Gemma Hickey is a name most Newfoundlanders and Labradorians recognize. A passionate and successful activist, they have often led the charge on countless social justice campaigns that align with this year’s Pride Week theme proving that we truly are ‘Stronger Together.’
By being so open about intimately personal experiences, from coming out as lesbian to coming out as a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, Gemma has provided comfort and support to many in our community, and helped our province come to know, accept, and love us. This Pride Week, Gemma sat down with The Outport for an exclusive interview to share some exciting news about their personal journey.
“About seven months ago, I began hormone therapy and started testosterone,” they said. “Now that I’ve gotten older, and have been through a number of experiences in my life, in particular my walk across Newfoundland last summer – which really, really gave me the alone time and perspective that I needed to make this decision…I’m coming out as trans.”
“I thought I must be gay, so I adopted the image of a butch lesbian,”
Gemma explained they originally came out as gay in their late teens because they didn’t know any other word for what they were thinking and feeling. “I thought I must be gay, so I adopted the image of a butch lesbian,” they said. “But as a kid, I was always a tomboy, I hung out with boys, and whenever my mother would put me in a dress, I’d get picked on. I’d always rebel and tear off the dress. I remember, when I was roughly about seven, something switched over in my little brain. I took off the dress, put on a pair of jeans, ripped the holes at the knees. I took off my shirt, and I put my ponytail through the back of my baseball cap, and I went out on the street. The boys stopped picking on me and I felt like one of them.”
Back then, Gemma didn’t realize the full extent of what this meant for them. “When I was in high school, though I dated boys at the time, I would dream about girls. I would think of them as if I were a boy in my fantasy,” they said. “I thought, I couldn’t be gay because the church teaches that it’s wrong. I had a really hard time and experienced a lot of internalized homophobia. I went to see a conversion therapist. When that didn’t work, I attempted suicide, which landed me in hospital for the beginning of my senior year in high school. Recovering from the self-inflicted trauma took some time, but you know, that part of my story did have a happy ending. Nothing is fixed. We can rewrite our story at any time. My story is a living one. No matter what happens, I try to turn it around into something positive. And that’s why I’ve devoted over twenty years of my life to ensure that young people, queer youth, don’t have to go through what I did.”
The Long Walk Home
On July 2, 2015, beginning in Port-aux-Basques, Gemma walked 938-kilometres across Newfoundland to raise funds and awareness for Pathways – an organization they founded in 2013 for survivors of clergy abuse. Walking 30-kilometres a day for thirty days provided them with plenty of time to reflect. “Training for the walk, I lost seventy-five pounds and my body took a different shape. It became more defined, muscular,” they said, noting they’ve always had body image issues, like most people, and their weight has fluctuated over the years. “When I lost all that weight, I started to pay attention to my body. Walking alone on the highway for long periods of time gave me the chance to think about what that meant for me. Endurance wise, I was fine because I trained ten months for it, but I didn’t realize the physical implications of such a walk. I had no skin on the bottoms of my feet from the blistering. I had to tape them up, but that caused me to have an allergic reaction to the glue in the duct tape I was using to make walking long stretches of pavement more bearable. So my legs swelled, and I had hives and chafing, and at times it was really difficult to walk. I was wincing with each step. But I did it, I pushed through the pain, because I’m an activist and it was for a cause. And, if I had to, I was going to crawl back to the Mount Cashel Memorial on August 2nd.”
“…I’ve been in therapy for years due to my sexual abuse, but my body…my body was crying out to me, saying things like: pay attention to me…”
It was at night, when Gemma was curled up inside the tiny bathtub of the trailer their team was staying in, that the revelation finally flowed quite literally out of them. “So I would sit in a couple inches of icy cold water, and soothe the burn from the chafing on my inner thighs, and I remember the first night I immersed myself, I was in a fetal position. I looked down at myself, at my body, and it was as if my body held memory,” they said. “I’ve been living on this narrative of being a survivor, and I forgot the fact that I was actually hurt, that maybe I’ve moved on in lots of ways because I’ve been in therapy for years due to my sexual abuse, but my body…my body was crying out to me, saying things like: pay attention to me. And I remember that I was hurt here, not just now, what I was feeling currently because of the chafing, but because of my abuse. And so I wept, like a child, I just broke down. It was really cathartic; I don’t think I’ve cried like that before. I had to think about what that meant, and how I look at myself. Was I abused as a girl or a boy? That was the moment when I thought to myself…I’m trans.”
The Next Step
“I knew I needed to reach out to people,” Gemma said. “I called my buddy Dane Woodland. He’s been a great support to me through this process and has done a lot of valuable work on issues facing trans people in this province. Then I talked to my doctor. She admitted she hadn’t dealt with any patients like me before, but wanted to learn and was very supportive. She referred me to another doctor who is the leading physician in terms of trans health here in the province, Dr. Maureen Gibbons. Things have changed now. You don’t actually have to see a psychiatrist to get assessed. You just go to a doctor who is familiar with hormone therapy, read information about it, and sign a waiver. I had to get blood work done and a pap smear. We reviewed the results together, as well as what to expect in terms of side effects, which were actually not what I expected at all. And that put my mind at ease. Then she gave me a prescription.”
Gemma said thus far the changes they’ve experienced have been gradual and satisfying. “The first thing I noticed was that within a couple of weeks my voice started cracking,” they said. “Ultimately I’m noticing that my voice has deepened. When I talk on the phone, people call me sir now. I started lifting more weight at the gym almost immediately. I remember weight feeling lighter to me, and that changes every time I go to the gym. My sex drive is really high so I’m kind of navigating what it’s like to be a teenage boy. I want to eat food all the time. I had a little bit of acne and I started getting hair on my face and neck after a few months. I have to shave every day. My upper legs have a lot more hair. I’m getting more hair on my forearms, and it’s kind of creeping up on my hand. And I have hair on my back, but it’s not that dark. My guy buddies say that I’ll get over the shaving part because it’s annoying after a while. But as a woman, I shaved my legs and armpits every second day so that took a lot longer than taking a couple of minutes to shave my face each day.”
Gemma said following the changes in their body has been an exciting experience. “I’m noticing my shoulders are broadening. There’s some fat redistribution, which is interesting. I’m looking for things, but it’s not like it happens right away. It’s fun and kind of scary at the same time, but mostly exciting,” they said. “I joked with some friends and said I’m just going to come out as a Jedi. I have all this lived experience of a woman, which is awesome, and the physical strength of a man – so look out! I really love that I can lift a lot more weight than most guys at the gym. I’m happy with how my arms look. When you’ve had someone forcibly get on top of you, and I’m referring to my sexual abuse, the fact I can lift my own body weight now, makes me feel like I got myself. I’m also happy that I don’t get a period anymore. I had severe anxiety and depression due to PMS. It was brutal. And now I don’t have any periods. It’s freeing, so that’s definitely one of the perks.”
“I had to think hard about what it meant to shoot testosterone into my body, as a woman and a feminist,”
Gemma didn’t take the decision to begin hormone therapy lightly. As a feminist, they questioned what it meant for their history and activism to inject testosterone. “I had to think hard about what it meant to shoot testosterone into my body, as a woman and a feminist,” they said. “Because I was more masculine in appearance, I’ve always had masculine currency in situations with other men. I’m a straight shooter and they respect me for that. I haven’t experienced sexism in the same ways that many of my female-identified friends have. Now that I’m going through this process, I know that I have the unique perspective of having lived as a woman, knowing what it’s like to be oppressed in that way, but also now taking that in, informing me on how to be the best man…and an even better feminist.”
Gemma is famously patient, easygoing and approachable and they know it will take time for people to understand what all of this means. “The other day I was doing chest flies at the gym and a guy who I’ve worked out with in the past came up to and was looking directly at my chest. It made me feel really uncomfortable,” they explained, noting they’d always had a playful, supportive relationship with this person. “I jumped up, got in his face, and said: stop looking at my chest, you’re being inappropriate! It took him by surprise and he felt really bad. I’ve never reacted like that before. I felt like I experienced sexism in a way I hadn’t in the past, still in the physical form of a woman, but handled it like a man. Before I would’ve made a joke about it, and acted like it was okay, but because I’m feeling self-conscious about my breasts right now, it affected me more. He apologized to me and I feel good knowing he likely won’t do it again to anyone else,” they said with a grin.
Gemma admits that they can’t be everybody’s teacher, adding, “There have been a few conversations with people where their questions were too much for me. I felt like I was being interrogated. But when I feel safe and open, I can talk with people. Humor has always been my greatest asset. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have a great sense of humor and we know how to turn our pain around and make a joke out of it. I think that’s really helped me.”
“People ask me if I’m going to change my name, but I like my name and I don’t know if I’ll change it. I’m not there yet. A number of people in my family and my close friends call me Gem, or I may even go by GM, which are the initials of my first and middle names. My friend TA Loeffler inspired that possibility. But there’s lots of time and I don’t have to decide yet,” they said. “This is a process and at this point, I’m just honoring the process. I’m not trying to erase anybody’s history with me either. In terms of former partners who identify as lesbian, I don’t want to take that away from them. I was a woman when I was with them, and I’m proud of that. And for a long time, my parents have known me as their daughter. I’m not trying to act as if that never happened. I want to honor my past as I go forward. My walk across Newfoundland was a metaphor for my life. I’m taking this step-by-step. Right now, I’m at a fork in the road. I’m caught between the woman I was, and the man I’m becoming.”
When it comes to pronouns, Gemma acknowledges that it may take time for some family and friends to catch on. “There may be a grieving period for some people, but I get that. When I was little, people asked my mother: is that a boy or a girl so she would announce it right off the top to avoid confusion or awkwardness.”
“I want top surgery. I look at my breasts now as two growths on my chest. I’ve never felt connected to them,”
Gemma welcomes male pronouns, but is particularly fond of using they and them because it honors their past and embraces their future. True to form, they are also very open about what the next steps will be for them. “I want top surgery. I look at my breasts now as two growths on my chest. I’ve never felt connected to them,” they said, “That’s my priority right now and friends of mine are organizing a fundraiser for me in September because the cost is roughly $10,000. I’m really excited about the possibility of being able to take off my shirt and mow the lawn, or go swimming with no top. Just to have that kind of freedom. I remember what it felt like when I was a kid, and I haven’t been able to get back to that place. That’s what I’m dreaming about now.”
Accessibility to top surgery is an issue still facing trans individuals in Newfoundland and Labrador. “It’s unfortunate that I have to leave the of comfort of my own home and support network and go to either Ontario, Quebec or Florida. The wait time for coverage here is between two to five years and it doesn’t cover travel costs. I’m thirty-nine so I don’t want to wait. I want to live out the rest of my life as my authentic self,” they said. “I don’t think we’re going to get a clinic here overnight where surgeons are doing procedures like this, but there are steps this government can take in terms of reducing wait times in order to provide better supports and services to trans individuals seeking surgery.”
“I’ve always been lobbying for trans people as a queer activist, but it’s more personal to me now. I’ve been advocating behind the scenes. I wrote a letter to the Premier about the issues trans people face, and copied the Health and Justice ministers, but so far I haven’t received a response…”
Gemma said pushing for these changes is a natural extension of their activism. “I’ve always been lobbying for trans people as a queer activist, but it’s more personal to me now. I’ve been advocating behind the scenes. I wrote a letter to the Premier about the issues trans people face, and copied the Health and Justice ministers, but so far I haven’t received a response. I had a conversation with my doctor about forming a committee of physicians who can offer these types of procedures here so that’s in the works. I’m happy to help where I can because it’s in my nature; it’s who I am. I have a wide network of friends that I can count on all over the country because of my activism. I’m very lucky in that regard.”
Although it’s impossible for those of us who are cisgender to understand the full depth of such a transition, we all can empathize with the potentially terrifying question all those who accept they are trans must face: what should I do?
A film crew recorded Gemma’s conversation with The Outport in their living room. A documentary about their transition is currently in production. They hope it will be a valuable resource for people who are struggling with being trans and the wider community. Gemma noted YouTube is also great resource as many trans individuals post video diaries, sharing valuable, unfiltered information and advice. But they stressed that coming out is a deeply personal process and no one should feel pressure to expose themselves to potentially dangerous situations.
“Coming out should be done in your own way and on your own time. We’re all coming out really. As we get older, things change, society changes…”
“It’s really important that people assess the situation they’re in. Are they safe? Are they dependent on anyone? Where are they living?” Gemma explained, advising anyone planning on coming out as LGBT to identify a person of support and seek out all the information available in their community and online to inform their decisions. “Coming out should be done in your own way and on your own time. We’re all coming out really. As we get older, things change, society changes. There’s a big difference now in society today – our Prime Minister just walked in the Toronto Pride Parade, a lot of wonderful things are happening in this country and province. But there’s still a ways to go. The Orlando shooting reminded us all of that.”
Gemma said they have never let their gender or sexuality limit them in any way, something they hope for all members of the LGBT community. “We need to reflect on sexuality and gender and what that means. Just because we’ve been conditioned to think of things in a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the only way. I may want to be both female and male. I don’t want to completely dismiss anything that has made me the person I am today. I like Gemma.”
*You can read more about Gemma’s story published in Out Proud: Stories of Pride, Courage and Social Justice (Breakwater Books, 2015).