Kelly Worrall is facing every parent’s worst nightmare. Last year her spouse took their three kids on holiday to another country, then from there declared the couple’s relationship over and never came back. For anyone, the legal and logistical challenges involved in bringing the children back to Canada and regaining custody would be tremendous, but for Worrall they’re seemingly insurmountable. She says she faces discrimination at every turn, because she’s transgender.
“Transgender people don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to custody battles overseas,” Worrall tells the Straight in an interview at a downtown Vancouver coffee shop. “It’s all really, really bad. This is parental child abduction. The Canadian police refer me to the Singaporean court system, and the Singaporean court system doesn’t give a damn.”
In a candid conversation just prior to the upcoming Pride Week that spans everything from the dearth of health services for the trans community to people’s judgment of its members, Worrall explains that, even though she’s finally able to be who she really wants to be, the life of a transgender person, even in a progressive city like Vancouver, is difficult.
Worrall got married in 2002, when she was still John. Up until 2010, she identified as a straight male, even though while she was growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, she always wanted to play with Barbies and never felt like a “typical” guy.
“I was really upset I wasn’t a girl and didn’t understand why I wasn’t,” Worrall says. “I just thought, ‘Find a way to get over that and get on with your life.’ After high school, I decided I was just going to try to be a guy. I drank a lot. I womanized a lot. I joined the army.”
In 1996 she got a job producing video games, then met her wife, a Singapore native, online two years later. They married soon after and started a family, eventually settling in Vancouver.
“I had everything I wanted in my life,” Worrall says. “I had three amazing children, a wife that I loved, and I was working as producer in a game company, but I was still not happy and I couldn’t understand why.”
At a gaming conference she met a woman named Jessica Mulligan, a senior online game producer who’s transgender. Inspired by her courage, Worrall started being honest with herself and others about her own feelings about her identity.
“The first person I turned to was my wife,” Worrall says. “I said, ‘I’ve got this thing I can’t shake and it’s killing me, but I’ve got to figure it out. I’m fairly certain that all along I’ve been female.’ ”
In the summer of 2010, Worrall made the decision to transition from male to female, and officially came out as a woman on June 24, 2011. The month before that, her wife took their kids to her home country to visit her ailing mother, and although Worrall was worried they might not come back, her wife promised the kids would return in time for school that fall.
Worrall Skypes with her kids but struggles with depression and concentration and memory problems that have resulted in her taking a leave of absence from a job she loves at Electronic Arts. Earlier this year, she ended up in hospital because she was suicidal (and was taken to get medical help in handcuffs).
“When somebody goes transgender, everybody panics. Families are broken up and people don’t talk to each other anymore. You can have people who have a rainbow sticker on their bumper and who identify as very liberal but who will neglect me and other transgender people of any rights.”
Aside from the devastating situation with her family, Worrall says that other aspects of her transition have gone well. She credits Electronic Arts with being supportive, accommodating, and respectful toward her ever since she first divulged her impending switch.
“They have been phenomenal,” she says. “The Vancouver community has been phenomenal. They’ve allowed me to be who I am. I have wonderful friends in the queer community and great friends who are not in the queer community.
“I’m putting a lot of my attention toward trying to normalize transgender people. I like the fact that I could take the [Sky]train here and walk five blocks and, sure, I get one or two looks, but nothing dangerous. I’ve been through some very difficult emotional things, so when somebody looks at me and calls me ‘Sir’ it’s not going to throw me. I get called ‘Sir’ most of the time. Most people don’t realize that I don’t want to be called ‘Sir’.”
Almost daily, however, the 38-year-old East Vancouver resident encounters challenges associated with being transgender. She remembers going to a bar in Port Moody that she used to frequent when she was a man and after she came out as transgender.
“One guy came over to me and said, ‘Listen, I don’t care if you’re gay or whatever but you see those guys over there? They hate you because you’re trying so hard to be so different. So you better stop trying to act so different or I can’t tell you what’s going to happen.’ ”
Many transgender people feel isolated, with about 62 percent experiencing depression and 32 percent attempting suicide, according to B.C. Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.
Worrall says three members of the trans community killed themselves this past Christmas. Being shunned by family is a common experience among transgender people; so is having trouble finding work and a place to live.
“If you and I had the exact same skill set, even if an employer thinks, ‘I’m not going to discriminate,’ one of these people is going to cause waves and one is not,” she says. “It’s the same problem with housing. The trans person looks like the person who’s going to have issues. It all works together and creates this terrible cycle and an unstable life.”
Worrall says that health services in Vancouver specifically targeted at the transgender community are sorely lacking.
When she was hospitalized in February because of suicidal thoughts, the doctors released her after a few days, saying they couldn’t help her because she didn’t have a specific psychiatric diagnosis.
She describes Vancouver Coastal Health’s Transgender Health Program (THP) as lacking sufficient resources to serve the entire province, as it’s supposed to.
THP medical director Gail Knudson explains that the program offers educational rather than health services.
“The THP was started after the Gender Clinic at VGH was closed due to budget cuts in the early 2000s,” Knudson tells the Straight. “Some people are under the impression that we still have the same program with physicians, nurses, psychologists, and social workers, but we do not. Our staff assist clients and health-care professionals in navigating the health-care system as well as the legal system in areas such as name change. Our overall mandate is education, not clinical care.”
Although they’re grateful for whatever support they can get, members of the trans community are upset that the THP falls under the framework of Vancouver Coastal Health’s Mental Health and Addictions Services.
“We have been pushing to get that out of that umbrella for a long time,” says Marie Little, chair of the volunteer-driven Trans Alliance Society. “I’ve been present when somebody shows up for the Thursday-night support group and when they open the door and see all the brochures in the waiting room about mental health and addiction, they walk out. They’re already dealing with one stigma.
“We have people from Kelowna who try to be in town on a Thursday night just for that support group,” she adds. “The situation in Vancouver is one thing, but for other areas of the province it’s vastly different. What about people living up north or on the Island?”
Little notes that trans people often have trouble finding medical professionals who understand their unique physiological concerns or who are willing to treat them at all.
“Some people have a really hard time getting a GP who will take them,” Little says. “There are individual doctors who have prejudices.”
The system itself can cause problems too.
“I have a friend who has done the whole thing legally: she’s a woman, changed her driver’s licence, and did all the paperwork. She had complications from surgery and, since she now has a vagina and not a penis, she went to a gynecologist. The doctor was reasonably friendly but didn’t get paid by MSP [the Medical Services Plan] because they said males don’t need the services of a gynecologist. It took months to get that straightened out.”
A huge concern is that B.C. residents who wish to have sex-reassignment surgery have to go to a private clinic in Montreal for the procedure. (A local plastic surgeon, Cameron Bowman, has been trained in sex-reassignment surgery and does chest procedures for trans men and women but not phalloplasties or vaginoplasties.)
Not providing the surgery locally costs B.C. taxpayers more, says the NDP MLA for Vancouver–West End, Spencer Chandra Herbert.
Chandra Herbert has introduced a bill to have transgender people protected under the B.C. Human Rights Code, but so far the B.C. Liberal government hasn’t shown any support for the measure.
“There are no explicit protections for transgender British Columbians under our human rights code,” Chandra Herbert says. “I wrote to the Liberals [last spring] saying, ‘This doesn’t have to be a partisan issue; I will work with you in any way to make this happen.’ I got a response from [Attorney General] Shirley Bond saying, ‘We’ll look at this when we do a fuller review of the Human Rights Code.’ I wrote back and asked when this review was going to happen and was told there are no plans for review at this time. So basically I got nowhere. It might take a change of government to get this to happen.
“I remember when I was on the park board asking a senior staff member if the park board washrooms and facilities were inclusive of trans folks, and this person said, ‘What does that word mean?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Ontario, Manitoba, and the Northwest Territories provide legal protection for transgender people, and a nonprofit group called the Nova Scotia Rainbow Action Project is calling on that province to give them specific protection under the law.
Chandra Herbert says that Pride Week is an opportunity to acknowledge how far people in the LGBT community have come, and it’s also a time to fight for change that’s so desperately needed.
“While Pride is a celebration for many, it’s also a protest that such inequality still exists,” Chandra Herbert says. “I’m so impressed by the bravery of the trans community. We still have a long way to go in B.C., and while we can celebrate freely on the street, there are still many people who cannot be who they are.”
For Worrall, Pride is a meaningful time.
“Before I came out, the images I saw of people celebrating their identities filled me with emotion,” she says. “I was amazed by their courage, their freedom, and their audacity to be themselves despite so many people telling them that they shouldn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t dare. When I saw images from Pride celebrations around the world, I saw strength and beauty, and I wished I’d had the courage to be that brave.
“It’s really, really hard for trans people,” she adds. “Some people say, ‘Why don’t you just go back to being a guy?’ I can’t do that; I never really was a guy. But you can’t just sacrifice who you are. The alternative is you live a sheltered, huddled life that you can’t stand and you loathe yourself for thinking the things you think and for not doing anything about it. I would be miserable. I just wish I knew it was going to cost me my kids. No one told me that. I miss my kids terribly."
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