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‘We’re just regular people’: Documentary shines light on what it’s like to be transgender

Carys Massarella is featured in a new CBC documentary called Transforming Gender

Still frame image from Transforming Gender documentary/CBC

Until the age of 42, Carys Massarella was Calum Massarella, and lived according to the social expectations of having been born male.

But while working one night, the hospital emergency doctor encountered a transgender patient who suffered a cardiac arrest and died. It was a turning point for the Hamilton physician.

"I was driving home that morning, thinking, you know, 'I don't want to die a man,'" she says. "At the end of the day, I think that's the worst possible outcome of your life...to regret it."

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Now 49 and having transitioned as a woman, Dr. Massarella is among several transgender individuals, ranging in age from 11 to 90, who share their experiences in the new documentary, Transforming Gender. The documentary, which airs Thursday, Feb. 26, at 9 p.m. (9:30 p.m. NT) on CBC's Doc Zone, raises the idea that now, as transgender people become more visible in society, it's time for us to rethink our notions of gender.

Dr. Massarella explains to The Globe what she has learned from her journey:

What is it like to feel you are the wrong sex?

It's a difficult thing for people who don't have the experience to understand. Do you remember back before the days of satellite radio, when you'd be driving north to somewhere and you'd listen to your favourite AM/FM radio station and it would start to cut out and you'd get that really annoying static? I always describe it as that sense of never being able to tune in perfectly to the right channel. You're always off. No matter how hard you tried – I tried to live my life as the way I was supposed to be or in the "sex I was born into" – it's never right. What's really cool about transition is you actually get onto the right station, finally.

What would you like audiences to take away from this documentary?

For me, the key message is we're just regular people. We lead really normal, regular lives. We're your neighbour, we're your brother, we're your sister, we're your cousin, we're your aunt, your uncle, your parent, your friend, your colleague. All we want to do is live our lives in the gender that we know we are. It's that simple and there's really nothing to fear.

You mention in the documentary that many people decide to transition, but some don't. Why not?

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It depends on where you are in your life and where you live. So you could live in a very conservative, very rural, very religious community, and if that's really important to you, if you do end up transitioning, you might lose that completely. For some people, workplace protection, although nominally present doesn't always officially exist, so they're afraid they'll lose their job. They're afraid to lose their spouse, their family. So for them, the potential losses far exceed what they may consider the benefit of transition.

What I always tell people is, you're always going to have a transgender identity. That's never going to change. Whether or not you transition, that's a personal decision. But at the end of the day, the vast, vast majority of people do better after they transition, or they feel better after they transition.

What's it like transitioning as an adult, as opposed to as a youth?

I have a clinic where I have over 500 transgender clients and I've never, ever met anyone who says they wish they had waited. I have 10-year-olds who say they wish they'd socially transitioned when they were eight.

In retrospect, I wish I had done it when I was younger. It would have saved a lot of money in surgery, and it's easier for people to "pass" when they're younger. But at the same time, when you're older, you have the wisdom acquired of life and you may be a little bit more aware of what the potential risks and the potential benefits of transition are. So it's a bit of a tradeoff. But what we're seeing – and it's a worldwide phenomenon – is people are presenting at a much, much younger age for transition services.

What are you able to do now as a woman that you couldn't as a man?

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For me, it's a sense of feeling comfortable with who I am as a person. I'm not anxious about who I am. I'm not wondering about who I am. I'm actually complete as a human being, so I can be fully engaged with anybody or anything that I do because I don't have to keep that part of me hidden. Like anything where you're keeping a part of you hidden, it takes its toll on you mentally and physically. For me, it's this huge sense of peace. I sleep better at night. I definitely don't pace as much as I used to, and I smile more.

Gender identity is just one part of who you are as a person, certainly not the whole part. So the way I present myself to the world is as a woman and that's how I feel. That certainly affects a lot of the way I'm perceived by the general public. There are definitely certain cultural and social clues that make me realize I'm being treated differently now than I was before. That being said, I think I'm as smart as I used to be. I think I'm kind of still as funny as I used to be. A lot of my old personality still exists, just in a different way.

How are you treated differently?

It's profound, actually. For many years I worked as a male physician, and I had never, ever been called a nurse. When I transitioned, suddenly, lots of patients were calling me "nurse," and asking when the doctor was coming, despite the fact I was wearing a white coat. It didn't offend me because I have a lot of respect for nurses, but it amused me. Also when you interact with people, there's no question that as a woman, you're expected to take a backseat to men when it comes to conversations. If you speak up as a female in mixed company, you can always get people looking at you, like, "Hmm, that's for your opinion, but maybe you should just keep that to yourself."

I also talk about the Starbucks effect. If you go to Starbucks and you watch people put their condiments in their coffee, you see three or four women taking up not a lot of space, but you get one guy and he takes up a tremendous amount of space, right? And as a woman, you sit in a different way. You don't take up a lot of space. It's really interesting for me to see the difference.

Is there anything you miss about being a man?

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Honestly, no. Nothing. Not a thing.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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