My first memory associated with being aware of my own trans identity is when I was about six or seven. For some reason I imagined myself at the bottom of the basement stairs of the house my family lived in at that time. I imagined myself sauntering down to that stair landing to play with my siblings and friends in the playroom my parents had set up for us down there. But instead of wearing boy clothes, I was wearing a red dress, had long hair, sought out my sister and her female friends rather than my brothers, and I was a girl. I was a girl.
I knew at that age without knowing how to express it that I was somehow in the wrong body, that some fluke of nature had missed the mark in producing my self. I wanted to live in that female body and do what girls did, dress how girls dressed, play with Barbies with no one teasing me, and simply walk into rooms in the right body. And I knew at that age that it was impossible and that I would live the rest of my life trapped in this frustrating dilemma. For a child in the not-so-woke 80s, it seems like a fairly prescient self-understanding. We know now children can be aware of their gender identity quite young.
I don’t remember it being much of an issue after that thought. Maybe I put it away because there was nothing else to do. I played with boys but avoided sports and typically male toys like cars, construction machinery. I read all the time. I played with puzzles and games. I played with Barbies with my sister, something my brothers teased me about but never seemed to matter. Playing “house” was always a favorite for me, the actor in me already yearning to develop those instincts. It all sounds so gendered now, the kinds of play I avoided and gravitated towards; whether I was following my instincts or rejecting subconscious social norms, I do remember navigating fairly uneventfully through childhood in terms of my gender.
There were times I snuck into the bathroom and put on my mom’s lipstick. There was a time when my sister and her friends were dressing up in my mom’s 70s dresses, and I jealously put one on in secret and they found me. They laughed playfully and my mom took a picture, her way of saying “be yourself.” I was embarrassed, but not mortified. Other than that, uneventful.
Puberty ended that. I remember with horror seeing hair appear on my legs, my arms, my face, my hands. I shaved my toes so my feet didn’t look male. I shaved my hands and wore long sleeves to hide my arms. The hottest summer day I ever experienced, when it reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit in Wisconsin of all places, I took a bike trip with my family and wore khaki pants and made sure the cuffs of my button-up, vertical-striped shirt were buttoned tight to my wrists. My body was betraying me, it was reminding me in the most visible ways that it was male after all, and would not stop until it had completed its job.
I kept my horror and shame to myself. I became reclusive, I studied furiously and avoided friends, eventually losing much social contact throughout high school. I didn’t understand the boys and their interests, their attraction to other girls, their lack of sensitivity. I also wanted to have sex with my best friend, so how was I supposed to just hang out with him like before? I I felt like an outsider with the girls simply because of the gender role my body had forced on me. I didn’t feel right as me, I didn’t fully understand who me was now. Trans-awareness in the mid-90s didn’t exist except as a punchline on Friends, so I had no tools or language or cultural empathies to give me any guidance.
I was fully aware that I was attracted to men, and the only label as a person assigned male at birth at that time was “gay.” Eventually, wrestling with and coming to terms with this attraction distracted me enough that issues of gender dysphoria were placed far back in my mind. It was just easier to look at it as a sexuality issue. I could find guidance from Ellen on that at least.
So I worked hard at hiding my sexuality through my teen years. I never went so far as to fake interests in obvious male things like sports, or hunting, or cars. Rural Wisconsin in the 90s, remember. But I was jealous of the girls I knew trying on new fashions — the 60s came back in style and I wanted to wear a miniskirt too. I wanted to talk about boys who were cute while listening to my Whitney and Mariah tapes. I ignored the fact that my sister dressed in black and listened to heavy metal; I was still missing out on the female experience.
Obsessing about studying and getting into college and away from rural Wisconsin was a way to keep my mind off things, to distract anyone’s focus on my lack of interest in girls, or friends. I went to college, played the straight male part for a year, and finally decided enough was enough. I came out to my mom in the car over Christmas break my sophomore year. Over the next couple years I came out fully to family, friends. No one was that surprised. I transferred colleges and decided at my new one no one would be kept in the dark about my sexuality anymore. I lived as a fully out and proud gay man.
And so the issue of gender through my adulthood felt mostly forgotten again. Sometimes I would crave having long hair, or wearing dresses, or heels. Sometimes I wished I could be a gorgeous cisgender women for a day in order to have handsome straight men want me, woo me, have sex with me, give me access to a world I would forever live outside of. I simply assumed, however, these things were part of a gay identity. Gay men did drag; wanting to have long hair and wear heels was part of being gay. Gay men had internalized homophobia; craving the attention of straight men was part of being gay.
But as transgender awareness has increased and become more visible in the last few years on television thanks to shows like Pose, featuring several trans actresses, and on social media media — take Nikkie de Jager, a YouTube star who took someone’s threat to out her as a trans woman and turned it into a satisfying moment of self-love — I began to realize that I feel a discomforting itch with the label “man.” And I don’t know where that leaves me, when I don’t feel a total satisfaction with the label “trans.”
The funny thing is that I spent a couple years in Berlin, a city where freedom of sexuality and gender identity is a breath of fresh air even in this age of marriage equality. Exploring and expressing yourself is more expected than accepted. I ran a queer variety night and loved being in an environment where people dressed in a gender fuck mix of any and all clothing styles. Male and female didn’t apply, I never introduced the night with “ladies and gentlemen.” And yet none of that seemed to be associated with me. My gender pronouns were fine, my clothes suited my identity (basic H&M men’s clothing),and discussions of gender politics that became too heated felt laborious. Can’t we talk about Netflix shows? I stood up for others’ right for self-expression, but always say it as their fight.
I don’t know if this means I was avoiding the realization that if I accept that it is actually my fight, it could mean years of unpacking layers upon layers of identity issues, of self-repression. Maybe at 39, dealing with a myriad of other life problems, I feel too old and tired to add this battle to the mix. Maybe it means that we find our identity in our own unique way, and to transition and live fully as a woman may not be the answer for me. Gender and sexuality expressions are a lovely shifting spectrum; why make it so cut and dry?
“Trans” doesn’t yet feel like the right label yet; “man” isn’t either. I told my sister the other day I wasn’t cis in any case, and that felt good. For now, I’m okay with he/him pronouns but wouldn’t mind the odd she/her; we all want to be seen for our multiplicity. Maybe I will partake on a journey of gender discovery and decide I do want to add this battle to the mix after all. Maybe I will find acceptance that I’m used to this body the way it is but can still see the world from the perspective of two genders. Heels and lipstick don’t a woman make.
Whatever the case, I’m at least glad I can look back at that little boy who knew he was a girl and tell her to saunter proudly in that red dress.