Stepping into your true body

By - 10.10.2017

A portrait of two transgender men in transition.

Blert Morina and Jovan Ulicevic went through many similar experiences and emotions in their life. One from Kosovo and the other from Montenegro, they had very playful childhoods but challenging teenage years. Both were certain of who they were, but were concerned that it may not be accepted by society.

Despite their biological appearances, both Jovan and Blert felt as boys and men all along. Friends and fellow activists fighting for human and LGBTI rights, the two transgender men knew they wanted to undergo sex-reassignment surgery ever since they came to know about the procedure.

Jovan, who wanted to have the surgery ever since he came out as a trans man five years ago, underwent the procedure in Feb. 2015, when he was 24 years old. But for Blert it was only five months ago that his dream of undergoing the surgery started to seem a little more feasible for the first time. He is about to begin hormonal therapy and hopes that within three years he will have finalized the surgeries.

Blert and Jovan always took their gender identities as given. Although both their sex was assigned as female at birth, as kids they felt they were boys, and weren’t troubled if their bodies reflected the gender they knew themselves to be.

“I don’t think children have a perception of their own body, or gender identity, as adults have,” Jovan says. “I didn’t think about these things when I was a kid. I just thought ‘I am a boy,’ and that was it.”

Similar experiences and feelings were present for Blert, who says: “I never took it only as a phase. Ever since I knew myself, I took being a boy for granted — to the extent that I never stopped to tell myself  ‘why is this or that.’”

Not fitting the binary

Transgender issues are highly misunderstood and expressing a gender identity different to that assigned strictly in line with one’s biological sex at birth remains a major cause of prejudice. The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ often being used interchangeably only adds even more to the general public’s confusion and misunderstanding.

“People think […], that this strict binary division between males and females is something that is known to humanity from the moment we exist; the first thing people notice is that we are different based on our sex,” Jovan says. “It is not easy to change a mindset and to change this idea — it is one of the first pieces of knowledge that we learn.”

Photo: Matko Bulent / K2.0

Jovan is aware that deviating from this accepted truth is difficult. “Basically we are telling people now that there are not just two sexes, that there is something that is called gender,” he comments. “And that it is much more important than sex, and that we can’t count how many genders there are. It is not a miracle that people are not getting this yet. But I am sure they will in time.”

Blert argues that T (Transgender) falling within the LGBTI umbrella might also add to people’s misconceptions — interpreting it as a sexual orientation instead of gender identity. “It is very important for people to make the distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation,” he says. “In this way people would understand easier that a transgender person can be of any sexual orientation.”

Compared to trans women (male-to-female transgender person), trans men in Kosovo, as well as in the region as a whole, pass more easily in public. The gender expression (the manifestation of gender expressed through a name, clothing, hairstyle or behaviour) of transgender men finds more acceptance due to the stratification of the societies.

Jovan believes that trans women hold a similar status to all women in the region, one lower than men. “Being a woman in society like this is not a privileged position,” he says. “For trans women it is also a specific situation because it is much more accepted to be a man than to be a woman. From that point of view, trans women experience much more violence, as they are perceived as men who want to become women — and that is unacceptable.”

Growing up in another body

Blert, born in a village near Gjakova recalls himself as the best football player in the village. He was the only ‘girl’ member of the team. During childhood, similarly to Jovan, his parent’s didn’t have the knowledge about terminology and trans issues, but they were accepting of his gender expression and didn’t discuss it.

He would always have a short haircut, wear pants and hang out with other boys from the neighborhood. It was never disputed in the family. Blert thinks that his parents might not have thought of him as a real boy, but the lack of pressure to act as a girl empowered his feelings of being a boy.

“It made everything easier for me,” Blert says. “It didn’t put any extra burden on me to deal with the things that other people might be saying about me. In some form it had a positive influence on me, though my parents didn’t know, and maybe they didn’t think that I am taking being their son for granted.”

Jovan has lived in Podgorica all his life. Similarly to Blert’s experience, his parents were accepting of his boyish look and short haircut. Being a dynamic and outgoing child meant that his gender expression was taken as part of his personality. But then things changed when he started school.

“From my personal experience, it is tolerated when you are a child and you are acting differently up until a certain age — and at that stage society cannot tolerate you,” Jovan says. “I guess that also happened to me and I felt that pressure to just blend in, and I started to act like a girl, as was accepted.”

Trying to conform his behaviour to conventional notions didn’t end successfully. The more Jovan tried to embrace the gender identity of a girl, the more he thought that something is wrong — he was an emotionally exhausted teenager. But his decision to put an end to his performance brought him unpleasant experiences of teasing and bullying.

“Actually it is paradoxical because I was very popular in my school and people loved me, until the time when I started to be different and look different,” Jovan says. “That is when everything shifted. Like, one day all the people at school are loving you and saying hi and want to talk to you and then the next day nobody loves you, nobody wants to talk to you, nobody wants to be your friend.”

When he was 18, Jovan read a story about a Montenegrin transgender man and his life took another path. “That was a revelation because I didn’t know that people who are trans exist, or that it is possible to have a gender affirming surgery, or any kind of procedure, or that it is possible to do anything about your gender identity,” he says.  

For Blert, the first breakdown came during puberty when he started noticing the first changes during his breast growth. He would notice that the body of his first male cousin that he hung out all the time with had been developing differently. The lack of sex education at schools and within the family also didn’t help.

“Let’s say that two million people are looking at you as a girl, and it is only you looking at yourself as a boy — it is a constant emotional breakdown that happens to you every day.”

Blert Morina

Gradually people around him started commenting on his refusal to maintain a feminine appearance. “Although I didn’t have an external pressure, it is the internal one that can have a bigger effect than the pressure coming from outside,” Blert says. ‘Oh you again with this style, you never want to change this, do you? — and this hair!,’ he recalls guests telling him.

The biggest disappointment was when he moved to Prishtina to finish high school. Sami Frasheri school’s principal refused his request to wear pants instead of a skirt as part of the school uniform. For three years in a row, he would be reminded that people are looking at him as girl, putting a lot of pressure on him. “Let’s say that two million people are looking at you as a girl, and it is only you looking at yourself as a boy — it is a constant emotional breakdown that happens to you every day,” he reveals.

Photo: Matko Bulent / K2.0.

Despite all the discomforts, high school was a time when Blert began to be exposed to different information regarding transgender persons. But as he learnt about the possibilities of sex-reassignment surgery, the medical procedures and costs, it became a far-fetched dream.

Kosovo lacks any kind of infrastructure that would support transgender persons who choose such an option. A report published last year shows that regardless of the readiness of some health professionals to help transgender persons, their knowledge and understanding remains very limited, including in relation to basic terminology.

Surgical choices

After around three years of social transition, which usually implies coming out, using a name in accordance to the desired gender identity and having people use the appropriate pronouns, Jovan started with hormonal transition at the age of 23. For trans men, this means taking extra testosterone.

After one year of taking hormones, that impacted changes in his voice and face, in one long day he underwent a number of surgeries in order to match his physical aspect to his gender identaity.  The surgeries included a mastectomy (removal of the breasts), a hysterectomy (the removal of internal sex organs) and genital reconstructive procedures.

Blert is thinking of Belgrade as a potential option to undergo the surgeries, at the same institution as Jovan. However, while Jovan’s surgery was mainly covered by the health insurance fund in Montenegro, Blert will need to pay for the expensive operations himself. He is just happy that he can go to Montenegro to undergo the hormonal therapy, which he started recently, paying just a small amount of money.

While Blert and Jovan were always determined to undergo sex reassignment surgeries, not all transgender persons choose medical procedures. Many experience their transitions in a variety of ways, with many opting to transition only socially, only hormonally, or opting for a combination of hormonal transition and surgery.

"Accepting yourself is the most important part — that is the base of every human being."

Blert explains that many transgender persons strictly oppose any intervention if they are comfortable with the way they look. “A transgender person will not necessarily go through these procedures,” Blert argues. “There are persons that never come to the point of feeling comfortable and there are those that are OK with the body they are born with.”

Jovan believes that brain and body are connected but knowing and accepting yourself is the point of full transition.. “If you need a mastectomy to feel like your true self then you fully transition and that’s it,” he states. “If you don’t need sex reassignment surgery, or genital surgery then that is also full transition for me. I don’t believe that we need to fit in stereotypically male or female bodies to fully transition.”

After Jovan came back home from Belgrade, the psychological changes were far more important to him than physical ones, which he says were more noted by other people.

“Accepting yourself is the most important part — that is the base of every human being. Accepting yourself is the most crucial part no matter who you are. And it is not easy to accept yourself when you are always getting this feedback from the society that is not OK for you to be you,” he says. “In the societies in which we live, I do believe that it is a kind revolutionary act to be yourself. Not only if you are a trans person but if you are a gay person, bisexual person or any person who is different.”

Meanwhile, as Blert is waiting to start with hormonal therapy he is experiencing a mixture of feelings. He feels frightened and excited at the same time about the progress of his transition. He thinks that people around him will need some time to get used to his physical changes, and that he “will experience adolescence for the second time.”K

Featured image: Matko Bulent/ K2.0.

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