"I wish I'd known I needn't feel obliged to talk about my genitals to random people at parties."
A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Denmark
Being a teenager is shit – it always has been and always will be. It's that time in your life when you are trying to figure out who you are, while being under the complete control of your hormones and your parents. But the teenage struggle becomes even more unbearable when you feel that the body you're growing into, isn't really yours.
Growing up transgender comes with its own set of challenges, but – slowly – attitudes towards trans people are changing. General awareness around trans issues is increasing, and over the past few years, a growing number of countries are making it easier for trans people to access healthcare and change their legal gender. So while being a trans teen is still difficult and the stigma remains, the experience is probably a lot different than it was a few decades ago. To find out how the older generation feels about all that now, I asked six Danish and British trans women in their forties, fifties and sixties to write down what they wish they had known when they were growing up.
Juno Roche, 53, United Kingdom
"When I was young, I always felt that I wasn't good enough, not feminine enough, not masculine enough, not tall enough, not short enough, too heavy footed, too dainty. The world told me – directly and indirectly – that I would never fit in, that I would constantly be on the outside looking in. But I was good enough, just as I was. I wish I had known when I was younger that I was enough, just as I was.
So I wish I'd known that, and I wish I'd had the courage to live as I was, instead of feeling I needed to wait to be "finished". I used to think that my transition had to be complete before my life could really start. I missed out on so much because of that, and I now feel I'm always playing catch-up. Life is about being a work in progress – it would have been great to know that from the start."
Maria Lakomska, 40, Denmark
"The first thing I would tell my teenage self, is to ignore all the noise. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the issue of transgender rights, and people aren't afraid to share their views – sometimes by yelling it out or physically assaulting you as you walk down the street. As hard as it is to do, it's important to block it out. All that matters is what you think, and how you feel.
When people come out as trans, they're putting themselves in a very vulnerable position. But even though it can be painful, it's worth it, because it's the right path. I wish I understood back then that I don't have to be grateful for being treated with the same respect as other people – and that I definitely needn't feel obliged to talk about my genitals to random people at parties."
Kate O'Donnell, 52, United Kingdom
"I'm now a trans performer and activist, and artistic director of my own trans theatre company. I earn my living as a full-time queer, but when I was growing up in the 1970s, no one around me knew what being transgender was – least of all my family. Never mind being queer or trans – in those days, anything other than heterosexual was considered subversive. I remember that when I was growing up, we would peak through the curtains to watch 'the lesbian' across the road unpack her groceries – like she was from another planet.
When I was a kid, there was nothing positive about being queer, it was dangerous. I wish I could have known then that being queer was actually a wonderful thing and to relax, enjoy it, get better at it, learn more about it and love it. I wish I could have whispered in my ear: 'Hang in there you gorgeous queer thing, everything will be fine.'"
Brennan Young, 46, Denmark
I wish I had known that I didn't have to come across as a "convincing" transgender person. I wanted to pass as a woman, but I couldn't – I'm too tall, my shoulders are too broad and other body parts aren't the right shape or size. I'm fine with that, now.
Back then, you basically had two options – you were a transvestite or a transsexual. Today, there's this whole palette of gender variations. I'm not entirely sure if that's a good or a bad thing, because I feel there is some risk of getting caught up in the distinctions, and gender is just one of many markers we use to identify ourselves. But at least it's easier to recognise yourself somewhere on the palette. I identify as non-binary, which wasn't considered a thing back then. That was an obstacle for me; I was unable to move on. I was convinced I was sick, that something was wrong with me. I wanted to kill myself because I couldn't bear having with this disease for the rest of my life.
That changed when I discovered feminism, and realised there were other issues about gender that had nothing to do with being transgender – that it wasn't my fault that I didn't fit into any of the boxes. So I'd tell my younger self to get educated about feminism straight away. When I discovered that I was not ill, and that something else was wrong, a huge burden was lifted from my shoulders.
Rikki Arundel, 67, United Kingdom
"I started feeling unhappy with my birth gender when I was about 7 years old. When I was taken to see a child psychiatrist, he didn't see it as a gender issue but concluded that I had a difficulty bonding with boys my own age. I am thankful for that – my parents would not have been supportive and in the 1950s, one of the treatments for gender dysphoria was electroconvulsive therapy.
If I had known back in the 1950s and 60s what I know now, I may have decided to transition sooner, but I'm not sure that would have been the right thing for me. Looking at young trans people today, I do feel some envy that they're able to get help and support, and can avoid going through puberty in the wrong gender. They have the option to transition in a way that enables them to blend in as members of the right gender easier. But transitioning later in life also meant I was better equipped to face all the challenges that came with it – I have enjoyed my journey as a trans woman. But I also enjoyed my previous life as a man – despite constantly feeling that I was in the wrong body."
Henriette Kristensen, 52, Denmark
"I would tell my younger self to face all challenges by breaking them into little bits I was able to handle. It's easier to take small steps – it'll make you feel like you're always moving forward, and you won't be overwhelmed when something bad happens.
I'd tell myself to start by finding one friend who truly understands, and then slowly move through my social circle. And to be patient with people, especially family and friends. I've learned that you can't expect others to immediately get it – they might just be shocked by how sudden the transition is for them. And I'd tell the younger me to calm down, that she'll have plenty of time to live her truth. Hormones don't change your body overnight, and it takes a long time to discover yourself. Changing your name and social security number is not something you just do. It is very difficult to pick up the phone and say your new name.
I also wish I had been courageous enough to come out earlier. It's something you have to do, but I wish I'd had the option of changing in a comfortable and positive way instead of standing on the edge, being forced to make a choice."