Cork transwoman Jamie O’Herlihy entered the last decade struggling with inner conflict. Assigned male at birth, she had secretly yearned to be a girl for as long as she can remember but got used to suppressing those feelings.
Five years in, she found her true self through persistent self-exploration.
She’s now starting a new decade, albeit sometimes a little scared and cautious, but mostly happy being her authentic self and determined to raise public awareness – as well as dispelling some of the myths around being transgender (trans).
“I want to live my life freely without harassment or judgement,” says Jamie.
The narrative of how 27-year-old Jamie got to a point where she’s challenging old-fashioned gender norms and stereotypes begins and ends with something that the millennial generation has grown up with: the internet.
Ten years ago, trans people began finding each other online. Before then, the tendency was to disappear from society – to cut all ties from the past.
Now people are living openly as trans, and they’re finding pride in doing so.
“YouTube helped me come to terms with my gender identity,” says Jamie.
“As well as being my go-to for makeup tutorials, I found personal stories that shared identity struggles, transitions, and journeys through hormone treatments and surgeries.
“The stories just resonated with me and I thought, this explains all my issues.”
Today, she’s lively, attractive and engaging, but most obvious is her deep sense of self-awareness as she speaks about her ongoing transition from male to female.
“I’ve always been extremely feminine. That’s just the way I’ve always felt. As a child, I would fall asleep at night hoping that I’d wake up a girl with long blonde hair,” says Jamie.
Growing up, though, was confusing.
“In playschool, even though I didn’t look like the girls, I always felt like one of them, and in primary school, bullies would use my femininity to insult me based on my assumed male gender,” she recalls.
“As I got older, I learned that I’d ‘fit in’ better if I suppressed those feelings. All the time, though, I struggled with inner conflict.”
Throughout Jamie’s late teens and early twenties, she did drag as her alter ego.
“It was my way to express my inner femininity outwardly. It worked for a while, but it was never enough. Something always felt missing. So, I stopped.
“I had no idea who I could become because I never knew anyone who was like me. I’d never heard of the term ‘transgender’.”
In 2015, when Jamie came out as trans, it was to her younger sibling, who was already questioning her gender.
She told her mother and of her friends of her decision, began counselling and started presenting as a woman.
“My mom has always been supportive. She said we are her children, regardless of gender, and she will always love us no matter what. My aunts and uncles weren’t too fazed either, and they’ve also been accepting,” says Jamie.
“Surrounding yourself with people who accept you 100 per cent and love you no matter what is vital for a successful transition.”
After seeking help from her GP, Jamie was referred to a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with gender dysphoria. She was directed towards a treatment plan and support that would eventually help her transition medically.
Before beginning, she decided to freeze her sperm. Fertility might well be the last thing on somebody’s mind when they’re coming to terms with being diagnosed with gender dysphoria.
However, it could be a source of regret if they start hormone therapy, or have gender-affirming surgery without preserving their fertility, only to realise that it’s no longer possible to have a biological family when it’s too late.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is closely linked with trans healthcare.
HRT replaces the hormones that are currently dominant in your body – if you’re a transwoman, this is testosterone – with hormones that are typical of the opposite sex.
For transwomen, like Jamie, HRT comes in two parts: A medication to block testosterone in the endocrine system, and oestrogen to replace it.
The typical effects of HRT, including softening of the skin, forming of breasts, redistribution of body fat and the thinning of body hair, are mostly achievable, but one thing that isn’t: the voice.
The way Jamie communicates, including her voice, is undeniably feminine.
However, many transwomen, experience a discomfort with the sound of their voice and avoid speaking in public. It can be a considerable factor in social anxiety that often requires the help of a speech and language specialist.
Voice feminising therapy helps transwomen adapt their voice, as well as nonverbal communication patterns, like facial expressions and gestures, to match their gender identity.
The changes in physical appearance can lead to mixed emotions for trans people, as the joy of seeing the physical changes representing their true self becomes tainted by the fear of how the outside world will view them.
Public spaces can create mixed emotions and challenges for the trans community.
As Jamie became more visible, threats of harassment from those who didn’t understand her was a real risk.
“When I was first going out as female, I struggled with anxieties and notions about always having to look really feminine to prove my ‘genuineness’,” says Jamie.
“I cringe when thinking back on the outfits I went out in,” she quips.
“Don’t get me wrong; there was wonderful affirmation about finally expressing myself as the gender that I had always associated with.
“But I always worried about whether I could ‘pass’ as a woman.
“I knew that people might stare, especially during my first few outings. I was terrified to travel too far. Even getting on my local bus was a step too far.
“Most people were curious, but now and then, a stare would linger for a bit too long. It felt like being put on exhibition.”
The discussion about safety in public spaces, however, is complex.
There are some who would prefer to keep transwomen out of gender-specific places, like toilets and changing rooms. These people are wary of undressing in front of biological males or being exposed to them.
In response, trans people want access to spaces that match their identity – mostly because it affirms their gender. In the case of transwomen, it is also because they feel vulnerable to harassment and violence in male-only spaces.
In the same year Jamie came out as trans, she launched her own YouTube channel to publicly document her gender transition from male-to-female and send messages of hope to trans people who might feel scared, isolated, or ostracised.
She believes that greater visibility is pushing society to examine the use of gender stereotypes and to become more respectful of diverse gender identities and expressions.
Her video blogs are frank and uncontrived. The contrast between the vulnerability and empowerment Jamie experienced during her gender odyssey is remarkable.
“I believe that it’s important to record each stage in my transition. I record them for myself, but also recognise how being out in such a visible way might give others the courage to be their authentic selves,” she says.
Jamie says that trans people experience more mental health problems compared to gay men and lesbian women. In her opinion, the experience of being bullied, rejected or harassed leads to increased levels of self-harm and attempted suicide.
According to the HSE-funded LGBT Ireland Report, 76 per cent of trans respondents had considered taking their own life, 49 per cent had self-harmed and 35 per cent had attempted suicide.
Jamie has gone from hitting rock bottom, as hormones started a second puberty – causing profound changes in mood and personality – to re-emerging as a strong and spirited woman who is helping to move trans conversations away from body parts.
“The media seems fixated on whatever surgeries transwomen may have had or are planning to have – and that’s not right,” says Jamie.
Hormones have helped Jamie to develop the physical characteristics of the stereotypical female.
“I’m much more comfortable wearing whatever I feel like. Getting misgendered is no longer a worry,” says Jamie. “I’m thankful that I pass as a woman.”
The dating scene, however, brings a worrying set of challenges, according to Jamie.
“It’s not unheard of for transwomen to encounter harassment,” she stresses.
“Someone saying: ‘wow, I would have never guessed that you used to be a man – you’re so hot and you look just like a woman,’ or something similar isn’t a compliment – it’s rude.
“I’m living my life as a woman, and that’s how I should be perceived. I’m not pretending to be female – I am female.”