Gender fluidity: ‘I am just me. Why do I have to have a label?’
Chris Ricketts was brought up a girl but has always felt gender-fluid and wishes that society could move beyond rigid labels
Chris Ricketts: “I tried to be the best woman I could. I even got my ears pierced.” Photograph: Eric Luke
“I felt he was trying to imply that my life must have been really difficult, which it was at one stage, but I’m really happy now, and that’s what I want people to see. I’m very happy in my body, and that’s important. It is possible to live this way.”
For Chris, living “this way” has been a fluid thing. Fluid before either of us, or Miley Cyrus, had words to explain what that meant.
In Food Needs Labelling, People Don’t, which is launched today, Chris writes: “I once attached the label ‘gender identity disorder’ to myself. Never happy with being a woman, preferring to have been born a male, I waged war on my body and was classified as a gender-dysphoric person. I was offered the route of gender-reassignment surgery but I refused this path, not because I thought it was wrong but because it wasn’t right for me. I knew I wasn’t feminine but I was in a female body.”
And Chris remains in a female body, having decided that sex-change surgery is not an option. As Martina Navratilova said: “Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.” Chris agrees.
Welsh and proud
Chris was born in Wales and moved to Ireland in 1966, aged 5½, but identifies as Welsh. Ireland’s 16-16 draw with Wales in their recent Six Nations clash was most pleasing, “because neither of my sides lost”.
It says “female” on her birth certificate, and Chris was brought up a girl. “Because my parents thought they had a girl, they put me in female stuff like little dresses.”
Chris was treated the same as her other two sisters, up to a point: Ricketts’s grandfather played cricket and pool with the young Chris.
Most people “treated me the way I expected to be treated when I was young, because up until the point you grow breasts and have periods, people do treat you the way you expect to be treated”.
Was it a happy childhood?
“I was happy most of the time when I was young, but every time I had to wear a dress, there was a screaming row.”
Harder still, Chris just didn’t understand being treated differently from Andrew, a cousin. They were only three months apart and even shared the same playpen. Chris just couldn’t work it out. No one was bothering Andrew with frills and ruffles and the pair of them even wanted the same toys.
“To be honest, I felt like a boy,” Chris says. “I presumed I was like my cousin. The only time I noticed was when other people said I was a little girl. Kids tend not to see difference, they don’t define gender, they just get on with it. There’s more fluidity when you’re very young, but the way our society has been structured still defines us. There’s blue for boys, pink for girls.”
Chris needed to be told that it was “not a disorder nor a problem but an alternative existence, a natural diversity”. This diversity was not “open to me at that time. Society was polarised into biological men and women, with gender identity firmly welded to both sexes.”
This made life difficult at every stage.Unwrapping Christmas presents, there would be knitting paraphernalia when she longed for a Scalextric. Having to join the girls’ line in the schoolyard and then to move to an all-girls secondary school almost floored Chris. “I was the only one who didn’t cry on the last day.”
Then Chris jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.
“When I went to college at UCD, the problem was that suddenly I found that at a young age it is okay not to have an expectation that you’re going to have a sex life. When you go to college, that is expected and that was like a smack in the face because I didn’t want to have one.”
This was not because Chris didn’t have sexual feelings; it was because having a sex life was an emotional bridge too far.
“Mentally, I didn’t want to be with a bloke, as that didn’t attract me,” Chris says. “But neither did I want to be with a woman because I didn’t feel I had the necessary parts. They both jarred.”
It was a situation that had to be left to one side. After college, Chris became a teacher and had a number of boyfriends. At the age of 26, Chris got married.
Were they in love?
“Well, there are loads of different types of love. I was trying to make my life work with a very nice person. If you are trying to live your life the best way you can in the body you have been given, that is all you can do. There was no transgender then, there was no label for it. I knew I wasn’t gay. I just knew I wanted to be the man I was marrying – or a man.”
Yet there was no one to share those feelings with. “I thought, There is something going wrong, so you’re going to have to live with it the best way you can. I tried to be the best woman I could. I even got my ears pierced.”
Would it not have been easier to be gay, because there was at least a pathway to take? “No. That wasn’t honest either.”
Two children followed. On first becoming pregnant, Chris was really worried about being able to be a mother. “I’m sure lots of women have those feelings too. But I had it to the Nth degree.”
Things have changed, of course. Being transgender has made it into the mainstream. “But it has only made it mainstream one way, which is transsexual. It hasn’t made it mainstream any other way because our society is polarised into male and female and it is believed that if you are not happy being female, you should have a sex change to become a recognisable male. It is the same with everything: ‘If you don’t like being in your body, we’ll change it.’ ”
Somebody recently asked Chris if gender fluidity was “the new thing”? To some extent, it is, says Chris, especially among American celebrities. “In some way, what they are doing is good, it gives it a celebrity status, but we have to bring it back to the mainstream. We have to look at lives more ordinary.”
Chris says that children should be given time to figure out what they want to be in the knowledge that there are lots of people who feel the same way and you can be accepted for who you are.
Despite having nothing but “huge respect for people like Caitlyn Jenner, who have gone through a very difficult process”, Chris wonders why you “can’t be accepted as two things. Why do you have to be just one thing? Male or just female. Why can’t you be both? Why can’t you be a male gender inside a female body?”
There are at least 10 different genders, says Chris. “Defining ourselves as two sexualities is just so limiting. It is time to broaden the horizon, broaden the way we look at sexuality and gender.”
But it seems that some people are afraid of us becoming more gender-fluid. Why is that?
“They are. We have spent too long in a paradigm that is just not working for so many people in society, and the problem is that there are a lot of people who like that paradigm, who feel safe in it and who don’t like change.”
Chris, on the other hand, is enjoying this new accommodation of difference in places such as unisex toilets. “It really suits me. I don’t have to choose. It is very inclusive.”
Feminism seems to be having a bit of a moment reflecting on what makes a woman and what makes a man, and all of the places that fit between that. So what does Chris think of these sometimes hostile discussions?
“If women have fought and are still fighting so hard to be equal to men and to be whatever they want to be, this move to widen the scope of gender may seem challenging. I think the problem is because women and the feminist movement have had to fight so hard to achieve – and they still haven’t got – parity.
“Now they have to give some of that ground away to someone who is coming along and saying, ‘Well, I’ve a female body, but I’m a man inside.’ They think, Well, why can’t you just be a woman? But why do they have to have me saying I’m a woman just so they feel comfortable taking on their label? Why can’t I be whatever I want to be?”
Chris understands that “if you’ve fought for your whole life to be seen as who you are then you don’t like someone else coming along and changing the goalposts”. But the goalposts need to be changed as we develop a better, more inclusive understanding of who people are.
So does Chris have a label now?
“I am just me. There is no label. Why do I have to have a label? I know I don’t want to be called gender identity disordered any more. It is a stupid thing to tell someone they are disordered. We need to stop labelling everything ad nauseam. It really doesn’t do our children or our society any good. I fought long and hard against getting a label. I had to learn that I’m more than my body.”
Chris is happy. It is a label, but it is true.