A study of a transperson.
Boys in makeup!, she would loudly proclaim, upon my arrival. This was said with great enthusiasm. That meant me. She took out eyeliner and eyeshadow from a see-through plastic purse that zipped up, and a few other things for good measure. Having never taken part in this ritual myself, I was ignorant of every aspect, puzzling over it the way an archaeologist might seek to find meaning in a faded hieroglyph. This effort was for her gratification, not mine. Her reasons for involving me were never expressed, though I suppose she might have been in pursuit of something mildly titillating. Mostly it kept the boredom at bay for a little while longer. For the evening, I was her guinea pig.
This is really complicated, I thought to myself. Each product had to be applied with practiced hand in a particular way. I'm afraid of irritating my eyes, so I fought hard to keep my eyelashes separated enough to apply a coat of mascara to the top half, then the bottom half. I was very grateful when the process was over. Many women kept this routine every day, I reflected, believing that repairing their faces on a consistent basis was an essential part of self-care. I wondered if I was devoted enough to this foreign process, willing to learn how to tolerate every step in sequence, alongside a thousand other momentary discomforts for the sake of fashion.
As I began to comprehend the complexities, the mystery slowly subsided. I began to pick up on the nuance of outward appearances, the subtle flourishes and not-so subtle flourishes. Not every woman spent an hour or more on her physical appearance, as had been the case for me tonight. Not every woman aspired to be a beauty queen, a debutante, or head cheerleader. I’d known this already on some level, information gleaned purely from slightly detached observation.
This eternal pageant of feminine presentation had proceeded in front of my face, marching to the pace of its own unfamiliar, but strangely compelling tempo. From what I observed, it appeared to me to be divided between those who participated and those who stood on the sidelines. As a man, I’d never been told I ought to care or to show much interest beyond the most rudimentary of details. I’d never honestly thought about the process in those terms, because most men didn’t. They were considered women’s ways. Instead, I was nudged strongly towards the gender roles and expectations of my assigned sex, commandments given by those who also told me how to express my opinions, and what to do in case of interpersonal confrontation.
I took the bait and began my own informal studies. The world of women beckoned to me, a fascination that I studied as assiduously as a college course. In my childhood, I’d gleefully check out a stack of books on a Saturday morning trip to the public library. Feeling intensely and immediately fascinated with whatever it was I was reading, I’d continue until I had finished the whole book, front to cover. Even if it took seven or eight hours to finish, I would still devote the time. Now I had a new interest, a new course of study and a new focus. It had been my habit that anything I put my mind to I usually mastered.
My natural allies, oddly enough, were the tomboys and other conscientious objectors who held fast to their individuality by eschewing hair curlers, face bleach, and tanning beds. I made an inquiry here and there among my female classmates, but I took care not to neither push too hard, nor to ask too much. Their decision to keep it simple and to reject the existing standard often expected of women was never talked about much. The scars were still too fresh, the failure or unwillingness to conform too painful to vocalize. In my case, I knew tomboy was about the best I could expect for myself. I was never going to be dainty, diminutive, or slight of build, even though I might be in my fantasies.
How I envied a close friend of mine, with her thin hair pulled back into a tight bun. She had a slightly frail constitution, which fit her mannerisms and her pale physical appearance perfectly. Some people fight tooth and nail and some people surrender to life. She was the latter. I was the former. Every time I saw her I wanted to save her from herself. My concern for her was full of physical desire and sexual longing, but these were feelings I never vocalized.
Underneath it all, I wanted to be her. She was a fragile, pale, alabaster china doll of a woman. She was a throwback to an old-fashioned, antiquated conception of emotionally overwrought and deferential womanhood. I tried to keep my jealousy at bay, but my envy was considerable. The years passed, but I still failed to understand how and why my attraction to her was wrapped around a desire to take on her physical form.
Regardless of whatever form of femininity I might admire in my dreams, I knew that transition meant I was always going to look like a female weightlifter. The legs I’d been born with were too muscular, my shoulders far too broad. My frame was designed to carry lots of weight. That fact alone caused me severe discomfort, but with time, I’d learned a few common sense facts here and there. Others on the same path towards a greater understanding of self gave me pointers.
Everyone not born into the proper physical form finds early on in the process to not expect a perfect match. We have to make a few compromises along the way. Pragmatism is probably the best approach until medical science can grow comprehensive enough to provide answers to persistently unresolved questions. Back then, I was still figuring out how to live with myself as I was. A friend of mine I’d encountered on a web board was my sole avenue of support. He frequently lamented that, no matter what surgery or treatment he pursued, he would always be a man with a vagina.
He had been quick to offer visual proof of the effects of weekly testosterone injections. These I viewed religiously, curious to know what to expect. Every week he made and posted a new YouTube video that revealed, over the months, the beginnings of a very pubic looking beard and sideburns. What he looked like eventually was a prepubescent boy, but he was thankful for any meaningful changes. The first time a stranger called him “sir” and not “ma’am” was a day we celebrated with a two hour, congratulatory phone call.
Hormones work exceptionally well for some, but are frustratingly limited in producing results for others. I couldn't afford surgery, because insurance didn't cover it. But as I really thought it through, I came to understand that the procedure might well have had a limited impact. It might have only softened or smoothed out a few things out here and there. Expecting miracles was only setting oneself up for disappointment and I tried to stay realistic.
My bone structure and Adam’s apple would always give me away. Though I might choose to adopt a different haircut, seeking to at least dress the part, I knew I’d always look like a stage performer in a wig. To many casual observers, I would be a man playing a woman strictly for laughs, never to be taken seriously. Even in a more enlightened age like ours, nothing is as funny as a man in a dress. Grownups and children alike share this visceral response.
I was mortified enough in my own current form, afraid of imaginary judgments from every corner, but mostly from inside myself. I had to concede that being a man does have its advantages. My size and stature kept away most of the creeps, even though I was never the kind to pick fights and seek trouble. I wasn’t sure I wanted to give that unasked for gift away, risking being seen as weak and vulnerable. Most men I knew would never voluntarily give their masculinity away, for any reason. The fringe benefits and perks were too lucrative. Though times have changed, it is still a man’s world.
I wondered if I would really be able to block out the insults and keep from internalizing the hurtful remarks of the small-minded and uninformed. My family, for example, would never fully allow themselves to understand me, this I knew well. At least they would make an awkward attempt at acceptance, which is more than I could say for strangers. It had taken my parents ten years to accept queer and that revelation had come with fireworks and amateur dramatics.
Blocking my path were some certainties that could never be dismissed as needless worrying. I saw ahead of me several very uncomfortable holiday gatherings around the kitchen table in my parents’ house. I pictured myself in a dress, my newly shaven legs crossed like a proper lady, observing profound discomfort in the faces of my parents. I wasn’t sure I was strong enough for another round of this counter-productive bickering. They had put their differences aside with time once already, and I didn’t have the stomach for another round.
My online friend, who I never met in person, couldn’t bear to tell his parents about the change. Instead of risking confrontation, he wrote a lengthy letter, then left it in the family’s mailbox. Predictably, they went into shock for a time, but eventually righted the ship. His father was the first to accept him as he was, even though the father had grave uncertainties that he mostly kept to himself. His mother, however, insisted upon viewing her son only as the daughter to whom she had once given birth. She refused to accept his new male name, a name which he had legally changed to reflect his real gender, at great pains and expense. I was fearful of the same outcome and it froze me in my tracks..
Thanks for the boy. Shortly after I was born, my father sent flowers to my mother in the hospital. She was recovering from having me, and the nurse set the floral arrangement and the card on a table next to her. In the days before routine ultrasounds, my sex was unknown to both of my parents until the day of my birth. My father wanted a son, but had tried to keep his own expectations in check. My mother tried to prepare him for a daughter, but fortunately for him, he got what he wanted.
The card that rested on the table next to the flowers summarized my father's jubilant feelings in a few short words. He rejoiced when I was pronounced male and swathed in light blue. Since that long ago day, I regretted that I’d been such a poor son to him. I could not make his hopes and aspirations for me come true. Who I seemed to be was not really who I was. With time, we both lost something dear to us, a relationship predicated upon an illusion I could increasingly no longer maintain.
I'd tried to be a good son, but I could never understand how to parallel park, change a tire, or perform routine household maintenance. These were minimum requirements for him. Once, in frustration, he'd said, Are you some feminine man? I didn't answer him at the time, but I’ll nevertheless concede that the answer was probably in the affirmative. Most of my friends were women and I had few male counterparts. This had been the case since elementary school, fast friendships often made at the lunch table prior to the first bell or when waiting for homeroom to conclude.
Ironically, once I freed myself from a paralyzing self-consciousness that blanketed most of my adolescence, I found I was quite successful with women. Many men my age didn’t know where to begin, but my interactions with the opposite sex were usually seamless. I’d had lots of practice and I at least knew how to make a good introduction. But I once again my secret became an impediment. Any woman who might show interest in me now was going to need to be especially understanding. I was afraid that few would, so I never mentioned it.
When I left home and moved elsewhere, I periodically called my father on the phone. He constantly asked me if I’d found an acquaintance with whom I might take part in masculine pursuits. I could always hear the disappointment in his voice when I always answered no. Eventually he dropped the subject and never brought it up again. But to make him happy, I deliberately made friends with a few men here and there. These friendships were more surface than they were substantive, but it gave me something to say to my father that clearly gave him pleasure.
My brain and my body always seemed to be at war with each other. I sought compromise first, trying to stay honest to my whole self, even though it was difficult. Easy answers were never forthcoming. I felt that was inventing something new out of necessity, a gender pioneer of a sort, cutting a roadway through a dense forest. No owner’s manuals were present. My only true guiding lights were the anecdotes of those who had come before me. They’d had blazed their own trail, in their own time, and made up the rules as they went along. As it turns out, so would I, in my own way.
After years of struggle, I reached some greater resolution. I made peace with the feelings always in the back of my mind, the ones that I could rarely shove aside for long. I resolved that I could usually live with myself as male, though there were many instances where I was conscious that my assigned gender was never going to be a good fit. My identity was at best an approximation, and never would fit like a glove. As I thought more about it, I surmised that I was probably more akin to a hermaphrodite in my gender identity than I was to a transsexual.
As much as I demanded individual expression for myself, I recognized that I wanted easy acceptance from others just as badly, and sometimes even more so. It’s the routine quandary that befalls every person who demands both freedom of choice and freedom of expression. We are taught mixed messages. It is good to be unique and authentic, but it is also good to belong and be complimented for properly fitting in. I’d grown up an isolated, lonely child, tormented by thoughts I barely understood. Absorbing the approval of others was like water to a man dying of thirst.
I recognized that I was bisexual around the same time. Curiously, even though I was mystified by who I was, my male partners were usually more understanding than my female lovers. They understood the fluidity of gender with greater acumen, and some had their own fantasies of being a woman, though they often differed from my own. I recognized I was selling myself short, expecting to be rejected, rather than entertaining the possibility for a satisfying outcome.
I began cross-dressing when I was fourteen. When I had time alone I would sneak into the laundry room, close the door reassuringly behind me, turn on the light, and root around in the dirty laundry of my sisters and my mother. Being that I was the oldest child and had the largest body size, I rarely found much that fit me. But what I did find in the proper size produced some of the strongest mixed emotions I have ever felt, those of guilt and euphoria combined.
One of my sisters owned a form-fitting dress that I had always silently coveted. When no one was around, which was rare in the those days, I would begin my explorations. Full of nerves but strangely excited, I made my way to the bathroom mirror. The dress fit strangely, designed for curves and angles I did not possess, but somehow I liked the effect anyway. Paradoxically, it was comfortable as much as it was uncomfortable, physically and psychologically.
Too much, too soon. My thoughts turned from an idealized and thrilling notion of perfect gender balance to immediate disgust and shame. I quickly removed the garment, resumed male attire, and placed it back in the basket exactly where I’d found it. I became very adept at memorizing the precise way the pilfered clothes had been tossed into a laundry basket before I got there.
In my mind’s eye, as though I’d taken a photograph of the crime scene, I knew what had gone on the top of a stack and the pattern it formed upon a heap of soiled wash. I was a competent thief, making sure not to leave behind fingerprints or other telltale signs of what I’d done. I probably could have gotten away with it without the need for such obsessive detail, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
Eight years later, I’d begun buying my own clothing. I began with underwear and intimate wear first. Making sure not to blow my cover, I invented a non-existent girlfriend for whom I was purchasing these items. She always wore the same size that I did. It was my fall-back defense, should anyone call me out on it, but I was paranoid enough about my privacy that no one ever did.
In my grandiose fantasies, which now embarrass me with their naivete, I imagined that female retail employees were kinder to me for obviously having a curvaceous, voluptuous relationship partner who wasn’t a size 3. In reality, I was merely another customer to them, another head-scratching man rendered uncomfortable and clueless within the walls of the store, seeking to make his purchases and scram.
An adrenalin rush followed my exit. I began bringing along my own bags, because it felt incriminating and wrong to advertise where I’d been shopping. I felt the same way when girlfriends asked me to hold their purses for a little while, except that the contents were theirs and not mine in disguise. Few would have ever picked up on anything out of the ordinary, but like many men, I was still afraid of somehow losing my masculine identity or appearing less than male.
Alone, in the solitude of my bedroom, I tried on each article of clothing, but not before locking the door behind me and closing the curtains. This was a secretive act I never shared with anyone else. I had always felt out of step somehow with others, in ways well beyond how I viewed my physical self. These hidden behaviors only confirmed that I was tremendously strange, at least in my mind. I had accepted most of my idiosyncrasies long before, but this one seemed the least forgivable. Alone by myself was the place I felt most comfortable, away from prying eyes.
I would tell myself that this time was the last time ever, knowing that I’d never be able to stop. There was an emotional payoff to every day of playing solo dress up, a comfort that words cannot express. At times, I even viewed it as an untreated addiction, but that was just the guilt talking. What I really felt was my whole world in proper balance for a few fleeting moments. It accurately reflected, at long last, how I felt about myself and who I was.
After having shopped at a department store, I recognized from time to time that my physical proportions were not well-suited to the design of whatever I’d purchased. I never had the ability to try on anything before buying it, fearful of being discovered by the gender police. Stares and disapproving glances were my most prominent anxieties. I learned about fashion details most men never had any compelling reason to know and likely never would for the whole of their lives. I had, at least, gathered when buying men’s jeans and pants over the years that a stated size might occasionally not be standard from brand to brand, company to company.
I found this same problem was fifty times worse when it came to select clothing designed to be worn by women. I suppose I could have returned the ones I cast aside on the floor of the bedroom back home, but I was too ashamed. I donated the remainder of my shopping hauls to thrift stores, hoping someone might get use out of them. I felt paradoxically glad to have concluded my last shopping trip, though I knew it wouldn’t be long before I went back.
All was not gloomy. Along with this grave seriousness came great pleasure. That’s why I kept returning to the well, over and over again. Back then, I believed I was engaging in taboo, highly unacceptable behavior, but I always felt joyful at the conclusion of each excursion. For a time in my teenage years, I’d frequently stolen undergarments from middle aged women, the moms of my friends, within moment of being graciously escorted into their houses..
Making strategic trips to the bathroom, I must have rooted through a hundred hampers full of dirty clothing. What I pilfered tended to fit much better, usually because previous owners were larger themselves. This reflected the inevitable weight gain of their original owners. Though I might have felt guilty, I never honestly felt sorry for what I did. It was the first step in self-acceptance. I rationalized that one article of clothing wouldn’t be lamented by its former owner like an entire wardrobe.
Once, I deftly lifted a negligee from a bedroom closet, put it on underneath my clothing, and received a massive rush of adrenalin for the daring act that could have easily ended up with me getting caught red handed. I sprinted up a huge hill, arriving at my car five minutes later, panting and out of breath. Behavior like this made me feel as though I’d somehow gotten away with robbing Fort Knox. With time, the thrill and satisfaction would give way, but I tried to live in the moment as long as I could. It satisfied a part of myself I barely understood in ways nothing else could.
In those days, I did not keep what I took for very long. Within a week, the most recent article of clothing was placed inside a paper lunch sack. It was set upon the gravel underneath the deck outside, then solemnly and silently burned. The process felt cleansing and sad. I stood and silently watched it burn into nothingness. I destroyed the evidence, even though it was unlikely anyone would ever put two and two together. There would always be time for plotting my next move, whenever it might be and whatever it might be.
had a strange hobby
moonshine washing line
they suit him fine
On the wall
hung a tall mirror
see-through baby blue
he dug it
Oh Arnold Layne
it’s not the same
takes two to know
two to know
why can’t you see?
“Arnold Layne”, Pink Floyd
Several years back, I watched the televised story of a woman born biologically male dealing with circumstances similar to my own. After expansive and highly expensive plastic surgery, she looked flawless in every way. Many of us who identify as gender non-conforming wish that this could be their life as well. What made the surgery a success is an important distinction to make. She always looked very feminine, even when still in male form, which is a blessing that is not granted to everyone.
I didn’t have those kinds of financial resources, nor that kind of luck. Passing is a chore, one I always knew might be too impatient to ever adequately learn. I can’t completely rid myself of the tell-tale traces of who I don’t want to be. Transition doesn’t stop in the recovery room or with the first injection or application of a hormone. Instead, it frequently promises more than it provides..
I plead and bargain with God for the day this second-guessing goes away forever. In childhood I was taught to pray, eyes closed, kneeling before my bed. Though my understanding of direct communication with the Divine has grown more complex, in times of uncertainty and doubt, old ways return. There is comfort in the familiar. I continue hope God hears my prayers and provides an answer, or some guidance at minimum.
Church for me was, more often than not, remote and stuffy, full of people who did not want to know me or even for me to know them. In the absence of friendly behavior from the congregation, I sought instead to believe in the introvert’s God, the one who speaks comforting words, one-on-one, like a trusted friend. He has never let me down.
When I find my identity liberating, rather than restrictive, I know I’ll have really ended this strange and peculiar trip. I believe in a different kind of faith, a mysterious belief that provides few absolutes and even fewer identifying details. I expect God to be mysterious and unpredictable, not scientifically precise. Science is supposed to be the ultimate exercise in rationality and certainty, but who I am is neither rational, nor certain. Seeing myself more as an abstract philosophy than a hard science is how I manage to stay sane. For now, there is no certainty. Once again, I deal with approximation, hypotheticals, and conjecture. I hope for the day I understand in greater detail.
I try not to feel jealous of the women I walk by on my way to do errands. In spite of everything, I don’t regret most of my decisions. In time, we’ll probably understand much more than we do now about sexuality and gender. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
We, each of us, live within our own period of transition, doubt, and uncertainty, regardless of what identities we assign to ourselves.. We may not wish to modify the shape and form of our bodies, but we do wish to be worthwhile and genuine in the eyes of others. Authenticity takes many forms. I stay patient, seeking to keep my expectations and my hopes reasonable. One day, I know I’ll receive another long sought answer. And so may you.