In this edition of Talking Point, Nick Carey takes a look at the transsexual community in the Czech Republic, and their search for public awareness...
The Czech Republic's transsexual community recently held a conference in Prague to introduce themselves to the general public. The main aims were to discuss who they are, what transsexualism means, and create greater awareness of their needs and rights. Called "We Live Among You", the conference brought together medical and legal experts and various members of the Czech transsexual community, both men who have undergone sex change operations to become women, and women who are now men, to talk about their lives and experiences.
One of the main problem that faces the transsexual community in the Czech Republic is, according to experts, the fact that most people do not differentiate between transsexuals and transvestites. But the only real similarity, says sex therapist Petr Weiss, is the fact that both have a tendency towards cross dressing:
Remarkably, the first sex change operations were carried out in Communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s, and have been made widely available to transsexuals ever since, which has not been the case in many Western countries. After decades of research into this gender disorder, there is still no known genetic reason for why some men and women feel that they are trapped in the wrong body. But what is known is that transsexuals feel different from an early age:
According to the testimonies of members of the transsexual, or transgender community, as many of them prefer to be called, the depression that accompanies this gender disorder can be overwhelming. Stepan was born a woman, and told me of the years of sheer unhappiness that preceded his decision to undergo a sex change operation:
"For a period of about ten years leading up to my operation, I suffered from constant depression. No matter how good my life was professionally, or with my friends, sometimes I found that I was so miserable that I could barely breathe. There were times when I felt that I just couldn't go on."
The difference in Stepan's life after he decided to undergo an operation has been quite remarkable:
"From the moment that I decided to go through with the operation, I stopped trying to act like a woman, and began acting the way I felt was right. The long-term depression stopped, and I knew that I had made the right decision. Now, I am happy, truly happy, because I am who I feel I should be."
For Tereza, who was born a man, the decision to have a sex change operation also dramatically changed her life:
Before transsexuals can start the hormone treatment that leads to a sex change operation, they have to undergo a lengthy interview process with doctors and sex therapists. This, says Petr Weiss, is necessary because of some mistakes that were made back when the first sex change operations were carried out:
The process now for people a undergoing a sex change operation is both lengthy and complex, but for Dr. Fifkova, who works with patients during their hormonal treatment, the first thing she recommends is a name change:
"If a patient decides to go through with an operation, then I try to get them to officially change their name as soon as possible, to a male or female variation of their real names. This way, they can start getting used to their new gender role in their old body."
After hormonal treatment, patients have to apply to a special commission for approval to undergo a sex change operation. This can be difficult in cases where the patient has children, but the commission usually grants permission for those who have undergone the whole interview process. The main sex change operation hospital in Brno, the Czech Republic's second city, handles between seven and eight operations a month.
All of those who spoke at the recent conference said that they had been surprised by the amount of support they had received from friends and family following their sex change operations. Prior to her operation, Tereza had been married and had a son, but she says she experienced relatively few problems:
Stepan's experiences since he became a man have been similar, and although he is seen as somewhat of an anomaly, he says there have been few major problems:
"I haven't met anyone who would try to avoid me or hurt me because of who I am. Yes, some people do find it strange and sometimes I see people pointing at me and whispering that I used to be a woman, but that doesn't bother me. Everyone gets used to it after a little while, and then they stop pointing."
This, says sex therapist Petr Weiss, is common, because of the open attitude of the Czechs towards sexual matters in general:
But this is not, according to Tereza, always the case, for in some cases Czechs have been known to discriminate against transsexuals:
From Dr. Fifkova's experiences, it is generally much more acceptable for a woman to undergo a sex change operation than a man, as Czechs find this hard to deal with:
Although there are differences of opinion within the transgender community and amongst experts as to how much discrimination transsexuals face, one thing they are agreed on is that the issue needs more publicity and increased public awareness. Sex therapist Petr Weiss feels that it is vital to provide the public with information about transsexuals so that they can make informed decisions:
While for Tereza, it is time for the trangender community in the Czech Republic to start talking openly about transsexual issues and not hide from the public eye: