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I am a woman

Joanne Cassar: I always felt and feel that I am a woman who happened to be born with a disability which I have now corrected.

Joanne Cassar: I always felt and feel that I am a woman who happened to be born with a disability which I have now corrected.

Joanne Cassar holds her birth certificate in her perfectly manicured hand and, as she points out her female gender annotation on the document, she glances into the mirror of her salon and says: "How can you call me a transsexual or a man? I always felt I was a woman. I am a woman".

Her kohl-rimmed eyes exude confidence but sorrow sometimes seeps through as she talks about a recent court decision barring her from marrying even though she was legally recognised as a female on her documents following gender reassignment surgery.

After freeing herself of a life trapped in a male body through the surgery, she now feels trapped in a legal limbo that does not allow her to marry - either a man or a woman - despite her fundamental right to marry.

"Of course, I'm not interested in marrying a woman," she says in a soft tone as she recounts how, ever since she was a child, she always felt she was female.

She was happy during her early school years when she attended a mixed school but the nightmare started in secondary school when she was in a boys-only school. "I felt like a fish out of water. I felt that I was a girl but was surrounded by boys... Children can be very nasty to one another and they used to pick on me and tease me a lot," she says.

After keeping her feelings bottled up for years, when she turned 15 she opened up to her mother. "She told me that she had been expecting me to tell her for years... My parents and sister were a pillar of support from the start," she says with a sparkle in her eyes. "They backed me up in all my choices and encouraged me to study to become a hairdresser and open my own business."

Ms Cassar's family also stood by her side when she travelled to the UK for the gender reassignment surgery. Not doing the surgery was never an option for her. "I had been ready for the operation since I was about 14 but could not do it earlier as I had no money. Imagine, each time I would have a shower I would get the shivers."

After saving up, at the age of 22, she got the surgery done. Before going under the knife she was subjected to various hormone treatments and medical and psychiatric tests to ensure she was medically and psychologically prepared for this invasive surgery. She was also informed that there was not a 100 per cent guarantee that the operation would be successful. She might end up in a wheelchair or, in the worst scenario, die.

"I was determined to go ahead. I would have rather died during surgery and had 'Joanne' written on my tombstone than lived a life in a man's body."

Luckily, the surgery was successful and, following an excruciating recovery period of about six months, Ms Cassar filed a court application to have her gender changed to female on her birth certificate. Some nine months later the court upheld the request allowing her documents to truly reflect who she felt she was.

Ms Cassar was finally at home in her body and confident of her identity. Having been with her boyfriend for several years they started thinking about a future together.

"Initially, we were going to have a private function and draft a contract between us but then I thought: Wait a moment. Why can't I get married to the man I love like any other woman?"

The couple started planning their wedding and booked everything for December last.

But the Marriage Registrar refused to issue the marriage banns and so she filed an application asking the court to order the issuing of the banns.

"Some time later (February 2007) my lawyer called me and told me that the court had ordered the banns to be issued. I was under shock... I could not believe that the man I loved would be my husband. I called my parents and my close friend to tell them the good news," she said.

But her joy was short lived and obstacles started mushrooming in her path to wedded joy. In May last year, the Marriage Registrar filed an application asking the court to revoke the previous court's judgment to issue the banns and the banns were stayed pending a decision.

"I was devastated. One minute I had it all and the next it was all taken away. Our matrimonial home was ready; all was set for the wedding and, suddenly, we had to cancel everything."

Even her relationship with her partner of five years was put under a lot of stress and they ended up breaking up.

Then, last month, the Civil Court overturned the February 2007 ruling. The court ruled that Ms Cassar will never be considered to be a "woman" according to the Marriage Act and declared that the change in her birth certificate, allowing a change of name and gender, was only intended to protect the right to privacy and to avoid embarrassment.

Initially shattered by the judgment, Ms Cassar has now pulled herself up and is determined to keep fighting for her right to marry.

Although she is disappointed by the courts, having allowed her to taste joy and then take it away, she feels confident and accepted by society.

"I feel comfortable with who I am and I have no problem with society and feel accepted by the people around me. I always tell my story to people I meet. I feel it's my duty to let them know."

One thing that annoys her is when people refer to her as a transsexual.

"I feel insulted by the term. I always felt and feel that I am a woman who happened to be born with a disability which I have now corrected. There is a medical term for it - gender identity disorder.

"Think about it. Imagine you were born with the face of a monster and you knew that surgery would solve it. Wouldn't you opt for it if you had the opportunity? I think you'd have to be crazy not to, as it would mean a better life. I chose to make my life better... I just want to live the kind of family life my parents brought me up to live."

Gender identity disorder

Gender identity disorder describes a conflict between a person's physical or apparent gender and that person's self-identification. A person identified as a boy may actually feel and act like a girl, according to the University of Maryland Medical Centre website.

This is distinct from homosexuality as homosexuals nearly always identify with their apparent gender. The feeling of being in the body of the "wrong" gender must persist for at least two years for this diagnosis to be made. The cause is unknown but hormonal influences in the womb, genetics and environmental factors are suspected to be involved. The disorder may occur in children or adults and is rare.

According to Psychology Today, identity issues may manifest in a variety of different ways. For example, some people with normal genitals and secondary sex characteristics of one gender privately identify more with the other gender. Some may cross-dress and some may actually seek sex-change surgery. Others are born with ambiguous genitalia, which can raise identity issues.

To be clinically diagnosed with this disorder, a person must persistently and strongly identify with the opposite gender and experience a persistent discomfort with his or her sex or sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex.

Many individuals with gender identity disorder become socially isolated, which can contribute to low self-esteem and may lead to school aversion or even dropping out. Peer ostracism and teasing are especially common consequences for boys with the disorder.

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