The people in these pictures have different experiences of what it means to be trans or nonbinary. Photographer Gerry Balfe-Smyth has been documenting the trans and non-binary community in Ireland over the last few years. We are honoured to present his portraits along with the personal story of Sky Byrne.
“Our goal was to show the different flavours of gender. To open dialogue, and show the beautiful ways in which we are capable of understanding, expressing, and feeling our gender.”
When I was asked to write this piece I was prompted with, “write about how it is to be trans in Ireland,” and I set about doing just that. That is, until I realised just how much there is to write. That there was no way of fitting all of the angles from which you can look at a trans experience into a single piece of writing. As you may imagine I hit writer’s block almost immediately.
I decided to step away from it for a couple of days and let the idea float around in the peripheral of my consciousness. I was aware that I couldn’t and shouldn’t claim to be capable of concisely summing up the trans experience in its entirety. It is a huge topic which is constantly changing and growing.
While looking at the contact sheets it hit me. I was coming at it from the wrong perspective. The trans and non-binary community in Ireland are so diverse and colourful that it would be wrong of me to sum it up completely. When Gerry came to me with the idea for this project I was excited for exactly this reason. The people in these pictures have different experiences of what it means to be trans or non-binary. Gender is an individual nuanced component of their personalities. We all experience it slightly differently. It is up to the individual to describe their experience of gender whether they are trans, non-binary, cis, or none of the above. That is to say — my understanding of gender may be completely different to yours or anybody else’s but that doesn’t invalidate it.
This project aimed to show the different ways by which gender is expressed by trans and non-binary people in Ireland. Our goal was to show the different flavours of gender. To open dialogue, and show the beautiful ways in which we are capable of understanding, expressing, and feeling our gender.
With the above in mind I will describe how my experience and feelings toward my gender has changed over the years. When I was young, about nine, I’d watched a documentary about a transgender child. I vividly remember going straight to my ma and asking her “Can I have a ‘sexchange’” (I’ll unpack that term later). She took this as the sign I was gay. I, however, was beginning to feel very uncomfortable in my skin.
I was suddenly questioning why I had to be a boy. These feelings started coming to a head when I was about eleven. Puberty hit me like a tonne of bricks. I was not okay with the changes that were occuring. I was disgusted by my own pubic hair. Throughout my teens I was mostly anxious which led me to some dark places. All the while this overarching feeling of distinct differentness was present, although I could never exactly put my finger on what made me different but I felt if I could figure it out maybe it would help. This is the question that led me to question my gender, and back to the question, ‘Why do I have to be a boy?’
The first time I actively moved outside of my designated gender lane I was 16. My sister offered to give me her purple skinny jeans. Context: I am fairly slim and I could never find men’s clothes that fit me. When I put those jeans on I felt more comfortable in clothes than I had ever felt. I was happy. My parents were not. They didn’t understand why I would want to shamelessly wear women’s jeans. I didn’t understand the big deal. In my mind they were just jeans. If they fit me why shouldn’t I wear them? They told me not to wear women’s clothes anymore. I felt dismayed. They didn’t understand how wearing those jeans made me feel and I didn’t have the words to articulate it.
I continued wearing the jeans after a few weeks of gathering courage to actively defy my parents. At first I hid them in my bag or wore pants over them and changed when I was out. Eventually I just started wearing them at home. Arguments were had, I held my ground, they gave up. The same arguments were had when I began experimenting with make-up. At this point I was still identifying as a boy, although passing thoughts of gender were still present.
When I was 18 I started going to an LGBTQI+ youth service – BeLonG To. I began to meet trans people after a while and quickly realised that I had a lot in common with how trans and non-binary people view their gender. It made me think, “Wait a minute – maybe I’m not a boy…” This was when the vague ideas about my gender moved to the front of my consciousness. I now had the words and resources to think about my gender abstractly and people to talk to it about.
At about nineteen I began really thinking about my body and whether I was comfortable with how it looked and felt. I began wearing dresses and doing my make-up often. When I realised I was doing this and how comfortable and correct it made me feel to present as a woman and be recognised as one I began thinking that I would be much happier if I were to medically and socially transition. I asked my psychiatrist if I could be referred to St. Colmcille’s Endocrinology clinic in Dublin, and I was excited to start hormones. Excited to look into which of the many surgeries involved medical transition I wanted to undergo. This is the process which people commonly refer to as a ‘Sex Change’ or ‘The Surgery’. In reality there is a plethora of procedures involved in medical transition and often people don’t have every single one of them. They have the ones necessary to match their actual body with how they view their body. Some people don’t feel they need any. I was comfortable identifying as a woman.
I continued to explore the idea of gender. I was eventually referred to Loughlinstown by a psychiatrist. It’s a long waiting list, my appointment is 18 months from August 2017. My thoughts around gender were developing. I was now thinking about gender only in the abstract. My thoughts began to veer towards, “What is gender?” When I was younger I thought gender was something you were born with and sometimes that gender doesn’t necessarily match the body you were born with. That thought assumes that sex and gender are inherently linked, though, and I was, by then, of the opinion that this is not true at all. Once I had completely separated sex and the idea of gender in my mind I began interpreting gender differently. I went back to the feeling I had about the jeans — they are just jeans, they don’t have a gender, they have been prescribed a gender because a certain sex is associated with them. I eventually came to the conclusion that the gender binary, that is the idea that there are two genders, man and woman, is simply a way of describing the perceived differences between people with male or female bodies. These differences often aren’t even based in reality and are based on stereotypes and misconceptions.
This led me to the thought that I don’t have to be a man or a woman or anything in between. I began identifying as non-binary, which basically means my gender is not one of the binary genders, or sits somewhere between them. I am now in a place where I don’t feel gender is a necessary idea to subscribe to. I am a person, and that is all. If you ask me my identity I would tell you I am queer. These feelings may change as my understanding of gender evolves but for now I am comfortable. My transition thus far has been a journey of personal growth and development, which overall has made me happier, more confident and more comfortable with myself.
Words: Sky Byrne
Portraits: Gerry Balfe-Smyth
Featuring Images of: Mitch, Sky, Felix, Nate, Mitch, Keeva, Joe, Jen, Ethan, Sonia, Tess, Cody, Charlie