Snapshots in Time: A Personal Story
Content Warning: This is not about data science. This is a long post that’s mostly a stream of consciousness. You have been warned!
Happy New Years everyone. It’s been a long time since I last posted, mostly because I’ve been busy at the new job, also because I’ve taken some time off to re-balance my life a little bit. But I’m back! At least for the time being.
There’s been one thing on my mind lately that I’ve been meaning just to get on paper. And it has everything to do with my identity. In the era where trans identities are at the forefront of the LGBTQIA+ rights movement, the stories that are played in the airwaves only scratch the surface of who we are and how any of us made it to “now”. Often times, trans folx, are seen as two discrete snapshots in time. Before and After. Then and Now.
Unfortunately, this leaves too much to be desired. There is so much that happens to us during our respective transitions that two pictures cannot even begin to explain.
Due to my various identities, and various level of privilege, I tend to wind up in spaces where I’m the first, or one of the first trans people that folx have ever met. I’m usually pretty upfront (if not mildly aggressive) of waiving my identity in front of people I meet.
However, only a small handful of people really were at my side as I navigated my own journey to self discovery. Although I want people to know I am trans, I really want them to know what it took to get there.
I’ve time photo time lines before: mostly to witness my own transformation (yeah, ok, I’m a little vain), but not really to tell the story of a snapshot in time. Each photo tells a story. And this is mine (and mine alone!).
Have you ever heard of the term “gender dysphoria”? It is mostly used as a clinical term to describe a state of mental distress trans folx go through. You might even tease out the meaning just by intuiting both words themselves:
Dysphoria — a state of unease or generalized dissatisfaction with life.
Gender — the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones).
So maybe, a state of unease with life, associated with the state of being male or female? That’s actually pretty close. Back in high school, and much earlier than that, I lived with a general uneasiness of my own sense of self.
I presented male, acted as a nerdy boy, but masculine in by most standards of society. I lived with a secret though: I felt like I was going through the motions. I felt as if I was performing my own gender, just to make sure no one would know that I had an iota of thought that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t really a boy.
I had one pervasive thought throughout my middle school and high school years.
I don’t feel like a boy. I don’t want to be a boy. But I am a boy. I’ll never be a girl. I’ll never look like one. Although I can pretend to be one and play the part, no one would believe me. I’d be a laughing stock. I would be shamed from my family, my friends, and society. No one can ever know I think these thoughts.
The dysphoria was always omnipresent, and I always felt like there was something wrong with my head and my body. I needed to find outlets for my dysphoria.
I’d shoplift wigs around Halloween. My mother was sort of a packrat, and kept boxes upon boxes of old clothes. So I would dig through those, along with my mom and sister’s clothing, and wear them when no one around. I’d look in the mirror and fantasize about being a girl, being a fully grown woman.
Then I’d feel shame. The thoughts would rush in. I’d focus on how I’d never pass myself off as a female with the body I had. I would retreat into myself. I would never tell anyone these thoughts.
I’d just smile, and pretend that nothing was wrong.
Nobody could ever know my secret. Back then, I sort of knew what transgender was, but I didn’t know anyone who was trans, nor did I really have much capacity to process the conflicted feelings I had.
I hid behind lots of different things during my college years. I hid behind my video game avatars, and I spent time (at least as a freshman) with my male peers hoping to fake myself out into believe there was nothing wrong. I partook in usually whatever they did. Fake it till you make it, right?
I had a really hard time making deep meaningful relationships back then. I didn’t feel like I knew how to connect to my male peers, except for mimicking their own behaviors. I was deathly afraid of my female peers. One, because I was afraid that if I ever got closer to my female peers, they’d find me out. Two, I’m not sure what that really meant for my gender dysphoria.
If I was attracted to women, does that mean I really, actually want to be one, or is this feeling I have some weird fetish?
I’d fantasize being a woman, but never really being with one (this is actually a pretty common narrative among some transwomen I know). Despite this, I came to the conclusion that some day, I’d find a nice girl, and that all this would straighten itself out because in actuality, this must’ve been a fetish, right?
There was one time during undergrad where I actually called a therapist to talk about my gender dysphoria and what it meant. Except, I immediately felt ashamed that I did that. Because I didn’t think anyone would take what I had to share seriously.
And so, I canceled that appointment the next day. And I would never tell anyone my secret for the next 8 years.
Over the years, I happen upon different circumstances where I got to express any form of femininity, silly or not. I’d usually take them, even with the fear of being found out. When you shut out such deeply ingrained, conflicting feelings, they tend to have a way found opportunities to wriggle their way out.
I always found these opportunities to be liberating.
Graduate school really did a number on me. I was so entirely focused on advancing myself in my PhD program, that gender quirks and gender feelings have very little room to fester. I allowed my business to bury any doubts I had about my own gender.
It was really for the best, I thought. The more I push the thoughts aways, the deeper the hole that I can toss them in, the less likely they’ll ever resurface again.
I just wanted to be a normal boy with normal feelings and a normal life.
Sometime during grad school, I started to hit my social stride. I figured out how to connect with my peers! Success! I started to connect with my peers fairly well. I started connecting to a few women I had interest in.
Funny, that I started connecting with some women. Few romantically, but many platonically. I figured that as I become more interested in women, the gender things would go away.
I had a few friends that would partake in activities that I might call the tiniest bit queer, at least by my standards these days. There was a lot of dressing up flamboyantly, breaking gender roles, and talk about being subversive. It wasn’t really queer, because none of them were to my knowledge, but it was subversive for sure.
There was a time where I let my friends put a cat ears on me after they put that cow boy hat on. The thing about cat ears is that many cartoon characters, especially in anime and especially female characters, tend to sport them in a cutesy sort of way.
My inner feelings of gender continued to find a way to wriggle themselves out.
I felt safe around these friends: they didn’t judge me, and they just wanted to have fun. Soon after the cat ears and the hat, I ended up home where I allowed them to put makeup on me. I just sort of let that happen, willingly.
My inner feelings of gender continued to find a way to wriggle themselves out.
It was all in good fun right? No one really questioned my gender at the time, though there was talk that “I liked it.” (I did). It wasn’t until many years later that there were some question marks from my friends, but I at least had successfully evaded those questions for the time being.
On occasion, I still would find respite in rifling through women’s clothes that would fit me, specifically my roommate’s at the time (I am so sorry Dawn). Just a weird sexual quirk, nothing more, nothing more. Just get it out of my system and move on.
No problems here.
I got deeper and deeper into my PhD, really only worrying if the data I was collecting was any good, if I was ever going to publish a freaking scientific paper, if I was ever going to graduate with my PhD, get a post-doctoral fellowship, and land a tenure track job.
Aside from that, I hit my stride with my friendships. I found myself with a regular gaming group. I had hobbies! I had a social life!
Also, I dated for the tiniest bit of time, though not with much success. I still had trouble expressing myself emotionally (which, in retrospect, has almost everything to do with hiding my gender dysphoria). I had hoped that dating would wash away those feelings, and to some extent, they did. Well, much of the things happening in life kept me distracted.
Maybe I had finally successfully beaten my gender dysphoria.
I got my PhD and hiked my way across the country to Massachusetts for a post-doc. I went from having a network of friends and support to having absolutely none.
I was deeply depressed, unhappy, and lonely when I first arrived to Massachusetts. And with nothing to hold back the gender feels, they came back en force.
Massachusetts is one of the most progressive states in the country right? I maybe, possibly, could do the whole gender thing here if I wanted to, right?
The thoughts continued to circulate through my head that maybe, just maybe, I could do it. But what would my family think? What would my boss and peers think where I worked? I would never pass as a female, not with my body, not with my voice, not with my mannerisms. I had no one to support me here in Massachusetts. Yet, it was the safest place I could ever, probably do it. Maybe aside from California.
It was a July 4th weekend where I was visiting friends in DC. I remember very vividly the amount of sleep I lost one night at their place. It was because I was experiencing a severe amount of gender dysphoria at the time. I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t live with the fact that I was faking my way through life. I hated myself. I hated that I couldn’t do anything about those feelings I had. I hated that I kept them bottled up all my life.
One detail I never mentioned is that I lost vast amounts of sleep over the years fretting over my gender. In fact, I never really came to realize how much emotional energy I was expending dealing with all my gender things.
It was a lot of energy, it turns out.
After the massive meltdown I experienced over that holiday weekend, I resolved to finally do something about it. During undergrad and grad school, I felt indebted to my family, especially my parents, because they helped put me through my education. I felt that I would never explore my gender during those times, because they’d disown me. Then I’d have nothing.
But times in Massachusetts were different. I was no longer getting help from them, at least financially. This meant I could live my life in my own way.
This meant I could try to live authentically as myself.
Around this time, I started to think about what it meant to be female, at the first thing that popped into my head was to be skinnier, so that ultimately, if I did transition, I would pass better.
All girls are skinny I thought, so I should be too.
At the time, I didn’t realize how much that thought reeked of cisgender heteronormativity, but it did. And so, I started dropping quite a bit of weight.
I really hate talking about this part of my story because I find it a bit trite. I’ll try to summarize it succinctly. I started to see a therapist about my gender issues, finally. It had been 8 long years of not saying anything to anyone, or even attempting to, but I finally bit the bullet and did it.
I built the courage to start telling some of my close friends that, indeed, I was probably trans, and that things would start changing. My pronouns, and my name didn’t really change immediately. Those things wouldn’t change a bit later down the line. During this time, it felt like dominoes falling rapidly.
When it rains, it pours. And to continue using metaphors, I went all in. I had been hiding all my life, and if I was going to do anything drastic, I would have to put all of my being into it.
I eventually outed myself to everyone, including my family. My parents sort of understood, but to this day, there is still some hard feelings between us. I think my Mom saw me as her son, and to this day, still does.
The rest of my family was pretty chill about it. I ended up disowning one family member, though. These stories don’t come without some form of loss I guess.
Though, I didn’t feel the need to carry around unnecessary baggage. Their loss, not mine.
I had really hit my stride throughout my first year transitioning, and I was mildly careful about easing myself through the process.
Have you ever gone out in clothing that felt alien to you, that society tells you that’s inappropriate for one gender to wear another’s clothes? It’s utterly terrifying.
The first time I went out with clothes that fit my inner gender feels was during the winter where I wear a large coat over my outfit. That was my MO those days, do slowly get used to wearing more feminine clothing in public, and to get used to having eyes on me, if there were eyes on me.
I was part time, as they call it, for awhile. At work, I was mostly dressing as a male, but outside of work and on the weekends, I was dressing more femme. I was also doing more fun things like, well, messing with make-up.
There’s this awkward phase that many of us go through. For me, it was really figuring out how to present myself to the world again, to feel like I was accepted by everyone, to essentially get to the point where I wasn’t read as anything else other than a woman.
I know this is also trite, but I needed to figure out my quote-unquote “style”. This phase was awkward for everyone involved, at least I felt like that was the case. I was reliving the teenage years of a girl, except that the time line was extremely condensed, and that I hadn’t been a girl before and everyone knew, and it was probably weird for those people.
I started wearing make up (almost daily, though barely anymore), and wearing different dresses and outfits. My hair was longer, but not quite to the length of a “typical” woman.
I felt the awkwardness because I would feel people’s eyes, and I would feel their uneasy energy around me. I was breaking an unsaid gender boundary that I wasn’t ever supposed to break, and I was doing it very publicly.
If you are a cisgender male with no inkling of gender fluidity, just try to imagine wearing women’s clothing for a day. Two days, a week. Trying to figure out your appearance. Trying to figure out what would make you “blend” in. Trying to get all those eyes and thoughts off of you.
I don’t really miss those days. I want people to understand that this was my life.
I want people to understand, that even today, this is my life.
After a long while, I just adopted the mind set that I was (mostly) bullet proof. You sort of have to, right? Society eats us trans folx up and spits us out like nothing, only to leave us to die (literally).
I still faced lots of struggles. Work (at my post-doc) was hard. I felt that there was tacit understanding of my gender and trans related issues, but it was difficult for my co-workers to reconcile my own mental health (as it pertained to being trans), and what I perceived to be their own sensitivities around talking about gender and sexuality. There were instances of overt discrimination that I experienced at my prior job, and that was hard for me to navigate personally and professionally (another post for another time).
I worried about my job prospects back then. What if an employer did not hire me because I was trans? My CV very openly indicated that I was. Would that set me further back to where I was?
I am beset with a fair amount of privilege, and you’ll notice during this time, I really never ended up homeless or jobless (which, unfortunately, happens too much to my trans siblings). I do worry myself over the threat of violence day to day. I carry mace around with me just in case there is some funny business around me.
I’m privileged, but that doesn’t not protect me fully. Being trans is not a walk in the park, even for someone like me who had a relatively smooth process.
Though as strong as I was for myself, I still felt lonely. Being trans, and continuing to do this life long transition meant that I needed to rebuild my support group. I found solace in doing advocacy work for the trans community.
This led me down a rabbit hole, frankly. I met a lot of people who shared the same experiences as me. But at the same time, it really provided me with perspective on oppression in the queer community. It provided me a gate way to understand oppression as a whole in all different sorts of communities.
And it provided me a way to connect with folx in these communities that I never thought was possible.
I found my chosen family this way. No regrets.
Over the past year or two, I’ve tried to develop a fighting spirit, a give no shit attitude. I’m no longer trying to hide who I am. I find myself regularly in grassroots spaces, putting myself out there in the public eye. Doing what needs to be done. Most of all, allowing myself to be vulnerable and being okay with that.
Society will never fully come to appreciate my identity, and the only way I can find reassurance is to be fully confident in myself. Flaws and all.
I’m not ashamed of who I am.
I wanted to give snapshots of my thoughts, feelings, and experiences I had while “growing up” trans. Our lives are seen so discretely, but no one ever sees the things we carry. Although many see the present me, I carry all of the things with the past with me. I carry every moment, every snap shot. There isn’t a day where I don’t.
I feel as though that I still navigate our winding society quite a bit to get seen the way that I want to be seen, but there’s nothing better than being able to live 100% authentically.
Just to reiterate, this is my story. I am fairly fortunate that I never faced joblessness, homelessness, and lack of mental and physical healthcare (for the most part). But many of my trans sibs (especially those of color) are not as lucky. My luck and fortune as a trans person means doing advocacy work and putting myself on the line is even more important. I try to remind myself that my community struggles: and it’s partly my responsibility to do what’s necessary to keep uplifting us and centering voices more important than mine.
If I had any regrets, honestly, I wish I was able to keep off the weight I lost when initially transitioned. But alas, I still fight with my own body image issues associated with how society views females.
I suppose that’s another post for another time…
Michelle Tat is a Queer-Trans Chinese-American activist living in Greater Boston. She currently is a Data Scientist working for the City of Boston, and also sits on the board for the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @tatinthehat.