‘I joked about swapping bodies’: The story of a trans couple in Sligo
A new TG4 documentary follows Victoria and Max as they transition
Victoria van der Spek and Max Ó Floinn
“I have been out as transgender for three or four years now. I’ve been on oestrogen and anti-androgens about a year and a half. I just generally feel happier with it. I still have depression of course, but much better than before I was on it.”
It’s the “of course” that catches you when you listen to Victoria van der Spek’s words, the measure of how hard gender dysphoria is; the acceptance that depression may be a constant struggle.
Victoria is 21 years old, from Cavan and living in Sligo, transitioning from male to female. She and her boyfriend Max Ó Floinn, also aged 21, who is transitioning to male, feature in Tras, an hour-long documentary to be shown on TG4 next week, following their journey over six months. But it’s not a depressing journey; rather a story wrapped in love that’s unexpectedly hopeful and uplifting.
When Victoria came out to Max, he admits he 'didn’t know much about trans things'
“He’s just been a phenomenal support,” Victoria says of her partner. “He’s been completely reliable. He is always there for me.” For Max, his girlfriend is “happy to be with me and I’m so happy that she’s with me too.”
Max, who is originally from Leitrim and studying biotechnology at Sligo IT, is gender-fluid. “When I was 14 I knew I was pansexual. I can fall in love with anyone. It doesn’t matter what body, what gender, what sex.”
In Tras, Max speaks in Irish, a language he loves. He and Victoria first met, in their birth-assigned genders, in the Gaeltacht as teenagers. A couple of years later, aged 17 and 18, they became friends, then in April 2016, more.
When Victoria came out to Max, he admits he “didn’t know much about trans things”. He explains in the documentary how he decided to learn more about it so he could help her.
Victoria had difficulty at her all-boys school, with lads’ culture and toxic masculinity. She opened up to Max about “how she was upset with her ‘boy body’. And I joked about swapping bodies, that she’d be happy if we could do a magical swap.”
Then more seriously, over a year, “I realised I wouldn’t be upset if I was magically in a boy’s body, that my discomfort about my body wasn’t about my weight or my freckles. I was not happy being a girl.”
In Tras we meet them as Victoria is taking a year out from studying film and arts in NUI Galway. The oestrogen and anti-androgens feminise her breasts and hips. “Even my face is changed. There is more randomness in my cheeks now... minor changes you wouldn’t notice, but you would kind of pick up on if you were trying to gender someone.” The hormones are “definitely worth it for the end result”.
Max wears a binder on his chest in the film. “It puts a good bit of pressure on you. I feel much better as a man wearing the binder. I don’t want anyone looking at me... Because it’s a place on my body I feel very uncomfortable with and the binder helps me walk around in a T-shirt.”
The imagery in this sensitive film echoes conventional signallers of gender. So we see Victoria putting on her makeup, and Max shaving. To get to that point, she’s had oestrogen patches and he has monthly testosterone injections.
“I feel far more comfortable in my own body,” Max says. “It’s puberty all over again. I’ve loads of spots and my voice is far lower than it used to be. I’ve more hair. Victoria can feel it. I’m sweating more. But I’m very happy with those changes, I feel much better and I feel like myself. I hope to be able to have a proper beard.”
When Victoria was 10 or 11 “the first thoughts came in”, and she would sometimes wear her mum’s clothes. “I wasn’t sure why I was doing it. I just wanted to do it.”
It was kind of hard for my parents. Some people are still saying I’m not Max, that I’m a different person
She explains it graphically in the documentary. “Gender dysphoria is how your external self clashes with your internal self. And how you perceive yourself clashes with how society perceives you. It can almost feel like there’s an alien growth on you, something that needs to be medically removed. At times it feels like you’re missing your arm.
“When I’m not trying to present very well and I still get gendered as female, I still get that happy feeling to be called young lady or whatever. And it still breaks my heart whenever I get ‘sirred’.”
For Max, “It wasn’t easy at the start. It was kind of hard for my parents. Some people are still saying I’m not Max, that I’m a different person. People think we are crazy, that God gave us this body and that’s it. And that we are just wrecking our bodies with hormones and operations and things like that. And that’s hard. I’m still the same person – just a few things are changing.”
As well as Victoria and Max’s mutual love and tenderness, the film glows with the love and support they have received, during what has been clearly a difficult journey for all.
The cameras follow Max to Poland, where he has a double mastectomy. Victoria hopes “he’ll be freer, happier and a bit more Max”. (Max qualifies this: “Well, a bit less.”)
His father Tom accompanies him there for support. “As a parent I just think you have to be there for your kids. You bring them into the world and have to love them. When people ask me how many kids I have, I say I had a daughter and two boys, and now I have three boys ... I’m very proud of the way that he has organised everything, got through it, and funded it. That really stands to him.”
He says “the whole transgender thing was a complete shock. It was out of the blue I suppose. Not out the blue, but not something we had expected. You hear about it, and I suppose until it comes to your door you don’t really realise what it means.
“Initially I was, I won’t say embarrassed, but I just found it difficult to mention to people ... but at the end of the day people will react the way they do. It’s my child. If people don’t like it, tough.” It’s been challenging for the family, but “it’s a new beginning, and I’m looking forward to it”.
The trip was “a chance to rebuild or find that closeness that probably disappeared for a while”, Tom says in the documentary, but since filming, their relationship has become more difficult. “My two younger brothers are fine,” Max says now, but his mother, who is not in the film, struggled with him coming out and transitioning.
“Parents put a lot of expectations on their children, without realising their child needs to be their own person. Before a child is born, people will often say: I don’t mind what gender it is so long as it’s healthy. But parents become accustomed to one gender over the years, and can struggle when that changes.”
Victoria’s mother Joan also talks in the film about how it has been for their family. Her parents initially thought she was stressed because of the Leaving Cert. Victoria eventually wrote her parents a letter explaining she was trans.
“It was a big shock,” Joan tells the camera. “I hardly had known what transgender was to be honest. So it was a huge surprise, and a life-changing moment really. It was very hard. We didn’t really know where to go to get help, medically, and counselling. Which roads to go down ourselves.
'It’s a bit crushing, being misgendered – sometimes you can brush it off, sometimes it does really sting'
“It was like grieving our son, and getting to know this new person. You’ve had them as one gender from when they are born, handed into your arms. They’re now an adult, and you have another gender, and it’s just very difficult to establish that in your mind.”
Also, “when you tell somebody, sometimes at least, you’re dealing with them trying to cope with being told. And maybe they know already and they’re trying to avoid you, even though we haven’t had a lot of that. But in general people are very good and very supportive.”
She says “it’s not the end of the world. It’s a different world ... It’s a new beginning I suppose.”
Victoria talks about telling her brother, who was “a little bit surprised at first and then just said, do you want to go back to the game” they were playing. “He’s my big brother, we fought a lot when we were younger, but we are quite close.”
First and foremost for the family, “support is there all the time”, Joan says. “We supported her financially, medically, whenever she wanted to come here to be at home. There’s a lot of learning. And we are still learning. The main thing is that Victoria will be happy. She is happy in herself now she is on medication. She has had counselling and she’s getting speech therapy.”
Teenage years and the early 20s are complicated, uncertain times for most people. Add in confusion about something at the core of your being that most people take for granted, and a chasm of vulnerability and exclusion opens, magnifying the tenderness.
It’s also a distraction from other things. Joan hopes being transgender won’t define Victoria. “I’d like to see her working, studying, whatever she wants to do. College was hard because her head was all over the place. Once she’s happy, we’re happy. I don’t think this is a lifestyle choice or anything. I know there are people who think that.”
In Tras we see Victoria practising her voice with an app, trying to reach 185 hertz “which is androgynous, just into feminine range”. She has to make an effort “to focus on exactly what you don’t like [about yourself], to pinpoint it in order to change it. It’s a mental hurdle to focus on the things that make me want to curl up into a ball and die, and fix that. But it’s well worth it.”
She’s been looking for work, “and it’s all going fine, and you open your mouth and they look at you funny. It’s a bit crushing, being misgendered – sometimes you can brush it off, sometimes it does really sting.”
But she and Max are finding themselves as young adults. They have got to the stage where they can face the camera and say: “My name is Victoria and I’m a woman.” And: “Is mise Max agus is fear mé.” They’re getting there.
Tras will be shown in English and Irish with subtitles on TG4 on Wednesday, February 26th at 9.30pm. The documentary was produced by Ann Ní Chíobháin, directed by Medb Johnstone and made by Midas Productions as part of the Tabú series.