Sitting with my Twenty Year-Old Self, Remembering She is Me
I got my letter to start hormones after two visits and I got it even though I told my therapist that my mom had killed herself a few months earlier. I started testosterone about three months after my mom’s suicide. The therapist I was seeing expressed some concerns but decided to go ahead and let me start hormones because I’d already been living as a guy for about two years at that point, had always felt “masculine” and had been identifying as some kind of trans for five years. I’d already decided I wanted to transition before my mom killed herself. As far as I know, my therapist made no connection between my trans identity and the trauma of experiencing my mom’s depression and death. I think she was more concerned with how transitioning is a major life change that can be hard enough to handle without having to deal with a tragedy like your mom’s suicide on top of it.
And it did turn out to be too much for me to handle all at once. I quit t the first time around when the full impact of my mom’s death started to hit me. I didn’t even cry about my mom’s death until over a year after it happened. I blocked my feelings about it out, until they all came crashing in on me and overwhelmed me.
I’d been experiencing some disorientation getting used to moving through the world as unambiguously male. There was something about spending most of my life being seen and treated as a freak and then suddenly blending in and being accepted as normal, as “just another dude”, that was very unsettling. I liked how I got treated better but it was intense to realize that what sex people saw me as determined whether they thought I deserved to be treated with respect or not. I label that experience of starting to pass seamlessly as male as “joining the human race” because that’s what it felt like. It was both satisfying and unnerving at the same time and surprising. I’d passed for male very often before taking t and, as I said, lived as male full-time for around two years. I thought I knew what I was getting into but I really had no idea and it was a lot to adjust to.
And then at the same time I was being overwhelmed by grief, which hit me so much harder because I had blocked it out for so long. I stopped taking t partially because I could control that, I could decide to put my transition on hold and think over my experience of it thus far and decide what I wanted to do. I couldn’t stop having all these feelings about my mom’s death, I couldn’t do anything to change that she was dead.
I didn’t start connecting how my mom’s mental anguish and death related to my desire to transition until much later. She was deteriorating while I was consolidating my trans male identity and working out that I wanted to take t. I didn’t want to end up like her. I suffered from depression too and I looked like her and I think because we looked alike it was easier to see myself in her and I didn’t want to. We both could be very sensitive and I hated my sensitivity because I saw it as weakness and vulnerability. I spent a whole lot of my youth trying to teach myself not to feel, to desensitize myself. That’s one reason why I cut and burned myself, to learn how to endure pain without flinching, like it was no big deal. I was actually happy when I didn’t feel much when my mom died because I mistook that for some kind of strength, as though I was truly unaffected by her destruction instead of in denial about how it hurt me.Transitioning was another way I hurt myself in an attempt to be strong and untouchable, another way to put on armor and protect myself while cutting myself off from what I didn’t want to feel. It was that or be totally destroyed, end up like my mom, a pathetic shell of herself that ultimately had no way out but death.
I came out as trans and announced my intentions to transition at my mom’s funeral. My dad and sister already knew I’d been living as a man but most of the rest of my family didn’t. I didn’t want people calling me by my old name or using the “wrong” pronouns. I didn’t want to deal with my mom’s death and being treated like someone I didn’t feel like anymore, who I didn’t want to be. There’s a video of the funeral that includes me talking about my mom and about being trans and as far as I know that’s the only recording out there of my old voice.
I gave my speech and my dad came up and hugged me afterwards. It changed how he behaved towards me. He’d been fairly resistant to my trans identity and desire to transition but after that he got on board. No one in my family gave me any shit except for my sister who did nothing to hide that she thought my transition was a terrible idea. It caused a lot of friction between us over the years.
My life changed a lot in my twentieth year. My mom killed herself, I dropped out of college, started t, moved into a collective house full of radical queers in a big city. I saw my transition as a kind of death and rebirth, self-creation that involved giving up who I’d been before. I’d read other trans people who talked about their transition that way. Ten years later, it’s still not too hard to find trans people talking about how they had to give up or kill who they were to become who they are now. I know what it’s like to feel like that kind of sacrifice makes sense. Hell, where I was when I was twenty it seemed crazy not to want to get away and start over since I had the chance to.
And almost everyone around me told me it made sense to them too. They understood why I wanted to shape-shift. I mean I doubt they could see all the impulses I had inside pushing me but I’m sure others could pick up on the restlessness and anxiety. I already looked like a boy and it was easy to tell this story that I was an incomplete boy with a self that was already fully masculine and a body that was already part-ways male and all I needed was testosterone to finish a process already begun. Changing yourself is easier when it seems like you’re already destined to move in that direction anyways and it’s the most logical path and you’re just giving up a misshapen larval state to become fully formed. Like many other trans men, I thought of taking t as finally going through the right kind of puberty, as finally getting to grow up. It felt so natural and it put me at ease, for a while at least. Because while the bodily changes felt so right, it was, as I said, disturbing how much strangers treated me differently now that they saw me as male.
That made me realize more so than before how alienated I had been when I was still “visibly queer”, aka seen as a butch dyke or as someone whose sex was hard to establish. Being treated as male made me realize how different I was from those who had been born and raised male. I still thought of myself as a man but as a man with the distinct experience of having a female body and history. I still identified a lot with men, despite recognizing differences with them, and the people I was closest to, my queer friends, knew I had a female body but treated me like a guy anyways.
It’s strange now to think back on those times and try to remember what it was like. I was very enthusiastic about my transition, very excited about how my body was changing. Watching my body change made me so happy at the time. It felt liberating. Now those feelings are memories and I find I’ve changed again, changed a whole lot from who I was ten years ago. I had no idea then what kind of self I was creating, that years later I’d come to see myself as a self-creating woman.
I’m still figuring out how to put all my pieces together, all the people I’ve been, all the weirdness I’ve lived through and all the ways I’ve changed. I’m already whole, I have to be since I’m the same person who’s lived through all this, had all these thoughts and feelings but becoming fully aware of my wholeness is another matter. I struggle with it, with my tendency to want to forget and block out and dissociate. I struggle with learning that I can take in all of me, all of my life. I don’t have to whittle myself down to a particular shape to be good or survive.
I am the person who took t and was to thrilled to watch my body change and who got confused about how to live in this world, feeling both like a man and different from men at the same time. I found out what it meant to be a woman, the particular woman I am, by spending a lot of time thinking I wasn’t one, by dissociating from womanhood, by living as a man, as a genderfreak. I found out about what it means to be female by injecting myself with testosterone and seeing my body change shape and then change again when I stopped. Going through that doesn’t make me less female, doesn’t make me trans, it means I have a specific experience of female embodiment. Healing doesn’t mean rejecting the young trans man I was, it means embracing and learning from her. It means appreciating everything that she did to help me survive.
I spend time listening to her talk about what it was like and I try to remember. I feel pain I couldn’t afford to feel at the time. I feel sadness. I remember the excitement of transitioning and I remember how much being genderqueer used to mean to me and I know that’s all an important part of my history but I can’t go back there because I’ve changed too much. But then in other ways I haven’t changed much at all and I’m still the same person who lived through all that.
I am the young girl who was tormented for being different from her peers. I am the young woman being told her body is freakish and she makes more sense as a man. I am the teenage dyke who sees a boy when she looks in the mirror. I am the twenty year-old trans man eager for her body to change. I am the same trans man a year later feeling destroyed by grief. I am the genderqueer struggling to name, understand, and express a shifting sense of gender. I am the genderfreak feeling alienated from the world of “normal” men and women. I am the boy with a female body feeling freedom finally moving through the world as a male and feeling distraught and invisible at the same time, knowing how differently people would treat her if they could actually see her. I am the dysphoric person who went back on t because watching her body change back the first time she stopped was too much. I am the genderqueer who quit t again not to go back to womanhood but to go back to having a more ambiguous, queer body. I’m the same person a year and half later questioning why she transitioned and if maybe she is a woman after all. I am the dyke with a deep voice that resonates with the changes I’ve lived through, who still walks through the world passing as a man but knows now that she is female to her core. I am the woman who has lived through all these changes and is still changing. I am the woman embracing all that she has been and will be, I am the woman breathing herself whole.