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Girl in the Dream: Stephanie (Sydney) Castle Heal, A Transgender Life

Girl in the Dream: Stephanie (Sydney) Castle Heal, A Transgender Life

Автором Margot Wilson

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Girl in the Dream: Stephanie (Sydney) Castle Heal, A Transgender Life

Автором Margot Wilson

886 pages
10 hours
Aug 13, 2018


Girl in the Dream is the life story of Stephanie (Sydney) Castle Heal, an advocate, activist and elder in the Canadian transgender community. The outcome of an almost four year collaboration of story-telling, recording, analysis and writing with anthropologist and author, Margot Wilson, Girl in the Dream is a first person narrative that depicts in intimate detail Stephanie’s transgender journey. The title is not only an acknowledgement of a pivotal moment in Stephanie’s young life when at the age of 41⁄2 years old, her gender dysphoria made itself manifest in a dream that stayed in her memory for almost 90 years. It serves as a metaphor for her entire transgender experience and a talisman for gender mutability that today is taken for granted to a significant degree but does not reflect the reality or experiences of gender variant individuals in the early to mid-20th Century. Stephanie remarks, “When I took on the identity of Stephanie, I like to think that the image that I had in my head merged into who Stephanie became—me in female form. I am a female named Stephanie but I am also a male named Sydney. I am content with that status.” Details of Stephanie’s life prior to her transition—including her early childhood, growing up in Britain prior to the Second World War, military service in the British Navy during WWII, two marriages, immigration to Canada and the birth of two children—contextualize her experiences and her ultimate decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery at the age of 62. Our understanding of Stephanie’s many years of silence, secrecy and indecision is set against a background of familial rapprochement (or lack thereof) and the social and political times in which she grew up. An enthusiastic and accomplished raconteuse, Stephanie tells her story with the verve, passion and expressiveness of a veteran storyteller. In the end, Girl in the Dream provides a candid, revealing, nuanced and genuine rendition of Stephanie’s transgender experience in the world.

Aug 13, 2018

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Margot Wilson is an anthropologist recently retired from the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. Over the past 30+ years, Margot has undertaken anthropological research in South Asia. She has lived in a bamboo hut with no running water or electricity in a rural village in northwest Bangladesh, learning to be a village woman by living as one. She has also undertaken research at a shelter for abandoned women and children in Dhaka (the capital city) and at the Danish-Bangladesh Leprosy Mission in rural northwest and central Bangladesh. She has published a number of research papers based on that research and two books based on women’s narratives. These include: Daughter of the Spirit and Beyond Ideas of Wrong Doing that are available through Castle Carrington Publishing. More recently (since 2014), Margot’s longstanding research interests in gender, personal narrative and life story telling have led her to undertake life history research in collaboration with elders in the Canadian and American transgender communities. Girl in the Dream is the first in what is expected to be a series of life histories of transgender elders; the life story of Stephanie (Sydney) Castle Heal, a Canadian transgender woman and early advocate for the rights of transgender people, especially those incarcerated in the Canadian prison system. Despite her training as an academic, Margot’s writing style is clear, engaging and definitive, unencumbered by jargon and readily accessible to both experts and those who are new to the subject matter.

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Girl in the Dream - Margot Wilson



It started innocently enough at a plenary panel the last morning of the Moving Trans[1] History Forward symposium at the University of Victoria in the spring of 2014[2]. Presenters recounted their experiences in activism, writing and engagement with and within the transgender [3] community. Immediately following the panel, I approached my colleague and friend, Aaron Devor, symposium organizer and now Chair in Transgender Studies at UVic, expressing both enthusiasm and concern. On one hand, I was perturbed that, by definition, these founding elders will inevitably leave us and someone should be recording and archiving their stories. On the other hand, I was drawn both to the stories and to the story-tellers. As an Anthropologist, I have the training, experience and interest to undertake this kind of research. But how to proceed? Ask them, Aaron said.

So, I approached three of the panel speakers and invited them to consider collaborating with me in writing their life histories. Hoping for perhaps one agreement, I was astounded when all three immediately said yes. I suppose one should be cautious about what one wishes for. Nevertheless, the collaborations have been challenging, joyous and enlightening for me (and I hope for my collaborators, too).

(Trans Elders’ Life Histories, Margot Wilson 2016) [4]

Written in two parts—the first part written by me, explaining the hows, whys and wherefores of life history research and the second written by Stephanie, comprising her planned introduction and summary of the book—this introduction begins with a suggestion. If you prefer to bypass the more academic section on life history research, skip to page 12 where Stephanie’s introduction begins or go directly to Chapter 1 where Stephanie’s story really begins. Alternatively, read on if you subscribe to Stephanie’s opinion that:

The one thing I always emphasize is: when you pick up a book, read the introduction. It is essential to read the introduction. A lot of people do not bother. I don’t know why, but they don’t. The introduction is there for a purpose. I have always found that an introduction acts like a kind of blueprint. When I am writing, the introduction sets out my thinking. It is a very good way of starting a book; having the broad objectives put down in writing. You can always amend it as you go. At least, that is my theory. Nobody ever taught me this and I have never seen it suggested in any books written on writing. But it is a technique that I stumbled upon and have always found to be of value. This is the way I write my fictional books. Also, the way I write non-fiction, although non-fiction has to be accurate and should serve a specific purpose. Whenever I am doing a lengthy narrative, I lay down markers of what I want to touch on in the order I want to touch on them in the introduction. It makes the writing a whole lot easier. The other thing I always do is put a list of characters at the end of the book (see Chapter 6), describing what their role is. This is very helpful, particularly if you are one of those people who reads a book in spasms [5].

Accordingly, the section immediately following provides background on how Stephanie and I came to work together on this project, how the research and writing were undertaken and some philosophical musings on the nature and importance of life history research. The section after that is comprised of an introduction originally written by Stephanie in 2015 and an unpublished manuscript titled, On Being a Trans Woman, written by Stephanie in 2016. Together they provide a blueprint for the chapters that follow. In the end, the choice to continue (or not) is yours. You can always come back to the introduction later.


Several years ago, a graduate student I was supervising came across an edited volume on life history research titled Lives in Context: The Art of Life History Research [6]. For me, this was a happy coincidence because although I had been researching women’s oral and written narratives for many years, I had only recently committed to life history research with transgender elders as the epigraph above details. As a white, heterosexual, better than middle age, cis-gender woman and transgender ally, I was anticipating certain challenges in undertaking this research: challenges that are similar in many ways to cross-cultural ethnographic research and yet distinctly different. For example, being an anthropologist, I am familiar with a role of outsider and the essentials of establishing an entrée into the community, creating affiliation and rapport and building a respectful, consistent and effective research relationship with my research collaborators. Personally, I subscribe to a belief that the outsider position confers certain benefits if only that of bringing a different perspective. Furthermore, assuming a naïve stance and asking ingenuous questions, I hopefully suspend any presumption that I already know anything about the intricacies of any given research setting, context or subject. If in the best of all possible worlds, I am able to suspend my own belief, supposition and expectation (also known as biases), I should be able to engender research from an extensive, holistic and relativistic point of view. I have always been conscientiously aware of the need for mutual trust, respect, honesty and compatibility in research. Nevertheless, Cole and Knowles challenged me to ponder another fundamental issue: one I must admit that I had never seriously considered before. That is, what is my relationship to this particular research topic? Why this research topic and not some other? Forgive me if I quote at length. I simply cannot help myself. I am an academic after all. Nevertheless, if you are not interested in the intricacies of scholarly argument and/or do not want to fight your way through the nuances of the academic language that follows, skip to the bottom of the quote and read the part that is highlighted.

One of our fundamental assumptions about researching…is that such work must come from a deep professional and personal commitment. When such commitment is present the resulting scholarship will display a certain authority, with obvious authenticity, and is likely to have moral, social, intellectual, and political roots that are grounded in personal and professional experiences. In effect we are claiming that all research… intersects with and emanates from our own experiences. In this way researching is an autobiographical act. To research is to reveal the autobiographical—the self or elements of the self…

We all come to a formal inquiry project with a set of experiences, direct or vicarious, that have informed our actions about the focus, direction, tone, and emphasis of our work. Such influences are not subtle; they arise from a lifetime of participant observation and personal, formal, and informal learning. They arise from familial, educational, social and work experiences. They arise, simply, from being human…

To remove oneself from the messiness and complexities of lives is to become devoid of the erotica of life…We want…life history researchers to articulate clearly, within the definitions of their work, their humanness—the fundamental assumptions, experiences, and passions behind their inquiries—as an authentic way to engage in and represent the complexities of their findings. To do this is to honor oneself, those who are the focus of inquiries, and the journey or journeys taken. Such a position will not only engage readers…but will also make clear the foundational underpinnings of the research…We research who we are in the same way that everything else we do is an expression of who we are. As researchers we need to acknowledge that in order to be authentic in the research that we do. The way we research is a reflection of how we orient ourselves to the world…One way to unpack our research baggage…is to…examine the path taken to a research project…For purposes of understanding oneself as researcher, focus…on segments of one’s life that relate to…the origins of an interest in the topic or area

In the context of this research journey, I have found it valuable to take up the challenge of explicitly situating myself. Still, it is important to clarify that this story is not mine. It is Stephanie’s and I have worked hard to restrain my voice while highlighting hers. Accordingly, the vocabulary, idiom, and nuance of language used represent a genuine and authentic representation of the ways in which Stephanie told her own story over some 80+ hours of recorded conversation spanning an almost 3 year timeframe. Our research process was an iterative one. We spoke on a more or less weekly basis either in person or by telephone. Our conversations were recorded, transcribed, coded for content, divided into chapters and edited. The final result is a fine layering of stories which juxtapose multiple renditions of the same story, each one slightly different. For me, weaving a multiplicity of details into a single coherent rendition was akin to the layering of acetate sheets found in old-style anatomical textbooks; where each sheet adds another layer of complexity, interpretation and subtlety. Our original intention was a collaborative writing project but Stephanie died before she was able to read draft chapters of the material presented here. Indeed it was Stephanie’s lack of response to early drafts that I had sent electronically while travelling in Asia that precipitated (upon my return) urgent calls to friends in Vancouver to inquire where (and how) she was. It was only then that I discovered that she had been admitted to a hospital, the last of several hospitalizations that occurred during our research work together. Accordingly, I bear complete and total responsibility for the final product: any errors, misrepresentations or inaccuracies are mine alone. The stories, however, are Stephanie’s.

Knowles writing about his own life history research expresses similar sentiments:

Over the course of our intentional life history conversations, we told many stories, all in the spirit of collaborative inquiry. So it is that, in some strange way, the revelation of Thomas’s life is a representation of my own as well…I must take full responsibility since the story is not a mutually constructed text. I am the sole author of the written account; he is the sole author of the life stories as told. My account of his life cannot do justice to the complexities of his life as lived.

The stories told by Thomas revealed epiphanic events—critical incidents, turning points, or milestones—within his life that brought to him profound realizations about the meaning of experiences he had had and possible courses of subsequent actions. These are the elements of his life that aided me in developing a structure to tell his story. They are the warp of the long woven blanket [7].

If a requirement that as researchers we consciously consider how our experience, personal background, education and interests bring us to the research we have chosen to undertake, then we become obligated to examine our own personal histories. To be authentic in our practice, writing and perhaps more importantly our research relationships (which in my experience have routinely transformed into lasting friendships and deep caring) is to understand and clearly articulate what about any specific topic excites, fascinates and engages us. For me, a genuine response to this exercise in self-reflexivity required scrupulous and forthright reflection. In the course of that enquiry, I found myself enmeshed in poignant recollection and reflection on motivation and character. More specifically: How exactly have my personality, experience and training (which are intimately interrelated) fostered my research relationship with questions of gender more generally and transgender issues in particular? How have those influences changed over time? As I retrieved memories (which I share below), I determined that, indeed, life history research is both personal and autobiographical in the sense that my life experiences served as context, counterpoint and complement for appreciating Stephanie’s. Not that my life experiences parallel or replicate hers in any way (or vice versa) but rather that the many hours spent collaborating in the telling, hearing and recording of her life story allowed an entrée, empathy and affection to develop that allowed me to capture and represent her life experience in a way that would not otherwise have been possible. This, I believe, is the profound power of the methodology we employed. In deference to Stephanie’s courageousness, candor and strength of character, I offer the following, situated, if necessarily incomplete, substance of my engagement with the Girl in the Dream. What follows in the remainder of this volume is my best approximation of the life story of the real girl in the dream who is Stephanie Castle Heal.

My first conscious brush with the transgender world came on a bus in Bangladesh in 1988. A doctoral student of Anthropology, I was living with my family in a remote rural village in the northwest part of the country studying women’s economic contributions to the household, in particular their productive activities in homestead gardens and the impact of those endeavors on their status. Our house was a two room 10 foot by 25 foot bamboo-walled structure erected on a platform of packed earth with a rice straw roof, no running water and no electricity. I spent my days visiting in the village, interviewing and learning what it was like to be a village woman by living as one. My husband survived by crossing off the squares on the calendar day-by-day while my two young daughters thrived in the serenely peaceful quiet and security of a close-knit agrarian community. My older daughter ran around the village with a ubiquitous horde of children while a neighbour borrowed the younger one as entrée into a group of young mothers who congregated with their small children in the early afternoons to gossip under the trees in a shady, flat spot behind our house. Almost idyllic, the village was the quietist place I have ever lived. I felt that I could almost hear the rice growing. But I digress.

Our house was an hour’s rickshaw ride from the nearest town. Travelling to the next largest town some 27 kilometers away to visit friends who lived there, required that we take the local bus. Since there is no concept of queuing in Bangladesh, we developed a strategy for boarding the bus. It consisted of my husband carrying the luggage, usually cloth bags hung over his shoulders and around his neck and me carrying our two daughters. As the bus pulled into the stop, usually unmarked, in a cloud of dust, to a jostling horde of waiting (usually male) passengers, Joseph would estimate the place where the door of the bus would likely come to rest. He would step forward quickly and place his hands low down on either side of the door opening (there was rarely a door). He was a tall guy and could successfully block the door long enough for me to enter the bus without incident. It was less about getting a seat than not being stampeded in the crowd. Women and foreigners routinely sat on two opposite-facing bench seats immediately behind the driver. I would station myself immediately behind Joseph, a little girl held tightly under each arm. Then, Joseph would raise one arm while I scooted up the steps into the bus. On this particular occasion, I became aware of a woman in my peripheral vision, also negotiating her place in the crowd. When Joseph raised his arm, I hesitated briefly, turned to her and said, "Cholo, didi (let’s go, sister), and allowed her to slip into the bus ahead of me. Once we got settled, a child on each knee and the luggage stowed at our feet, I realized that she was sitting opposite me. We smiled and nodded but did not speak. She was a hijra" [8]—a transwoman. Many years later in November 2013, the Government of Bangladesh officially recognized hijra as a separate gender category or third sex [9]. This decision enabled individuals to identify their gender as hijra on all official government documents including passports [10]. Nevertheless, more recent reporting (2016) suggests that there have been difficulties implementing this policy in terms of changing gender markers on identification papers and ensuring employment equity [11].

Gender has long been a research interest of mine and was a focus in my dissertation research. From that early brush with the hijra woman on the bus, transgender issues became a complementary thread woven throughout my academic and teaching career. I incorporated readings on hijra in the gender section of my introductory classes and also in my specialty class on South Asia. Then one year, not long after I began teaching at the University of Victoria, a young transman joined my upper level class on social and cultural change. Personable, open and an active participant in class discussion, he approached me in office hours for advice. He expressed concern that he had outed himself unintentionally in another one of his classes by writing an essay that he assumed would be graded by the professor. Discovering that the essay actually would be graded by a graduate student teaching assistant, he was seeking my advice on how to handle the situation. That early consultation led to a number of other conversations about gender dysphoria and transition that ultimately led to me to attending the recently established Gender Odyssey, an annual transgender conference held in Seattle [12]. When I inquired whether curiosity was sufficient grounds for attending, he replied, Absolutely. I asked if he would be willing to serve as my companion, guide and advisor at the conference, to keep me from making any missteps, to which he readily agreed. Thus transpired my first direct engagement with the transgender community.

Aaron Devor, currently the Chair in Transgendered Studies at the University of Victoria, took up his position in Sociology a year before I joined the Department of Anthropology. My office was on the same floor in the Cornett Building, just around the corner from his and from time to time, I saw him in the halls in the late afternoons when I was headed home and he was preparing to teach evening classes. Later Aaron was the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Social Sciences when I was the Chair of my Department. Our paths crossed regularly during administrator’s meetings and leadership training courses. Several years after Aaron become the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, I was appointed the Associate Dean in Social Sciences (his previous position). Subsequently, Aaron recruited me to be the Associate Dean in Graduate Studies. Our terms overlapped for one year during which we worked closely together on a daily basis and came to know each other much better. Since we have both finished our terms in Graduate Studies, we meet on a regular basis for coffee to discuss issues of mutual interest both professional and personal. Hearing that I was planning to attend Gender Odyssey, Aaron also volunteered to introduce me to the community.

In 2014, Aaron organized the first Moving Trans History Forward symposium. Sitting in the audience at the Sunday morning Trans Elders panel, I was stuck by the depth and breadth of the speakers’ experience, followed immediately with the distressing realization that someone should be recording and archiving their stories before these founding elders will inevitably leave us. As the epigraph indicates, I found myself drawn to both the stories and the story-tellers. As a group and as individuals, they were articulate, energized (and energizing), and charismatic. Stories are the stock and trade of anthropological inquiry and my post-dissertation research (with abandoned women and children and with leprosy patients) had focused on their stories as a way of understanding the cultural processes by which identities are constructed. More recent writing had focused on women’s life narratives as revealed in their correspondence. Excited by the potential for new research, but feeling a bit shy and not sure how to proceed, I approached Aaron to ask for direction. His response was eminently practical, Just ask them. So, with some trepidation, I approached three of the elders on the panel. Offering my card, I proposed a collaborative undertaking, allowed that they might need time to consider and asked if I might follow up with them in a week or so. Surprisingly, all three agreed immediately. Stephanie, whose story is told here, was the first to agree. She scanned my card briefly and said yes. I was taken aback but as an author herself, she immediately understood what I was proposing and engaged heartily with the process.

Several weeks later, we met at a restaurant and launched what turned out to be an almost three year conversation that culminates here in the publishing of this volume. We agreed on a general outline for the book, a first person narrative format and a title. The Girl in the Dream is not only an acknowledgement of that pivotal moment in Stephanie’s young life when her gender dysphoria [13] made itself manifest but it serves as a metaphor for her entire transgender experience. As Stephanie says in Chapter 2, when I took on the identity of Stephanie, I like to think that the image that I had in my head merged into who Stephanie became; me in female form. Details of Stephanie’s life prior to her transition contextualize her experience of gender dysphoria and her ultimate decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery (GRS) [14] at the age of 62. Our understanding of Stephanie’s many years of silence, secrecy and indecision is set against a background of familial rapprochement [15] (or lack thereof) and the social and political times in which she grew up.

Stephanie has always been Stephanie to me. When we first began working together, I asked how she would like me to address her. In her usual, straightforward style, she said, When it has to do with my transgender life, call me Stephanie. When it has to do with my marine life, call me Syd."

For me, the challenges of writing a first person narrative can be summarized in a series of questions that I pose and have attempted to answer here in the introduction and throughout the book:

What should be done about third person pronouns? How to represent Stephanie before, after and during her transition to Stephanie and reversion to Syd?

By writing in the first person, the issue of third person pronouns is solved to a considerable extent. After all, one only needs third person pronouns when speaking about someone, not to or as them. Discussions regarding pronouns and given names were ongoing throughout the research and Stephanie was clear that she was equally comfortable being Stephanie or Syd or he/him or she/her (see Chapter 18)

How does one capture humour and laughter in a first person narrative? How to represent that spark of mischievousness, a smile or an outright laugh?

Throughout this volume there are clear references made by Stephanie to incidents she found humorous. Also many of the pictures that illustrate this volume reveal a playful grin or body postures that speak to Stephanie’s mischievous nature. See for example Figure 101 and especially Figure 104 where even toward the end of her life Stephanie’s personality and indomitable spirit shine through. Finally, inflections of the narrative itself allow the reader to hear and infer wit and humour. Stephanie and I spent many happy hours together laughing about events in her life.

What is the nature of the ethnographic present and how does one represent it when the stories are collected in numerous conversations over a period of years?

Through discussion, consultation and reminiscence our views (and interpretations) of events, people and events change. By layering multiple versions of the same story, it may be possible to create a more robust representation of experience. Still the challenge remains for the writer to get the story straight. I hope I have done so.

How to represent polarized opinions when they may be inaccurate, uncheckable or politically incorrect? To what degree is fact checking of opinion required or necessary?

Footnotes address some of these concerns (along with explanations for many colloquialisms and idiosyncratic turns of phrase that pepper the text) but individual perceptions, particularly in life history writing, may not always accord with historical record. Likewise, they may not be able to be checked or referenced (although the internet is often a good resource). Moreover, what is accepted as true today may not have been in the past and vice versa.

What responsibility does one have for protecting the anonymity of others who are mentioned directly or may be identifiable, particularly by other members of the community? How to ensure anonymity?

Sections of the manuscript reference specific living individuals. Unless already published elsewhere these sections have been approved for publication by those individuals. In a close-knit community it is often possible to identify individuals even when their names are not used. I have endeavored to anonymize people and avoid specific identifiers but in cases where none of the above was possible, I have removed those parts of the story.

At what point does one person’s memory of events become data (even if only from their personal perspective)?

The nature of life history writing is that it comprises the memories, perspectives and opinions of the person whose life story is being told. In this situation, it is difficult, if not impossible, to prove or disprove the authenticity of the stories told. For the anthropologist, stories represent (not always verifiable) data and to that extent, I have presented Stephanie’s stories as truths as she understands them.

Then, there is the issue of language and word use. For example, throughout our conversations, Stephanie routinely used the terms transexual/ transexualism, transgender/transgenderism and trans interchangeably [16]. Used as synonyms, these words reflect the language in use during the time of Stephanie’s transition and advocacy work. Nevertheless, as a result of scholarly and advocacy debate, language changes over time and terms that previously were considered to be acceptable become no longer politically correct. As a result footnotes and a glossary (at the end of the Introduction) are offered in an attempt to address and explain choices made regarding both the language and spelling used throughout this volume. A timeline has been included (also at the end of the Introduction) to provide points of reference for pivotal events in Stephanie’s life.

Finally, how does one go about writing (or reading) a life story? As one reader of an early draft pointed out, there are significant differences between biography, autobiography and memoir. To clarify, I went to the dictionary. The Cambridge dictionary defines biography as an account of someone’s life written by someone else. By contrast, a memoir is defined as "a book or other piece of writing based on the writer’s personal knowledge of famous people, places, or events; a written record of a usually famous person’s own life and experiences [17]. Curiously, the Oxford dictionary provides similar definitions then subsequently lists biography and memoir as synonyms [18]. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines memoir as a narrative composed from personal experience and notes that it is usually used in the plural, viz. memoirs [19]. The Collins and Macmillan dictionaries emphasize the difference between biography and autobiography depending on who is doing the writing; the person themselves (autobiography) or someone else (biography). Collins defines memoir as a book or article that you write about someone who you have known well, [20] while Macmillan differentiates memoirs (in the plural) as an account of someone’s experiences written by that person, especially the experiences of someone who has taken part in important political or military events [21]."

Valerie Raleigh Yow, in her book Recording Oral History [22] writes:

The terms life history and biography are used to suggest two different things. A life history has been defined as the account by an individual of his or her life that is recorded in some way…for another person who edits and presents the account… There is nothing new here…for centuries people have written their life histories at others’ request… The biographer takes up the life history and autobiographical writings and personal documents…and photographs, and fashions them into a narrative with a wider historical context than the individual life.

Autobiography is an account told by the individual on her own initiative, not in response to someone else’s questions. For the in-depth interviewer who intends to write a biography, autobiographical writings are a godsend… although these are not done at someone’s request, each writer had an audience in mind that shaped what she wrote—if the autobiography is not written for publication, the audience is oneself… the two processes, writing for oneself and taping a life history for someone else, are similar in that both involve the act of making meaning of life’s events and describing a self in the process of thinking about and articulating experiences.

Accordingly, I would argue that what follows is a life history. I invited Stephanie to collaborate with me in the telling, recording and consideration of her life experiences. Our iterative approach to data collection ensured that stories were told multiple times and opportunities to contemplate and clarify meaning, intent and significance were abundant. Beyond this, Stephanie was a prolific writer herself. She graciously shared her writings with me during our work together and when she died, her son and daughter granted permission for me to access and use her unpublished manuscripts. For that I am very grateful. They also granted access and permission to use the many hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs that Stephanie took over her lifetime. An inveterate photographer, no volume on Stephanie’s life would be complete without samples of the many photographs taken of and by her, particularly those of ships and the sea. All photos in this volume come from the Syd Heal/Stephanie Castle collection unless otherwise noted. I have used them liberally to illustrate her story.

Cole and Knowles have characterized life history research as:

Fewer questions rather than more and broad questions rather than narrow…When we ask questions, we do so and get out of the way. We listen and respond as any good listener would do when personal stories are evoked. Still, we prompt, or gently suggest directions, and we ask clarifying questions or give responses at appropriate times. We work at being attentive. We listen a lot, and carefully [23].

As the over 1500 pages of transcripts demonstrate, that is a reasonable representation of how Stephanie and I worked together. She became an advisor, guide and mentor to me; not only on issues transgender but on a wide range of other topics including writing and publishing. Stephanie held strong opinions on a number of subjects and I sometimes found it necessary to negotiate disparities in our worldviews but my understanding of the transgender experience generally and of Stephanie’s experience in particular expanded and deepened as a result of our many conversations. An enthusiastic and accomplished raconteuse, Stephanie made my job easy. She shared her life story with the verve, passion and expressiveness of a veteran storyteller. For the most part, she chose the topic and general direction of our conversations. She talked and I listened. As instigator, prompter and attentive listener, my job was to capture and distill the essence of the stories she told, to seek clarifications and unravel inconsistencies. In the end, that is what I have attempted here; a candid, revealing, nuanced and genuine rendition of Stephanie’s experience in the world. I hope she would approve.


I have to thank my friend David H, who in a conversation we had one evening around Christmas 2002, made the strong suggestion that I should gather up my many writings, scribblings, letters and other evidence of a busy life within and outside of the trans-communities. His suggestion was that it would be a great loss if it all ended up in the garbage can following my passing. David put it to me that it should be saved and presented in the form of a book that would leave something of value to posterity, even if there could never be complete agreement on the many issues that developed to challenge transsexuals and the trans-gendered community over these past years since I underwent surgery. My exposure to the condition has been lifelong, but 15 years seems to be a convenient marker on the pathway of life to stop and take a look back.

(The Zenith Experience, Stephanie Castle 2005: x)

Surely at the age of 89 and with my 90th coming into view for celebration at the end of this year (2015), I must get a move on if I am to fully participate in this final work involving my life story. It has come into focus since the beginning of this year with participation in a film and several requests by different scribes for interviews so that my life story can be preserved in some form or another in an archive. In the recent past, I have given several interviews and refused one or two because I am in fundamental disagreement with what the interviewer stands for. Having once been bitten by a television programmer, I have few illusions that sometimes these may be conducted for purposes less than completely honourable [24].

In 25 years of book writing history, I have managed to write and publish some three dozen books. Of course, I will admit it is an awful lot easier to get your books published if you also own the publishing company. So, this output averaging one and a half books a year should not be taken as evidence of production of best sellers. I have written five previous books that contain personal history, but they represent a varied selection covering different aspects of my life experiences [25]. Two of these have not even mentioned the ever-present condition of gender dysphoria [26].

Ever since I confronted my gender dysphoric condition, I have functioned as two separate personalities in the fields of literature that I have favoured. So, for the record, I am now owning up to all this and removing any last vestiges of confusion in the matter. This will not necessarily be my last book but it will certainly be the last that I will write or participate in that deals squarely with my own life. It will tell all that is or should be of interest or concern to historians, researchers and the several communities of lawyers, medical practitioners, social workers and fellow transgender folk who take an interest in the transgender world and may find this book worthy of adding to their bookshelf.

To make the issue completely clear, I was born in 1925 and early in 1926 was christened Sydney Castle Heal. The Castle name was my mother’s maiden name and she greatly hoped her first born would be a girl to help with future siblings as she herself had done with her younger brothers and sister. I held this name until 1990 when I changed it to Stephanie Judith Castle Heal. The Judith name was in remembrance of the name chosen by my mother for me in full anticipation of my arrival as a girl. I fully lived in my female role from 1990 to 2001 as Stephanie. But as I was becoming extremely active throughout this period in the production of maritime books (with at least nine magazines taking regular or periodic articles from me in Canada, the U.S., Britain, Ireland and Australia) and because it became a valuable source of income at the most productive stage of my writing career, I reluctantly reached the conclusion that it would be a whole lot easier to visit ships and shipyards and other marine facilities as a man rather than as a woman. It was a hang-up that few biological women feel uncomfortable about today, when women sports reporters invade male locker rooms after sports events with most of the embarrassment being sustained by the men.

Even though I saw little likelihood of reverting once again having given away all my female wardrobe to the local Salvation Army consignment store, as I had grown out of it, I am still a transwoman with all the emotions and appreciation of the many female friendships I have developed. I hung onto the name Stephanie Castle as my writer’s pseudonym when contributing anything to transgender literature and also use it for promotional purposes generally in the transgender field. It was a pragmatic compromise and enabled me to have my feet in both camps and maintain a reasonable income.

This book introduces my cooperating author, Margot Wilson, PhD. Margot is a recently retired professor with the Department of Anthropology at the University of Victoria, one of the several sciences that take an interest in transsexualism and transgenderism. Margot and I met and agreed to do a joint venture following the first symposium at the Transgender Archives [27] held at the University of Victoria in March 2014.

The last non-fiction book I wrote and published was The Zenith Experience: Encounters and Memories in a Transgender Setting, released in 2005. It was largely a history of progress made in British Columbia, centred on the Zenith Foundation, details of which are mentioned later in this book. To a degree it was also a sequel to my first book, Feelings: A Transsexual’s Explanation of a Baffling Condition [28], which was released in 1992. This new joint venture, Girl in the Dream, is an update over the past ten year period, however, an important change is that the principal writer, Margot, brings her own style to the writing. I am a major contributor to the content but will be far from being the only source as she has plenty of other resources to draw upon.

The Zenith Foundation is very important to me for several reasons. One reason is that I have always held true to the dictum that God helps those who help themselves. This was one of my father’s homilies when as children we expressed the opinion that the government should look after everything as if it had a bottomless purse. Of course, Dad was no socialist and we were always encouraged to do things ourselves and in our own best interests. Fortunately, and in spite of this, we grew up with a spirit of generosity for which I will give my mother a great deal of credit.

If nothing else I wanted to leave this earth with a fully functional, adequately financed and well-motivated charitable enterprise in the form of the Zenith Foundation. The whole idea was to develop the new Zenith Foundation as a responsible organization with a life that would continue on after the founders pass on. It is a shame it did not work out that way.

I have been giving quite a lot of thought to this project, thinking along the lines of what is new? What new slant is there to really talk about concerning this subject of gender dysphoria and how it affects people? My thinking at the moment is that our discussion has to be extremely penetrating in terms of describing the condition and my reactions to different aspects of it. This is not something that we can be glib about because a lot of transgender discussions have been written in this way. I get tired of people who continually say that they want to tell their story but when they get to tell their story, they only tell their story superficially. To have any value, coming from a person of my age, I think, we have to go into the deeper actions and deep responses to different aspects of it. What was my emotional response and how did I measure it? That seems to me to be the main thrust that we need. It cannot be dealt with superficially if it is going to have any value. Accordingly, I think this book should be a maximum effort, a tell all, that imparts some real knowledge and makes it interesting.


It was my birthday and here I am at the ripening old age of 90, thinking back over the 89 Christmases that have passed and recalling that my first brush with transsexualism went back to over 85 Christmases ago [29]. What started as a form of gender confusion at the age of about three or maybe even as early as two (Chapter 1), is still with me, riding along mostly fairly comfortably, but no longer confused and now happy with a decision I made a good many years ago that I believe has extended my life and left me feeling happier in virtually every way that affects my well-being. Gender dysphoria once identified becomes your companion in some way or another for the rest of your life. Various theories have been put forward by learned medical practitioners as to how and when it starts but eventually, it comes back to one critical issue. That is, its arrival in one’s psyche and ultimate experience—like it or like it not.

The first of three sons, I was born in 1925. My father had started his own business at age 25 as a butcher in the small English town where I was born (Chapter 4). He started up the business while my mother was pregnant with me. They had also moved into a newly built house in time for my arrival, which was an auspicious occasion as I was the first grandchild for my mother’s parents and the first grandson for my father’s parents. My father’s two older brothers had been killed in the First World War and his mother never really stopped mourning for them until the end of her life which came in 1938. The first one was killed in 1916 and the other in 1918 and for the rest of her life she always dressed in black mourning clothes. I learned many years later that my naming as a boy was the subject of much heated argument between my paternal grandmother and my mother, at that time a young woman of 23. My Grannie wanted to impose the name of my oldest deceased uncle on me (Reginald), but Mum disliked it and stood her ground. So, I was given the name of the second and younger uncle (Sydney), which she was also not wild about but at least it was acceptable to her. With the two brothers who followed, Mum was very firm and would not be budged by argument from Grannie. That is the way it is. The only other person who has any say in it is my son’s father, were the words my mother recalled many years later (Chapter 5).

I was probably about three years old when two things happened that I remember causing me some distress. The first ordeal was going for my first boys’ haircut. I remember protesting loudly when the subject of a haircut was discussed. I wanted my hair cut like the girls who passed our house on the way to school. But you are not a girl. You are a boy. Boys have short haircuts, like your dad, said my mother, probably very frustrated and puzzled as she had never been confronted with a boy who thought he was a girl (Chapter 1). Despite my protests, the terrible day came and I was taken to the local barber. I could see my mother sitting there talking with him while he trimmed my locks. I think her smiling must have had an adverse effect on me as the girlhood that I felt I was a part of drifted away. I remember being in tears while most of this transformation took place.

The second distress concerned a baby dress that I was used to wearing probably until about age two. In those days it was very common to put little boys into a smock-like dress that were regarded as standard baby wear that probably dated back for centuries. I think in my infant mind even at that age, I was already engaged in sorting out gender roles as I was firmly convinced that length of hair and clothes determined gender. Any notion of sex as determined by genitalia was not known or recognized by me. Then came the time to switch into short pants and not wear a dress any more. Evidently, this was also accompanied by much protest from me but this time my father became involved. He had a very serious discussion with me. He told me I was going to wear pants whether I liked it or not, You are a boy and you will dress in boy’s clothes and grow into a man like me. I was not a bit happy with that message, which was reinforced with a spanking. After all, this was the era of spare the rod and spoil the child [30] and physical punishment was handed out quite freely in homes and schools (Chapter 3).

The clincher was the suggestion that if I did not behave they would likely lock me up at a big asylum for the insane not far from where we lived. I had often passed that haunted-looking building with its millions of shiny red bricks and bland look that seemed to stare blindly through barred window frames like lifeless eyes looking at the outside world. I had been assured by my father that terrible things happened there. Who they were who would lock me up was not clear but it was a big enough threat to jolt me into reality (Chapter 2). I was sufficiently frightened to seal my lips and go into a secrecy mode that saw me well into middle age. My fear was associated with a horror of being held up to ridicule for this was an era when gays, transgender people and anyone else who was different would be lampooned and possibly physically assaulted by family members, fellow school students or workers when in a workplace setting. If I had any thoughts about the inner girl who I came to recognize over the years, they were stifled totally and sometimes painfully with hidden tears as I tried to repress my feelings and emotions. Without any real understanding, I desperately needed to find someone who understood (Chapter 3).

Then at probably about age four going on five, I had a dream similar to the experiences many gender dysphoric people have when something indefinable comes into your brain. You have a profound experience as God, the Creator or Mother Nature introduces you to the notion that something is now different in your life. This is when you meet your alter ego, the girl who is the companion to your actual personality as a boy. I am sure every dream or happening experienced by gender dysphoric individuals is different as it has to fit into a form still recognizable to the individual. In my case it involved a girl wearing a long white dress and with long blonde hair. She was sitting in an old rowboat floating on a pond. She seemed to be someone I knew. Then, in the dream (Chapter 1), I saw her face surrounded by long blonde hair when I looked in a mirror. But the face was mine. I could not figure out why my face showed up in the mirror. I have never forgotten that dream and believe that it was showing me what lay ahead for me, even if it did take another fifty odd years to fully realize it. That dream has been with me all my life and is still quite vivid when I think of it. The girl came back on more than one occasion, sometimes quite dramatically, as I caught glimpses of her, the girl who was growing up in lockstep with me (Chapter 2). One friend told me her introduction was not via a dream. It was simply a happening. It occurred when she ran into a bed of flowers at her grandparents to retrieve a ball and as she said, I came out of those flowers knowing that something very mysterious had occurred and I was never quite the same again. Another friend saw her reflection on the surface of a pond. With the slight ripples it distorted the image sufficiently that she thought she was looking at the image of a girl. It left an indelible impression.

My dream started a search for answers that lasted until I was 19 years old and found a book in a Bombay bookstore, titled Man into Woman [31]. That book must now be a classic as it describes the first recorded so-called sex change. It occurred in 1933 in Vienna, Austria where a surgeon performed surgery on a young Danish artist. This happened at about the time when human sex hormones were the subject of much early research. Unfortunately, the young woman died somewhat later of complications. In a Frankenstein-like drama, they had tried to implant female reproductive organs from a cadaver, but it was far too ambitious [32] and a similar attempt has never been made in the nearly 80 intervening years, so far as I know.

In those early years there was virtually no knowledge of transsexualism at any level other than perhaps a few sex researchers working in university labs. For anyone to come out and proclaim to the world that he or she believed they were transsexual, was an open invitation to ridicule, insult, persecution, harassment, beating, misinformation, misrepresentation, instant firing, a trip to the divorce court and unwelcome media attention; all on a scale far greater than would be experienced today. There would be much moralizing, both religious and sociological. You were going against the word of God and/or you were automatically classed as a homosexual, a word so derisive to red blooded heterosexuals that it was many times more destructive to relationships than the common swearwords that have been around it seems forever.

A watershed transsexual case was the coming out in 1952 by the late Christine Jorgensen. This was more than merely notable. She set the world presses spinning [33] and it ranked as front page news in competition with a tsunami in Japan or the loss of the airship Hindenburg. Today, society has progressed with greater knowledge and a vastly better attitude towards the issues surrounding transexualism. In particular, it is now getting far more accurate recognition as a natural, if still not so rare, human condition, not transmittable like a disease and certainly not something that is picked up by example.

When I did finally come to grips with my condition, I was a successful businessman nearing retirement. I had survived two marriages (Chapters 8 and 9) and I had a son and daughter but also a lot of misery. However, once you have decided on what was for me an approximately two year transition, it is as though some huge internal force takes hold that is bigger than you. You do what you know you have to do and the idea of getting off the program is probably a little like jumping out of a car traveling at high speed. The idea of changing your position in mid-stream becomes unthinkable as you struggle to get to the other side come hell or high water [34]. (Chapter 11). In this scenario, it is a fact that the condition takes charge of you until you have finished the course. When it is all through, there is a feeling of relief that you have fulfilled a lifetime dream. Now, full of hope and the challenges of a new life, you go forward in a way in which your own self-esteem and confidence are foundational qualities. As an older person, I see grace and dignity as well as consideration for others as important qualities which I believe are essential in carving out a new life for yourself; finally living at peace with the inner you, freed of all the demons that used to inhabit your belly (Chapter 12).

As you

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