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.

The Bathroom Chronicles, by IP Freely (or not, as the case may be)

I drew some comics, extremely badly, a few months ago. They seem appropriate to share given the current political climate in both the straight and the queer world as it relates to bathroom use.

As a person with female anatomy learning to use the mens room has been and remains a terrifying experience. I do not read as male, what would be called “passing.” I do not possess the proper anatomy to make use of a urinal, the pee vessel of choice in the men’s room.  As a female bodied person I am unable to defend myself against a male bodied attacker in the restroom. At present, I read as female nearly all the time. As such, my likelihood of being raped is 1 in 5

As a trans masculine person in the women’s restroom I face constant harassment and occasional intervention by mall cop types to prevent me from peeing. Trans masc people have been drug out of the bathroom with their pants down while trying to pee. When I travel, due to my fear of the mens room, I am often waiting in line for the ladies room at airports. I am on high alert waiting for a burly midwestern husband-father to drag me out of line and make a scene, as if I am some kind of pervert trying to pee with his wife and female children.

The fact is, bathrooms are problems for everyone who is not cis normative. Period.

In the queer community, however, the experiences of trans men are erased, downplayed, or assumed to be that of cis-passing trans men. I am told that I am of the men of the world and the queer community “doesnt have time” to highlight or support me in my struggles. The constant refrain of “life is harder for…” and “not all men” is used to silence my experiences.

Don’t believe me? Read this public Facebook post and the comments. Its too triggering for me to read it again, I already spent 2 days with a headache, anxiety attacks, and an hour long conversation with my therapist as a result of the anti transmasc hatred spewed by the queer community in this thread and subsequent reposts of it in various (supposed) trans masculine inclusive groups.

But, its a beautiful day. I have a business to run. And tomorrow I’m running away to a tulip farm and a waterfall hike with my beloved. This headache is really persistent, though.

So, after much pretense, here is my terrible comic about my (sanitized (hah!)) experiences in the restroom and what I go through just to take a wiz.

adventures in peeing

My experiences trying to pee as a transmasc person

No place like (no) home

From the outside you may think the LGBTQIQQAZX! community is one big rolling pride parade – leather daddies walking arm in arm with lesbian moms singing kum bai ya with gendervariant folks of all types perpetually covered in glitter. A shining spectacle of acceptance visible from space and blinding astronauts with the glare of a trillion sequins.

Well. Its not exactly like that.

Another thing you may not know – I really hate being queer. A lot.

These are related. Let me explain.

Since I was very small, kindergarten aged or younger, I had a feeling that I was born wrong. Something terrible had happened and I should have been a boy. I would lay awake at night and think about it. These thoughts would lead to others, like ‘well, why wasn’t I born a rabbit? what is consciousness?’ It was pretty easy for me to detach and ask these questions since I didn’t feel particularly attached to my earthly manifestation.

Fast forward MANY years, and here we are in the middle of alphabet soup. Its ok now, right? Its ok – you can be a real boy! Well, kind of. I mean, you missed out on an entire childhood, upbringing, socialization, friendships, networking, and career opportunities you would have had if you were born a boy but don’t worry, the minute you change your name and turn yourself into a testosterone pin cushion you will magically have Male Privilege™ and the queer community will hate you.

Wait, what? I thought queer was home for people like me? A space for me to get support as an Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB) person who lived in the world as a female for my entire adult life. Ive been a woman in tech. Ive experienced men not taking me seriously, staring at my (former!) breasts while discussing business, not getting promoted, having my medical concerns ignored.

Now Im trying to figure how the hell to operate in a world Ive never experienced. Asking my cismale friends what the bathroom rules are. Being afraid Ill be raped in the mens room should someone discover I’m trans and decide to show me what a “real man” is like, as has been done to many of those who walked this path before me. Having no clue what the social ‘rules’ are with men, how to be heard as a man among other men (apparently talk louder than the other mens? Unsure).

No, the answer is no. There is no support for me among ‘queers’ and neither is there any in the cishet (cisgendered, heterosexual) world.

I am currently a women owned small business, a designation I received last year based on the gender marker on my driver’s license. This designation recognizes the disadvantage Ive been at throughout my professional career as a person who used the ladies room. This designation gives me a better shot at getting government contracts. Its also worth noting that many cis men make their wives the head of the business to cash in on this designation.

Since my gender marker has now changed I will have to relinquish this designation and the economic opportunities it would have had for my new business. Thats it. Nothing has changed about my professional background, network, sales funnel.. The magical Male Privilege™ hasn’t worked for me but since I legally am Male now its assumed I no longer am at the economic disadvantage I was last year.

Kind of bullshit, don’t you think?

In a similar way, because I now identify and speak as a transman the queer community decides that my Male Privilege™, gained in year 35 of my 36 year life span, means that I am one of the evil menz of the world. Cismen have certainly done a lot of bad towards women throughout history, that I do not deny. But being treated as the same given 1. Aforementioned lack of being born, raised, or in any way perceived as a man my entire life and 2. Present lack of being read as male, ever, even by people seeing my naked post op chest is complete bullshit. Yet that is what I get to experience as a member of the queer community.

Here are some choice phrases aimed at transmen from recent discussions about the NC HB2 bill. NOT at the NC state legislature, mind you, but transmen. Yep. Transmen are the real enemy here, not the guys passing the laws. This is the queer community for you

“avoid men(cis and trans) entirely.”

“Men can be so fucking clueless. This is true of trans men as well as cis men. So goddamn clueless and arrogant.”

“Trans guys in women’s bathrooms, handing out cards, taking selfies, etc: you are making this bathroom bills situation way worse than it already is. ”
(Note – this person goes on to defend TRANSWOMEN doing the SAME THING in MENS bathrooms, which makes things dangerous for transmen, particularly those like me that dont read as male)

“Please, for once, step BACK and listen to women.” – like how I lived my life for 35 years?

This is how I am viewed by much of the queer community. At the same time I am told of how hard life is for other queers and that I should shut my mouth because I have Male Privilege™.

I was recently asked to provide feedback on a trans character for a screenplay. The writer went on to tell me how he wanted to showcase a transwoman character since there is a lack of representation of trans women narratives in film and tv. It was evident that trans men werent even a thought in this persons mind when he considered writing a trans character, since he was rather flustered when I tried to explain why I couldn’t help him.

Its true, more representation of trans women, especially trans women of color, would be great. But you know, Laverne Cox is a main character in the long running series Orange Is The New Black, Transparent is focused on a TRANSWOMAN, Janet Mock is practically a household name. The Danish Girl, Sense8… Transwomen have given keynotes at tech conferences, the senior LGBT Liason to the Whitehouse is a Transwoman. The majority of the people in a trans professional group I belong to? Transwomen. And GOOD! I am glad that transwomen are prospering, being depicted as humans with agency, and lifted up. I am not of the “oppression olympics” mentality.

So – where are the shows and films about transmen? Where were the transmen on HRC NY’s recent transgender career panel? Where are the transmen speaking at tech conferences? Where were the transmen on the recent LGBTQIA panel at SXSW? Where are the transmen that are not 1. Chaz Bono or 2. Being mooned over for their post op cisnormative upper bodies? The answer is no where. They are nowhere. Because our experiences are ignored, erased, and shouted down by the queer community. Please prove me wrong, I would love to find other transmen working in tech, leading prosperous lives, talking about dealing with being a trans man, being treated as humans with agency on popular TV shows.

Interesting, eh? Walking in the world as a female my body was objectified, much like it still is as a trans man. My voice was silenced by those shouting it down, and it continues to be so now. But what about Male Privilege™ ?

For me Male Privilege™ looks like sobbing in my partner’s arms after one too many networking sessions where I was questioned about my gender, told that i dont look like a man, and humiliated by people who purported to be helping me as I ambled about like a baby deer in headlights trying to start a business. Male Privilege™ looks like being told that my 17 year tech career living as a female doesnt mean anything to Lesbians who Tech or Grace Hopper and other Women in Tech organizations that used to lend support to me. That they refuse to acknowledge and support people like me.

It looks like me walking on eggshells in every meeting and conversation waiting for the pitchforks – from the queers or the straights, or maybe both.

Mostly it means lots of feelings of not wanting to go on. I still wish I had been born a boy. Sometimes the only reason I feel glad about my queerness is my wonderful partner and the relief of not living in a world that didnt work for me. I do not choose to be queer, nor would I, if I had a choice.

Ive only every wanted what any other human wants – to be accepted and loved for who I am.

I am fortunate. I have family and friends, straight and queer, who are supportive, but still I struggle every day to keep going. I fear for young trans masculine kids and those who are just coming out like I did at an older age. There is no support network for transmen. Many I have talked to have opted out of the queer community for the reasons I mention above and quietly struggle alone.

Imagine if a young trans boy came across the comments I posted above. “Men can be so fucking clueless. This is true of trans men as well as cis men. So goddamn clueless and arrogant.” Imagine if all this young boy ever saw of people like him was shirtless, ripped, post op transmen. Not businessmen. Not actors. Not TV reporters. Not government officials. Not technology professionals.

Please help us. Lift up the stories of transmen. Call out queer misandry and hypocrisy. Know that TRANSGENDER means transMEN too. So many times people look at me sideways because they think transgender means only MTF transwomen. If someone claims their event or organization is TRANS inclusive make sure they welcome transmen, because otherwise they are not trans inclusive. Include transmen in your networks and help them find jobs.

Learn about transmen. For instance, transmen have historically lived at an economic disadvantage owing to their former lives as female assigned. You can read about it in Jamison Green’s Becoming A Visible Man. That and other great books on FTMs & trans masculinity are on this list and also this one

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.