Identical twins transformed: Siblings embark on their own separate journeys
Twins June and James Vickers couldn't be told apart just 5 years ago, but they've both changed since then
Junior Vickers sat on the couch with his grandmother, watching television but aching to share a secret he'd kept for most of his 16 years.
For some reason, Junior knew that his grandmother, perhaps alone in all of Blackville, would love him no matter what and wouldn't judge him.
So he told her. For as long as he could remember, Junior Vickers felt unconnected to the boy he saw in the mirror. He didn't have a name for how he felt, but he didn't feel like a boy. He felt like a girl.
And he was about to explode keeping his feelings to himself.
When Junior confided in his grandmother Marsha Vickers, she held him and assured him he was loved. They both cried.
Today, five years later, Junior has become June and she's come into her own since leaving Blackville, the central New Brunswick village where she and her identical twin, James, grew up.
Little about June's experience was easy, beginning with Blackville, a village of about 2,000 nestled in lumber and sport fishing territory near the Miramichi River.
Blackville's religious roots run deep, June said, and the Vickers household was like many others in the village.
The twins were excellent students, but June struggled with the pressure to be a good child and to live up to the family's religious expectations.
"I didn't want to disappoint my parents," she said in an interview in Fredericton, where the 20-year-old university student now lives. "And there was that actual fear, thinking that you were going to hell … and you felt very guilty about it.
"I still remember when I was little praying — granted, I'm not religious anymore — I would pray that this feeling would go away, that I would feel like a boy, and that I wouldn't have to deal with this."
There was no one June felt she could turn to at school.
Officials at the Anglophone North School Board and the Blackville School could not be reached for information about how schools today would support someone struggling as June did.
Gregg Ingersoll, the superintendent of Anglophone East, which covers Dieppe and Moncton, said all eight high schools have Gay-Straight Alliance groups.
Aim for accepting environment
"It is our responsiblity to create learning and working environments where all students individuals feel accepted and respected," he said in an email statement.
"The establishment of GSAs in our high schools is one way that the school demonstrates to students, parents and staff that all students will be accepted and supported in reaching their full potential."
Sometimes James noticed that his sibling was not as interested as he was in chopping wood or playing guns and that he preferred activities boys tended not to care about.
I felt like they wouldn't come to accept me as their daughter. … There was a genuine fear that my parents would reject me.- June Vickers
James wasn't surprised when his grandmother Marsha shared his twin's secret, although she used the term homosexual in the telling. At that point, no one in the family, including the twins, knew the word transgender.
"She just asked me: if one of my loved ones was homosexual would I still love them?" James recalled.
"She said she needed to tell someone because she was worried for June."
June had already developed anorexia, which she now believes was rooted in her being transgender, a term she learned after she started seeing a psychiatrist in Moncton about the eating disorder.
"I wasn't eating because I wasn't happy with myself," June said. "It was almost like I was punishing myself."
Weeks after confiding in her grandmother, June told her psychiatrist she wanted to be a woman.
"I told the psychiatrist originally because I was suffocating," she said.
June asked him to tell her family about her being transgender.
"I felt like they wouldn't come to accept me as their daughter. …There was a genuine fear that my parents would reject me."
June had already been accepted at the University of New Brunswick in science on a full scholarship. No matter the outcome of telling her parents, she would be free.
But she could not bring herself to break the news to her parents herself.
"I felt so much shame, so much conflict."
The psychiatrist acted quickly, calling June's mother while June was still in his office.
June didn't know what would happen next.
"But I knew it couldn't be worse than I already felt," she said
When the two talked, it was an emotional moment for both teenager and her mother, Patricia, who cried.
June's gender identity challenged the religious beliefs at the core of family. Later that day, the parents and twins had a long discussion about what was happening in their family.
"My parents dealt with it the best way they could," June said.
"They weren't rejecting me, but I don't think they were initially supportive either."
These days, Patricia and Timothy Vickers are close to their daughter, and Patricia often visits June in her apartment in Fredericton.
The mirror image
Twin James learned about June while going through a transformation of his own.
James, who was a thin, long-haired metal head in high school, wanted to teach music. He left Blackville for St. Thomas University in Fredericton unaware his twin still at home was transgender.
At university, James found that learning music took the fun out of it, so he switched to criminology.
He also joined the reserves at Base Gagetown, ditched the long hair and picked up weights.
James started going to the gym on a regular basis to build his body mass.
"Some of the things that might have motivated me to go was that I was always geeky," said James, who now competes regularly as a body builder. "Once I went there, I fell in love with training."
After his grandmother Marsha shared June's secret with James, he waited for weeks for his twin to "drop the bombshell" about her gender identity.
At first, although he had suspected his twin might be gay, James didn't understand what June was going through as a transgender person. His confusion and lack of understanding caused him to take a step back from the sibling who'd been closer to him than anyone else in his life.
"I could have been friendlier," James said. "I wasn't hateful. We're so much alike, we butt heads sometimes."
Looking to future
Before long, he sat down with June, knowing he had to throw out the outlook he was raised with and support his sister.
"I just wanted to understand," he said. "It didn't really affect our relationship. We were just still the same, we're just twins."
And that's exactly how they remain today, twins with a better sense of who they are. June, who had no idea what transgender meant but felt suffocated for years, said she is now comfortable with her body and in an accepting relationship with a man.
She is continuing hormone therapy but has no immediate plans for surgery. She is also working toward a pharmacy degree.
James now understands June better and wants others to keep an open mind.
He is continuing his military career and hopes to become a lawyer.
June Vickers's advice for anyone going through what she did back in Blackville is simple: "Be true to yourself."