Ben Vandorpe first knew something was wrong when he, then a seven-year-old girl, was forced to have a separate bath from his male friend. “We had been playing and his mother said it was bath time and because I was a girl and he was a boy, we would be bathed separately,” says Vandorpe. “I just remember crying non-stop and for the first time, being really aware of my gender,” he says.
It was the first painful realization of many for Vandorpe, now 22 and identifying as a queer transgender man. He says his personal journey is what inspired him to apply to Osgoode Hall Law School. He was accepted and begins in September. “Now I’ll have a shot at changing legislation that makes life hard for trans people. I couldn’t be doing this now, though, without having gone through everything in my past,” he says.
Vandorpe was born a girl in Halifax to a “typical” family. He has a younger brother, a mother who stayed home to take care of her kids, and a father who’s a doctor. Shortly after he was born, his parents divorced and he lived with his mother. From the get-go, he said the yearning to be perceived as male was always there. “When I was about 3, I insisted on being called Nick, which is the male derivative of what my then-female name was.”
Vandorpe says his family embraced him as a tomboy and let him cut his hair short, abandon dresses, and watched as he then, a little girl, attempted to shave his face with his dad’s razor. At his private elementary school, he happily chose the uniform of a tie and dress pants over a shirt and skirt. “It all seemed like it was fine and then came puberty. It was the worst. My childhood ended,” he says.
Vandorpe describes his first period at 12 as the worst day of his life. “Right then and there, there was this thing that happened, this undeniable red stain, and it proved what I had always wanted to reject, that I was a woman,” he says.
In junior high school, Vandorpe says he tried to be feminine and fit in — growing long hair, wearing feminine clothing, and toying with makeup. At about the same time, he started questioning his sexual orientation, which he stresses is different than gender orientation. “Because I changed from a female to a male, a lot of people associate that with lesbianism. That I must sexually prefer women, so I changed my gender to make that easier to accept in society,” he says.
Temporarily, Vandorpe says he felt some relief in thinking he might simply like women and that’s why he always felt so different. He says suddenly he felt like he was handed a diagnosis, and best of all, he knew there was a lesbian community that could support him. “That was short-lived though, because I realized that it was a lot more complicated than that. At about 14, I knew that I liked men, but I simply felt like the wrong gender. I wanted to be perceived as a man,” he says.
Back then, the words transgender and transsexual weren’t even in his vocabulary. He started going to a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender organization in Halifax as he began high school, and quickly realized what he had known deep inside all along. “I wanted to be a man. And after realizing that, I felt overwhelmed, because I knew there would be so many challenges ahead — this realization was actually the easy part,” he says with a smile.
He volunteered with the group and started binding his C-cup breasts until it appeared he was flat-chested, which he describes as painful but necessary. He changed his MSN Messenger name to a male one, and when that went alright with his friends, he asked his teachers to call him by a masculine name.
All of this time, his family was unaware of what he was going through. He wore baggy clothes to hide the chest binding and sported short hair. The first step in making them aware was telling his mother, whom he describes as “very conservative” at the time. He says he tested the waters by leaving some pamphlets he got at the LGBTQ centre that contained information about trans people on his mother’s bed. “She was furious and asked what that stuff was doing in her house,” he says. He then knew he had to tell her directly. “I sent her an e-mail from the LGBTQ centre, telling her I wanted to be a man and gave her a few days to process it. I remember just staring at the message that said it had been sent and feeling the craziest anxiety of my life.” Vandorpe says his mother tried to convince the 17-year-old that it was just a phase, or that he had a personality disorder but she did eventually accept it. Things were much smoother when he told his father a year later.
The process for beginning hormone replacement therapy varies from province to province. In Nova Scotia, because he was under 19, Vandorpe had to spend six months in therapy. At the end of it, a social worker and psychiatrist decided he could receive the gender identity disorder diagnosis and proceed with hormone therapy. Within eight months he started on testosterone. “It was the happiest I’d been in a long time. Finally my voice was dropping, and I started looking more like a male and being perceived as one.”
The next step was surgery to remove his breasts. He says he could have waited about two years for the government to fund the operation after he completed rigorous counselling sessions at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health gender clinic. He decided against it and paid the $7,000 for the operation. “I remember thinking it was like magic. That I could go to sleep the way I was and wake up looking like I had always wanted.”
Although he was thrilled with the result, he says the healing process was painful, and cemented the notion he never wanted to get genital surgery due to the pain factor. Vandorpe says he doesn’t see a need for that surgery, as he is now perceived as a man and that’s what he wants. “I feel like I’m ready to start law school and begin making some changes,” he says.
Vandorpe says he feels Ontario is moving in the right direction for trans rights, given the recent passing of Toby’s Act, or Bill 33. “Having gender identity explicitly included in Ontario human rights legislation is a huge and important step forward. Unfortunately, human rights are not the same across the country; I definitely don’t have those same protections back in Nova Scotia. I would really like to see gender identity and gender expression included in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he says.
He says he hopes to tackle federal protections for trans people in his career as a lawyer. “It’s been a long journey but I think finally all my experience has led me to this point. I’m hopeful about the future and it’s a good feeling knowing through law, I’ll be able to make a positive difference for those going through the same unique challenges as I faced,” he says.