Lola Phoenix was born female with a rare congenital brain condition known as septo-optic dysplasia. As well as causing blindness in one eye, the condition meant Lola's body stopped producing male and female sex hormones. Bullied at school, Lola was given sex hormones from the age of 12 to encourage "normal" development as a girl.
“My legal first name, which I don’t go by any more, is Amanda," said Lola. “And people would come up to me all the time asking ‘What are you? A man, duh’. I really wanted [the hormones] because I wanted to be normal. And I didn’t have a great childhood with my disability, so it wasn’t as if I could run away from home.”
As a teenager it became clear that Lola did not identify as either a woman or a man. Lola prefers the term agender – neither male nor female – and adopted the name Lola at the age of 16 because of Mana, a Japanese musician and fashion designer who pioneered a style called ‘elegant gothic Lolita’. Lola no longer wanted to be referred to as “she”.
But isn’t Lola a female name? “Mana is classed by society as a male but rocks a very cool aesthetic people would consider hyper-feminine,” said Lola.” I always liked that and I found inspiration in it. Lola matches my personality. Why should I change my name and my identity to something more ‘androgynous’ when it won’t change for a second how people see me?
“I don’t really care if society sees my name as female. Ashley was once a male name. Are all men called Ashley now required to change their names if they want to have an M [for male] on their birth certificate?”
After some time without the sex hormones, Lola's chest "ballooned" when the medication began being taken again, causing significant psychological distress for someone who didn’t identify as female. The 28-year-old American, who lives in south London, has spent the past five years trying, and failing, to get breast reduction surgery on the NHS because the breasts are “out of line with my agender identity”.
“There are women who want to change the size of their breasts because they are uncomfortable for them, but for me it’s completely different. It’s not just about comfort.”
An initial appointment with a GP was “generally unhelpful”. A second doctor referred Lola to the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) in London, the largest of the UK’s 13 GICs. The clinic takes about 120 new referrals a month and has a waiting time of about a year for an appointment. As The Independent on Sunday revealed earlier this month, the number of referrals to the clinic are rising by 20 per cent each year.
Lola’s refusal to identify as either male or female, despite using a seemingly female name, caused the clinic to refuse the request for breast reduction surgery. The decision – along with the references to “her” in the hospital’s letter to Lola’s GP, left Lola hurt and upset, but unsurprised.
“I just always assumed they weren’t going to take me seriously,” Lola said. “The thing I always hear from non-binary people [those who don’t identify as either male or female] is that unless you’re prepared to lie and say that you are binary-identified, clinics won’t take you seriously. But there’s no way that I can lie and say that I identify as a man or woman, because it wouldn’t make any sense.”
A spokesperson for West London Mental Health Trust, which runs the Charing Cross GIC, said: “The gender identity clinic doesn’t comment on individual patients because we have a duty to protect the confidentiality of patient information. In principle the clinic does not rule out any treatments but we would work with patients to agree a course of treatment to best meet their needs.”
Lola made a formal complaint about the GIC rejection to the Patient Advice and Liaison Service but did not receive a reply. It would take 15 months to be referred to another clinic, so Lola is resigned to finding the money to pay for private treatment.
As breast reduction surgery costs almost £6,000, Lola has set up a fundraising page – which has attracted almost 200 supporters and contributions of more than £3,200.
“I need this treatment. You have to walk this tightrope where you are sane enough for [doctors] to trust you know who you are, but bothered enough that you actually need the treatment.”
Lola’s legal name, after applying for British citizenship, will be Alastor Lola Phoenix – after Alastor Moody, one of Lola’s favourite Harry Potter characters.
“I’ll likely have Alastor on my bank forms and stuff, but I’ll still go by Lola informally and have friends call me that. I’m used to having a ‘formal’ name and a personal name, so I’m keeping that. I couldn’t care less what society thinks about the gender of my name just like I don’t care what they think about my gender.”
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