Not everyone identifies as male or female. Chris Ricketts always knew she did not fit comfortably into either category, and her doctors agreed. But Chris rejected the radical surgery and hormone therapy she was offered, because she felt there was nothing about her that needed to be reassigned.
Instead Chris went on a spiritual journey to find a place in a world that appeared to have no place for her. For Chris, finding self-acceptance meant questioning the labels we give one another, and having the courage to contradict society’s expectations. On a search for peace of mind that was both painful and rewarding, Chris came to understand she was not living in the wrong body, that she was not an anomaly, and, most importantly, that gender is a spectrum.
Food Needs Labelling, People Don’t is her fascinating life story which Chris has just published, along with her debut novel, Inside Out, which also looks the theme of gender identity, this time through a gripping story largely set in the west of Ireland.
“Inside Out is about a man, Joe, killing off the woman in his life, he is a man who has had a sex change,” Chris tells me. “It was a way for me to understand how it might feel if I’d had a sex change because I’d have a different life obviously. It was very cathartic and it didn’t take a lot to write because it was driven by feelings I have had, I knew the story I wanted to tell.”
Its west of Ireland setting was inspired by her own familiarity with the region. “I spent 10 years in Claddaghduff, and around Cleggan, Omey Island, they are all in the book, Clochan is actually Cleggan. I wrote it about there because it is a beautiful place. I think Galwegians are wonderful they are very stoic, putting up with bad weather, hard times but are still very friendly and hospitable. In the book Joe says he doesn’t like Galway but I love it myself. He just says that because he doesn’t like towns or cities generally.”
‘It’s very difficult not to be seen as who you are’
Chris Ricketts was born in Wales but has lived in Ireland for more than 40 years. Educated in Dublin, Chris worked in secondary school education until very recently. Chris has two adult children and lives with her partner in Dalkey. She also runs her own shamanic healing practice. Over an afternoon chat she told me what gave her the impetus to write Food Needs Labelling.
“I’d spent all of my life trying to come to some form of self-acceptance but when I tried to find self-acceptance a lot of the outside world, ie, the medical world, would be steering me toward having a sex change. I thought why can’t I live happily in the body I am in? When I gave up my job in March last year it gave me the opportunity to write about myself as I truly felt, whereas my job would have made that difficult because I worked in a school and was perceived in a certain way. It would be difficult to change that overnight.”
I ask Chris if it was difficult to settle into Ireland when the family left Wales. “We came over here in the 1960s and it was a very friendly place, people were open and talkative,” Chris recalls. “I suppose being Welsh was better than being English, I think the Irish see the Welsh as being more like them, so that made it easier for my parents to feel accepted. I did miss my relations and Wales but we used to go home to Wales four times a year.”
Food Needs Labelling vividly describes Chris’s struggle to come to terms with herself as she grew up and the profound inner turmoil experienced over feeling male inside a female body. When Chris went to medical professionals for advice they immediately suggested sex change therapy, though Chris resisted this option.
“I suppose from their point of view they had seen a lot of people with gender identity problems, and they had seen that suicide, self-harming,” Chris says. “Drugs, drink, were often ways of them trying to cope with it. They were trying to say to me in order to be happy it is very difficult with the life that you lead; society doesn’t really have a place for you and a lot of people choose to have sex changes and why don’t you want one? A psychiatrist is a doctor who gives you medicine and the medicines they give for people with gender problems are hormones.”
Chris’s path toward genuine healing arose from a chance meeting with a French reflexologist which in turn led her toward encounters with reiki and shamanism.
“I’ve always looked toward the spiritual as a way of healing and that was initially from my grandmother who was a very spiritual lady,” Chris says. “She’s never left my side and I believe she is still supporting me in what I am doing in life. What the reiki and shamanic people told me was that more important than anything else, was that we are not our bodies, we are not just the outer skin, we are something much more than that.”
The honesty and insight with which Chris tells her story strikes a chord with readers. “A woman stopped me in the park yesterday and said she had just read the book and thought it was excellent. She told me her son has gender identity issues and that my book really helped her to understand him, because I’d written it with such clarity. That was nice and I have had responses like that from other people. It is really encouraging that it means something to people.”
‘We mightn’t like our bodies, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong’
While the issue of gender identity is more openly discussed today, Chris does sound a cautionary note; “In some ways things have gone too far. We’ve accepted transgender and people like Caitlin Jenner being the face of transgender, but not all transgender people are like that, not all of them have sex changes. Some lead very normal lives, among very normal people, but you wouldn’t know who they are because they are scared to admit it. They are the kind of people I want to give voice to. It’s very difficult not to be seen as who you are. It’s difficult being expected to have a sex change to transform into male or female. We need to have a society where everyone is not simply male or female.
“We’re not just males and females, we’re more than that and we have to be open to people being as they are,” she continues. “Telling a kid in America, who’s seven or eight, that they can have a sex change isn’t right. They can have hormones later on. They are not in the wrong body, they are just in a body that they don’t like. People who are in a wheelchair are in a body they don’t like.
“This is where Inside Out is powerful because the wife of the publisher is in a body she doesn’t like. She wants to have surgery to fix her boobs and her nose but the fact is, all of us have to learn to accept we mightn’t like our bodies, but that doesn’t mean they are wrong. When transgender people become transsexual some of them still commit suicide because they have an image in their heads of how they are going to look when they become a man or a woman. They see themselves as looking like a perfect man or woman, I’ve sat in a room with transgender women who have had their sex change and are still worrying if their Adam’s apple is too big. The books are about more than transgender people, they are about all of us having a look at our bodies and accepting them.”
Chris also points out that help should be given to parents of children with gender identity issues as sometimes the language used by the medical world can be forbidding. She deals with this issue through her own work as a healer and can also accommodate skype sessions for people unable to travel to her consultation room. More details at www.shamanicliving.ie and www.genderidentitydisorder.ie
Chris Ricketts will be signing copies of Food Needs Labelling, People Don’t and Inside Out at Eason’s this Saturday from 1pm to 3pm. Both books sell for €12.99.