In 2007 Christine Pohl, having suffered years of discrimination and harassment as a transgender woman, jumped from a cliff over fifty feet high, intending to end her life. Miraculously, though the fall left her with numerous fractures - she now has to walk with a cane - she survived. Today she reflects on coming out, seeking acceptance, and life as a transgender woman in the Czech Republic.
Christine was raised in Frydek-Mistek, a small industrial town in eastern Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia). Christine, now 42, knew at a young age that she did not identify as the sex she was assigned at birth. She remembers looking at Naked Maya (La Maja Desnuda, a painting by Francisco Goya) as a three-year-old, “looking at [Maya] and asking myself why I’m not like her, I want to be like her."
“I spent my childhood dancing and singing and pretending I was a princess. I was always very feminine, very dainty," she said. Even so, Christine’s gender identity was never openly discussed. Those closest to her referred to her femininity as “cute,” and assumed it was something she would outgrow. She didn’t, and by the age of 12 Christine began to experience bullying by complete strangers. “I didn’t understand why,” she says, “because I did not feel ‘gay.’”
Christine left Frydek-Mistek in 1991 and eventually moved to Prague in 1997. At first, she recalls, it was difficult to go out as an openly gay man. It wasn’t until she began to go to gay bars and clubs that she realized it was safe. It was in Prague where she was also introduced to the local transgender community.
For years, says Christine, she believed she would simply need to “settle” with being a feminine man and hoped that she would eventually find a partner who accepted her femininity. But after watching a close friend transition, she realized that “it’s about me and only me. There was no question, I was ready to lose my family, my friends – some of them I did lose.” In 2003 Christine began hormone therapy.
Christine says that for most of her family and friends, her transition came as no surprise. “I was thirty already, doing drag in Prague, and working as an interior designer. My closest family switched pretty fast to ‘she.’” The relatives who first openly opposed her transition “have learned to simply ‘shut up.’” As for Christine, her only regret was waiting so long. “When I started to see doctors, and later started the hormonal therapy, I felt relieved. I knew I could finally be who I really am.”
Though Christine’s decision was positive in many ways, the transition itself was long and painful, both physically and emotionally. “Being gay in Prague was more or less OK, especially as an interior designer. I was working mainly with and for foreigners – open-minded people – most of them being supportive and helpful,” she notes. But, she says, after interviews in a magazine and later on public Czech television, “I would be insulted on the street, people would speak to me as ‘he,’ some would tell me ‘you’re only a man who had surgery to be a woman.’ This was going on even in the gay community. I was not expecting people to be so rude, offensive and ignorant.”
After her 2006 gender reassignment surgery, Christine was “exhausted, hormonally unbalanced, tired,” and living in constant fear of attack. The next year she attempted suicide. “Me surviving was a miracle.” In the aftermath, Christine lost many friends, most of whom believed she was being a “drama queen” and seeking attention.
In the confusion that followed, Christine began to re-date an ex-boyfriend; the two eventually got married. “What a disaster - he was lying to me, taking advantage of me, and I was afraid of being alone,” she said. “Finally we got divorced but I met another guy like that and then another one and I lost everything . . . I thought it was my fault, [that] I was simply stupid and no one would ever want to live with me because I was trans.” It has taken years to get back on her feet.
Today, though life has improved for Christine, life for transgender people remains difficult at best in most of the Czech Republic. Outside of Prague, in particular, many Czechs are convinced that being LGBTI is a mental illness.
“There is a lot of prejudice about [coming out as transgender] and it’s only because we do not talk about it. People still confuse transgender women with Thai ‘ladyboys’ or transgender porn stars. This must stop! I want to tell everyone, ‘I'm a woman who experienced something special, something different . . . If you open your mind I'm willing to share with you. You might not understand it but . . . I'm not better nor worse then anyone else,” she said. There are few openly LGBTI public figures, says Christine, and as a result the population at large remains ignorant. “Even in Prague men are not accepting of the possibility that they could live with a transgender woman,” she said. Christine is adamant that she will one day tell her future partner that she is transgender from the start.
Looking ahead, Christine believes the Czech Republic must do more to embrace all people, regardless of their differences. No matter who you are, says Christine, “you have a natural right to express your inside. Just be the way you feel!”
Photos courtesy of Christine Pohl. Top Left: Christine, 2015. Bottom Right: Christine in Barcelona, 1997.
Contributed by Ami Hutchinson