On Coming Out and Being Trans

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to put into words the feelings I have about myself and why Ive come to identify as transgender.  The short version is: I am just me. But as humans we like to classify things, and because visibility of non cishet experiences is important I affix a variety of words to myself to describe my experience of being a human.

Its particularly hard to talk about the nuances of my experiences because of popular trans narratives and the need to discuss experience of gender in cishet normative language. I didn’t hate my female body. I wasn’t sure about getting top surgery. I’m not sure about HRT. I didn’t spend a lifetime hiding who I am out of fear; I simply had no idea.

The first time I remember thinking about gender at all was in second grade. We had a speaker come to class to tell us about Boy Scouting. It sounded incredibly awesome, I remember scribbling down notes on my manilla folder and excitedly talking to my parents later that day at the dinner table.  They chuckled, and said ‘oh, you can be a Girl Scout.’  I was really confused. I wanted to be a Boy Scout, I hadn’t even considered the world as a gendered place. I didn’t know what Girl Scouts was and I didn’t care; I knew I wanted to be a Boy Scout.

I grew up in a very rural place and didn’t spend time with other kids until I went to grade school. As I began socializing with other kids I started to understand gender. My attempts to play with the boys ended in being mocked, shoved away, or occasionally hit because I didn’t look like a boy.  I was entirely disinterested in playing with girls. It was more than not liking pink or cartwheels. I just didn’t feel right around girls. They felt like a foreign universe to me, something I couldn’t relate to or understand. They didn’t feel like me.

My mom often talked about the difference in her pregnancies between me and my sister. They were so different, in fact, that she said they were sure my sister was going to be a boy.  I would lay awake at night as a young child and think ‘it was me who was supposed to be the boy’ and face the horror of feeling trapped. There was nothing I could do; I had been born a girl. It was a mistake that could never be fixed.

Throughout my life I tried various things to feel comfortable with myself. A lot of the time as a kid I was a loaner, I didnt fit in at school and I simply couldn’t ‘act like a girl.’ Around 7th grade I started channeling all my energy into trumpet playing. I pursued music obsessively through high school. Instead of going to parties I would practice for hours every night. Instead of going to prom I went to All State Band.

The music obsession gave over to obsessions with fundamentalist Christianity and studying engineering in college. I was thrilled to stumble across the book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” which was popular in Evangelical circles in the early 2000s. Don’t date until you are sure you’ve met “the one.” Full of quips such as “You wouldn’t want someone making out with your future spouse, would you?” it seemed like the perfect antidote for my failed attempts at heterosexual relationships. It was a relief to have a justification for not dating. At the same time the cissexist troupes I saw at church felt abrasive and alienating to my naturally gender bending ways.

All this time I was in pain. I had lost touch with my childhood convictions that I was born wrong; what could I do about it anyway? The pain didn’t have a name or a cause. It just manifested in a constant state of frustration, distrust, and defensiveness I am still chipping away at.

At some point I realized I was running away from something. About 4 years ago I found myself switching careers on the job, doing 40hrs a week of analog circuit design work while working 1 day a week in a software team knocking the cobwebs off my coding skills and learning app development. If that wasn’t enough, I was also training 10-12 hours a week to go on a bike tour in the Dolomites, the Italian Alps, often with my long workday book-ended with workouts.

One evening, following a two hour spin class after a long work day, I found myself standing over the kitchen sink hurriedly scarfing down some pizza at 8:30 thinking “I need to eat quickly, so I can go to bed in an hour, so I can wake up at 5:15 for my next workout.” It was in that moment I thought “something is really wrong here.” Why was I packing my time so densely? For the first time in over 20 years I stopped to consider that I was self medicating with activity.

That summer, after the bike tour, I forced myself to have downtime. I stopped working out all the time. I stopped the activity. I started observing how I felt. Why was it that whenever I went on a date there was only 1 piece of clothing I felt good wearing? Why did I leave my dates with men feeling confused and occasionally sick?

I began to workout again, being careful to limit my workouts to a reasonable amount of time to cultivate a maintainable lifestyle. I rediscovered my interest in building upper body strength. I started spending time in the queer community, shocking myself as I discovered that I was good at flirting.. I just wasnt interested in cis men.

Just before my 33rd birthday I realized I was gay. How was it that I had lived 33 years and not understood such a core thing about myself?  As I mulled over this I remembered all of the masculine traits I had buried. Suddenly it all made sense; at a very young age I believed that I was made wrong, a mistake. I had learned to blame myself for not understanding dating, assuming I was unattractive physically, too masculine, and not good at being a girl enough to woo the boys. I had no idea what attraction even was. I had come to see myself as a failed heterosexual female.

At the time I had enough on my plate, dealing with coming out at an age when other queer females were already settled down with wives, children, dogs, and established friend groups. At the time I didnt consider being trans, but I also knew I wasnt a lesbian. I spent time cultivating my masculinity, which now was imbued with a certain swishiness from a lifetime of female socialization.

The grieving process has been intense. For the boyhood I never knew, for the adolescence which had only acne and angst without sexual and emotional exploration or feelings of attraction. And now the pain of undergoing a gender transition at the age of 36, within an established career, social, and familial relationships.

No where in this has been decision. I thought being gay was to find women more physically attractive than men, until I learned what attraction actually is. I thought being trans was preferring a different body to what you have on an aesthetic basis. I agonized over top surgery. Would my female body look mutilated without breasts? After a year of analyzing my body and mental state from every angle I ultimately had surgery because deep down inside, in a place I couldnt understand, I wanted to experience life without breasts. I didnt know why.  Upon the surgeon revealing my post op chest, my partner reflected back to me that I was beaming.

A few weeks later, looking at photos of my preop chest, I felt disgusted by my breasts. I practically gagged and quickly turned away.  The reaction caught me completely by surprise. I had never hated my breasts, consciously anyway. I began to understand that I couldnt control transness; it was not, as I had assumed, about how I wanted my body to look aestheticaly. It was something much deeper in my psyche, about how my mind expected my body to be in a way.

My decision to start HRT about 3 months later was spurred on both by the incredible discomfort I felt occupying ambiguously gendered space and by accepting that being transgender was something that, for me anyway, was simply a fact of who I am. My discomfort with being ambiguously gendered was rooted in my understanding of myself as a male, though it is still really odd for me to refer to myself as such.

My preop fretting about the aesthetics of my post op chest disappeared when I woke up from surgery with the awareness that “they’re gone,” and that upon realizing my breasts were gone, the physical sensation in my body had not changed. My mind had never known my breasts were there. The lifetime of discomfort with bras, slouched shoulders over my A cups, were symptomatic of a disconnect between my brain and my body.

I saw a quote recently on the internet about being trans, something along the lines of “I am a boy, but I am a boy who looked so much like a girl that I thought I was supposed to be one.”  I think that definition of transness is closest to what I feel. I dont want to be male. I am male. Im just not the kind of male the cishet normalized world expects.

When you gotta go

My manager stopped by my cubicle signifying the start of our weekly check-in meeting. As we were heading out to find a conference room he excused himself. “I keep forgetting that we cant have our one-on-ones in the men’s room,” he joked as he headed for the restroom.

The main engineering building where I did my studies was called Hitchcock Hall. It seemed a fitting name for a place so dark and dimly lit that a significant pause upon entry was required on sunny days. When the blinding darkness subsided you could continue into the foyer without risk of running into someone or tripping up the stairs. Freshman engineering students on their way to drafting and design classes passed through this windowless hall with low ceilings, flanked with portraits of mostly white male engineering professors. It was a five floor structure.

During my time in school, Hitchcock had three women’s restrooms. We heard that the building didn’t have any women’s restrooms originally, an artifact still present in floors 1-4 where freshmen engineering classes were taught. There was a women’s restroom on the far end of the first floor near career services in a newer portion of the building, and an unmarked, converted men’s room available somewhere on the second floor. A few years later I learned of a third women’s restroom in the basement. Finding women’s restrooms in old engineering buildings; a scavenger hunt!

I remember one of my freshman engineering classes quite well. It was where I learned that I was good at programming. It was a class of 60+ freshman where my friend E and I were the only female assigned people. Long beige tables set out in front of a white board where our TA occasionally scrawled things in colorful dry erase.

On the first day of class E and I sat in the second row, close enough to smell the markers. As the TA gave an overview of the course and discussed a free form design project, a voice behind us shouted out

“Can we redesign women?”

While my face was reddening a few boys laughed and I heard another fellow mutter

“Dude – theres two girls up there!”

Shaking, I turned around to face him and said

“Only if we can redesign men.”

Welcome to college, freshman female-assigned engineer.

As if these interactions were not enough of a thorn in my side I was quite ill during my freshman year, sometimes necessitating several trips to the restroom during class. Our programming lab was on the fourth floor. I was afraid to try and find the second floor unmarked women’s restroom, which was later adorned with a colorful paper sign thanks to Society of Women Engineers, so I tromped from the fourth floor to the first and back with my sore belly, sometimes several times over a ninety minute lab period. More time away from class. More steps to climb than those who used the men’s room.

Recently I was preparing to attend a networking event. Two months post top surgery, nervously figuring out what to wear to appear professional enough but not overly formal, and figuring out how to negotiate the bathroom yet again. Overweight from holiday eating and bloated from monthly happenings I carefully gauged which size cotton stick would plug me up sufficiently to make it through the meeting. One more trip to the restroom before I leave the house. I could make it without using a restroom, I told myself.

Despite carefully rationing my fluid intake during the two hour meeting I found myself needing to go. I slipped away while the talks were finishing up, hoping to avoid restroom confrontations. This is my life now, split second judgements on which restroom to use based on a tradeoff of likelihood of getting harassed or perceived a pervert, need to deal with monthly happenings, and confusion of new acquaintances seeing me in a restroom unexpectedly. The bathroom is not four floors away but it may as well be.

I’m sitting. I’m peeing red. I’m wondering if expelling gas really loud will help establish that I am In The Right Restroom. I’m pretty sure I won’t bleed through my pants for the remainder of the meeting, the networking session I absolutely need to take part in to make business connections.

I put my business face back on and return to the meeting, confidently approaching strangers with businesses similar to mine, trading advice, business cards, and making off the cuff pitches of my services. Finding the right moment to intercept introductions to clarify that my pronouns are he and him, watching faces begin confused and shift to “ohhh… got it.” Today I am lucky; most of those moments end in affirmation, if slightly bewildered. I’m pretty sure I’m not yet bleeding through my pants. I return home clutching business cards and scribbled notes, totally exhausted but too anxious to take a nap.

I wonder what my old manager would say if we run into each other in the men’s room.