Every Step, A Step Closer

Reflecting on the inexorability of my gender transition

March 2, 2020

A sequence of photos showing Tess at several key points in her transition.
A sequence of photos showing Tess at several key points in her transition.
Left to right: November 2016, a day before being hospitalized for pancreatitis; July 2018, the day my father died; March 2019, a few days after admitting that I was transitioning; July 2019, the first day of hormone replacement therapy; November 2019, four months on hormones; February 2020, seven months on hormones.

Spend enough time around trans people and eventually you will get the story of their “awakening” to their gender identity. For some it’s a persistent knowledge that they assert when they are young, insisting upon their correct gender consistently until caregivers take notice. For others, it’s a revelation! Some alignment of circumstances where a life lived out of focus suddenly becomes crystal clear. For me, it was more diffuse. My transness was always there, lurking just beneath the surface. It lay dormant, at first because I didn’t know how to explain myself, and later because I was afraid of what I’d lose if I faced the truth. The circumstances around my “awakening” are entangled with so many intersecting traumas, coincidences, and moments of realignment that I’ve hesitated to try and lay them out in detail. I don’t have a great memory for details, but one thing is clear: it started with my wife driving me to the hospital.

It was November 7th 2016, and we were waiting to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s assumed victory in the US presidential election. I was feeling sick to my stomach, but I chalked it up to anxiety about the state of the vote. I’d been on a keto diet for about 5 months, after getting thoroughly burned out on trying and failing to manage my diabetes with the meds that my general practitioner had prescribed. I was in deep denial about the extent to which my disease had progressed, and my relationship to my doctor was antagonistic at best. I’d been experiencing a stabbing pain in my side for a few weeks, but had chalked it up to being out of shape. Around bedtime I started to throw up — first my dinner, then a glass of water, then the anti-nausea medication I had taken, then another glass of water. Now my stomach was in agony. We bundled our bleary 16 month old daughter into the car seat, and rushed to the hospital. In the emergency room I was given a diagnosis — acute pancreatitis, brought on by severe ketoacidosis.

There is pain, and then there is Pain. The pancreas secretes an enzyme called lipase, which spikes when the organ is inflamed. A healthy pancreas releases approximately 50 units per liter. An unhealthy pancreas produces more. At around 120 U/L the pain is brutal. I don’t like to brag or anything, but my tests came back at over 400 U/L, which is the point where they stop measuring.

I guess, the point is: I had fucked up. And I was paying for it.

When I was admitted, it was unclear if I’d ever be walking out of that building again. The ER doctors told me they had no medicine for pancreatitis — they just hook you up to an IV, pump you full of fluids and painkillers and wait to see whether your organs recover. I was fortunate. My pancreas stopped its death spiral and returned to normal. I got to go home.

There was one especially scary moment on the first night I was in the ER, before I was moved to my own room. The staff had hooked me up to a wide array of monitoring equipment: heart rate monitors, blood oxygen levels, respiration, temperature, and some others I didn’t recognize. They had pumped me full of morphine, which wasn’t even taking the edge off of the pain. But, once my IV was run, there was nothing more for them to do aside from monitor me and wait. I was allowed to keep my phone, although I was too loopy to do much with it. Early in the morning a text came through from my wife, who had taken our daughter back home to sleep. “They’re calling the election: Donald Trump has won.”

Do you remember that sinking feeling you had when you first heard that news? I can quantify mine. Every single monitor connected to my body registered the shock and despair. A nurse came running in.

“What is going on?! You’re dying!” he said in a panic. I told him I was just upset by the election results and he looked at me like I was crazy. “No, seriously: you’re dying. You need to calm down.” He increased my morphine dose, and calm down I did.

I entered the hospital thinking the world worked one way and exited a week later to a much darker future where bigotry, racism, and misogyny had ascended to the highest office in the land. I felt like reality had fractured. In one timeline, I had died in that hospital bed, and history had proceeded the way it was meant to. In the other timeline — this timeline — things went off the rails. In this reality we got a narcissistic reality TV host as president, and an emboldened neo-fascist movement waving torches and screaming anti-Semitic slogans. It felt like I was being punished to be forced to live in this timeline.

This was the turning point in my life. I knew I had to change things, or I would die. I had to figure out how to care for myself. But how do you care for a body that feels like a shell? How do you heal yourself physically when your soul is so disconnected?

I was trans, but I hadn’t completely admitted it to myself. I believed that my dissatisfaction with being a man was something I couldn’t do anything about. But, coming out of the hospital I was consumed by a regret that I couldn’t completely put into words. Had I missed my chance? My life felt shortened, shortening, finite in a more concrete sense.

My wife and I had a conversation where I tried to explain my growing desire to do something about my gender. I’d kept so many of my gender feels in the background for so long. I told her I wanted to change this, but wasn’t sure how. I think at some level she knew this was coming. For most of our marriage, my “gender stuff” was kept safely out of sight from everyone else, but never from her. I resolved to start making some changes. It felt urgent all of a sudden. Even as trans people were becoming more visible, their rights were also increasingly being threatened by the new political reality in the United States. A part of me felt ashamed that I was willing and able to continue to benefit from the straight, cis, male privilege that I received, even as people who were like me were putting everything on the line in order to live as themselves. I wasn’t straight. I wasn’t cis. And I wasn’t male. I felt like a coward for allowing people to believe that I was for so long. And I felt like an imposter for having things that I needed to say about gender identity, while not wanting to be seen as a straight, cis, guy taking up space in the conversation. What right do I have to call myself trans, I thought, if I’m afraid to risk my safety and comfort for it?

It was right about this time that my father was diagnosed with cancer. He put a brave face on it, but it still frightened us all. It felt selfish and unfair of me to put our family through any more turmoil than we were already experiencing, especially when I didn’t know what I wanted, or who I was. And so, I tried my best to put my newly expressed desire to explore my gender on hold. My hospital visit had scared everyone enough. Our family conversations shifted to be more focused on health: mine, and my dad’s. He was researching his disease, consulting with doctors, and embarking upon surgeries and treatments with the humor and irreverence he brought to everything, but we all knew that our time might be limited.

I resolved to fix my increasingly broken body. It was clear to me that no doctor would care as much about my health as I did, but that my old doctor had been actively undermining my ability to care for myself. So, I found a new doctor and a new endocrinologist. I became my own advocate and insisted that I be given access to new technologies that I knew would help me manage my blood sugar. I spent two years learning how to live as a cyborg, and slowly got a handle on my disease. I lost a crazy amount of weight coming out of the hospital, mostly muscle mass, and then gained it all back and more thanks to the insulin I was dependent upon. But I was in control for the first time. Diabetes stopped being a phantom that haunted me at all times. I found real sustainable strategies, and could feel myself daring to imagine living another couple of decades. As that horizon receded back into the distance I tried to be a better father, husband, academic advisor, and son. So many people depended on me. I didn’t want to let them down.

But my wife and I started talking more often about my gender presentation. I had resolved to try and wait before making any overt changes but waiting was getting increasingly difficult. Some part of me that had been in stasis for a long time was growing again, in the background. I started an Amazon wish list of clothes I wanted to wear someday and channeled all of my desire to change into imagining cute outfits for myself. I was able to pretend that I was okay for a few years.

In July of 2018, my father died. The last bit of resolve that I’d maintained to not transition died with him.

I want to be very clear about something that I’ve not said to many people. I know that my dad would have loved, accepted, and supported me through this transition. He may not have understood it. Knowing him, he probably would have teased me a fair amount about it. But he would have had my back, no matter what. I didn’t wait out of fear of him. I waited because I didn’t want his last years to be focused on my transition, when he had his own transition to attend to. I regret that time and illness and circumstance kept him from ever knowing that he had a second daughter. I regret not knowing myself well enough to share this with him years ago. But I don’t regret the last few years we had together.

After Dad died, I spent 6 months in shock. Life went on autopilot for a bit, and I executed my responsibilities to the best of my (limited) ability. Slowly but surely I started to emerge from the cloud, and start thinking about my future.

Suddenly transition was everywhere in my life: a close colleague and friend changed their name. Another friend confided in my that they were questioning their gender. I reconnected with a dear friend from college who was out as nonbinary and using male pronouns on social media. A trans colleague had started doing work on a new social network for trans people to document their transitions, and I couldn’t resist joining. I started cautiously sounding out the trans people in my life about their experiences. How had they decided to transition? What was their threshold for considering themselves trans?

For the first time in years, I broke a self-imposed fast, and started to look up other people’s transitions online. I craved these images of the possibility space of transition. There’s something magical about “transition timelines” if you look at the person’s eyes. They go from dead, still, desperate, and empty to sparkling, happy, and full of life and hope. It’s like watching someone’s soul flame fanned from a dying smoulder to a blaze. At the same time, for many trans people transition timelines can be painful and difficult to watch, because they can provoke such intense feelings of envy and despair. I scoured the web, desperate to find trans people who looked like me. Who were overweight, or middle aged, with weird Jewish noses, and faces that looked like they were sculpted from squishy clay. What might it look like if I were to transition? Was it even possible?

In February of 2019 I met up with an old crush from college who was out as trans and non-binary, and we talked for hours. I confided in him one of my greatest shames and fears: that I was too old and ugly to ever be happy with transitioning. That I didn’t think I’d ever be able to be anything other than the broken, disabled, overweight, middle-aged man that everyone saw when they looked at me. He told me that he thought I actually had some really pretty features hiding under my beard. I think it was the first time anyone had told me that they thought I was (or could be) pretty.

On March 2nd, 2019 I wrote the words “I am transitioning” for the first time. It was the first time I’d admitted it, even to myself. In a post that only a few strangers ever saw, I wrote:

“Thinking a lot about being nonbinary and transitioning. For most of my life I’ve been unwilling to lay claim to a trans identity because I’ve been afraid to take the leap and “transition”. At some level, the idea of transitioning seemed to me to be about the destination: a female body, but one that (due to the limitations of medicine) wouldn’t feel complete, or authentic, or “real”. I’ve been dysphoric and dissatisfied with my options for my whole life. What do you do when you don’t like being a boy, but despair of being a “proper” girl? I want(ed) a magic wand, a new gene therapy, a science-fictional super-technology that could properly give me a body that I wouldn’t hate. Absent a perfect magical transformation I resigned myself to the three “D’s” that increasingly characterized my experience of my own body: Dysphoria, Disability, and Diabetes. I’ve always admired and envied the trans folks I’ve known who have transitioned. But no matter how much I’ve loathed my body, transitioning has always remained beyond me: a destination I could imagine but never visit.

Why did I fall prey to this idea that one must be transitioning “into” or “towards” another binary destination? Was it the logics of gendered language? What do you do when the idea of transforming is more potent than the idea of having been transformed?

I feel like I should have known better. Been better at this.

Y’all: I’ve been queer for almost 40 years.

I’ve been active in queer communities, surrounded by other queer folks, and involved in extended conversations about gender and queerness for over 20 of those years. And yet, it’s only been in the last 6 or 7 years that the language for nonbinary gender identity has happened, to me, and to the communities I inhabit. I gather that youths these days have been on this train for longer than I have. I feel late to this party, and it grinds my gears something fierce, because this is the LANGUAGE I’ve needed my whole life.

Enby. Eeeeenbeeeeeeey.

I savor those syllables. The word-nee-acronym is like a little firework of joy fizzing around inside me. Enby. It is champagne bubbles rising up from my toes to pop pop pop out the top of my head. Or — given how long it’s taken me to catch up with this language — it’s like being slowly covered in golden glistening honey. Enby: the concept into which my alphabet soup waveform of [gender-queer, poly-gendered, post-gendered, performative gender, trans-gendered, cross-dresser, drag-queen] slowly collapsed. It’s been a slow-motion revelation. Enby: where were you when I was a baby-queer, sneaking in chances to wear women’s clothes, and writing out magic transformation rituals for myself? Enby isn’t just a word: it’s the identity that I needed a word to describe.

Enby isn’t a “destination” for me. It’s a process. There isn’t a moment when I might say “There, now I’m done!” The enby fitness function isn’t “passing”. This isn’t a game with a victory condition. It isn’t expensive treatments, surgeries, medications, and permanent physiological modifications (although it isn’t necessarily NOT those things either). For me, enby is the shedding of the shackles, the lifting of the veil, and the freeing of the restrictions (both those that I imposed upon myself and those that we all negotiate as humans in a world with highly prescribed gender expectations). And most importantly, it’s the framework I’ve craved: the conceptual underpinnings needed to be transitioning without a fixed destination.

So now I’m capital-T-Transitioning. I’m Transitioning away from one point on the spectrum of gender possibility, but I am no longer in search of another point on that spectrum. I’m Transitioning because being in transition is more genuinely me than standing still. Not into or towards but within.”

That was when it became real.

I started transitioning by giving myself permission to change, but to do so without some feminine ideal “end goal” in mind. To try and discover who I might be when I stopped trying to be a man.

I started to make small changes to my appearance, and slowly started to ease people into seeing me as less masculine (although, I’ve seen video of myself speaking in public — I wasn’t fooling anyone except myself!) I had no expectation that these little changes to my appearance would change how I understood myself.

And then magic happened.

Under the guise of a halloween costume (Steampunk Elsa, for those who are curious) I had dyed my hair purple and got it cut into the most cliched non-binary haircut possible, complete with shaved sides and back, and floppy asymmetrical top.

I started to grow out my hair.

I added flamboyant scarves into my wardrobe.

I took out the masculine earrings I’d worn for years and replaced them with dangly earrings that my wife never wore because they were too big and gaudy.

And I shaved…everywhere. I kept my “denial beard”.

I was still afraid to ask for new pronouns, or even to consider changing my name.

But each of these little changes made me feel surprisingly good

In June of 2019 I started a “transition filter” on Facebook where I could work through this with a small group of trans and queer friends, and close family.

I started wearing skirts in the evening… they were my comfort clothes, in the same way that some people change into sweatpants after a long day at the office. Soon the skirts were de riguer on weekends as well.

I ran into some students of mine at a comic shop while in a skirt early into the process. I felt super awkward and transgressive.

At an academic conference later in June I chose to try being more out in my clothing choices — I didn’t bring any pants with me, but instead only brought skirts and men’s button-down shirts. I took advantage of being in San Diego to go thrifting and bought my first women’s tops, and my first dress, since before college.

I also took the risk of declaring my pronouns on my conference badge. I wanted she/her, but felt too much imposter syndrome over it, so I also took a they/them sticker. But I spent the conference seeking out and spending time with the other trans and queer folks who were there. For the first time in my professional life, I’d set aside my “passing privilege”, only to discover that there were genuine human connections waiting for me on the other side of it.

I think that was the tipping point for me. Being “out” in my professional community, and feeling infinitely better about myself, and realizing that transitioning wouldn’t necessarily mean sacrificing my standing and reputation in my field.

In parallel with this I started talking to my endocrinologist about hormones and was slowly working through the layers of gatekeeping around medical transition that my insurance provider maintained.

I came out to my mother as nonbinary, assuring her that I wasn’t “planning to go full time as a woman, just exploring a less masculine way of being in the world.” I was sure that I was telling the truth. She was incredible — accepting, supportive, and validating in a way that all parents of trans children should be.

I told my close friends that I was nonbinary, but that I’d probably never shave my beard off.

With each little change to my life I felt a little bit better

On July 1st I met with a gender therapist and started the process of getting access to hormones. That day I went home and shaved off the beard.

I came out to my in-laws in an email that I know was hard for them to understand. I worked to accept where they were, relieved that they weren’t going to simply cut us out of their lives.

I tried and discarded over a dozen new names before one stuck. Even then, I had the nickname — Tess Tanenbaum — but I didn’t know what Tess was short for.

I met with my department chair and told him I was transitioning. I warned him that I was thinking about hormones, and that my moods might be a bit volatile this year.

I came out on Facebook to my entire network on the 4th of July and was overwhelmed by the support and love!

I started feminizing hormones on July 19th, right in the middle of San Diego Comic Con. Almost exactly one year to the day after my father passed away.

So many little steps, each one feeling so much better than what had come before

Growing and dying my hair, doing my nails, wearing femme clothes, shaving off unwanted hair, putting on makeup, all of it — it all just made me a happier and healthier person.

Each baby step towards femininity lightened a burden I’d carried for so long that I’d stopped feeling it. I almost wept with relief the first time someone used my correct pronouns. The day I scheduled my appointment to discuss hormones with an endocrinologist I cried like a baby to finally be on this journey. I didn’t think that transitioning could fill that void that had grown inside of me my whole life. I didn’t realize it was possible to live without that pain inside. Somewhere in the last year I finally was able to accept that yes I am Trans enough to transition, damn it! And somewhere along the line I started to acknowledge something that should have been clear to me at the start — that I was a transgender woman.

I didn’t decide to be trans, but transitioning was a decision I made. It is a choice I am always making, to live a better version of my life, or at least a version of my life where I don’t have to pretend to be a boy or a man anymore. In so many ways I’ve just been following the gender euphoria — the things that make me feel more like me, and more like a complete person, without trying to designate a specific outcome to be attached to.

In transitioning I gave myself permission to stop playing at being a man. The last year of transitioning has made me (I hope) a better spouse, partner, and parent. I am healthier than I’ve ever been. I can see a future stretching before me that I’m able to get excited about. The hormones have helped to correct the ways in which testosterone poisoned my body for so long. They make it easier for people to see who I really am, but they aren’t necessary. They aren’t what makes me a woman. Being a woman is what makes me a woman.

And interestingly, by letting go of my fear that I’d never be able to feel pretty, I’ve found within myself the capacity to feel beautiful. As I write this I have just returned from a short trip to the east coast for work. It was my first time leaving California since starting my transition, and I was incredibly anxious about traveling alone, about airport security, about interacting with so many strangers. It’s been a little more than 7 months since starting hormones — I’m at the very beginning of this journey. But something happened on this trip that I didn’t expect: I moved through the world as a woman without being questioned, or challenged, or misgendered. I got to be me, without feeling like I had to fight everyone around me for that right.

And again, with each step I came closer to myself.

I smiled at strangers and strangers smiled back at me.

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Leaving for the airport
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Bundled up for the cold

Read more here:

Part 1: Trans Girl Magic

Part 2: How to talk about “Tess”

Part 3: What’s in a (dead) Name?

Part 4: Rail (poem and post)

Part 5: A lifetime of coming out

Part 6: A conspiracy theory (poem)

Part 7: On Authenticity and Artifice (poem)

Part 8: Not Getting Any Younger (poem)

Part 9: Every Step, A Step Closer

Empowered Trans Woman

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Theresa Jean Tanenbaum

Written by

Digital storyteller, feminist witch, reality blender, pervasive theater artist, steampunk, identity scholar, ADHD, poly & queer, trans woman, she/her

Empowered Trans Woman

Highlighting the experience of women of trans experience. Transition, Womanhood, Feminism, Intersectionality, Transphobia, Marginalization and Assimilation, and more.

Theresa Jean Tanenbaum

Written by

Digital storyteller, feminist witch, reality blender, pervasive theater artist, steampunk, identity scholar, ADHD, poly & queer, trans woman, she/her

Empowered Trans Woman

Highlighting the experience of women of trans experience. Transition, Womanhood, Feminism, Intersectionality, Transphobia, Marginalization and Assimilation, and more.

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