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It’s not easy being a visible transgender woman, especially when others refuse to see you as real

I wish I didn’t have to be a "real" girl to be allowed to exist, writes trans activist Mikayla Cadger.

After years of rejection and self-loathing, a devastating attack galvanized me into becoming a trans activist

A woman smiles with her eyes closed.

This First Person article is the experience of Mikayla Cadger, a trans activist in Vancouver. It was originally published in July 2021. March 31 is the International Transgender Day of Visibility. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I wish I didn't have to be a "real" girl to be allowed to exist.

I knew very early in my life that I was different. I was born biologically male, but I always knew I was a girl.

My mom supported me, and was loving and nurturing. But when I was 13, my mother was killed in a plane crash. Something broke inside me that day.

As a teen, I struggled immensely with losing my mom. Losing the only person who had seen me for who I was was devastating. It took me a long time to accept myself, and an even longer time to find my voice as an activist for trans people.

After my mom's death, I moved from southern Ontario to live with my father in the Maritimes. Things only got more confusing and complicated as I realized that in addition to wanting to be a girl, I was also not straight. But I was surrounded by small-town attitudes in Charlottetown, where safe and healthy options or support for sexuality and gender counselling were rare.

A pair of hands hold a pin in pink, blue and white colours.

I moved to B.C. when I was an adult. When I decided to transition, many of my friends and family turned their backs on me.

My tattooing business in Surrey quickly tanked as clients of many years simply stopped calling. I didn't have stable housing. I got involved in sex work as a way to survive, which is often the only work available for trans women. That experience did nothing for my self-worth and self-respect, and led to me being both assaulted and raped.

For many years, I tortured myself. I was afraid of what it would do to my life to finally come out and embrace who I really was. The impact on my mental health was profound. I found ways to bury or numb my innate drives and desires that were destructive. I struggled for years with heroin addiction and attempted suicide several times.

Shame and self-loathing were my constant companions. Society and family told me back then that trans and gay people were freaks or abnormal, so I internalized that transphobia.

Nine days after I moved into a basement apartment, three men kicked in my door, beat me with a bat and scrawled "faggot tranny" on the wall in lipstick. Not only did the police offer no help, they implied that I should have just handled it "like a man would."

The injuries I sustained led to major spine surgery and a number of medical complications. I spent almost a year in hospital, followed by full-time rehab. I suffered nerve damage to both of my legs and I now struggle to walk. I will have to use mobility aids for the rest of my life.

A woman in a wheelchair.

Being victimized will do one of two things: it either breaks you or it makes you.

That attack was a turning point for me.

Sometimes it feels like no one ever thinks of trans women as human because we are more ghost than flesh, more fetish than actuality. People assume that my gender expression is a trick to be perverse — that it ensnares people without their consent.

I don't want to end up with stab wounds and bullet holes because I'm not seen as a real woman.

I was galvanized and inspired to stand up and fight back. Since the attack, I've become an active advocate and activist for trans rights.

A portrait of a smiling woman.

Trans lives matter.

Today, my scars are not reminders of my pain, they are symbols of my strength. And it takes real strength and courage to be who you really are.

If telling my story, despite the risk of making myself a bigger target, helps raise awareness or compassion for the difficult struggle trans people face, then my entire journey is worth it.

Who we are meant to be is worth the difficult journey of becoming, but only if we release ourselves from the burden of shame.


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