There is currently a lack of information available regarding the specific needs of young transgender men, and the barriers that they face. This can lead to professionals having to give generic advice, which may not be appropriate for the situation. Written to address this shortfall, Matt Waites’ new book provides professionals with the guidance they need to effectively and supportively work with young transgender men. We spoke to him about his reasons for writing it.
What led you to start writing Supporting Young Transgender Men?
Through my personal experience of being trans and my professional experience of working with young people, I found that there was a huge gap in knowledge and understanding in terms of processes of transition and issues that trans men face, due to a lack of specialised training and availability of information. I conducted some research which found 50% of professionals surveyed felt they did not have enough knowledge or confidence to support a transgender young man through their transition. Frontline professionals are best placed to serve the transgender community because the social and medical transition processes are not holistic in practice. There is a lack of available support for trans people in general, therefore by ensuring that frontline professionals in a variety of sectors have access to the right knowledge and information, they can improve outcomes for transgender men, reduce suicide rates and ensure that trans men are given quality support when they need it the most. These issues led me to write Supporting Young Transgender men because it is an area that I feel very passionate about. If professionals have the right knowledge when supporting their service users, young people will be more like to be able to reach their full potential.
Trans men are often overlooked when it comes to discussion of, and support for, trans people. Why do you think this is?
Trans men are overlooked because of society’s progress in accepting the roles and identities of women in society in general, a disheartening side effect to such a strong, powerful and much needed movement. For example, a young trans man prior to hormone therapy, presenting themselves as male to the world, is only effective if the public sees him as male. The way we judge gender in our society is from cues we’re given from people. For example, the way they dress, the way they speak, the way they come across. If there is doubt in someone’s mind as to whether or not the person in front of them is male or female, they will use, subconsciously, other cues to help them decide. They’ll look for height, depth of voice and build. As people become more educated and open-minded about women wearing more masculine clothing and presenting themselves differently to how society expects them to, they feel they are making the right decision when it comes to using language to refer to a person as female, even if they are unsure of that person’s gender. We often see this in everyday social situations, for example, being called ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ in a restaurant. This mean trans men tend to get mis-gendered.
This causes major issues for trans young men when they are out in the world. It can result in feelings of self-consciousness and reduces their self-esteem and confidence, which can have an impact on mental health. Young trans men can become socially isolated as a result of this, which is difficult for some people to empathise with, given how much society has progressed in terms of acceptance of trans people as a whole community.
You are a professional youth and community worker. Have you found your own experiences of being trans a help in your profession? If so, how?
Being a trans professional gives me a very unique insight into issues that young people face. Experiencing life as both female and male has given me the opportunity to experience life in all its glory, from two completely different perspectives. I have felt the discrimination that young women face within society and I have felt the discrimination and privilege that young men face in society. This has enabled me to challenge gender-based issues within society and the workplace. Having had lived experience within both gender roles, my ability to build professional relationships with a whole host of young people from different backgrounds and who identify in different ways, has been strengthened.
When I first started to transition, I was concerned that my work would not be as effective with young women anymore and that I would be better equipped to build relationships with young men. The more I practice, the more I can identify that being trans has given me the opportunity to see both sides of the coin, and I have built relationships with young people who identify as male, female, non-binary, transmasculine and transfeminine. Work with young people is only effective if you can build positive and professional relationships with young people, it is the foundation of the work and without that, outcomes for young people suffer.
What are the most common obstacles that young trans men face?
Generally, society is the biggest barrier for young trans men because it impacts on everything. Being a trans person is complex because gender is engrained into every part of society, it is the main difference between humans. We have health care specifically for women, we have public toilets that specifically segregate people by gender, changing rooms in clothing shops are also gendered, and there is the gendered language that strangers will use when we encounter them on our daily commute. Even going out for a meal and being addressed as Sir/Madame can be a barrier to doing something that most people take for granted. This makes navigating the world very difficult for trans young men.
Being repeatedly misgendered by others has a significant impact on the mental health and emotional well-being of young trans men. It can damage their confidence and they can become socially isolated and reluctant to apply for education, employment or training, potentially leaving them reliant on the benefits systems for support.
Navigating medical transition is also difficult. Trans men currently face wait times of up to 3 years to see a gender specialist on the NHS in some parts of the country. Waiting this long for support with an issue so complex and difficult to deal with on a day to day basis is absurd. No other NHS department would allow wait times that are that long, and that’s before considering the wait time for chest surgery, which is now up to 2 years. Being trans can sometimes be life-threatening, as suicide rates amongst young trans people are significantly higher than the national average.
This is due to lack of funding for gender identity clinics and a lack of surgeons specialising in this area. Waiting so long for treatment can be one of the most devastating and detrimental times of their lives, and one that can do significant amounts of emotional damage.
Did you have any trans role models or people who you found inspiring growing up?
I can’t say I did have any trans role models growing up. When I grew up being gay was considered very controversial, let alone being trans. The two issues are of course very different but the principle is the same. Being gay was still considered to be an issue that was debated but not yet accepted, and acceptance of trans people was still a long way off, so there weren’t many people who were out, loud and proud, that I remember.
The people who I felt were inspiring when I grew up were the adults in my life that never turned away. The people who no matter what I struggled with as a young person, were still there when everything was said and done. They were the people who inspired me to be a better person, they were the people who pushed me towards becoming a youth and community worker, who believed in me, who always knew I could do it and were there for the good times and the bad.
You can never underestimate the impact that front line workers can have on young people’s lives because being trans and being a young person is not easy and it’s certainly not easy when you have no support. However, that one conversation just might get through, those supportive and encouraging words might just make a young person believe in themselves. Being there and just listening can make a huge difference to someone’s life, you don’t have to have all the answers. You may never see the impact that you have on a young person’s life, but one thing I do know is the people who do have an impact are never forgotten.
My success in life, in obtaining my degree, in becoming a writer, isn’t something I’ve done by myself. It was a collaborative effort from people supporting me, people being there for me when things got difficult and those people very much know who they are. It was definitely a team effort!
What advice would you give to a young person at the start of their transition?
Be brave. What you’re embarking on is a difficult journey and the wait times for treatment and surgery are daunting but one day you’ll get there.
Find someone who can support you. It is a difficult journey to face on your own and if you need support I highly recommend joining TMSA-UK. TMSA-UK is a closed Facebook group that offers 24/7 confidential support to people of all ages. It’s a peer support group and you can post issues or things that you’re finding difficult in there for others to comment on and share their experiences, advice and encouragement. If you’ve got no one particularly close to you that you feel you can tell, speak to someone from an LGBT specific service, their services are confidential and having someone to talk to is a necessity. It can be a very daunting and frightening thought to start transition but know that there are people out there who will not judge, who will support without question and who will be there for you.
For more information on Supporting Young Transgender Men, follow this link.