How one Islander's transition from female to male left him scarred — physically and emotionally
P.E.I. is the only province that doesn't cover any gender reconstructive surgeries
Jay Gallant's transition from female to male has not been easy.
A year after surgery, Gallant, 37, says he feels disfigured and wishes more surgeries were covered on P.E.I.
It's a journey he began as a child — Gallant was never comfortable being a girl, he said.
It felt like being an actor in a show.— Jay Gallant
"I've always been very boyish. I never wanted to wear a dress or even anything that was considered girlie," he said.
Back then, Gallant had never heard the word transgender and had no idea why he felt so different.
In elementary school, Gallant became the target of bullies for looking like a boy instead of a girl.
"That was hard, so I started dressing the way other people wanted me to dress," he recalls.
"But it was always very uncomfortable for me. It felt like being an actor in a show."
'Cornered and kicked'
The bullying continued into junior high. Gallant recalled often being surrounded in a secluded hallway or school bathroom where no one could intervene.
"It's hard for teachers and other students to see if you're the only one in there and being cornered and kicked and stuff."
I felt that there was something inside me that was just wrong or bad or diseased or something and I tried to hide it.— Jay Gallant
Gallant was attracted to girls and decided to ask a teacher for advice — but that idea was quickly abandoned after hearing from one teacher.
"I had a family life and gym teacher teach a whole class on why it was morally and even biologically, spiritually wrong to be gay," Gallant said. "She drew diagrams on the board why it physically didn't work, so that was the kind of exposure I was getting."
The hurt was often too much to bear.
"I felt that there was something inside me that was just wrong or bad or diseased or something and I tried to hide it."
Distressed, Gallant tried to reduce what he ate — that led to anorexia.
"It was kind of a way of controlling the way my body was developing, because it does interfere with puberty," he said.
"When you're not eating enough and when you're over exercising, developing of breasts and my menstrual cycle stopped."
But stopping the body's natural growth came at a cost for Gallant.
"It became quite a deadly — unfortunately deadly — kind of dance that I was doing."
'Really wasn't my own body'
The distress Gallant was feeling is called gender dysphoria — the stress people feel when their gender expression doesn't match how others see them.
"I felt like my body really wasn't my own body, that my breasts were just something I wanted to hide," he said.
It wasn't until Gallant entered an eating disorder clinic in Ontario that a breakthrough came.
In one of the voluntary exercises participants were videotaped while walking in their underwear. Afterward, a support group including therapists and nutritionists talked to each participant about how they viewed their bodies. People with anorexia often have a distorted view that their body is bigger than it really is.
"I remember sitting there and looking at the video and just thinking, 'It's not me.' It's not that I feel I'm obese or anything. It's that this body — even the fact I'm wearing a bra, my chest, these parts of my body don't feel like they're mine and this is what the problem is."
'The shame of who I was'
But at the time, Gallant didn't know what to do about those feelings.
"I felt again kind of like I felt when I was younger, this guilt, the shame of who I was. So I just kind of said what I thought they wanted me to say."
Gallant returned to P.E.I. and decided to talk to a therapist at home — but that didn't go well.
"She was kind of taken aback," Gallant said. "She was really uncomfortable with the situation and just kind of said, 'This is part of your mental illness. This will pass.'"
P.E.I. doesn't cover reconstructive surgery
Three years ago, Gallant had a health crisis — realizing how short life is, he decided to transition.
"Some situations in my life are pretty crummy, but this is something I could actually do something about," he said.
But Gallant was shocked to learn that P.E.I. is the only province that doesn't cover any gender reconstructive surgeries. For example, P.E.I. only pays for the removal of breasts, but won't cover the costs to reconstruct a male chest.
The founder of the PEI Transgender Network, Alana Daley, said both surgeries should be done at the same time so that breast tissue and nipples can be saved to masculinize the chest.
"It's optimal to have the tissue right there that you're removing that you can use to contour or do other things," Daley said.
"If that tissue is removed, then if they try to get reconstruction later, they can't get the results they would have if they had done it all at once, like they do in other provinces."
For Gallant, breasts were the most visible reminder of being in the wrong body. But he couldn't afford to leave the province for reconstructive surgery.
'A kind of disfigurement'
So Gallant opted for a mastectomy which left a scarred, gender-neutral flat chest with no nipples.
"In terms of psychological effect of dysphoria, it's better than when I had breasts, but it's like having something wrong with your hand and just cutting it off. 'Well, the pain's gone.' But something else could have been done, instead."
Gallant feels scarred forever.
"When you're left with that as your only option, and it's not the surgery you want, then it's a kind of disfigurement."
It's a position Gallant hopes no other person on P.E.I will face. Gallant met with provincial health officials last June, along with the PEI Transgender Network and Peers Alliance, calling on the province to cover these procedures.
But the response from the P.E.I. government has been virtually no response, according to Daley.
Government reviewing policy
In an email statement to CBC, the Department of Health and Wellness said the government is reviewing its policy on sex reassignment surgical procedures and "exploring options to improve access for Islanders."
Meanwhile, when Gallant looks in the mirror these days, he's somewhat pleased with his reflection.
"I see myself more than I've ever seen," he said. "Definitely, less like I'm putting on a show, that I'm being an actor, that I'm pretending."
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