Decoder Ring

In my entire memory, I have never liked anything feminine – at least, not for myself. At first, this made me feel defective, like I would never measure up to other women, because I didn’t like dresses, I never, ever wore make-up, and aside from a brief phase of wearing rings in high school, I never wore jewelry or got my ears pierced. All the examples I saw of mature, successful women did seem to like some or all of these things. Professional and formal wear for women was always feminine. I couldn’t find myself in any examples.

As I grew older, I felt a new sense of determination: femininity was not required for womanhood. I decided that if the female gender box was too small for me because of this, then it was my job to make it bigger. I was going to be an example of a woman who didn’t have to like femininity, who could wear masculine clothes if I wanted to, and I could take up space – or at least learn to. This was a constant struggle, because I still felt that brokenness, and that pressure to be different than I was. I still rarely saw myself represented in any generalization made about women. I felt defiant. I felt defective.

At the same time, I felt trapped in between. I felt as though the shape of my body was too feminine for me to pull off being ‘butch’, or more masculine. I was also afraid of standing out in heteronormative spaces. So I kept myself as neutral as possible, without even realizing that that’s what I was doing. I eventually allowed myself to start wearing men’s polos, reasoning with myself that my body made them feminine enough to balance their inherent masculinity. I kept my hair short, but not masculine. I fantasized about having it shorter and more masculine, but each time I thought about it I imagined some older woman in my life – though no one in particular – saying “Oh no! I really liked your curls!” It reminded me of the shame I felt about my brokenness, about my failure as a woman, even as I was resisting the idea that my lack of femininity somehow made me inferior.

In my efforts to blend in, I felt as though I fit exactly nowhere. I felt too neutral to fit in with expressive queer crowds, and not feminine enough to fit into heteronormative spaces. I tried not to think about it too much, because I didn’t have an answer. I felt a lot of resentment for the world, for everyone who seemed to fit in somewhere better than I did. I blamed myself for being broken.

After a period of really intense anxiety, I read some books on self-compassion, and something started actually sinking in. I realized that I hadn’t gotten a haircut that I actually was excited about because I was worried about how other people might be upset about it. So with a brave new mentality, I got a more masculine haircut – but still not too masculine. Though I did not know it then, I would mark this as the true beginning of my transition. The dominoes were aligning and beginning to fall.

A few months later, I started binding my chest. Looking in the mirror, I started to recognize myself for the first time – to truly see myself. I realized that I hadn’t ever seen myself in the mirror in this way before. I was excited. I was terrified. What did this mean? What else was I going to discover about myself? How far was this going to go? After spending approximately 30 seconds considering the possibility that I was transgender, I roundly dismissed the idea. After all, wouldn’t I have already known that by now? (Hahahaha! Good one!) Besides, I had no desire to be a man. I resented most men in general for obliviously oppressing me as a woman. I was busy trying to open doors and expand the female gender box. I couldn’t be a man.

I set about trying to squeeze myself into any other box. I tried on ‘butch’ as a label in my head. I thought maybe I could be genderqueer. I searched the internet for women who liked to bind their chests, but who were still women, to gather more evidence that it was possible. Anything but needing to change my name and pronouns, I pleaded with myself. Anything but that.

I thought I could decide. I was trying to decide that I wasn’t male, that I wasn’t transgender. That didn’t work out so well.

One day, as I was talking about this a little with a friend, I realized I was qualifying my questioning. I caught myself about to say ‘but I’m not trans’, and it hit me that I wasn’t allowing myself to truly consider the possibility that I was transgender. In nearly the same moment, I realized why: because I was.

It was a clear moment. I remember the exact date. I think it was a Tuesday. I tried to stop time, because I was overwhelmed. Realizing that I had actually been male all this time, I felt puzzle pieces of my life that I didn’t know hadn’t been in the right place finally start coming together. Memories of past feelings finally started to make sense in a whole new way. It felt like I finally had the decoder ring to my life.

I cannot really articulate what it means when I say that I know that I am male. I imagine anyone, even cisgender folks, would have a hard time articulating how they know they are the gender they are without referring to body parts. My realization had little to do with my discomfort with femininity, and more to do with the feelings underneath why I was uncomfortable with femininity. A big part of my struggle with femininity was coming from a subconscious resistance to being pushed into a gender that wasn’t true for me. A cisgender woman could have the exact same gender expression as I did or do, but it would feel right for her for different reasons. Cisgender women could have similar struggles with femininity, but for different reasons than I did. Gender is something deeper, more inherent. (This is why it is so infuriating when cisgender women say “but I was a tomboy when I was little, too!” as if the underlying reasons for that gender expression must therefore be the same, which is completely invalidating of the existence of trans* realities.)

But back to that moment: I could not un-know what I now knew. I could not go back to before that moment. I also could not know this about myself and do nothing. It felt like I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, with one option being to try to stay in the closet and continue to try to be female despite what I knew, limiting my access to wholeness and authenticity, sacrificing a whole swath of myself to try to fit in just a little better, to not make other people uncomfortable. The other option was to step forward, to begin coming out in the face of excruciating vulnerability among not just close friends, but acquaintances, coworkers, and complete strangers, to look rejection in the face and ask for help anyway – and I have a hard time asking for help. This was the choice I had to make. I did not decide to be transgender. I decided to live fully. I did not feel courageous – I was doing what I absolutely had to do.

Coming out was possibly the most uncomfortable experience I have ever had to go through. At first, when people used my new, chosen name, I would cringe inwardly. It was so raw, and so vulnerable and the reminder of this stung. I felt like a weirdo, a freak. I was confronted with a huge amount of my own internalized transphobia. Yet, it felt worse when people used my old name. I wished people could just stop referring to me altogether while I got used to things, but the only way to get people to stop calling me by my old name and using ‘she’ was to give them something else to use instead. But it got better.

I have now been on testosterone for 9 months. I feel more at home in my body than I ever have, though I am still in the midst of transition. My anxiety has gone way down. I feel a sense of groundedness in my core that stabilizes everything. I feel more whole, more alive, and more able to be present. All of this reaffirms my initial knowledge of my true gender.

I still believe the female gender box should be bigger. I feel extraordinary frustration that I cannot be someone to stand as an example, as I was trying to be before, defying its smallness with my non-stereotypical interests and expression. I am heartbroken that my gender and how I am now perceived represents the patriarchy. This also makes me feel so, so lost.

All that effort to defy my female socialization, to take up more space, to learn how to speak out more, just feeds into male domination. The same amount of confidence that would have been a triumph coming from me as female, now coming from me as male, can instead come off as domineering and privileged. It’s like an axe has been put into my gesticulating hands, and I have no idea how to handle it and I can’t put it down.

I also feel a wall going up between me and the sense of community I used to feel among women. I feel like I’ve been kicked out of the club that I leaned on for support and solidarity. I don’t feel much solidarity with men – at least, not cisgender men – though that may come with time. I am sad. I am angry. I need to heal and mourn, and I also need to fight for justice, that the arbitrary, yet powerful walls we put up between genders may someday fall.

Even with the heartbreak, the sense of loss and lostness, I would never go back. I will heal. I will learn. I have real ground to stand on that was never there before. The relief is immense. I get to be whole now. This is who I am.

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6 Responses to Decoder Ring

  1. krisalex333 says:

    Glad you feel liberated, though scared and confused. The online community of trans people have become a source of support and comfort to me.I hope you find the same. All the best. Rooting for you.

  2. You inspire me to be true to myself, no matter what. Thank you.

  3. Tam says:

    I went through a very similar phase in my transition and still struggle with how to deal with being seen as a privileged patriarch.

  4. Paul Kriese says:

    Even with the heartbreak, the sense of loss and lostness, I would never go back. I will heal. I will learn. I have real ground to stand on that was never there before. The relief is immense. I get to be whole now. This is who I am. I am asexual and the above sentence speaks to me as well thanks

  5. Karen Stewart says:

    I had the privilege of watching you grow up and after reading this beautiful and clear account of your experience, I will no longer think of little [old name], but now think of little [current name]. Congratulations on doing this work, it is hard enough to figure out who we are when we don’t have to face issues of discordant gender. Do you know this video? We should all have moms like this one who really listen and get it early on. Holding you in my heart. Karen

  6. Pingback: Gender Perspectives, Vol. 5 | Valprehension

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