Transgender rights may be top of mind right now with people like Caitlyn Jenner, but here at home the issues are far less glamorous.
Those in “medical limbo” say the waitlist to transition is long and it’s showing no signs of slowing down, forcing many to have to wait until a spot opens up and the money becomes available.
Alberta only funds enough for 25 surgeries a year, a number that critics say is far too low.
Brett Mason is social worker with Calgary Outlink and has been left in a similar position.
Mason, who now sits on a waitlist, has been told not to expect a spot until at least 2018.
“For me personally it was a little bit harder to figure out, I never even knew the word transgender until I was 19,” he said. “So I didn’t grow up with a lot of images of trans-folks in the media or an understanding of the transcommunity. And for myself I don’t identify as a man or a woman, I identify as trans, as something else. For me, it was pretty difficult because I really didn’t fit into the box of being a girl but I didn’t fit into the box of being a boy either and then as I grew older, I realized I had dysphoria with my body.”
Mason, who prefers using the pronoun “they,” tells 660News started using a different name and pronoun in their early twenties and began to medically transition at the age of 25.
One of the big issues facing the community is the lack of resources, telling them the steps they have to take if they want to get on hormones or have surgeries.
“There’s no where in our health system where you can easily find that information,” said Mason. “Eventually I found a doctor that would put me on hormones and then I got referred to the gender specialist in Alberta.”
At the time, the only one in the province was in Edmonton, there’s now a psychiatrist in Calgary but to date, there is still no gender clinic.
The only clinic in Canada that can do the surgery is in Montreal, and since it’s not covered under the Canada Health Act, the government of Alberta will only fund roughly 25 surgeries a year.
Mason believes it’s a lack of funding that has created such a backlog in the system, forcing many to wait years before they get their opportunity.
“It’s pretty frustrating, I think a lot of folks have it a lot worse than I do, for instance lots of folks I know have really significant dysphoria with parts of their bodies and they really need that surgery to feel at home in their bodies and it really is about survival. I’ve met some folks that actually want to cut off some parts of their body because they just can’t deal with their body the way it is.”
According to Calgary Outlink suicide rates are extremely high, 43 per cent of trans people have attempted suicide while 78 per cent have contemplated it at one point or another.
Studies have shown the highest risk point for a trans person is when they have come to terms with their transition and they don’t have access to the health care they need.
“Suicide risks go down a lot after people have completed their transitions,” said Mason. “I’m really inspired by the strength in the community and I also feel although my life has been harder since coming out as trans and being myself, it’s also been so much easier because I realized at one point I just couldn’t go on living with people thinking I was this gender. I just needed to be myself and felt like I was living a lie, and that lie wasn’t worth living.”
Dr. Kristopher Wells is the co-director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies at the University of Alberta.
He tells 660News for many dealing with this situation, it truly is an issue of “life or death.”
“It’s hugely frustrating and it really ends up the longer they have to wait, the longer their health and safety becomes compromised which is a huge source for concern,” he said. “It’s a problem of not having a coordinated provincial approach to the issue. We haven’t been able to support the specialists that exist, as part of the health care system, we haven’t been able to coordinate services and supports, really what we need is a gender identity clinic in both Edmonton and Calgary.”
They’ve had conversations with the provincial government and are optimistic that change could be on the horizon, but as it stands now Calgary has only one psychiatrist, the closest gender identity clinic is in Edmonton.
“To be able to get that initial support is hugely problematic,” said Wells. “There’s surgery that’s available all over the world and removing the restrictions to have one clinic in Montreal that’s the only one available for funding would help to expedite the process and improve health care for many individuals.”
660News did reach out for comment from Health Minister Sarah Hoffman but was told she would be unavailable.