TW: Abusive relationships, dysphoria, transphobic language, internalized transphobia, coming out terror, sexual abuse, dissociative identity disorder
This post is going to piss a lot of people off, but I have been needing to talk about this for a while. The issue started to burn under my skin about two years ago around National Coming Out Day, which is also the anniversary of my first coming out about being trans to someone other than my partner. It happened 5 years ago this year, and I told my team teaching companion because I was starting to change my presentation toward a more androgynous look as I used makeup to avert some dysphoria and saved up for new clothes. I knew I would not be able to get medication for a few years because I had no health insurance and no hope of getting any before the ACA came through. At the time, I had just purchased a house 18 months before, and I was unable to wait any longer to start my process.
I knew what I was when I was 4 or 5. I learned through family, but not in any way that helped me. The people who raised me tended to cluster together and get clannish, sometimes verging on Klannish. They would find reasons to pick apart and find fault with practically anyone who expected anything out of them, and that included marginalized groups wanting a fair shake and the government for expecting them to pay taxes. This despite the fact that the family made it into the middle class because my grandfather became a municipal employee. It was in this morass of ugly 1980s white grievance that my 6 or 7 year old cousin told me what a “he/she” was and my imagination soared. It was the most excitement I had ever felt in my young life, just trying to imagine what a “man who decided to be a woman and took medications for it and changed the way he dressed” would look like.
I sat around for a couple hours imagining. They all wound up with blonde hair and blue eyes like me. Later that day, the topic came up again. I wrote about the incident. My aunt described in detail how her kids had tripped over a talkshow with a lot of transgender women on it, using the rough language of the day. Then my father sounded off about all the things the trans woman in his workplace was going through, calling her an “it” the entire time and embellishing and extending his rejection of her to make the statement that no one would ever be able to accept her as either sex again. That was the moment I realized I was trans, and I sat with it for a long, long time. I even let myself forget about it.
I remember, now, being 8 years old and explaining to myself why I needed to accept that I was not a girl. It’s no fucking wonder I have dissociative identity disorder and 5 alters now. There’s a good chance I programmed it into myself. If I did, though, it was in reaction to stresses like those experienced above. At 11, I had a panic attack because my pubes started coming in and I knew I was about to stop recognizing the sound of my own voice. I cried about it in the bathroom for a half hour.
At 15, I made an attempt at transition. My motor skills were too poor to cope with makeup beyond cartoonish goth styles, but it was the 1990s, so what the fuck? I had a girlfriend who supported my wearing skirts. I started to shave. I didn’t tell them I was a girl, but after I got caught in my “goth clothes” too close to home and confronted, the resulting terror episode and the threat to isolate me from my friends and make me start my wardrobe over pushed me back into the closet. I was openly talking to a couple unnamed pieces of myself, I just assumed I had a multi-track mind. We wound up agreeing not to try until we were 28, and then we buried the most feminine among us to let her come to life again without the battle scars we would accrue.
In those intervening years, I would periodically remember myself and consider transition, and there was really nothing stopping me after I was 17 except for my own poverty and a lack of courage. There were times it was literally impossible, like when I was trying to survive through factory work and I had no health insurance. There were also times when I simply could not make myself surrender all connection to my people and go alone without support, even though I was in a supportive environment like an LGBT-positive, trans-led department of a major university’s student affairs program.
I gave myself a lot of reasons for the wait, most of them centering around the idea that I might be able to educate some of the people in my life into accepting me before I came out. Some of them out of sheer terror at losing whatever support I got out of people who left me drained and in need of recovery time after every visit. At 27, though, Monday reared her head again and transition became inevitable. Unfortunately, that was just in time for the financial collapse to knock out funding for most of the positions we were trying to land. At that point, we had to detransition once again. We tried to hold on to both the weight loss and the hair, but between depression about not being able to transition and the weight gain it brought, we wound up with a shaved head, a beard, and Clay in charge by 2010.
In 2011, that stopped being tolerable. We started writing a novel about our experience with Clay as the lead character, and we could not stop the dysphoria and the pain. We were active online in trans spaces at the time, as an “ally,” and it was watching the transition of several women who now have fairly large platforms in the community that convinced us we needed to act as soon as we could, with no excuses this time. It was Chelsea Manning deciding to face jail as a woman that dragged us screaming out of the closet publicly.
I spent years between my second detransition and the beginning of my coming out process convincing myself that I needed to put my partner and I into certain economic circumstances before I started this process, or that I needed to get some sign that she would be ready to do this with me. I did the same thing with my family. In the end, at the point where I finally came to the conclusion that I had to transition or die, I had been given at least a half dozen opportunities that I simply did not have the courage to take.
As I struggle each day with a body I don’t want, with permanent testosterone damage I don’t want, I have to remember crying when I was 23 because my voice still sounded high and I needed a beard to masculinize my face, because I was just wanting my body to be past the point where I would feel like I could make the transition, just to have it over with.
A lot of people tell me that it was OK that I didn’t come out before. That when I wasn’t ready, I just wasn’t ready. The fact is, though, that I was literally born ready. This was coming. I literally knew I was trans as soon as I digested the concept of being trans. And then I chickened out. I knew my parents were less competent than me from the age of nine, and I only left home a year before I turned 18. I knew I didn’t get financial support from them and I wouldn’t move home again, but I still let my fear of their “cutting me off” be my excuse.
I went through 12 National Coming Out Day observances in my community, holding other people’s assurance that it was OK to stay in the closet if I didn’t feel safe carry me past the day, and I now loathe every one of them. Not only because of the damage I did to me, but because of the damage that happened to my trans siblings. It wasn’t just fear of my family, after all. It was fear of my community. Fear of being asked to live with men in the school dormitories until I reached a certain point, or fear of attempting to find a place to rent if I came out before I had property. It was fear of being disbelieved because I was disabled, or of being disbelieved about my disability because “gender dysphoria doesn’t count as a disability.”
It was fear of losing the function of my dick, which I was in love with using at the time. It was fear of not being able to find women who would sleep with me, since I knew I was a lesbian. It was fear of regretting the changes.
I was a cowardly little shit afraid of shitty people I saw all around me, and I let myself blend in with them while other trans people were living and dying. Even when it would have destroyed me to come out staying closeted was not OK, and I paid an awful price for it with my body, my spirit, and my mental well-being.
There were maybe a half dozen times when I really did need the comfort because I couldn’t have come out no matter what I did about it, but otherwise, it was not OK.
It’s not my place to tell you whether you’re in a position like mine or not. It’s not my place to measure how feasible your coming out process is for you right now. I’m not here to do that, and if you took that from my story, I’m sorry. What I am here to do is hold up a mirror. If you see yourself in this story, you might need to stop waiting before you damage yourself any more. If you see yourself here, you might need to swallow the panic and move forward before you permanently see yourself as a coward.
If you don’t see yourself here, then fine. It means our experiences are far enough apart that it’s not my place to judge you.
But if you see yourself… then see me.
I regret my hiding and my safety for the entire span of my time in the closet, and I feel guilty over the fact that the more of us come out, the safer it is to be out, and yet I did not. If you’re feeling that guilt, then it’s time to join the rest of us and help make it safer for everyone else. There’s no going back, but you can choose to start going forward. There’s a lot more support than there used to be, and you can also help support other trans people as you go.
It’s not an easy time to transition. More and more of our protections are being stripped away by the administration each day, but the more of us they see, and the more families we are part of, the harder it will be to keep pushing us out of the public sphere. It’s understandable if you can’t, but if you can…
Well, you know my story, and you know how I feel about my choices.