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Airing tonight, ‘Just Be Gemma’ chronicles Gemma Hickey’s most personal moments while transitioning

Gemma Hickey (centre) smiles following the private premiere at The Room’s in St. John’s of “Just Be Gemma,” a documentary produced by Peter and Ronalda Walsh of Nine Island Productions that chronicles Hickey’s transition from female to non-binary.
Gemma Hickey (centre) smiles following the private premiere at The Room’s in St. John’s of “Just Be Gemma,” a documentary produced by Peter and Ronalda Walsh of Nine Island Productions that chronicles Hickey’s transition from female to non-binary.

For 97 years old, Gemma Hickey’s grandmother, Mary Hayward, was sharp and funny and open-minded. While others had trouble grasping what Hickey meant by “non-binary” in terms of gender, Hayward understood.

“Are you going to grow a beard?” she asked Hickey, upon learning Hickey was transitioning and taking testosterone injections. “Your cousins all have beards.”

“No, I like clean-shaven better, Nan,” Hickey replied.

“Proper thing,” Hayward said. “Sure you might grow a bird.”

“I won’t,” Hickey said, later adding, “I might not want to be a girl or a boy, Nan.”

“Just be Gemma,” Hayward answered. “That’s all Nan wants.”

Hayward passed away last January. When it came time to think of a title for the new documentary chronicling Hickey’s transition from female to non-binary, the answer was “Just Be Gemma.”

Hickey is well known as an activist. They co-lead the movement that legalized same-sex marriage in this province, and, on Friday, won a legal case to allow people to change their designation on a birth certificate to male, female or non-binary. As a survivor of clergy abuse, Hickey walked across the island in 2015 to raise awareness of the issue, and started an organization, Pathways, to assist other survivors.

It was during the walk that Hickey realized they were transgender.

“I was assigned female at birth and socialized as female, but always rebelled against anything considered feminine. If my mother put a dress on me, I’d rip it off,” Hickey said.

“When I was a teenager and I started having feelings for girls — and this was long before there was language around gender fluidity — I assumed I was lesbian. As I got older, I began to know myself better and started to peel back the layers, emotionally, physically. When I was training for the walk, I was working out, paying attention to my body in way I never had before.”

Hickey suffered injuries during the walk, like one might expect: chafing, blisters and pain among them.

“I felt that my body was crying out for me to pay attention to it and trying to tell me something,” Hickey said. “I realized I was trans.”

Hickey finished the walk that August, and took their first shot of testosterone three months later. Earlier this year, Hickey travelled out of province for surgery to remove their breasts. They’re not interested in any more operations.
“I got top surgery, but I don’t want bottom surgery. I don’t want to change my name, either,” Hickey said.

“The only limits in life are the ones we put on ourselves. Gender is just as fluid as sexuality, and I think that’s the way we have to start looking at it. Lots of people don’t identify as male or female and identify as non-binary — which is essentially erased within current structure — so I’m trying to carve out a place for young people.”

Hickey had worked with Peter and Ronalda Walsh of Nine Island Communications in the past on other projects, and mentioned to Peter the idea of making a video diary about transitioning. Peter brought up making a documentary, and Hickey, never one to shy away from the media, liked his vision.

For a year and a half, Peter and his crew followed Hickey around with cameras, capturing some raw and revealing moments. There’s a physical transformation, but there are also emotional ones (and not just Hickey’s). The film captures the struggles of a romantic break-up and the death of Hickey’s beloved Nan.

“This documentary focuses on Gemma’s personal story,” Peter said in a media release. “Gemma is very open about their life. We were able to capture a story of their courage and sensitivity. In the end, we hope people who watch the film have a better understanding of gender transformation and maybe even more compassion for what people go through as they become their true self.”

Hickey feels better than ever before. They’re also not bothered by any negative online comments, or even the threats — yes, threats — that have been made against them.

“Nothing can hurt me. I’ll never be bullied into silence as long as there are youth suffering,” Hickey said. “It’s taken me a long time to get to where I am today, and I feel like I’m home.”

“Just Be Gemma” airs tonight on CBC TV at 9 pm. After that, it will be available online at www.cbc.ca/docs.

 

Tara.bradbury@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

*This story has been updated.

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