Rooms Within Rooms
On Transitioning During A Pandemic
Denver, Colorado doesn’t have the largest queer community in the world, but we do our best. There’s a handful of gay bars, a mid-tier pride parade, and some semblance of a “gayborhood” in Cap Hill that’s trying to hang on in the face of gentrification.
Tracks, a gay nightclub, is one of Denver’s long-standing queer institutions. Its website calls it “Denver’s premiere GLBT Dance Club,” and the ordering of those letters does a good job of telegraphing how Tracks (and most queer clubs, quite frankly) cater predominantly to gay men. But on the first Friday of every month, Tracks holds Ladies Night. It’s billed as the largest monthly women’s party in the US, and for all I know it actually is. All this proclamation really does is ensure that the atmosphere inside the club reaches something of a gender parity between cis gay men and everybody else, but that’s still a feat.
Most of my queer Denver friends have been attending First Friday for years, and Emma started joining them as soon as we moved here. I did not. As much as Emma tried to convince me that it was just a fun dance party, I always had an excuse lined up. I didn’t do well with loud noises. I didn’t like crowds. I didn’t like dancing. It wasn’t “for me.” I didn’t want to stay up late. I didn’t want to spend $20 on a watery cocktail. I had to work early the next morning. I didn’t belong. I didn’t belong. I didn’t belong.
When I finally started transitioning, I began fantasizing about dressing as myself and proudly walking into Tracks on First Friday. I’d be wearing a dress and make up. The crowds and lights and sounds wouldn’t bother me. And even though I never went dancing once during my twenties or early thirties, never even stepped into a nightclub…well, it wasn’t too late for me, was it?
But that first year of transition was tough. Even after I came out to my partner and most of my friends, I was still terrified of dressing in women’s clothing. The last time I’d done it was when I was 12 or 13 years old, trying on my mom’s clothes in front of the full-length mirror in her bedroom. I’d gotten so much larger since then. What if I put on a dress and didn’t see a girl looking back at me in the mirror? What if I just saw a man in a dress? As long as I didn’t actually put the clothes on, I could quell my dysphoria by telling myself that I wasn’t trying my hardest yet. But once I actually tried my best to present femme, that was it. That was what I was stuck with, forever and ever and ever. I didn’t know if I could live with the answer.
Two months into HRT, I finally summoned up the courage to dress as myself. Those first few moments looking at myself in the mirror were as emotional as I thought they’d be, complete with incredible euphoria and hopeless crying jags. The first few times I dressed as myself in public were even harder, and getting misgendered hurt just as much as I’d feared.
But as I started getting used to living as myself, a funny thing happened: my social anxiety began to erode. If it was at a constant 8/10 before transition, it could dip as low as a 2/10 for hours at a time now. I could slip into large groups of friends and just…exist as myself for a whole evening. I had no idea just how much I had been suffering until someone turned down the dial on my anxiety.
It was finally time to go to Tracks. I brought my favorite dress over to my friends’ house, got changed, and had Meagan do my make-up. I looked cute. I felt cute. I felt light, even — lighter than I’d felt all month. I took a low-dose edible, stood in line, checked my purse and coat, and made my way to the dance floor.
The back room was playing nineties and early-aughts hits at a slightly less-than-deafening volume for us Olds, which was just fine for me. After getting a $20 cocktail, I just…started moving my body to the music. I’m sure I looked silly — I was still a 34-year-old trans lady who had never really danced before, after all — but for once, I didn’t care. There were large swaths of time that evening when I wasn’t trapped inside my own head, constantly dwelling on the past and future. I felt embodied. Whole. Alive. I wanted to come back the next month, and the month after that, and the month after that. I couldn’t believe I’d spent a lifetime apart from that feeling of freedom and euphoria.
It was March 6th, 2020, and I had finally arrived.
The 2015 film Room (spoilers for Room in the next few paragraphs) is about a young woman, Joy, who is kidnapped and forced to live in a converted garden shed for seven years. She gives birth to a son, Jack, who turns five at the start of the film. He has never known life outside the film’s titular room. To him, the entire world exists within those four walls.
The film would work well as a thriller if it climaxed with mother and son escaping from the room, but it is made so much better by dispensing with all the action by the halfway point. A full hour of the film’s two-hour runtime involves Jack and his mother trying to engage with the world after seven years away (in Joy’s case) or a lifetime away (in Jack’s). It’s about trying to recover from the trauma of spending years of your life locked in survival mode.
Watching the film in 2020, it’s hard not to wonder how Joy and Jack would have reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Assuming the events of the film were roughly concurrent to the film’s release, they would have had about five years of freedom before the pandemic lockdowns began. Would they have adapted quicker, knowing how to pace themselves for the relentless and anxious monotony of quarantine? Or would they have immediately been hit with a wave of PTSD, unsure how to act as the wider world began to play out a rhyming version of their very specific trauma?
There are many ways to interpret Room, and I expect that it resonates with different trauma survivors in different ways. Because I’m me, though, I’ve been thinking about it through the lens of transition. Specifically, the lens of someone who spent a decent portion of her life in denial about her gender identity. I spent thirty years trapped inside myself, believing that the walls of my mental closet were as far as my mind could reach. Much like Jack assumed that the world outside his room was made up for TV, I assumed that most other people experienced the world more or less like I did. I had no idea that joy could feel as light and bubbly as it does, or that crying could feel so cathartic. I had no idea how wonderful it felt to actually be seen as myself, nor how much energy I was expending in my failed attempts to self-actualize.
Transitioning allowed me to fling the doors open and embrace the wider world — a world that I didn’t even know existed. It was safe inside my closet, and it felt like I could have stayed there forever. Escaping took every ounce of energy I had, including a burst of strength that I didn’t even know I possessed. The fact that I’m here at all feels like a fucking miracle. Everything that happened to me between the start of puberty and the start of HRT now feels like the memory of some other person who lived some other life.
And yet, so many trans narratives end at that moment of self-acceptance. We get that moment when the doors fling open, and then it’s happily ever after. The reality of the situation is a lot messier. A friend of mine once described the second year of transition as trying to restore a house after a major flood. Transitioning allows the flood waters to recede. You can’t really do anything to fix your house until the water is gone, but there’s usually a lot of other damage hiding beneath the waves. Fixing all of that can take years.
One piece of damage I’m processing a lot right now is what The Gender Dysphoria Bible calls “existential dysphoria.” Existential dysphoria is the pain of realizing that there are some experiences that you will never get to have because you didn’t begin living as your true self until later in life. I’m never going to get to go to prom as myself. I’ll never have that that true childhood girl BFF. My father, who passed in 2013, will never get to meet me as Cassie.
There is no real solution to existential dysphoria. You can re-enact some of these things, or role-play them in various ways, but the best thing you can do is be thankful for the time you do have as yourself and attempt to live your life as richly and completely as possible. Historically, many trans women didn’t self-accept until old age, if at all. If you’re transitioning in your thirties, like me, you’re still ahead of the curve in many ways. This plea from a trans woman who didn’t self-accept until after receiving a terminal diagnosis really put a lot in perspective for me. I try to be grateful for every day I have as myself.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has really made my “live life as richly and completely as possible” plan collapse into sand. In case the date wasn’t a giveaway, the one time I got to go dancing as myself was about two weeks before the world shut down. It was my last chance. I just barely made it. If I’d come out two weeks later, I might not have gotten to go at all.
It has been almost exactly a year since that day. A lost, hellish year of anxiety and isolation. Everybody in the world has felt this pain, and nobody I know is doing okay right now. It still feels especially cruel and personal that the world slammed shut right as I finally began living as myself.
It’s uncanny how well the circumstances of quarantine mirror my pre-acceptance life. I had crippling anxiety attacks in crowds before, and now there’s good reason to fear being in a large group of people. All the fun places I used to avoid attending due to social anxiety — clubs, amusement parks, loud bars — are closed, or should be. I used to wear clothing that hid my appearance as much as possible, and now we all don masks. Dysphoria made it difficult to spend more than a few hours in social situations before needing to return to my room, lock the door, and re-charge. Now I barely leave my room at all.
Our lack of ability to predict the future of the pandemic feels familiar, too. We’re all waiting for some nebulous “end” to social distancing that may come next month or next year or not at all, and all we can do in the meantime is stay indoors and hope things get better. But I did this exact thing with my own life for 33 years, and it nearly killed me. It’s so hard for me to explain to my subconscious that sitting back and waiting for the curve to bend is actually the right thing to do this time.
“I’m backsliding,” I kept telling my therapist last spring, the words barely squeaking out of my lips between long sobbing jags. “I’m scared all the time. I’m so fucking alone. I’m hiding myself. I’m drowning in worry. I’m right back where I used to be.”
“You’re just responding rationally to the pandemic,” they kept assuring me. “I can see all the ways in which you’re still growing and improving. Trust me, I can.”
But I couldn’t see it. As the world struggled to fight an unknown deadly virus, my anxiety ratcheted back up to extreme levels. Forget going to a nightclub and feeling free; I couldn’t even make a run to Target without breaking down into panicked sobs.
My relationship, which had improved considerably after I started transitioning, began to devolve again. I used to be a controlling person, in large part because I was constantly struggling to manage my dysphoria without even knowing what it was. Now, in the face of the virus, I fell back into old toxic patterns. I became obsessive about mask-wearing, sanitizing everything, and limiting the amount of time we spent out of the apartment. Whenever Emma’s risk tolerance eclipsed mine, even by a little, I had to work really hard to avoid having a full-on panic attack. I didn’t always succeed.
Part of the problem is that COVID-19 feels like some cosmic signal that I am not allowed to ever be happy; that I don’t get to exist in the world as Cassie. I know a disease that has killed half a million people in this country alone is not aimed directly at me — I’m not that deluded — but the fact that COVID hit right as I finally started living my life feels incredibly cruel. I can’t help but take it as a warning: if I break out of my room, the world will force me right back in.
COVID-19 also plays into my fear of dying young. This is one of those uncanny fears that I’ve had my whole life, and I’m always surprised at how many other trans people have always felt the exact same way. I spent the entire first half of 2020 feeling certain that COVID would kill me if I caught it, even though I’m young enough that I’ll probably be fine. Doesn’t matter, There’s a voice inside my head that tells me it is a death sentence, and shutting that voice down is really hard for me. It feels like COVID is going to be my punishment for transgressing the bounds of my gender and daring to live.
My story isn’t universal, though, the pandemic seems to have been really well-timed for many trans people. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have self-accepted in 2020, in large part because of social distancing. When I was in the closet, I was constantly doing what I could to outrun the intrusive thoughts that kept telling me to take a deeper look at my gender. That’s a lot harder to do when you’re stuck in a room by yourself for months at a time, with nothing to do but think. The drip-drip-drip keeps getting louder, and louder, and louder still.
It’s also a lot easier to question your gender when you’re not constantly being perceived as the incorrect gender by people in the wider world. If you go through life hearing people call you “dude” and “sir” thirty times a day, you’re probably going to assume that you are, in fact, a sir and a dude. Online, however, you can be anyone you want. You can even be yourself.
I’ve heard some older (in terms of transition years) trans women express regret that their lost pandemic year wasn’t also their first year of transition. That first year can be fairly painful — HRT takes time to feminize your features, and it takes time to learn clothing and make-up, so misgendering can be rampant that first year. The fantasy of getting the messiest business of transitioning out of the way in secret and then emerging into the light as a beautiful butterfly is appealing.
I hope some people get to live that dream, but it hasn’t been my experience. For one thing, I got a lot of the messier bits of transition out of the way before the pandemic, and the year I lost was going to be my first year living full-time as myself. Even though transition is a long process, it felt like I was finally about to start running downhill when COVID hit.
I also had to put a lot of my transition on hold when the pandemic started. I have yet to finish laser hair removal, for one thing, because I haven’t felt safe going back to my laser tech since last February. Facial hair is my biggest dysphoria trigger, and the fact that I’ve had to suffer with it for the past year has been hell. I’ve also had to put off professional voice training and changing my legal name because I’ve been unable to find someone willing to help me with either without having in-person meetings.
The pandemic has also kept me from getting a realistic sense of how often people in the wider world will gender me properly. Because I so rarely interact with people outside my tiny bubble, every misgendering feels like a knife to the gut. “What if everyone just sees me as a man and will only ever see me as a man?” is still a fear of mine, and it’s hard to shake that if I’m misgendered by the only stranger who dares gender me at all that week.
But most of the newly-out trans people I know consider 2020 to be the best year of their life, despite the pandemic. I’m not sure I’d go that far — 2019 wins that honor for me, by default — but I get it. As hellish as this past year has been, the pain of not being yourself is so acute. Freeing yourself from that burden is an unfathomable relief, and it can dwarf even the pain brought on by isolation, anxiety, and grief.
2020 has also finally given me trans community. The little online transfemme group I joined in 2019 responded to the pandemic by becoming more active. We now have weekly Zoom calls that sometimes go deep into the night, a bevy of inside jokes, and a place to vent our sadness and frustration with other people who get it. I consider many of the women in that group among my very best friends in the world, and I barely knew most of them in 2019. If COVID hadn’t hit, we might have all been ships in the night.
I want to end this article on an optimistic note, but the truth is that 2020 was really just another year stolen from me. Another year trapped inside a room, away from the world. It was better than most of my previous trapped years because I got to be myself this time, but it was still another year stolen. There is no getting around that. No nice metaphor that makes it all okay.
It could have been far worse, though. Last April, I was browsing Reddit when I came across a young trans girl named Marissa whose COVID-19 case hit her like a ton of bricks and kept getting worse. She’d only just started transitioning, and here she was, staring death directly in the face. I read her updates through bloodshot eyes, finally breaking down when someone in her family posted that she’d been put on a ventilator. This was back when most people never came off the breathing tubes, and I feared the worst. Marissa was literally experiencing my worst nightmare. She’d finally figured out who she was, and it looked like that was as far as she’d ever get.
Two weeks later, Marissa’s family posted that she was off the ventilator and doing well. I don’t know what happened after that — her account has since been deleted — but I still think about her a lot. I hope she’s living her life. I hope she’s okay. I hope she gets to experience everything she’s ever wanted.
Eventually, all trans people do the math to see how long they’ll have to live before they’ll have spent more than half their lives as themselves. For people who self-accept in their teens, it’s a fairly trivial calculation. For people who come out late in life, it’s a sobering impossibility. For those of us who came out near middle age, it’s a dream and a promise.
I have to make it to 66. That’s not too old, I guess, though my father died at 65. If I want my escape to come at the midpoint of my own narrative, I will have to outlive him.
I’m going to do my best, even though I know it’s not up to me. I freed myself from the room I spent most of my life trying to escape, and now I just have to live as best I can in the world I inhabit. Whether I live for seven more years or seventy more, whether the pandemic ends this year or not, all I can do is engage with life as much as I can. That’s all any of us can do, ultimately. We live, and we hope, and we live some more.