way I think that a lot of people are seeing gender as something malleable. That I’m putting on a dress and acting like a woman, so one day I could choose to act like a man again. Whereas I see my gender as something beyond that, something deeper than that. Because of that I also believe that I’ve always been who I am. I would like to be clear on that for people because I find so often that they don’t really understand this.
Gender fluidity for me is that I tend to ebb and flow between the masculine and feminine, but not so much as it’s in discordance with my sex. So I have many body image issues as a cis woman, but at what point does that became ‘I know that I’m a man’ it’s not just that I’m uncomfortable with my body?
There’s a bit of a difference between being masculine and being a man obviously! There are such things as masculine women and feminine men and everything in between. We can’t depend on being masculine or feminine as an indicator. It has more to do with other signs really. It’s more about whether you feel disassociated with other parts of your body which are indicating physical gender, such as genitals, also whether you feel comfortable referred to by he or she or whether you feel comfortable affirming yourself as a woman or as a man. It sounds complicated and that’s because it can be. It did take me a very long time to work it out. I think it can be rather complicated for a lot of people. Others just know it.
Louisa: What are the insulting things that cisgendered people do without perhaps knowing or thinking about it? I guess if you thought it through properly you would know that things were insulting…but we don’t get the opportunity to think these things through.
Sophia: It usually doesn’t make me feel too uncomfortable if people are asking just questions out of curiosity. It does often make me feel uncomfortable if people make assumptions due to the way they’ve been taught by society to see these things. I had a conversation with a cis-gay guy recently, he made me uncomfortable in several little moments. Rather subtle things. He was talking about a trans acquaintance and called her, ‘he’. He was talking about surgeries – he mentioned a mutual trans friend of ours and mentioned that this person hasn’t had a surgery yet, so he’s not a real transsexual.
Louisa: Not a real transsexual? Just a pretend one!
Sophia: I guess he thought that transsexuals had to have surgery.
Louisa: Nobody has to have surgery.
Sophia: A lot of us want surgery, but if I don’t get surgery that doesn’t mean I am not a woman. If I don’t want surgery that also doesn’t mean I am not a woman. I think in the context of trans people where we as a society are rather too obsessed about surgery and that might have something to do with the fact we are rather too obsessed about genitals. And in turn, I think because of this obsession it might be hard for some of us to understand a trans person is who they say they are. For that person genitals are so important whereas we understand that our genitals are a very small part of ourselves and do not define our gender.
Louisa: And the whole obsession with everything binary it doesn’t have to be a line… whereas one people think that it’s one way, or the other way. The end.
Sophia: And there are some positive things about having a penis!
Louisa: I’m slightly envious! I like the idea that a woman can have a penis. A unique and an exciting experience.
Sophia: It has its perks. The downside that I experience dysphoria and discomfort about my genitals but obviously there is something rather nice about having your penis inside a vagina which is different to having sex with your fingers. I suspect it’s also rather nice having a penis inside of you, which is also different from receiving finger sex. And I know that some lesbian women would be like ‘ugh a penis, no never’ but I think there is a considerable number of lesbian women who might appreciate a possibility of experiencing this type of sex which they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. It’s not black and white. I can say that much.
Louisa: It’s been 2 years almost now. It’ll soon be your second trans birthday. Is Sophia the definitive name now?
Sophia: Oh yes. I was a bit unsure at the beginning. Later on, I somehow began to feel real surety in this name. At one point I almost had the mystical feeling that it was always my name. I don’t know how true that feeling is. But I do feel very comfortable with this name now and I enjoy having been able to choose my own name. Something special.
Louisa: Do you have a second name?
Sophia: None came up. Some trans woman I’ve talked to had a long list of second names, all very feminine, giving me the impression of an extravagant many-layered wedding cake. Seraphine, Rafaela, Sophia, Isabella, Diamante…but I’m just happy with Sophia.
Louisa: So you know now who Sophia is… Do you have that answer? Will you ever have that answer?
Sophia: I have found that answer. When I wrote that I didn’t know who Sophia was, I had lost my old identity and I was in this void and didn’t know who I really was or who I was going to be. Nowadays I look back at those times and don’t understand this person I used to be, this person with a different name. I find it very difficult to connect with this image I was projecting. I have a clear sense of self now because I can look at myself in the mirror rather than disassociating from myself. I’ve come to understand myself more and more including my feminine sides which I had previously entirely repressed and ignored. Now I do experience these very feminine sides and they’ve become more natural. In that way I’ve very much come into my identity.
Louisa: And now you’ve written a book.
Sophia: Yes. For three or four months it was almost finished, but I then went through some pretty heavy depression. But it’s going to be out soon now. I’m rather happy with it. It’s not a trans autobiography. People assume that. They don’t even ask me what it’s about, they just assume it’s a trans autobiography. And of course I am trans, but my autobiography doesn’t deal with that very much because it’s about the first 18 years of my life and during those times I wasn’t aware that I was a woman. I do write about what little aspects of my life at the time seemed to reflect that. I did a word count and it was like 0.5% of the book. The rest was about dealing with parental abuse, dealing with Crohn’s disease, being very much isolated because of self-esteem issues most of all. Slowly coming to terms with my need for other people. Also trying to understand why I was suffering and trying to find meaning. It’s a struggling to survive book. It’s called Stubborn Soul.
Sophia Gubb’s book ‘Stubborn Soul’ will be out in the New Year 2015.