Recently, in therapy, I made a remark about my 19-year-old self. My therapist asked why I referenced that age, specifically, and after a moment I remembered that 19 was when I first realized that I was transgender. I was watching The L Word (transmasculine folks, you already know where I’m going with this) and they introduced the characters Max and Ivan – a trans man and drag king, respectively. I remember sitting upright, staring at the screen.
I relate to these characters, I thought. Why?
A few internet searches later and my mind was spinning with new words: androgynous, genderqueer, transgender, trans man.
That was 2008. Nonbinary wasn’t a commonly used term then. They/them wasn’t a pronoun option. The only transgender people I had EVER seen were the trans women being exploited and marginalized on the Jerry Springer Show. I knew nothing of transgender history or existence.
I remember going into the boys section of clothing stores for the first time. Buying clothes, trying them on, getting tight sports bras and ACE bandages. Being mistaken for a boy and loving it. I’ve told these stories in other ways, other places.
But I’m telling them now, nine years later. Back then, I told almost no one, except online friends and maybe one or two folks I knew offline. I cut my hair and started dressing more boyishly without telling anyone why. I took countless selfies of myself in boy mode, but never shared most of them. I thought about coming out then, but I didn’t. It would take me seven more years to decide/know for sure/realize that trans was part of me, that I needed to live my life as something other than a cis woman, to come out and begin transitioning.
Why did it take me so long? Why didn’t I know earlier? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and here’s what I’ve learned.
1) Social expectations of people assigned female at birth – that we will be pretty, submissive, and center our lives around cis men, and that we are worthless if we don’t adhere to those standards. I absorbed these messages early on and struggled with them my entire life.
2) The lack of transgender awareness and visibility in my immediate community – Like I said, I didn’t know anything about trans people, and had no clue that it could apply to me. I say this as someone who was a child in the 1990s and 2000s in Seattle, in a liberal, secular home. When I first started questioning whether I might be trans, I barely had any queer friends, and had no idea where to begin coming out to the cisgender folks who made up my friend group and family, none of whom knew anything about transgender people either. This isn’t their fault. I’m not angry with them. But the thought of being the Only One, of coming out as a member of a demographic still far less accepted than LGBT folks were at that time, was terrifying. I simply couldn’t picture it. In a way, you could say that I didn’t know how to be trans. So I tried to put it out of my mind.
3) Binary norms – The only trans men and women I saw when I was first questioning were people who fit into typical gender norms, who had known with certainty from childhood that they were the “opposite” gender. I didn’t know how to live in the between, how to be okay with being unsure, how to understand my gender without that firm sense of knowing since childhood. I didn’t understand, and there was no one to tell me, that the diversity of masculinity and femininity exhibited by cisgender people could also exist in transgender people.
This combination kept me trying to be a girl for many years after that July day in 2008. Every few years or so, I’d go through another “phase” with my gender identity: I’d cut my hair again, or I’d start reading transgender literature again, or I’d tentatively try to talk to another person about my gender feelings. But I also desperately wanted to be loved, wanted to belong, wanted to be accepted, and the only way I knew how to do that was by being a desirable cis woman seeking relationships with men. Oh, I was out as queer, I became a feminist, I became politically conscious, I was outspoken and assertive and independent and bucked norms in many ways – but underneath it all, I was still crushed by that intense desire for acceptance and love – something I struggled to give myself. There was always that lingering sense of discomfort, that something was off.
But eventually, I found a queer community. I made trans friends. The world changed slowly and I learned new words: nonbinary, transmasculine. I came out at the end of 2015. I started this blog. I’ve detailed some parts of my journey here, some on Instagram, some in my spoken word poetry and through other artistic pursuits. I found an online and offline community of trans men and nonbinary transmasculine folks who embody the vast spectrum of masculinity and femininity available to us, who constantly inspire and model for me all the ways that I can be. On November 12, 2016, I started a low dose of testosterone, and doubled that dose, oh, a month or so ago? My body is changing in ways I love. I’m growing sideburns and I’m fucking excited about it. My voice is dropping, it’s cracking all over the place, it’s getting harder to hold a note but I’m no longer so scared about losing my singing voice because this is just so great, y’all, because I know my voice will settle in a few years and it’ll be fine. Every day my view of myself opens up a little bit more. I’ve begun to allow myself to claim masculinity and maleness, and unpack all the complicated feelings I have about that.
I used to look back and struggle to integrate who I was with who I am. Now I look back and I begin to understand my NOW self as my THEN self. Yes, I was a girl. I lived as a girl. I know intimately what it means to be a girl. That has been and will always be a valued part of my experience and I describe it this way because that is how it manifests for me. But I was also a boy. My memories are integrating my self-as-boy and replacing, overwriting, coexisting with my self-as-girl. When I remember middle school and high school, I remember myself as a boy and honestly? My life and my feelings make way more sense. I was a bisexual guy. I am a queer man – or I will be, once I get through second puberty.
I’m still nonbinary. I’m still genderqueer. But I’m coming at those things from a masculine place. I’m a nonbinary boy. A dude who really doesn’t care about your gender norms (or at least, is working on not caring) and will wear glitter and a crop top if he wants, thanks very much. I’m still using they/them pronouns, but I foresee that changing, or rather, expanding, at some point.
But it’s still not as easy as this gung-ho post makes it sound. I think and worry a lot about my identity, how it’s being perceived by others, how it’s affecting me and the people around me. There’s self-consciousness and second-guessing and dysphoria (oh my!). It’s hard, even now, to say out loud or in print, that I am a guy. I am a boy. I am a dude. I am a trans dude. (Why is it that “trans dude” is specifically the easiest?? Maybe my brain doesn’t have quite so many negative/pre-conceived ideas about “dudes” versus “guys,” “boys,” and that even more loaded term, “men.” If anyone has insight on this, let me know.) I keep waiting for someone to laugh, or get mad at me and hate me and tell me I’ve betrayed them, or roll their eyes, or tell me I’m not a guy, that I can’t be a guy because…[insert bullshit reason here]. But my journey is unfolding as it should, and you know what? I’m allowed to be a guy.
So yes – it’s not easy, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than it used to be. I can finally allow myself to be myself more than I ever have. I can finally love and accept myself in a way I never could before. It can be painful and confusing and scary, but I would rather be who I am now than who I was then. Authenticity is worth it. Comfort in one’s own skin is worth it. Finding out who I am is worth it.