Rian: GaySA Radio, where you are family. Coming up in my trans journey, Rachel Dreyer speaking to us. Rachel is a transgender woman who shares the story of her journey through being diagnosed with gender dysphoria, two failed marriages and attempted suicide. Rachel’s greatest joy came when she woke up for the first time as a woman at thirty-eight and realised that this is who she was actually meant to be. Rachel, how did your journey start?
Rachel: Well, my first questioning happened when I was around four or five, we were on holiday with friends and we went shopping, and all of the girls got Alice bands and when I chose one for myself I was told that I could not have it because I’m not a girl. And this threw me back a little bit because I didn’t really see the difference between other girls and me. I was very confused. Also, going to the bathroom, I just followed with the other girls and I was reprimanded for this quite heavily. After that I kind of made a mental note of what I should be doing and where I should be going. Playing dress-up was fun for me but again I was reprimanded because boys are not supposed to be doing that and slowly I began to realise that something wasn’t quite right. I was a boy but I did like some things that girls did, and this was evident through my youth and I slowly figured out what I was allowed to do and what was taboo. Going on to that, school was another big learning curve for me, sometimes I let it slip and I ended up in the girl’s line for assembly or other activities, which I was reprimanded and I had to constantly think and remind myself that I’m a boy, I need to go to the boy’s side and do the boy’s things, and it was just a nightmare. I didn’t have many friends in the lower grades as I wasn’t really into soccer and rugby and cricket and things like that, and I didn’t have many girl friends either because the girls were like, “boys, yuck, gross, keep away”, and that sort of left me in the middle of everything, questioning why I felt like this, and that was the start of my depression, and I developed quite a bad stutter after that.
Rian: From the depression?
Rachel: Ja, it was all caused by the depression which I only found out later on in life. Let’s move on to high school. Oh my goodness, high school was torture. Peer pressure, puberty… puberty was something else.
Rian: How did you handle that?
Rachel: Well, my body was going through changes, and it was like this feeling that something is happening to you that just did not feel right, it felt alien you know, and it just made the depression even worse, and then I started to become attracted to females, and this was a bad space for me because by that time I learnt how to fit in with the boys to a certain level and how to act around girls you know, macho, show off your arms and do sports, you know the normal thing, and inside I was hurting so badly because I knew something was wrong, something was fundamentally wrong and I just did not know what it was. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. So to fight it off I had to put all my efforts into my studies and sports, and I even went as far to do something very manly like motocross, and that was my horrible high school years.
Rian: Going through high school and stuff, at what point in time did you actually realise wait a minute, I’m different? I’m completely different than everyone else around me?
Rachel: Well at that stage I knew that from about standard four that you know, something was wrong and I was a little bit different but it became very evident in about standard six, I knew that I’m not like everyone else and something is wrong.
Rian: How did you accept it?
Rachel: Well that will come at a later stage. After school, after studying I got a job in the manufacturing industry because that is what all men do, you know? So I put all my efforts and time into proving that I was good enough at my job and the next thing in life obviously for a man is you know, meet a girl, get married, have a child, you know, the normal thing, and two years after my son was born the depression really hit me badly and I went into a bit of overdrive, and I started to lose my grip on life and I went to go see a psychologist and we went back and forth for about eight months, and they gave me an official diagnosis. I was suffering from a condition called gender dysphoria, which at that stage I did not know even what that was. That threw me completely off, so I did a bit of research and find out what it actually means and I basically told my psychologist that there is no ways, that is not me, I’m sorry but we’re looking at this whole thing completely wrong, so I didn’t tell my wife because she would not have accepted it so I struggled for about another six months after that with the depression and I just couldn’t bear to live feeling like this, so I tried to end my life. That was a bad thing for me to do but in the circumstances I just did not have the will in me anymore, I was just completely numb and broken. So obviously that was unsuccessful so I went back to therapy with my wife at that time and then the whole story came out and she freaked and within a week I had divorce summons and my wife and my child was gone. And ja, I was refused visitation rights for nearly a year and that just totally messed me up.
Rian: I can imagine.
Rachel: And I followed with my psychologist and he said to me that I needed to start exploring this side of me and see if it helps with the anxiety and panic attacks, which it did but afterwards I was riddled with guilt and I felt ashamed, I mean I’m a man, why am I doing this, you know? And I basically, one of the tasks was to present myself as a female when I‘m not at work, in the privacy of my own home to see how I feel about it, so that freaked me out and I ended up throwing everything out and deciding that I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m a man, I’ve got to live a normal life in society. So I threw everything out and I carried on, and time passed again, and I met another girl and I got married and I had a daughter, and I bought a house and basically I had everything any man could ever want, everything. My depression and panic attacks returned and the anxiety, so I thought you know what, this is getting a bit crazy so I went back to therapy to try and fix this, I mean there has to be some sort of cure for it, you know? So I went to my therapist and my wife came with me…
Rian: This is now the second wife, the new wife?
Rachel: Ja, and basically the beans were spilt there and the therapist told my wife that I had to transition to be able to function normally in society and to be who I am, and my wife turned and said no, she’s not accepting any of this, sorry and she walked out.
Rian: Oh my word.
Rachel: And after that things just went downhill. My body started to shut down due to stress and lack of sleep, and then I found out that my wife has been cheating on me for the last four years, and two days after that my father had a stroke. And ja, basically put that together it was more than I could handle, and that was the shove for my second suicide attempt.
Rachel: Fortunately I survived that and when I got out of the hospital I had no wife, I had no child, I had no house, I had nothing. I was literally thrown into the street with one suitcase and my car, that’s it. I stayed on the street for two days, sleeping in my car at the police station because that was the safest option, and I managed to find a place to stay and I built myself up from there. That was basically the point in my life where I realised I could no longer live like this and I wanted to die, I just could not live like this anymore, any longer. So I had to attend mandatory therapy sessions due to my suicide attempt which was very difficult and basically the mandate was that I had to accept that I was transgender and move on with my life. Although I questioned it every day, I went through all of the evaluations yet again and then after that I was prescribed hormone replacement therapy for a three month trial to see how it would interact with me and how I would feel. Not much happened after the first two months but on two and a half months more or less. Ja, I woke up one morning and I just felt okay and I was able to breathe normally, I saw life around me, colours, I could hear the birds singing, I was seeing things that I don’t normally notice and ja, I just felt like whatever was happening was doing something right and I can’t really describe to you the sense of peace and euphoria I was beginning to actually feel. It’s like I was in a dream and I was only waking up now. And coming back to your question, it was only at this point that I realised you know what, I am a transgender female, and transitioning was the cure to my depression, my anxiety, my panic attacks. After that my stuttering began to lessen and lessen and now it’s almost not that noticeable anymore, so at thirty-seven years of age, after living a life that didn’t feel right, I started to transition medically and socially.
Rachel: And ja, that’s about at the point.
Rian: What were the most difficult things you had to deal with on your journey so far and how did this hurdle help you?
Rachel: well, to single out the most difficult thing would be impossible because each obstacle has its own ups and downs and it’s a bit different from each other. In my opinion my entire life has been difficult up to this point and I can’t tell you if it will get better or not, it depends on the future but I can give you a few sort of points…
Rian: Yes please.
Rachel: …that were very difficult for me. The first one was coming to terms with being diagnosed with gender dysphoria, if you don’t know what it is or how it works, or you know nothing about transgender or gender non-conforming people.
Rian: And it’s such a real condition, people don’t realise but it’s actually such a real thing.
Rachel: It is, yes. It is very real, and then the second one is informing your partner that you have this condition. That was very difficult to actually do, watching them take everything you own and love away from you, watching your kids shun away like you have some sort of a disease, fighting suicidal thoughts all of the time. A big one is the decision to transition, that’s probably one of the biggest ones.
Rian: That has to be incredibly difficult to take that decision.
Rachel: It is. There’s just so many things that go through your mind; what’s your family going to say, what’s your friends going to say, what is your place of employment going to do, you know? You might lose your job, you might lose your family, you might lose your friends, it’s really something to think about before you decide to transition. Taking my first dose of hormones and not knowing what’s going to change or what’s going to happen to you. Coming out to friends and family, having family tell you that you are dead to them and transitioning at work and socially, dealing with transphobic and non-supporting people, and there’s my favourite point; public humiliation in the beginning of transition, that is just plain horrible. Those are just some of the difficulties, each of them is equally hard to deal with in their own way. Coming to terms and accepting that you have gender dysphoria was the most difficult thing for me to do because I was raised old school. Being anything other than normal was just something that was taboo. Not knowing anything about transgender or gender non-conforming people made it even worse. It’s like you have this sick alien disease that very few people have heard of and there is no cure except you trying to live life as this deformed person with this mental illness, it’s just the worst thing in the world to do to yourself or to see anyone actually go through that. Only once I started doing research on what transgender actually was and I met my first transgender person that my eyes started to see things in a little bit of a different light, that all of these strange people with this so-called sick alien disease are actually normal, good, kind, functioning people, and that was quite a big helping hand because there are transgender people all over the place and they function pretty normally in society. Starting HRT, if I can open that up a little bit, it’s very difficult as you don’t know how your mind and your body are going to react, and obviously the dangers of taking cross-hormone medication like the risk of stroke, liver and kidney damage, it’s scary. It’s really scary knowing that you are putting this medication into your body and you know the side effects you might get but you’re willing to take that risk because it’s either that or you end up in the grave anyway, so once the medication starts kicking in it’s like the fog in your mind sort of opens up and you start seeing things clearly, and wow I tell you, it’s just something unreal, it’s probably the best feeling ever, feeling that something’s going wrong and something’s going right and it’s beginning to feel right.
Rian: And of course I’ve heard with the hormones the emotional roller coaster you go on with the treatment is also something you can’t describe to anybody?
Rachel: Ja, put it to you this way, one minute you want to rip someone’s head off and throw it against the wall, and five minutes later you’re just laughing for no apparent reason and a little bit later on you’re crying your eyes out over something so small, it’s really an emotional roller coaster, it’s… ja.
Rian: If you look back, what would you say was your darkest hour?
Rachel: My darkest hour was probably when my second wife threw me out and I was on the street with nothing, no place to go, no friends to support me, that was basically rock bottom.
Rian: But I think that that experience in itself, unless you’ve been through it you can’t describe to anybody what you’re going through at that point in time.
Rachel: Ja, you would rather cut your arms off to get rid of the pain that you are feeling at that moment, it’s probably one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
Rian: You’ve gone through a lot of pain and you’ve gone through a lot of hurt, on this journey have there been people who have been supportive to you in any way?
Rachel: I have had in the beginning stages, the only support I had was from my therapist because everyone else sort of kicked me to one side because I was so-called mentally unstable and I had this disease, but after I interacted with a few people and explained that I am transgender and this is what transgender is and this is how to fix it and this is how you interact with someone like me, and the main problem there is people are not educated and they are not aware of gender dysphoria and transgender people.
Rian: Your family, immediate family, how did they react? Was there support from them?
Rachel: Well, when I came out to them they basically were so shocked that they didn’t know what to say to me and no, they were not supportive at all. I did come out to two of my friends and the one supported me for a while and then once the changes became evident they sort of backed off, and I still have a friend that has been with me throughout my transition and he has been an absolute pillar of support.
Rian: So this has been a very lonely journey?
Rachel: It is very lonely. It’s very isolated, it basically gives you a lot of time to think about everything and that is the worst thing to do, is actually have time on your hands while you are going through this because it brings up a lot of negative thoughts. So if you are transitioning it’s good to have a support system, whether it be family or friends or just someone who you can go and see and speak to, you know? It helps tremendously.
Rian: Now the other thing I want to know is work-wise, how did work react and accept when you went to transition, and this is a very interesting one because I’m in contact with you on Whatsapp and I got this picture the other day of you in a hard hat and with a caption that said this cookie is as tough as nails or something like that, and it made me smile. You’re in the manufacturing business you said?
Rachel: Yes I am. It is probably one of the most manly industries that one can be in.
Rian: And there you are, how did they accept it, how did they deal with it? How did you deal with it?
Rachel: Well let me tell you a little bit about the background, okay? I have been working for the company for twenty-one years so I basically have been there from a young age. In March 2017 I got the go-ahead to start HRT, on the 15th of April 2017 I took my first dose of HRT and the 22nd of July I decided you know what, this is me, this is who I am, it’s time the rest of the world saw that. So on the 22nd of July 2017 I went full-time, but before I did that I went to go see my HR department and my manager and I said to them listen, this is what has happened, this is my diagnosis, I have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, I am fixing it by transitioning so I am a transgendered female now and I will be starting work as a female. This threw them back a little bit…
Rian: I can imagine.
Rachel: …because they have been dealing with me for twenty years, so I mean it was quite a shock for them. So I said to them okay, so this is what we need to do and this is how we are going to do it and I need my documents changed to my preferred name and ja, let’s get the ball going, and my colleagues were a little bit blown away but I slowly started to grow my hair out and I started coming to work with eye-liner on and then that progressed to a bit of mascara and you know, small changes over a period of time just to get everyone used to the idea and ja, one morning I just woke up and I decided right, today is the day I’m going full-time and full make-up and hair done and there we go, off I went and I’ve never looked back.
Rian: It’s just such a happy story.
Rachel: Ja, by no means was it easy.
Rian: No, I can imagine.
Rachel: Not easy at all because being the first person to do this at my company, there’s no procedures, no one knows how to deal with you so it was a big learning curve for myself and for them as well, and I’m pleased to announce that I have just finished submitting a transgender employment and transitioning policy to our company.
Rachel: If that gets approved it will become a standard, not only for all of the branches in South Africa, but internationally as well.
Rian: Wow, congratulations on that one.
Rachel: Thank you very much.
Rian: It’s not just the hard hat that makes her a tough cookie, she is.
Rachel: I am tough, I mean…
Rian: You’d have to be.
Rachel: If you’d been through what I’ve been through you either fold or you become as tough as nails.
Rian: You are incredibly brave, you are a very, very brave, unique, amazing soul.
Rachel: Thank you.
Rian: Rachel, how far are you in your journey at the moment, tell us how you are today coping with things and what plans you have for the future?
Rachel: Okay, basically I am living full-time and I am fitting into society quite normally. I have applied for my gender marker change, my name change at the department of home affairs. That was done in November 2017 and I’m still waiting for the department of home affairs to process my documentation, which is an absolute nightmare.
Rian: I’ve heard that can be challenging.
Rachel: It is very challenging because if I want to do anything I have to use my old identity documents, and I was at the bank the other day, I needed to do some changes and they asked me for my ID book.
Rian: And of course you don’t look like the ID book anymore.
Rachel: No, the lady behind the counter said “I’m sorry ma’am, I’m going to need your ID book”, so ja, it’s a bit of a challenge, that. I regard myself as a female now and I’d like to begin to have surgeries done like breast augmentation, that I’d like to have done in the near future because HRT can only do so much and gender reassignment surgery or sexual reassignment surgery, or gender confirmation surgery is probably on the list in the near future because it’s a big cause of my dysphoria, you know? Not having the right parts is crippling sometimes.
Rian: And also this is a huge decision to take, I mean it’s not an easy decision that you’re making here.
Rachel: No it’s not, because once that’s done there’s no going back at all.
Rian: Would you want to go back anyway?
Rachel: At this point, after what I have been through and after the improvement in my life I know that I should have been born a woman. I know that for a fact, I can guarantee that. I’m a hundred percent sure, so I’m scared of the operation because of the risks behind it and the pain and recovery, and the expense of it, but am I scared of losing any body parts, no because they shouldn’t have been there in the first place, that is how I feel.
Rian: If I ask you what is great about being transgendered, what would you say?
Rachel: Well, there are so many negatives about being trans in the world that we live in. What is great about it? Well, for instance who gets to live two completely different lives, one as male and then one as female?
Rian: That is so true and I was so waiting for you to say that to me.
Rachel: I mean the difference in everyday life, from being male and now being female, it’s completely different, you look at things differently, you react differently, it’s completely different, and it’s exceptional because only one percent of the world’s population get to experience that, so it’s a very unique journey, not everyone can say that they have actually done that. So yes, that is one big positive. Going through puberty again, that was interesting I must say, it was actually quite interesting. Dating again, on the opposite side of the fence.
Rian: Yes, because you’ve actually now got to do this, you’ve been on both sides of the fence, dating in both genders actually?
Rachel: Yes. It was probably after about the six month mark on HRT where I began to experience a definite, solid shift in attraction and that scared the hell out of me, as you can imagine. All of a sudden you’re sitting, speaking to this man and you kind of get this manly smell and you start looking at his arms and you look into his eyes and your heart starts beating fast and your stomach starts to turn and your legs feel like wet spaghetti and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s quite a shock, ja. So that is an experience on its own, let’s just say that. And then there’s the clothes, wow, men are missing out big time.
Rian: You think?
Rachel: The colours, the patterns, the cut, the dresses, the skirts, the make-up, growing your hair, hair styling, jewellery, shoes, don’t forget the shoes.
Rian: So you’ve got a thing for shoes?
Rachel: Yes, I do.
Rian: How many pairs? I just have to ask this, how many pairs of shoes do you have?
Rachel: To be honest, I’ve got six pairs.
Rian: Okay, that’s not too bad, I’ve seen worse.
Rachel: Oh don’t worry, my collection is growing rapidly every month. I need to add…
Rian: Please do.
Rachel: High heels are fantastic, they do wonders for the legs and the butt, but they are torture devices, absolute torture. They do look very good and they come with a hefty price tag but definitely a torture device that should have remained in the medieval times. For any girl out there who wears high heels for longer than four hours, I bow down to you, I am not worthy. It’s difficult, very, very difficult, and it’s sore. It hurts your feet terribly, so for all the guys out there, please, if your woman wears high heels for extended periods of time, when you get back home take them off and rub her feet. Trust me, she will appreciate it like you cannot believe.
Rian: I’m going to make a mental note, whenever I come back in the next lifetime, make sure after this advice that I do not wear high-heel shoes.
Rachel: But what it does to your posture and your body, and I mean every girl has to look good, so I would say it’s a worthwhile exercise.
Rian: What were the best things that’s happened to you?
Rachel: Best things that have happened to me? I would say that probably being a transgender person because it’s opened my eyes, you know? I’ve seen both sides of life. I’ve seen what happens to people, I’ve seen how society reacts to people and since I’ve started living an authentic life I have made true friends, people that are sticking with me because they want to stick with me, you know? Ja, I’ve been accepted by ninety percent of people socially and at work as well, I have my two children which I’m very thankful for and for once in my life I’m happy, I’m really, truly happy.
Rian: And you are seeing your kids? You’ve been allowed custody or visitation rights?
Rachel: Yes, it took a while to have that sorted out but yes, I have got full access to both of my children, which they are my life.
Rian: And how did they accept the transition?
Rachel: My daughter was fine, she sort of got the idea that so-called daddy is looking a little bit different, and she started asking questions, so I just explained to her you know, daddy was not happy living as a man so daddy’s busy taking medication and doing things so I can become a woman so I can be happy, and she said to me “Okay, that’s fine. Now let’s go put some make-up on”. She’s absolutely fantastic with it, no problem at all. My son, on the other hand, it hit him quite hard because he’s looking for this father figure, and that’s not quite there anymore, and it’s quite painful for him because he wants a dad, and he wants to do things with his dad, but I keep on explaining to him that I am still your father, I’m the same person, we can still do all of those things together, but every time I see him I can see it affects him a bit, so ja.
Rian: I think lastly, what I want to know is what has being trans taught you and how have you grown during this journey, and obviously advice that you have for other people starting a similar journey?
Rachel: That is quite a question that. Basically the best advice that I… it’s very hard because there isn’t a right way of doing it and there isn’t a wrong of actually doing it.
Rian: Everybody’s journey is unique and individual?
Rachel: Yes, it is very unique and individual. Basically all I can say is make sure that you go to your therapy, through a therapist, make sure that you get a diagnosis and be honest, be honest. Spend the time, do the tests, go through everything. Make one hundred percent sure because you don’t want to get halfway through this thing and then realise that you’ve actually made a mistake, and you’ve basically messed things up quite seriously, so I would say go through that first. Make one hundred percent sure.
Rian: What has this journey taught you? What is the biggest lesson you’ve taken away from this journey?
Rachel: The biggest lesson is people are very strange, they’re very different, not one person is the same. You can come out to someone and you think that they’re going to be accepting of you, meanwhile they are not. There is a few things like how cruel and nasty people can be on the other side as well. It also taught me how kind people can be too, and I would say that being true to yourself and other people around you and being the person that you are is probably the biggest and most honest thing that I can take out of this journey, knowing that this is the person that you are and you know what, that’s okay.
Rian: Amazing. Anything else you would like to say?
Rachel: I think we’ve covered quite a bit. Just on your transition, you know, don’t do it alone.
Rian: I think what’s incredibly important is you need to have support.
Rachel: Yes, you do need to have that support because you get days where you are completely broken and it’s dangerous and you get suicidal thoughts, and if there’s no one there to pull you out then you’re in a little bit of trouble. I know, I have been there, not fun. Go on Facebook, there is a transgender awareness campaign of South Africa, there’s a lot of videos and information over there. Look out for support groups, Youtube is and was one of the vital things in my transition from day one because there’s many other people like me out there that have documented their transition and they talk about every stage from day one onwards, the good points, the bad points, what to look out for, how to do make-up, how to transition into society, it’s a platform with so much information, and every single second of it is valid and it helps, it’s a really good platform to learn. I have my Youtube channel as well, and I’ve been documenting my transition from day one, and through that I have helped so many people already.
Rian: Rachel, thank you so much, you have been an absolute pleasure to talk to.
Rachel: Thank you very much.
Rian: And I’m sure we’re going to be talking a lot still.
Rachel: That would be fantastic, thank you.
Rian: Great. GaySA Radio where you are family, I’m Rian and that was Rachel Dreyer telling us about her transition on her journey as a trans-gendered person.