I’ve been on HRT for about a month now, and so far it’s been awesome enough that I’ll probably continue for the foreseeable future. While some people have claimed that its effects shouldn’t be noticeable for quite some time, the physical changes alone are already obvious, which leads me to believe that the mental effects could be just as real. Even if some part of it is only placebo, I can honestly say I haven’t felt this calm, happy, confident, in control and well-integrated in years – if ever. And though I’m not sure what physiological or neurological basis there might be for the common trans metaphor of “running on the right fuel” (and I’d be interested to learn more about this), it seems accurate enough in my case.
Before I started, I wondered whether it might cause some kind of mind-blowing shift in my consciousness, sense of self and subjective experience of the world. While it definitely feels great for me and I have a strong preference against discontinuing it, I can’t say it’s been like any kind of bright line between before and after – alcohol has more of an immediate and significant effect, all things considered. I’m just the same person as before, but it does seem like whatever elements factor into my overall personality and mood have been tweaked just enough to improve things without outright destroying who I was. I mean, who I am.
What interests me is that some trans people do seem to draw a harder distinction between their lives before they came to terms with their gender identity, and after. At times, I’ve even seen women refer to their past selves in the third person, as entirely different people – such as “him”. This shouldn’t be surprising, since many people experience a massive gulf between where they are in terms of their gender, and where they want to be. It makes sense that they wouldn’t see much in common between the person they once were, and the person they sought to become. Likewise, I’ve heard from people for whom realizing they were trans was a relatively sudden epiphany, and something that simply hadn’t occurred to them before, which would make it a pretty convenient place to draw a line dividing their life into that of two separate people.
Personally, I can’t say my experience has been very similar to this. As Heather often reminds me, if I had started off as a bodybuilder with a beard and back hair, I’d likely feel much different. But I didn’t. And I was never struck by that abrupt epiphany, because the possibility of being trans has been on my radar for the past several years. For most of that time, I just didn’t think it was where I was headed, but it turns out that it was – and I was always comfortable with that possibility. I was also fortunate enough to start off in a place where I didn’t have to close very much distance to get my body to reflect my identity. Yet because the process has been so blurry, shuffled and gradual for me, to the point that the final step consisted of no more than choosing to say “I’m trans” rather than “I’m not”, I find it almost impossible to identify any sort of boundary between one life and another, one gender and another.
Although I’ve had to work extensively on training myself to think of my new name as the true one, it never took nearly as much effort to think of my new gender as the true one. I suppose that on some level, I was already open to it even before I knew what “it” was. I found it similarly easy to accept myself as queer when I was 14: if that was reality, then that was reality, end of story. Acknowledging that I’m trans was essentially the same, to the point that my earlier experience seems to foreshadow it neatly. For some people, recognizing their genuine sexual orientation or gender identity seems to require demolishing a large part of the foundation of their identity, leaving them with the burden of having to fill in that newfound empty space. I’m just not one of those people.
Even when I assumed I was straight or a guy, for simple lack of personal development or critical self-examination, it wasn’t a central part of who I was. Obviously, straight guys are rarely required by society to think about their gender or sexuality as something that stands out, or consider themselves as anything other than the archetypal “default” human. But having never identified strongly, or even weakly, as a man or as heterosexual, losing those presumed features meant losing very little of my core self. Since I hadn’t become attached to what these identities implied for me, it was only a slight course adjustment in the direction my life would take, and the destination was just as valid. Nothing about it demanded tearing apart my old self, marking them as obsolete, and constructing a new person in their place.
Yet this still seems to raise an unavoidable question: if I was once “him”, then when did I stop being “him” and start being “her”? Of course, when it comes to talking to other people about my past, I see no need to say anything to tip them off about me if they haven’t already been brought into the circle. It’s just a matter of consistency, because there’s no sense in referring to a woman as “him” when discussing her childhood. But if they already know, it isn’t personally significant to me whether they see my younger self as having been a “him” or a “her”, and in some cases there’s no way around this. For instance, if we were looking at any of my childhood photos, it would be pointless to try and avoid the obvious. And all my mom’s friends would likely find it hard to believe that the son they’ve always known never actually existed, and that she’s suddenly acquired a very familiar-looking daughter.
But at what stage should I regard “him” as over, and “her” as having begun? There’s just no easy way to pinpoint a particular moment. Was it when I started caring about my appearance for the first time in 19 years? Or when I switched to buying women’s shirts because I found I looked better in them? Maybe it was when I first decided to try on makeup? Or when I went out in public like this for the first time? When I told people either gender pronoun is fine with me? When I started calling myself Zinnia on a whim? When I first identified as genderqueer? When I put together the first timeline of my transformation? When I started dating a lesbian, and we both knew that I was undeniably her girlfriend and couldn’t possibly be considered a boyfriend – even while still saying, paradoxically, that I didn’t think of myself as trans? When I first attended a family function, her brother’s wedding, as a woman? When I found I was going “full-time” simply out of habit? When I finally did admit that I was trans? When I made the decision to pursue treatment for it? When I picked a whole new name for myself, for real this time? When I worked up the nerve to “make it official” and come out to my parents – as if they couldn’t tell? When I started wearing a bra, no matter whether it contained anything? When I actually got around to finding a therapist and a doctor? When I took HRT for the first time? When I ordered business cards to replace the ones that said “Z.J. OldName”?
All of that has been spread out over the past four years – and not one of those changes feels like an appropriate place to divide myself in two. So is it just a matter of when you finally do feel like a different person, if ever? That, too, seems like a standard I may never be able to meet. I’m certain I’ve changed more just by aging throughout my life than by transitioning, and yet I still don’t think of myself at any age as a distinctly different person, no matter how little we would have in common. Some part of me was always there, and some part of them is still with me. I would see no point in referring even to 4-year-old me as being a separate person, different as I was.
Of course, gender is typically regarded as much more fundamental to identity than age, and that idea likely helps to fuel the inclination – or perceived need – to conceptualize yourself as a different person just because you were (presumably) a different gender. And for all I know, maybe there will come a day when I feel I’ve changed so much that I have nothing in common with “him”, and I’ll be more comfortable with classifying a part of my life as belonging to someone else. But for now, I’ve always just been me, even as a “boy” who rarely thought of “himself” as a boy. The unvarnished and fuzzy reality of things like identity, time, change, and people don’t always fit the concepts of “boundary”, “box”, “before”, “after”, “them”, or “me”, and it would be a mistake to try and map them onto the world when in some cases they’re just inapplicable. Transitioning wasn’t a soul-ripping, spacetime-rending event that cleaved my past and future apart. Like every other change in my life, big and small, it wove them together. What do I call my pre-transition self? The same thing I call myself now, because that’s who we are: I.