Navigating Anxiety

Right now, I am sitting at my kitchen table, feeling a vague sense of dread. There is no one particular thing on the horizon causing this, it’s just constant. In fact, dread is only part of it. I think of all the things that I need to do – sort out travel logistics for rapidly upcoming trips, find a new primary care doctor, add the last two utility bills to splitwise, plan events that are part of upcoming travels, science (data analysis, more brainstorming), dishes I need to wash, the clutter I’ve left in my room and common spaces, emails and wedding invitations I need to respond to, and on and on – so many things that I should have been doing all along, or should have done long ago. They all sit in the back of my mind, pressing on me, demanding attention, and rather than set about doing them one by one, my brain shuts down, and I do everything I can to shut them out for just a little longer.

This is anxiety.

Or part of it, anyway. I feel so easily overwhelmed by a list of totally do-able tasks not because there are so many things I need to do, but because each item left undone feels like part of a grand indictment of my failure as a human being. Rather than seeing each item as a task to be completed, each is a referendum on my ability to control my life and be perfect – and I am haunted by the belief that if I am not perfect, I do not deserve love or connection.

Probably the worst thing you could tell me right now is that I am being overdramatic.

Anxiety does not respond to logic. For me, anxiety is a sense that I should be able to control things that are beyond my control, and my inability to control these actually uncontrollable things means I don’t deserve love. I can sit here and know intellectually that this does not make any sense, but my emotions, my fight/flight/freeze response system, do not respond to intellectual arguments or rationality.

Something else that doesn’t help? Suggesting that I just do the things already! If it were that easy, trust me, I would have done them by now. Below is a great comic that illustrates this:

(Click the image for the source and a larger version.)

It takes a long time, sometimes, for me to realize that I am responding from an anxious place, semi-frantically avoiding as many things as possible. I am so accustomed to this vague sense of dread, a subtle feeling that deserved doom is lurking around every corner, that I don’t always notice it.

And besides, it’s not just a to do list for me. It’s a fog of negative thoughts about myself: My undone dishes and clutter represent my inability to be a responsible adult who is doomed to be lonely forever because how could anyone truly appreciate and love me if I’m a slob? Yet-to-be-made travel plans, dealing with utility bills – again, I must be irresponsible and therefore worthy only of rejection and disconnection. Science: why haven’t I made more progress? How will I ever succeed and be lovable if I can’t accomplish anything significant or control people’s impressions of me as a competent scientist? How can I ever  possibly measure up to the brilliant people around me? If I don’t respond to emails in a timely fashion, then I’m disappointing people, and how will I ever be lovable if I’m a constant disappointment. Finding a doctor – how can I find a doctor and completely avoid hearing anything invalidating about my gender or body from anyone in the medical profession that will only further confirm all the awful things I’ve internalized about myself from mainstream society and am already constantly fighting against?

What if I can’t do all of the things perfectly – what if it’s too late to do any of them perfectly? The more emotional baggage attached, the harder it is to bring myself to do it.

I usually don’t even realize I am feeling this way. Instead, I experience tension in my shoulders, clenching of my stomach, I hold my breath, and part of my brain says NO NO NO SHUT IT OUT and before I can even ask myself ‘Shut what out?’ I turn to Netflix, a podcast, music, endless internet surfing, anything, anything to avoid this awful sense of my constant failing. I can put it off for another episode, another night, another day, another week – and then another, and then another, and each time, it gets harder.

All of this, even the procrastinating, takes energy – a lot of energy – and I only have so much energy at a time. All of this, too, feels incredibly isolating. I feel alone with my seemingly-reasonable-looking to do list of terrors. Anyone else would have done this better – OR, even if they hadn’t done it better, they would just still be lovable simply because they’re someone else, and it’s ok for other people to be imperfect. Just not for me.

I should mention that it’s not just to do lists. That thing I said the other day – or ten years ago – that was probably an awful thing to have said (but maybe not) and I can’t let it go. I failed to read someone’s mind about something and did or said the wrong thing – or I am currently doing something upsetting but no one has told me yet because it should be obvious. I don’t talk to my friends enough, or I am trying to talk to them too much. That thing someone said or did recently – what did it mean? They could have done it for [X] reason, or [Y] reason, and what do either of those possible reasons say about whether or not I deserve to be cared about? I live with a never ending parade of hypothetical scenarios about mostly bad things that might happen in the near future that I would deserve because I am clearly unlovable.

Ok, before anyone starts to worry about me too much, let me say a few things:

1 – I know that I am a lovable, worthy human being. I just don’t always believe it.

2 – I have gotten way, way better at navigating my anxiety over the years. None of this is new. I am not in crisis.

3 – It’s all a matter of degrees – sometimes these feelings are really intense. Sometimes they’re background noise. I’m still a very functional human being and I actually do accomplish many things on a daily basis, whether or not I am always able to recognize that.

4 – The fact that I am sharing this at all is a good sign, if it means nothing else, because it is a step toward breaking the cycle of isolation.

What I also want to share here, because I do know that I am not alone with these kinds of feelings, are things that help me deal with anxiety once I’m able to identify that I am feeling anxious:

– Name it: I am feeling anxious. Anxiety is a feeling, like other feelings, and my fears are not actually true, even if I believe they are right now. It is ok that I am feeling anxious. I cannot change my feelings or what I believe about myself from moment to moment, but I can acknowledge that my negative thoughts are not true. Usually, doing this has a delayed effect – a few hours or days later, I feel better.

– Unqualified mantras: It is ok if I am imperfect. Repeat. It is ok if I am imperfect.

– Writing it out: Sometimes I write stream of consciousness emails to a good friend, both to gain some perspective, and to break the isolation a little.

-Bringing myself back to the present: There is not actually a bear in the room. These anxious feelings are part of fight/flight/freeze, which is usually a survival instinct in the face of mortal harm. Sometimes reminding myself of this, and that my life is not actually in immanent danger, helps me to calm down. Looking around the room I am in and identifying objects can help – I am sitting in a chair in the kitchen. There’s a water bottle on the table, the window is cracked open, the sun is starting to go down. I am here, now, and I am ok. I will be ok tomorrow, too, and the next day, and the next.

– Letting go: Sometimes, actively sorting out what I can and cannot actually, reasonably control can help. For example, I cannot read other people’s minds, nor can they read mine, and this means nothing about how much we care about each other. If I am worried that I might be doing something that is upsetting to someone else and they just haven’t told me yet (a common worry for me), I remind myself that it is their responsibility to tell me about their feelings, not my responsibility to guess, because it is impossible for me to guess.

Things that other people can do to help:

– Listen to me without judgement when I need to vent about all of the things I feel like I should be doing.

– Be clear and upfront about your feelings, particularly if I am doing something annoying or upsetting. I feel way, way better if I can trust that someone will tell me when something’s up, because it’ll be easier for me to stop overanalyzing everything and trying to guess.

– Remind me that it’s ok to be imperfect, particularly if you notice me trying to be perfect at something. Be patient when I am unable to hear you tell me this.

– Accept that my anxiety is illogical and don’t try to reason with me about it. Trust me.

I am interested in hearing about how others cope with anxiety. How do you get through? What helps? What doesn’t?

(Note: I am not asking for advice on how to deal with mine. Please do not try to give me any suggestions.)

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‘It’s complicated’

I am constantly trying to find a place for my story, my life, in this world that regularly denies the existence of trans folks, both actively and tacitly.

Until I was 26, I had picked up on very few clues that my gender was anything other than that of a cis woman. I worked hard to be proud of my gender. I worked hard to break out of rigid expectations placed on women, real pressures that I felt – and still have internalized. I experienced both subtle and overt sexism as someone perceived as a woman.

So, even though it turns out that I am a man, is it fair to say that I know what it’s like to be a woman? What does such a statement even mean? What, then, of the fact that I feel like I’m only just beginning to learn about what it’s like to be a man? What does that even mean?

Welcome to my brain.

Part of the issue with these questions is that they are incomplete. For example, it turns out that for me, since I’ve come to understand that I’ve always been male regardless of whether or not I knew it consciously, I’m not actually just now learning how to be a man. I’ve been a man my whole life. All I have to do to be man is to continue existing. What I am actually learning about is what it’s like to be perceived as a cis man in our patriarchal, gender-role-obsessed society.

I don’t actually know what it’s like to be a cis woman, but I do have some firsthand experience as someone perceived as a cis woman, and treated accordingly, for better or for worse.

The truest statement is this: I know what it’s like to be a trans man. Actually, even more true: I know what it’s like to be me, as a trans man, both before and after realizing it.

There are no universal ways to be any gender, or to be cis or trans or something else entirely. I do not know, for example, what it’s like to be some other trans man.

There are some awful ways that some trans folks, particularly trans women, are excluded from spaces based on distorted ideas about whether or not they ‘know what it’s like to be [a particular gender]’. For example, many trans women are excluded from women only spaces because cis women have decided that because trans women lived any part of their lives perceived as male, that they do not know what it’s like to be a woman. What kind of woman is it, that they’re holding as some kind of universal standard? A cis woman. An impossible standard. Also, there are no, true universal standards of gender.

Just as I, a trans man, am a man no matter my socialization, so too are trans women. Cisnormative society makes no space for our experiences, and tells us we have to squeeze our lives into cis narratives. This is why I catch myself asking these questions, such as ‘do I know what it’s like to be a woman?’ – I am trying to squeeze my life into a cis narrative. It’s actually utterly exhausting.

I have internalized cisnormativity. To me, being a man and having gone to a women’s college are incongruous, and don’t make sense in a cisnormative framework. I am confronted with this regularly, as I find myself reluctantly concealing where I went to undergrad from colleagues who (probably) don’t know that I’m trans. I worry about situations where I will have to disclose – on a resume, or if asked point blank where I went with no easy way to avoid answering the question. I pretty frequently imagine how people might respond, and what I might be able to say in response:

Me: I went to Wellesley

Coworker or acquaintance: …Isn’t that a women’s college?

Me: Yes

Coworker or acquaintance: …But you’re…

Me: Option A: It’s complicated. [Attempted subject change and subsequent anxiety.] Option B: Well, I thought I was a woman at the time. Option C: I’m transgender. [Further, reluctant clarifications.] Option D: Yes. [Attempted subject change, subsequent anxiety.]

I shouldn’t have to clarify. I shouldn’t have to squeeze my life into a constructed framework that I will never fit into. Did I mention that even just worrying about all of this is exhausting? It takes up energy that I could be devoting to other work or play that would bring me more much-needed fulfillment.

Being perceive as a cis man is still very new and raw for me. I am working toward not worrying so much about these things, but it’s hard not to when I’m confronted with it in one way or another every day, just by trying to exist as who I am.

I dream of a world where not everyone is perceived to be cisgender all the time; where no gender or gender expression is privileged over any other. I know, it’s a pipe dream, but we’ll never get there if we don’t take any steps toward it.

Oh, what fortunate timing: I just heard this come through my earbuds: “If Jim can’t take his eyes off it, just imagine her reaction.” As I am wrapping up this post, a commercial just came on from the site I’m streaming music from. It’s about jewelry, possibly an engagement ring. Just pause for a moment and let all of the assumptions in that statement sink in: All women like jewelry more then men. Men should buy jewelry for women. Jewelry is only for women. Men should propose to women. Only straight people care about jewelry. No one other than straight, gender-conforming people exist/are worth marketing to. It would be one thing if this was only one of many jewelry commercials out there, with different types of folks being givers and receivers of jewelry in a variety of scenarios, but it’s not. If a commercial like this featured a gay couple, it would make the news. This is how queer and gender non-conforming people are erased every day. EVERY DAY. The ripple effects can and do build to violent tsunamis for some of the most vulnerable among us.

Just some things to think about.

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(Not) Fitting In

Maybe they won't notice I'm a rainbow. I'm just going to keep pretending I'm not.

(I just had to use this image.)

The other day, I was in lab chatting with a couple of my coworkers, when I thought I heard them mispronoun me. That is, I thought I heard one of them – and then the other – accidentally refer to me as ‘she’ or ‘her’ and then quickly correct themselves. While this is something I still expect from folks who knew me before from time to time, these coworkers did not know me before.  As far as I know, they do not know that I am trans.

Now, I’m not entirely sure that this is what happened. They were speaking quickly and were turned away from me, and I was in the midst of half-focusing on something else as we chatted, but it was enough to spike my anxiety. What if that is what happened? Why would that have happened? I immediately imagined the following scenario:

They  had somehow figured out that I am or might be trans – either someone who knew me before told them, or they put it together after realizing that I went to a women’s college, or maybe it’s somehow obvious and I’m fooling myself – and had been talking about it shortly before I came into that lab space, and now had completely altered perceptions of me (no longer saw me as male, or completely male) that led them to struggle with my pronouns all of a sudden.

In all likelihood, they didn’t actually mispronoun me. It is also not unlikely that they did, but that it had nothing to do with my gender or their perception of me, and instead had to do with something unrelated that they might have been talking about before that had them in a brief mindset of using ‘she/her’ pronouns – this happens sometimes.

But I don’t want to talk here about what did or did not actually happen. I want to take a moment to talk about the anxiety that I felt in that moment. When I imagined the scenario I described above, it was upsetting not just because it removed my dignity, but because I believed I would have deserved that treatment.

I still have the oppressive narrative I’ve been taught my whole life running in my head: What would you have expected? You’re weird, and they don’t understand – and why would they? You can’t expect people to care about this weirdness about you, they have their own things to worry about. It’s clearly your fault you’re this way anyway, you can’t put it on other people, you liberal freak.

I have been taught to believe that I deserve ridicule and mistreatment, and that I should just swallow it. It takes active work, active retraining, for me to begin to believe otherwise, and when I haven’t been spending time working on my own retraining, I’m vulnerable. And in the last two months, I’ve been swamped with other things.

Keep in mind here: I wasn’t actually ridiculed or mistreated! The anxiety alone is part of the oppression. Just existing in the micro-culture of this particular daily lab environment, in which I have never experienced the acknowledgement that trans people, or even gay people, exist is an oppressive experience in an of itself, even without any microaggressions.

Right now, I appear to fit in, because (as far as I’m aware) everyone perceives me to be male and presumes I’m cisgender. People probably also presume I’m straight. Because this is what we all presume about other people: Unless there are huge, obvious signs to the contrary, most people presume everyone is straight and cisgender.

I am invisible, and feel a huge pressure to maintain that invisibility, to continue to conform. There are no non-awkward ways to point out that I am trans. There is no context for my existence. If I were dating a man, I could mention that and pretty easily out myself as queer, but I’m not right now. And even that would feel like a risk in an environment where no one is out as queer, nor has anyone mentioned other queer people, or anything queer-related in the news.

When your identity is understood by society to be ‘other’, then any environment that does not regularly, actively engage in acknowledging the existence of your identity defaults to the oppressive norm in which your identity is negligible and unimportant at best. In a sense, a fundamental part of who you are is not just erased, but feels shameful. It is a huge and exhausting burden to carry.

I’m not going to claim that no one else in my lab environment is queer or trans, or has queer friends, or has never brought any of that up in conversation in lab. It’s that I haven’t seen or heard anything about this myself. As far as I know, I am completely alone, not just as a queer and trans person, but as someone who even thinks about these things.

This is the other piece of all this: I feel alone. I have no advocates to take any of this on with me. (Sure, there are some folks who knew me before who use the right name and pronouns, and who (I presume, hopefully) haven’t outed me to anyone, but that’s not advocacy.)

No environment is perfect. In my Quaker communities, for example, not everyone gets it. There are still a huge number of Friends who are resistant to anti-oppression work of various flavors, for whom thinking about gender is largely uncomfortable and to be avoided. But the difference is that I know that I am not alone. There is a critical mass of Friends around me who do think about these things, who are regularly, actively acknowledging the existence of trans and queer folks. In fact, many Friends in my immediate Quaker community are doing more than just acknowledging the existence of various identities – they are taking steps to challenge the assumptions we make about each other. The Quaker meeting I go to, for example, has recently begun inviting folks to share their pronouns along with their names during introductions, and has also implemented a new hearing assistance system for folks of various hearing abilities. These are active steps that challenge the default assumptions we make about each other that can be extremely harmful.

We still live in and are influenced by the oppressive teachings of mainstream society, but I know I am not alone among Friends, and I see us making progress together. This makes an enormous difference for me personally, and I know it has been making a difference for others, too.

Being the only queer/trans person I know and see in my daily work life is exhausting, whether or not I am out. Being invisible is exhausting – and I’m not sure that coming out would necessarily change my sense of invisibility, because it would likely be filed away as a random fact about me and not considered much further by most, unless I continue to bring it up myself.

Here is another important piece of all of this to consider: When I spend 8-12 hours for five or more days a week in an environment like the one I work in, that doesn’t (regularly if ever) acknowledge the existence of queer and trans folks, it tacitly reinforces all of the messages I am working to dismantle in myself. I feel more acutely the enormous pressure to conform, to go along with the perception that I am cisgender and avoid challenging it, lest I cause others discomfort or bring deserved ridicule upon myself. It leads to these moments of anxiety, this fear of being found out, which reinforces the idea that my body and who I am are shameful. Fitting in has never felt so uncomfortable. Probably because I actually still don’t fit in at all, even if not everyone can see that.

apples and orangeI hope someday, for my own sake if for nothing else, that I will find a way to be more open and out not just in this particular environment, but all future environments like this one – that I will find a way to make a context for myself. Right now, I don’t know how to even work toward that, and I’m low on spare energy.

Of course, my own lack of acknowledgement of these things in conversation contributes to the omission, but the stakes are higher for me. It’s more personal, and I need to build more strength to prepare myself first.

I invite any cis folks out there reading this to consider your daily environments. What do you usually talk about with coworkers and acquaintances whom you see regularly? Are you tacitly, unintentionally presuming everyone is straight and cis, or even non-disabled, or a US citizen, or of a certain financial background? How might this impact folks in your environment – or you, yourself? Are there ways you can bring up the existence of trans folks or queer folks that you otherwise wouldn’t think of – things in the news, for example? Just think about it, if nothing else.

I also invite you to think about how this isn’t just oppressive for those with marginalized identities – it’s oppressive for everyone. More on that in a future post.

Finally, I can’t write a post like this without also acknowledging that it is a privilege to be able to blend in the way that I do, and that many trans people dream of being able to do this and/or would be so much safer where they are if they could. I also want to say that we shouldn’t have to blend in in order to be respected and safe, or to feel worthy and whole.

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As a transgender person, my body is a living, breathing, walking protest. My body inconveniences other people, makes ‘regular folks’ angry, is declared unnecessary, inappropriate, and disruptive. My body is asked to accommodate other people’s schedules, is told what shape it should hold – a shape impossible for it to hold, and is given no solutions, no alternatives, and no empathy. Yet I give my body the shape it needs to hold as best I can despite all of this, because I have to, because I demand dignity, equality, and justice. I am boldly declaring my right to exist.

I was caught off guard by my reaction to the backlash from the recent I-93 protest in Boston. Two small groups of dedicated protestors completely blocked inbound traffic on I-93 during morning rush hour, placing their bodies in the way of traffic, and chaining themselves together with heavy cement barrels. Working with Black Lives Matter Boston, the protestors were all non-black, but did include queer and trans folks, and people of color.

Instinctively, I knew that this was incredible feat, and a deeply important act of solidarity with black people in the US. Yet I was thrown by the reactions of liberal white people, some whom I know personally, many others I do not, who were angry, who called these protestors ‘stupid’, who said things like ‘I agree that something needs to be done, but this was a terrible idea and will only set things back’ while offering no alternatives, and little empathy. I am highly sensitive to what I perceive to be rejection. Doubt crept in, and shame. My social training kicked in, training that taught me to be docile, and that I am probably wrong most of the time as a woman (even though I am not a woman, but I thought I was at the time). Was I wrong to feel supportive of the protest? Naive? What if they were just making people angry? What would I know, anyway? These feelings were troubling.

I turned to the words of friends whom I trust and respect, and found their words of support for the protest, unshaken in their convictions. But still, I had to get to the bottom of my instinct for support to return to my own unshakable stance. I went to the 4 Mile March in Boston today, heart heavy, seeking answers, and also compelled to continue to use my body to show solidarity with black bodies, as the I-93 protestors had used theirs. I read Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he defends direct action, and found great validation and encouragement in his words. I once again located my convictions.

Of course a protest that involves significantly blocking rush hour traffic will make people angry! There’s absolutely no way that it won’t. And that’s not the point. There will also be at least a handful of productive, awakening conversations had in its wake, seeds of justice will be sowed among individuals. But this is also not the point. I found part of the larger purpose in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.

The anger of liberal – or moderate – white people is part of this tension. The media attention on such a significant disruption keeps the conversation going in our collective psyches, and prevents the more complacent among us from so quickly forgetting what’s going on here, even if their anger is directed at the protestors rather than the systemic oppression.

But it’s also about even more than the cultivation of tension. It’s the declaration of the worth and dignity of black people. It’s facing rejection and anger and living to see the other side. If a group of people blocked traffic to declare that trans lives matter, I might cry from the sense of validation that could bring me.

Direct action is about so much more than each individual action and its corresponding backlash (and there will always be backlash). Many people turn out to protests and participate in direct action because they feel that they must. I often feel compelled to go myself, just as I am compelled to live my life as my true gender, to live, breath and walk in my own daily, bodily protest. I am called to be whole, to honor my own worth and dignity as a full human being, and in doing so, I am also called to shepherd society to recognize the wholeness and worth of all human beings.

We have to use our bodies, and we have to get in the way, sometimes just to exist at all.

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One Year

Credit: ©2010-2014 Morgan Boecher

One year ago today, I received my first injection of testosterone.

I feel great. There is a well of gratitude and stability within me that I can touch and feel almost whenever I choose to check in with it that wasn’t there before. I am more present, more alive even, in ways I never knew I wasn’t before. It is a joy and relief that I wish I could give to everyone around me.

I get to be more whole now, and that is worth all of the stress, all of the vulnerability and grief and fear and doubt. I am experiencing new life.

It is an experience that so, so many trans folks are actively and tacitly blocked from having because of prejudice, because of cisnormativity, because of our rigid perpetuation of binary gender, because of racism, classism, and able-ism. And we are dying. And it doesn’t have to be this way.

I am constantly fascinated by the fact that everyone new in my life perceives me as male without question. I am still surprised when new colleagues refer to me as ‘he’ even though I never asked them to. Sometimes, even, I am surprised when they use the right name, before I remember that they never knew any other name for me. At the same time, I feel a clear sense of disconnect from my pre-transition life. Any use of my old name by others feels like they are addressing an echo, and I humor them by responding at all. It feels like impersonating myself, a past self.

A year ago, use of my old name felt painfully constrictive, and induced a sense of hopelessness in me. It reinforced the idea that I could never counter the message given to me by the world: that you cannot ‘change’ your gender, that you must assimilate to a world where you are not supposed to exist, that your body determines your gender and you can’t escape your body, that others’ comfort and convenience is more important than your basic well being, than your ability to thrive, than your life itself. I am still recovering from living with this.

I clung to the examples of others who had transitioned before me, because they showed that it was possible, that there was hope for me. I clung to examples of trans folks who continue to live with daily misgendering with no sign of that changing in their lives, who have learned how to live with this daily oppression with strength and grace, because they were pillars of what was possible for me in the present moment. Thank you to all those who came before me: I could not have moved forward without you.

Every day that goes by with new folks referring to me correctly reinforces my confidence. Every month of change from testosterone grounds me further in my body and in the world, bringing relief and a stronger internal sense of self-worth. That hopelessness has been replaced by relief and hope.

And these are privileges. So many trans folks never get to have this experience, either due to lack of access to proper medical care or no desire for such a transition. Many trans folks still do not get to have this experience because they continue to be misperceived even after physical transition. Many trans folks don’t fit into the ‘male’ or ‘female’ boxes at all in anyway. Many trans folks live with depression, or on-going trauma, or otherwise don’t have frequent access to feelings of relief or joy or wholeness. Many live with on-going, active shaming from family members and friends.

I refuse to become complacent about the issues I no longer have (or never had) to face on a daily basis.

I have been thinking about the new phenomenon in my life that is the fact that I can live my life as male without anyone new knowing that I’m trans. It’s one thing to come out as trans and ask people to change the name and pronouns they use for you; it’s entirely another when you’re on the other side of that. I have been thinking about how none of my new colleagues at work know that I’m trans. I feel simultaneously like I’m not ready to come out to anyone there, and also like it’s unsustainable for me to never come out to them. Being trans is a huge part of who I am right now, and a huge part of what I think and talk about in my life in general.

Also, I have the enormous privilege of knowing that my immediate livelihood is not at stake if I come out. My boss knows I am trans and was supportive when I came out the first time, and I believe would be supportive if I ran into any obvious trouble. I can be fairly confident that it wouldn’t change much about the way new folks interact with me – though I can probably be sure that it would cause me some anxiety worrying about it at first.

When I am ready, I feel a sense of responsibility to come out, to be visible in this highly cisnormative environment. It is a simple, yet potentially powerful, act of resistance to a status quo that leads so many to hopelessness, self harm, and others to fatal bullying and consequence-free murder. It is an important risk for me to take as an act of solidarity with fellow trans folks who do not have the privilege of safety and income security that I have right now, who do not get to be correctly perceived and addressed every day, and for anyone else struggling with gender as a scientist (or  not), who may feel hopelessly alone.

It’s important for me to remember also, when I’m worried about making others uncomfortable by being open about who I am, that if I’m making other people uncomfortable by telling the truth, then I’m doing something right.

I was going to just leave it there, but I’m sensing a reluctance in myself to end this post. After all, this is the big ‘One Year On T’ post! I should be regaling you all with stories from the past year, of moving states, of stepping up my activism and my Quaker work, of so many other little stories here and there! I should be firmly correcting the myth that T makes you more aggressive (because that’s a load of BS), or talking more about T in general. I should be talking more about figuring out how to navigate male privilege and what that might mean in a variety of different contexts. But I will save these stories for future posts when I have more energy. For now, I have written about some of what was particularly on my mind today, on this one year anniversary of a significant step in my own personal transition.

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The ‘Wrong’ Body

I am transgender, and I was not born in the ‘wrong’ body. My body is only ‘wrong’ in a binary-focused, cisnormative narrative that says being trans is only ok if you strive to assimilate to mainstream cultural ideas of gender and anatomy as swiftly and quietly as possible. The idea that I might have been born in the ‘wrong’ body sounds an awful lot like the idea that being trans is shameful and unfortunate, something to be fixed. Yes, I need to make some changes to my body for my own well being, but my trans-ness is not something that needs to be fixed. I am grateful for my life experiences. I strive to celebrate being trans, even if it’s still a struggle for me right now, having internalized a lot of the negative messages that tell me my body and heart are shameful, and those messages are everywhere.

Let’s take, for example, going through the TSA body scanners at the airport. Last week I got on an airplane to visit my family for the holidays. My travel anxieties this time extended beyond a relatively recently developed fear of falling out of the sky to getting through the TSA security checkpoint without having to prove something about my gender or my body.

In my case, my ID lists a name and gender consistent with how I’m perceived. My body, however, is not entirely consistent with perceived (cisnormative) expectations. Stepping into a TSA body scanner, where a tech somewhere nearby pushes a button for ‘male’ or ‘female’ to tell the scanner what to expect, gave me a lot of anxiety. Chest binding does not perfectly mimic what might be expected for a common, cis male chest. I expected my ‘wrong’ body to trigger a pat down. I posted the following on social media after this first encounter:

“Step over here please.” As expected, a pat down after the scanner. The agent patted my chest area. Upon feeling the edges of my chest binding, with its unexpected bumps and other shapes, he asks “Do you have anything in your pockets there?” I reply in a firm, tired voice, “No, that’s my body.” He pats me down again, confused. He asks me to turn around and checks my backside, feeling all around my binding. “You are male, right?”


Another agent gives me a sympathetic smile. I have no idea what she is thinking. I am avoiding declaring my transgender status unless it is really necessary. My anatomy is none of anyone else’s business, and it’s certainly not a threat to national security. I start to mutter something about my body being uncommon, but then we’re done. I get to pass.

In the immediate aftermath, I felt all the anxiety I didn’t have space for in the moment. What if this agent had decided I was being a problem? What if this agent decided I was lying? He had the power to do this. He had the power to decide that I was suspicious and needed to be questioned. I was prepared to direct him to the location of a note from my doctor in my bag – a note that says nothing of my anatomy, but that backs up my status as trans.

All this for body parts that cause me dysphoria, that a complicated healthcare system with lots of oppressive, transphobic hoops has prevented me from taking care of. A literal burden I get to carry around on my chest.

Now imagine if I could have been read as black or Arab or Muslim. Do you think I would have made it through so easily?

I believe it is important to share my experiences as a trans person dealing with situations like these. I also believe that I cannot with integrity share my own experience here without acknowledging how I also experience privilege in these settings. Since I am perceived as a white man, with clothing and backpack that probably signal financial stability (regardless of what my actual situation may or may not be), I am more likely to automatically be given the benefit of the doubt in situations like I describe above. This is what I was getting at in my final question: Now imagine if I could have been read as black or Arab or Muslim. Do you think I would have made it through so easily? It seems unlikely to me in today’s climate.

Speaking of pat downs, let’s talk for a moment about racial profiling and stop and frisk. I chose to go through TSA security to fly someplace knowing that I might face a pat down. This was an entirely optional experience for me in the grand scheme of things. Every day, black people in the US are stopped and given a much more thorough and violating pat down simply for walking from one place to another in the normal course of their day. Even off-duty black police officers experience racial profiling by on-duty officers. This is what happens to black people because their bodies are also considered ‘wrong’ – not ‘wrong’ for being trans, but ‘wrong’ for being black. Legally, anyone can refuse a search by a police officer if the officer hasn’t produced some kind of warrant or presented a clear cause, but a) not everyone knows this, and b) resisting a police officer, even completely legally, while black can get you murdered on the spot.

Now take these two things together: black and trans. Imagine the anxiety I described above about a TSA agent patting down my trans body, except you get to expect that walking down the street every day, minding your own business.

Let’s go a little further, then: black, trans, and female. Trans women of color are murdered with alarming frequency, and the outcry – when there even is one – is muted. Being female amplifies the transphobia; being trans amplifies the misogyny (transmisogyny); being female and trans amplifies the racism.

I firmly believe that if our liberation movements – trans, feminist, anti-racist, etc. – were to come together, to decompartmentalize, we would not only help those who live in the intersections (who are also at the greatest risk), but we would also be a much larger, stronger force. Divided we are weakened, and expend energy fighting with each other for scraps at the table. Together we can demand a whole new table.

Speaking of the policing of bodies, I haven’t even touched on fat-shaming, disability advocacy, pregnant bodies, etc. There are so many ways our society defines our worth based on our bodies, and tells us that only certain bodies are worthy or can be independent. I stand for the rights of all bodies to exist as they are. Trans – pre, post, non-, and in transition bodies of all slices, black, indigenous, fat, thin, pregnant, cis, disabled, tall, short, strong, lumpy, tired, athletic, and on and on. Let’s all stand together.

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Docking Clamps Released

The other day, in the stairwell where I work (where I was gone for 3 years and recently returned), I saw a research collaborator I worked with three years ago and haven’t spoken to since – not even to say that I’m back. I enjoyed working with them, and would have liked to stay in touch, but I haven’t spoken to them, because I’m trans. It would likely be totally fine, aside from some initial extra awkwardness, but dealing with this particular anxiety has not been a priority for me recently.

So, in the stairwell, when I saw this researcher walking down the stairs toward me, I did a double take, and the moment I made eye contact, I felt incredibly awkward and wished I hadn’t. I gave a half-hearted smile very briefly, and then sped away down the stairs as casually and quickly as possible. I then proceeded to feel bad about everything for the next half an hour.

There are a handful of folks like this around my workplace, who I knew on some acquaintance level three years ago, pre-transition, and whom I haven’t spoken to since. I just pretend I’m a completely different person and that I don’t know them. I have no idea if they recognize me at all. They probably do. My double-take and eye contact with this particular researcher in the stairwell broke that facade for a brief moment. It brought up a rush of hard feelings: the sense that I am being unprofessional and amateur by not saying hello to her (and other former colleague-acquaintances), and also the sense that saying hello would force us to confront the fact that I am trans, which would be awkward and uncomfortable, not to mention way too personal, and therefore unprofessional and inappropriate.

I have unwittingly bought into the message that my gender expression and trans-ness are unprofessional and inappropriate. As proud and outspoken as I may be on this blog, in social media, and among my friends, I am also still struggling with shame.

A not insignificant part of me completely believes the messages I have been fed from birth: That I am supposed to be female at all costs, no matter what. That my masculinity and trans-ness are inappropriate and childish. That trans people aren’t really the genders they say they are. That I am not and will never really be male. That other people’s discomfort about my gender is my fault, is my problem, and I deserve to be mistreated for daring to break with the norm.

I carry this every day, everywhere I go.

I haven’t come out to new coworkers who don’t already know I’m trans, because I don’t want to face my own internal projected feeling that they would not longer see me as male if I did, that they would notice my misshapen, bound chest and see that as clear evidence that my gender is other than what I know it to be. These new folks currently refer to me as ‘he’ and use the correct name for me – and I forget sometimes that they don’t know I ever had a different one. I do not want to have to carry the extra anxiety that would come with outing myself, but sometimes I wonder if it would really be worse than the anxiety I carry presuming that their acceptance of my gender is so provisional. It is generally not hard to avoid outing myself, because I don’t talk about my activism or outside life much in lab (and that’s a discussion for a whole other post), but I am always a single question away from having to: “Where did you do your undergrad?” (Refresher: I went to a women’s college.)

While it is validating on some level for folks (who don’t know I’m trans) to automatically refer to me as ‘he’ and ‘sir’, the effects of this are limited, as I alluded to above. I know that most folks are still making presumptions about my gender. It feels provisional. I only get addressed properly because my body and voice have changed enough on T to fit into the socially acceptable range of masculinity for ‘male’. This reinforces the idea that I will only be accepted as male if I conform well enough to dominant ideas of masculinity and maleness, which is not what transitioning and wholeness are about for me. It feels hollow.

This very sentiment contributes to a mix of dysphoria and shame that I feel about my chest. I have had to pause my pursuit of top surgery due to an unnecessarily complicated health insurance situation (which I am working on fixing for myself, but it’s taking a long time). In the meantime, it feels like my chest could and will negate this empty bubble of social acceptance of my gender at any time. My binder is constricting and uncomfortable, and a constant reminder that my body is wrong – wrong in two ways: wrong for me personally, on a level that has nothing to do with anyone else; and considered wrong by society for not conforming to any acceptable standard.

My binding doesn’t perfectly hide the mass on my chest. I feel constantly exposed. I am plagued by the belief that I will never be a real man until I’ve had top surgery, until there’s no trace of my past supposed ‘female-ness’ left in my body visible to strangers. This is impossible, by the way, and even if it weren’t, I hate this feeling. This is internalized transphobia. This is what society has taught me, and teaches all of us, all of the time, and as I mentioned above, I have to face it every single day.

I am working on resisting this message. I am working toward loving myself more as I am, toward disregarding society’s expectations. I call myself a man even if it still feels awkward to me, because I am carving out my own corner of maleness, and resisting the idea that the only acceptable way to be a man is to be as close to cisgender as possible, even as that idea invades my psyche every day. Coming out and beginning transition were huge acts of self care and resistance. But it will take so much more for me to move past all of the toxicity I am fed everyday.

What helps?

When people show me that they believe me no matter how I appear, this helps. When my friends and family use the right name and pronouns for me, this helps. When I speak out openly about my experiences here and in my Quaker community and receive support and gratitude, this helps. When I speak up for my fellow trans* siblings, when I practice newly out friends’ new names and pronouns and hold their true genders up in my mind from time to time throughout my day (a strategy I recommend to all who are trying to learn someone’s new name and/or pronouns), this helps. When cis people stand up for trans* identities and trans rights, this helps. When I witness other trans* folks with uncommon bodies living their lives and loving themselves, this helps.

When people around me stop reinforcing dominant ideas about masculinity and femininity, and incorporate the idea that gender is not actually binary into their everyday language, this helps. When people listen to me when I say that anti-oppression work needs to be intersectional: When I say that feminism and gay rights need to bring trans* folks along with them now, not when people are supposedly ‘more ready’; when people say ‘What can I do to help?’ and then actually take action instead of saying ‘Your needs and dreams for inclusion are unrealistic” or “People aren’t ready for that” or “This is just how the world works”. When I am allowed to be angry, and express my frustration without someone telling me my anger will drive away supposed allies. When folks listen to me when I call them out instead of expressing defensiveness – and when folks are willing to call me out, too. This helps immensely.

What also helps is imagination. I am practicing playful imagination more in my daily life in a way that may not seem immediately connected. Just about everyday I imagine that my bicycle is a spaceship, and that the bicycle rack in the parking deck at work is a hangar, and my coat is a flight jacket. As I unlock my bike and prepare to depart, I imagine radio transmissions: Docking clamps released. Lights engaged. Flight equipment secure. Navigation systems coming online. Similarly, I am trying to come up with a playful way to think of my binder that will be less painful for me than reality, something not associated with violence (for example, I don’t want to think of it as a special bullet-proof vest). Special parachute vest? Some key piece of a flight uniform? Maybe I can imagine a whole group of space pilots of all sorts wearing the same thing for the same flight-related (not body-related) reasons. This kind of thing brightens my day, and that can go a long way.

As silly as some of this sounds, I believe imagination is an important muscle to exercise. Every day I imagine a world where there isn’t transphobia, racism, or any oppression at all, and I believe that it’s possible. Maybe it’s not possible everywhere today or tomorrow, but it’s possible in bits and pieces here and there, and it’s possible in a future that has yet to come. I firmly believe that, and it is my salvation.

I may be lifting my voice and speaking out more now than I ever have, but it’s not because I’ve got it all figured out. It’s because I don’t. It’s because speaking out is part of how I survive. I invite you to help me, and countless others, by joining in if you haven’t already. Every little bit, every voice, means the world to me, sometimes quite literally. The world I imagine is only possible if we imagine it together, and work together to build it.

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Collision and Whiplash

I want to share with you, dear readers, some of my inner experience over the past month – an experience of lostness and self-imposed silencing.

The day after my last post, an article highlighting trans men at Wellesley hit New York Magazine. I remember seeing it at lunch that day, somewhat frantically reading it and thinking to myself ‘damn it, I have a lot of work to do today!’ because I knew this was going to blow up in the Wellesley alum network. And blow up, it did.

I have written about trans* folks and women’s colleges before. I used to have very clear ideas about how I thought things should be handled, but this article and the subsequent alum response threw me into some turmoil.

My previous position, in short, was that 1 – trans men at women’s colleges are inevitable; 2 – many trans men still experience misogyny along with transphobia; and 3 – there are also inevitable non-binary folks who also aren’t women; therefore women’s colleges should embrace all oppressed gender identities from the start, and that this is not outside the original mission of women’s colleges. Unequivocally women’s colleges should accept trans women (don’t worry, this part of my position is unquestionable) – it should go without saying, but until it’s a reality, I’ll keep saying it over and over again.

What I watched go down in the alum community on social media was for me a collision of cis privilege and male privilege. It was confusing and painful for me. In the article, several trans male students described why they chose a women’s college, in some cases knowing that they may not be female during the application process, expressing that they felt that a women’s college environment would be a safe place for gender exploration in an otherwise hostile world. I get that. Many alums didn’t.

When a cis female alum who is not educated or very aware of trans* issues states that trans men should not be at Wellesley, I experience this privilege collision. On the one hand, I feel totally stomped on. How convenient for you that you can boil gender and gendered experiences down into these two neat categories. I can’t. I think to myself. What do you know of your whole world being turned upside down by a monumental realization of how to be more whole, a realization that comes with a lot of stigma and pain? You want to add transferring schools and extra social rejection? Thanks a lot. That’s the cis privilege piece.

Then there’s the male privilege piece: Women-centered spaces are still really important. As a trans man, it is essential to listen to women’s voices about their experiences and needs in women-centered spaces. As a trans man it is essential to remember that my masculinity and male-ness will always, inevitably impact others’ perceptions of my competence and authority positively, whether anyone means to or not, even at a place like Wellesley. As a trans man, it is essential to continue to recognize that many people are more comfortable with my presence at a women’s college than they are with the presence of trans women, and that this is a direct result of male privilege and the patriarchy.

That last bit seems obvious to me now, but took me a little longer to fully grasp than I’d like to admit. Weren’t we spending all this time talking about trans men at women’s colleges because they’re already there? Sure, maybe that’s part of it. But we should be paying equal if not greater attention to a whole class of women who are still excluded from women’s colleges, as we are to men at women’s colleges.

I want to now try and describe what I’d like to call ‘privilege whiplash’.

I just spent the better part of a year knowing, finally, that I am male, but still experiencing a world that treated me like a woman, and placed all related expectations on me, nonetheless. Trying to navigate misgendering and dysphoria was constant and exhausting (misgendering has all but ceased now, but dysphoria continues). I felt constantly re-squeezed into the female gender box, even as I was fighting tooth and nail to escape. As I experienced this, clawing for support, for my gender to be truly acknowledged, any time I was acknowledged correctly as male felt like a radical act of resistance and achievement. It often felt like (and still does sometimes) when someone correctly addressed me as ‘he’, we were collectively scoring a point against the patriarchy, a system reliant in part on rigid gender boundaries. To go from that struggle to this other discussion where, at last, my maleness is taken for granted, and precisely because it is, I and all like me are being called out for male privilege, totally set my head spinning.

It has only been a couple of months, filled with cautious optimism, that I have been almost always perceived as male by strangers and new acquaintances. After 27 years, this is a very, very short amount of time to adjust. I want to be clear that I am not saying that I am not gaining male privilege. It is an immensely important goal of mine to keep on top of this. It’s just really confusing at this point in my transition.

Transition comes with many different components. For me, in addition to physical and social components, there’s the internal transition. After a lifetime trying to be female, I still fall into old thought and feeling patterns associated with this. Without fully consciously realizing it, I am still often bracing for folks to perceive me as female and treat me that way – and not in a ‘bracing for misgendering’ kind of way. It’s something I’ve been doing all my life without realizing it. So of course I’m going to continue doing it unless I work on recognizing it and letting it go. In addition to that, I still have a lot of internalized transphobia to combat, that persists with dysphoric feelings that I don’t really get to be male, I don’t really get to be who I am, that I’m really just a freak and fake. All of this turmoil and privilege whiplash helped me to see that I hadn’t been working on my internal transition as much as I needed to, and forced me to look at myself through new lenses.

Internal transition also involves letting go of my constructed female identity. I don’t really know how to articulate this piece in words. It’s something like how I need to accept on a deeper level that I am not female, and to grieve for ideas I had about my identity and future possibilities that were attached to the idea that I was female. This is not straightforward. What parts of my sense of self were attached to my misperceived ‘female-ness’ that I need to let go of, and what parts of my sense of self are ones I should fight to hold on to because to do so would be to resist cisnormativity?

For example, I still identify as queer even though I am a man primarily attracted to women, because this is my social and cultural training and history. For now, at least, I have put my flag in the ground on my queerness, because it is part of who I am, even though it is rooted in my previous thought-I-was-female identity. To simply say, ‘oh, I’m a dude now who likes women, therefore I’m straight’, feels so, so wrong, and not me, and feels like I’d be giving in to larger social pressures trying to tell me who I am. At the same time, I am not a queer woman. I need to let go of any idea that my relationship to the queer female community will remain the same as it did before. I don’t want it to change, and part of me feels like it shouldn’t have to, but it will and it does, because patriarchy. Learning how to navigate things like this is part of my internal transition.

Similarly, as I am not a woman, my relationship to my women’s college community is changing, even as a huge part of me adamantly believes that it shouldn’t have to. Fuck the patriarchy, accept me as a gender minority even thought I’m not a woman! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. I hate the binary nature of this whole conversation, because binary gender is what is imposed upon us by society. Again, where do genderqueer, trans masculine or transfeminine folks who aren’t men or women fit into this?

Anyway, as this discussion in the Wellesley alum community persisted, a number of trans* alums contributed some op-eds. Reading them I realized that I actually have no idea what it’s like to transition while a student at Wellesley, because the whole time I was there I thought I was a cis woman. A lot of my reactions to this whole controversy have to do with my own feeling of whether or not I am fundamentally welcome in the alum community, and the pain I feel around that. Unlike students, I can’t just ‘transfer’ alum communities. Anyway, the controversy among alums often came down to arguments about who experienced what kinds of male privilege and when, which is a cyclical and unproductive set of arguments. A fellow trans alum, KC, wrote a piece that really resonated the most with me:

Questions about who does and does not belong at Wellesley that are based alternately on an individual’s biology, or on their history, or on their presentation will always ultimately fail: this is a point I think we need to heartily acknowledge before we move forward with this conversation. The conversation I want to have is not the one where we draw lines in the sand about who Wellesley does and does not include; lines in sand are almost always washed up by the coming tide.  The conversation I want to have is the one where we, as a community, think critically about the purpose of Wellesley as an institution.  Focusing the conversation on Wellesley’s mission and not merely its admission means asking questions about what Wellesley does.  Does it carve out space for all people who have suffered gender oppression?  Does it actively resist the patriarchy?  Does it always and only provide space to foster and celebrate womanhood?  These are questions we can answer together, and it is my firm belief that in making decisions about what Wellesley does (a process that will be perpetual, ongoing), it will become clear who should be served by and inhabit that space.

My position on how trans men do and/or don’t fit into the Wellesley community lies in asking these questions, and knowing that I cannot answer them by myself. My position also is this: Before we focus a ton more energy talking about Wellesley’s mission and how it relates (or doesn’t ) to trans men and non-binary folks, WELLESLEY NEEDS TO ADMIT TRANS WOMEN. Or rather, these are separate issues, and we have been disproportionately been talking about one of them at the expense of the other, and that needs to stop.

On that note, here’s a petition for Wellesley to admit trans women: PETITION

I was reluctant to write about my experiences of this conversation at all, because I felt that we didn’t need yet another trans male voice talking about trans men. But I have chosen to write this piece anyway because this blog is in part about me sharing my own life experiences with my community, and that in and of itself is important. The moment I decided my experience of all of this wasn’t important at all was the moment I began to silence myself on all issues. This is the self-imposed silencing I mentioned at the beginning. I need to be able to share my experiences as a human being.

I also struggle with perfectionism, and my own turmoil around all of this prevented me from writing for sometime. I felt I needed to have a clearcut, uncontroversial answer to all of this, but I don’t. All I can do is share my experience, and so here it is.

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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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A Vignette: Misgendering in Exchange for Queer Visibility

Scene: Me, buying lunch. As I struggle to pull my card out of my wallet (it’s kind of jammed in there), I am aware of the cashier watching my face in a subtle, yet noticeable way. I glance up and notice she’s got a little bit of a smile. I feel weird – why is she looking at me? What does she see? At least she’s smiling?

Then she asks: Would you like a bag, miss?

Really? I frown and look down to pick up my food, and say in my deepest voice: “No thank you” and walk away.

While this was confusing and upsetting for me, it doesn’t have the same impact that it used to back when *everyone* misgendered me all the time. Today, I am in a new workplace around a lot of new people who – as far as I am aware – consistently read me as male, who don’t even know that I am trans. There’s something extra validating about this that feels different from interacting with people who knew me before. That raw, vulnerable place of constantly bracing to be misgendered, of trying desperately to hold space for my whole self when no one else was helping me, when every missed pronoun pressed against me like a straightjacket, is now insulated, safer, even if I still feel on edge a lot, even as I still need time to heal and adjust to this new reality.

I wondered what it was that caused her to miscalculate my gender. Then I remembered that the people most likely to read me (incorrectly) as female are those who are most familiar with usually queer, masculine women. To read me (incorrectly) as female is to see me as really gender non-conforming and probably queer. Then I remembered how she was watching my face and smiling a little bit. Perhaps she was queer, too, and happy to see another queer person in an otherwise heteronormative space. I am choosing to believe that this is what happened, and I think I can be ok with that. As more people see me as male (and presume I’m cisgender), my queer visibility is lost. Exchanging misgendering for a snatch of queer visibility seems like a livable trade every now and again.

Before I finish, I’d like to note that it is a privilege that I am being read correctly most of the time now. Not all trans* folks get that privilege – many will never have it. This is never far from my mind.

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