There’s two things you should know, which kind of make this story a tad less dramatic and awesome and fun to tell than it would otherwise be:
1) My family are scattered all over the place. We currently live in Vancouver, Alaska, Montreal, North Carolina, England, Scotland, Ethiopia, Thailand, Boston, Canterlot, New York and Toronto. I’m the only one in Vancouver, and I made one of those up.
2) At the time all this happened, I had only recently moved to Vancouver, and didn’t yet have any friends in the city. Except for Mittens, my cybernetic velociraptor.
This means all my coming out as trans didn’t happen in person, which makes the story a whole lot less cool and exciting than most people’s stories. Sending e-mails doesn’t quite have the same dramatic force as speaking to family in dim 1am kitchens over glasses of port. Nonetheless, I can hardly do a series all about coming out without talking about my own coming out. It’s times like these that I regret my policy of telling the truth about my experiences.
“No seriously, guys! I totally killed a Tigerman warlock with an allen key and a pack of mint skittles!”
Finally coming to terms with my need to transition was directly connected to my efforts to kick my heroin addiction. I found myself sitting three months in to a relapse that had gotten to the point of daily use (or multiple-times daily, when I could afford it). I was quite literally just waiting to die, and my depression had also gotten to the point of suicidality just a few months previous, at the beginning of the relapse.
When I made up my mind to quit, I knew that making it last would mean making a very serious re-appraisal of my life, my choices, my regrets, and the sources of the pain I was trying to medicate. I knew it would require a very long, hard look at myself, and confronting all the things I had desperately been trying to avoid confronting for all those years. After a few weeks of this process, I finally allowed myself to acknowledge the problem that had been staring me in the fact for such a long time. I knew it was there, I’d always known it was there, but I had just been too scared to confront it and openly name it. But this time, I knew that I had finally been backed into a corner, and my choice was to either deal with it or simply allow myself to die. As others have said before me: I didn’t choose to accept myself and choose to transition, I chose not to die, I chose not to kill myself.
I had to finally say it, speak the terrifying truth: I was transsexual. I had to transition.
Now, as said, I’d known this for a very, very long time. It’s not like coming out of my big hazy lovely Mazzy Star-soundtracked opiate haze resulted in a “Eureka! Now I understand! I want to be a girl!” kind of moment. The truth had been lingering beneath the surface… not quite beneath consciousness, as I was certainly conscious of it, but beneath the threshold of truths I was willing to accept. I think it speaks volumes about human perception that we can know something so intimately and acutely for such a long period of time and still just not be able to admit it. It’s kind of like someone on trial for murder, with a mountain of incontrovertible evidence staring her in the face, still insisting over and over that she didn’t do it. Except even weirder, because I was the accused, the prosecutor, the defense attorney and the judge. And the evidence too? Thinnest. Stretched. Analogy. Ever.
In childhood I knew that I was different from other kids, and from other boys, since I first was able to articulate a concept of difference. But there were lots of things that were different about me, and my head was always cluttered with a thousand concepts, and a thousand means of iterating my identity and positioning myself as Other. Most adults… my parents, my teachers, friends of the family… simply chalked up my isolation from other children and inability to fit into conventional norms of behaviour (and gender) as simply being an issue of my being “creative”, “artistic”, “intelligent” and “gifted”. My dad and brothers often just called it “weird”. For the first part of my life, I was able to simply accept that as the explanation: I was just “weird”. And for some reason I just didn’t worry too much about explaining it beyond that. I knew that I was not like other boys, but I didn’t worry too much about defining what exactly I was like.
There were certain hints and intimations along the way, little breadcrumbs forming a trail, but none of them were substantive enough. I was too caught up in other concerns and confusions, and I chalked it up to an overall fractured identity and sense of alienation (though I’d be awfully impressed if my 9 year-old self was able to use the terms “fractured identity” and “sense of alienation”).
One of the first chapter books I read, purchased during a book fair, was about a boy hearing the superstition that if you kiss your own elbow (on the hard, outside part) you’ll turn into a member of the opposite sex. Later that evening he falls out of bed and gets tangled up in his sheets… in the process, he finds himself in such a position that he’s able to kiss his elbow, and can’t resist doing so out of curiosity, and partly just to prove he’s able. The rest of the book follows his story as he begins to believe he’s turning into a girl, but is actually simply learning to open up and free himself from constrained gender roles… he starts becoming more in touch with his emotions, gets better at penmanship and English class, learns how to do gymnastics and befriends a socially isolated girl who he used to pick on and ends up playing jacks with her.
That book fascinated me, I immediately felt a strong desire to be able to become a girl myself, and secretly tried as hard as I could to kiss my own elbow. I was bitterly disappointed at the end of the book when it turns out that he wasn’t turning into a girl, and that such a thing can’t really happen. I began trying out other superstitions… liking wishing on stars, or praying to God to change me. I wished that one morning I’d just wake up and be female. I imagined countless different iterations of this scenario, trying to imagine what the ideal version would be: would my friends and family recognize me or would the magic reconfigure the universe so it would be like I had always been female? I thought it over endlessly, literally trying to figure out ways to bend reality itself. All of it in secret. And all without ever showing any outward interest in “girly” things. I knew it wasn’t allowed. But I also knew I wanted to be a girl. I just wasn’t quite able to get from that point to being able to accept my identity as such (not yet understanding the concept of gender beyond simple physical fact), and I didn’t really have any frame of reference for articulating those feelings. I knew there was such a thing as “sex change operations” and “transsexuals”, but I mentally categorized that as something apart from actually being female, and knew that they were considered gross, wrong and funny, ridiculous, a cultural punchline. In fact, I’m pretty sure I primarily learned about “sex changes” through overhearing crude jokes at their expense.
But when I was 14 years old, and adolescence began to set in… well… there were a few things that happened. One was the experience of my body masculinizing, which completely horrified me. I was turning into something alien and repulsive to my sense of self. On top of that, my adolescence wasn’t quite going in a normal way. This is something that is still very embarrassing to talk about, but… well, for some reason, whether the prednisone I was taking for my asthma or perhaps some kind of underlying intersex condition like Klinefelter’s or MAIS, my body was also developing some feminine secondary sex characteristics. This resulted in my frequently being gendered female. This was extremely emotionally complex for me in that on the one hand it didn’t really feel wrong for me, but at the same time I was being viciously mocked and bullied for it by my peers. One day I decided that the easiest thing to do would be to simply become a woman. I didn’t dislike the idea, after all, and actually thought it would be really nice. It would also mean I wouldn’t have to continue to experience all the creepy, alienating changes in my body, but instead just go with the ones that didn’t feel quite so wrong. I’d be free from all the constraining expectations of male socialization that I’d hated for so long, and no one would pick on me for looking like a girl any more.
(those feminine characteristics I’d developed, and the masculine traits I’d averted, have of course turned out to be a blessing and have ended up making it much easier for me to pass and be accepted as female. I’d say it was the universe karmically balancing out my previous suffering if it weren’t for the fact that there’s no such thing as karma and for the truly epic, incomprehensible, cosmic degree to which the universe doesn’t care about my tiny, mind-blowingly insignificant life)
So… after a couple days thinking over this thought of becoming a girl, I decided to tell my family, or at least the segment I was living with at the time: my father, his second wife, and my brothers. They were so horrified by it. Writing this, right now, I can still feel my heart sink, a lump in my stomach, a stab of humiliation, and a welling sadness. My father was appalled. My brothers were embarrassed. My then-stepmother didn’t take me seriously, mocked it and said “if you’re serious you should just do it, but if this is a joke you should just shut up about it.” I was terrified of their reaction, and decided that I’d run with her suggestion- it was just a joke. Hahaha. You didn’t really think I wanted to actually become a woman did you? Hahaha. Who would want something like that? I was just kidding. You know. Because of how everyone at school picks on me for looking like a girl. Lulzy lulz.
And after saying that, I couldn’t go back to it. I couldn’t tell them I’d been serious. It just hurt so much, and the looks on their faces stuck with me. I bottled it up inside, and decided I wouldn’t think about it, I’d push it away. It was a stupid idea. I even tried convincing myself it had been just a joke (but as good at lying to myself as I’ve always been, that one never took). But still… that was the first step forward. That was when I’d first articulated to myself the desire to pursue transition.
It took a long time before it began to emerge again. I can’t really remember what triggered it, but when I was 17, in the months leading up to when I dropped out of high school, it came back. That time, I felt it strongly enough that I began researching it. I’d stay up awake for entire nights browsing the internet, reading all about it. I went to sites like Transsexual Road Map and Authentikate and Amberspace and Lynn Conway’s TS Women’s Successes (I wonder if I should add myself to that?) and everything. I even took the stupid fucking COGIATI (which said something like “oh hai, i’m in ur gender identity, giving u teh tranz”). I learned the terminology, learned the process and risks, learned what transition actually entailed, and learned what I could expect. I decided I was going to do it.
I knew the first step was getting a therapist. So I asked my mom (who I was then living with) to help me get into therapy, “for depression”, and she kindly obliged. Unfortunately, in order to afford it, it had to be done through her place of employment, Duke University. That required about a 7 month waiting period.
By the time I finally got to begin seeing that therapist, I had become scared and repressed again, and pushed myself back into denial. At no point over the 6 months I saw that therapist did I tell him about my gender identity issues, or even my sexual attraction to men. It didn’t help that he was a young man who took a very “buddy”-ish approach to his patients… this caused me to regard him as something of a peer, and made me not want to expose any of my secrets, present my vulnerabilities or cause him to think less of me. Funny thing, though… I sort of did send one little covert hint, when I made him a mix CD. I put a song on it by one of the Elephant Six bands (I forget which… maybe early Of Montreal?) called “Tim, I Wish You Were Born A Girl”.
He said he liked the mix but hated that song.
Over the following years my wish to transition kept emerging again and again. Almost exactly every two years. Every time I would begin formulating some kind of plan, and go through the same contemplations about names and style and how I’d come out and how my future plans would change and what treatments I would and wouldn’t pursue and try to figure out how to afford it… and then go ahead and convince myself it wasn’t the right time, or I had too much to lose, or I couldn’t afford it, or it was “too late” anyway, and I’d try to come up with some kind of compromise. I’d try to come up with various identities that would “suffice”… like trying to express my femininity through a male identity, via things like goth, twee, indie or dandyism. Or by coming out as gay, and adopting a somewhat femme persona within that idiom (which was a bit of a failure in its own right, since I was still too scared of people questioning my gender to actually open up that side of myself).
So for twelve years I knew I was transsexual without ever acting on it, until I found myself suicidal, alone in a dingy East Vancouver basement suite removed from all my friends and family, slowly dying of heroin addiction. THEN, and ONLY then, was I able to finally say “yeah, I should probably do something about this.”
So please don’t call me brave. Brave would have been accepting the disappointment of my family and pursuing it when I was 14. Brave would have been being able to open up to a therapist in a confidential setting. Brave would have been being able to stick with my choices, confront the actual issue, and not constantly seek out an easier alternative. Brave is not waiting until you’re actually dying before you finally address a problem.
Isolated as I was in Vancouver, the first people I told were a group of friends from a web forum I’d been a member of for a very very long time. This forum had long since split off from its original subject matter, but I’d been there for about nine years at that point, and it had become a very small but intimate group. I’d met lots of the members IRL, and I’d shared a tremendous amount about my life, up to and including my struggle with heroin and problems with family and even the sexual assault I’d experienced when I was 16. So telling them only seemed appropriate, really, and there was a sense of consequencelessness, like it would hurt to lose them but they couldn’t really lash out at me, no matter how poorly they took it. But they reacted really well. The only reaction that was even remotely hurtful was one person with a somewhat Butlerian feminist attitude who sort of said “Who cares? What’s the big deal? Gender is just a performance and doesn’t really matter.”
I relied on them for initial support, and articulating the process I was going through, but I remained closed up about it to my family and my IRL friends for a long while.
However, I felt at that point like I’d already wasted enough of my life, and that I wanted to transition as quickly as I could. I made an appointment with a psychiatrist to get my diagnosis and approval for hormones and simultaneously got myself on a waitlist for one of the clinics in Vancouver that handles trans patients and HRT prescriptions, timing it so my appointment with them would follow shortly after acquiring my approval letter. I began going in for laser hair removal whenever I could scramble together enough cash, and likewise began doing a bit of shopping for girl clothes and make-up whenever able (using things like Halloween, and female accompaniment, as cover… oh the many cashiers who told me how sweet it was that I was buying gifts for my girlfriend).
I immediately began attending weekly support groups and met all kinds of great trans people (along with all kinds of not-so-great ones), who were an invaluable source of information and support, and also helped confirm that I was doing the right thing in how happy I felt to be around people who treated and accepted me as female, and would refer to me by the name Natalie (once I finally chose it) and by female pronouns, regardless of how long it was before I began publicly presenting as female.
I decided to transition in early September. By Christmas I had started hormones. A month after that, my depression had almost completely faded, I felt happier and more at peace than I ever had, the hormones and the changes occurring in my body felt completely right, and I was absolutely certain that I had made the right choice- the best choice I’d ever made in a life that up until then had been defined by mistakes.
It took awhile before I finally began telling family. My reasoning for this, at the time, was that I wanted to wait until I was past the “point of no return”, so that there would sort of be no point in them trying to talk me out of it. That way I’d simply be informing them of a decision I’d made, that they could accept or not, and I’d be sparing myself the possibility of having them try to talk me out of it.
I was definitely scared. Very, very, very scared. Stupidly so. The memories of what had happened the first time still lingered with me. I was also very poor, and still partly dependent on my family for financial support. Being cut off would make things incredibly difficult for me, and cripple my transition, in that a lot of it is rather expensive, even in British Columbia where my hormones were free and I didn’t need to worry about saving up for SRS.
Nonetheless, it felt terrible not to tell them. Eventually, I felt able to do so, in the Spring. Telling my mom went incredibly, incredibly well. The only thing she was upset about was that I hadn’t trusted her enough to tell her sooner, and that I had suspected she might reject me. She felt a bit hurt that I doubted the degree to which she loved me unconditionally. She also felt a bit sad in the sense that my previous identity, her son, was now being lost. I advised that she just think of it like when The Doctor regenerates. Gone but not really. That seemed to help. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the first things she did was send me a little care package with a card, a hand-knit pair of gloves and matching cowl, a toy sonic screwdriver, a bracelet and some eye make-up.
Next I told my brother, who also took it well and didn’t seem to mind at all. He admitted that it was a bit strange to him, but he understood, and knew that I had to do what was necessary in order for me to be happy. We met up in person back in December for the first time since, and we got along wonderfully. He gave me a lovely amber necklace as a Christmas gift, and said that while it was still a bit weird for him, seeing me in person helped him come to terms with it, and he could tell that I was much happier now and my life was seeming to finally be moving in the right direction. We also found that our interests have become very similar in a lot of ways, as I was now writing for skeptic blogs, and he was now a geologist and climate scientist who had to deal with creationists and climate denialists on a regular basis. It was a great little visit. I inexplicably cried my eyes out on the walk back to Granville Skytrain station. I don’t know the name for whatever it was I was feeling.
My father was the third person I told, and with him I was especially terrified. As said, I still had memories of how he reacted the first time, and while I was growing up he definitely had a certain concept of masculinity, and was never very good at disguising his disappointment when I strayed from it. But he also reacted positively, assuring me that he still loved me and always would, and, just like my mom, primarily expressed a bit of sadness that I hadn’t told him sooner.
I recently went to visit him in Montreal, back in November, and aside from the occasional pronoun and name slip, he was pretty great about everything. He even came along with me to a Transgender Day Of Remembrance Event at Berri Square.
And finally, I came out to all my friends via good ol’ Facebook. I made a status update, changed my gender, and trusted word of mouth to take care of the rest. Almost everyone was completely supportive and understanding, many of them expressing a lot of pride that I was able to come to terms with this, and wishing me the best. Only one person had a problem, but he was someone I had already known to be deeply transphobic (used to make lots of Silence Of The Lambs jokes, and relentlessly mocked a trans woman professor of botany at the college we attended), but he just quietly unfriended me without making any kind of spectacle or saying anything nasty.
A couple months later, when I finally went full-time, I shut down the old account, buried my old name, and moved on as Natalie.
All in all, my coming out went as perfectly as it possibly could.
What saddens me, though, is that cases like mine are very rare. The majority of my trans friends are in some way alienated from their families. It’s a tragic thing that so often the act of coming out has to be such a difficult choice and sacrifice… to have to choose to be able to live a happy life and live as who you truly are, but having to also lose your family and friends, sometimes lose your entire community and network of support. It sickens me that things like bigotry, misinformation, bias, cultural taboos about gender and religious edicts can end up getting to the point where they render unconditional love condition, and tear people from their families. Force them to make these choices and sacrifices.
But it’s beautiful, in a way, that so many people do find the courage and strength to make that choice. That we have a community primarily comprised of people who were able to move past the enormous amount of hatred and shame in our culture, and all the costs, risks, and sacrifices involved in coming out and transitioning, and assert themselves, claim their identity, and push forward for a life of happiness, integrity, honesty and being true to one’s needs rather than a life of compromise, sadness and quiet desperation.
I think it suggests immense hope about who we can be, us little crazy struggling humans, that trans people exist at all.