First Rule: Never out someone to him/herself.
You may not think this is possible, but it is.
After I started transitioning physically and discovered how well it worked for me, I often found myself wishing that I had started much sooner. Now that I knew it was so good for me, I regretted that I hadn’t known this before so that I could have experienced its benefits for even more of my life. I sometimes thought, if only I could have told myself in the past how great this would be, that it would be okay, that I can do this.
But I realize now that this probably wouldn’t be such a good idea. Talking to the past might not be possible, but a couple years ago, something strange happened that was just about as close as you can get. While I was searching a massive archive of emails for any accounts that would have to be updated with my new legal name – Lauren, by the way, nice to meet you – I found a lengthy message from early 2011 that I had mostly put out of my mind.
At the time, I didn’t really consider myself to be trans, except maybe under an expansive “umbrella” definition that encompasses anyone who isn’t a conventionally masculine man or a feminine woman. I wasn’t planning on transitioning, and I didn’t consider it necessary. This person, however, seemed to see me as an echo of herself. Like me, she initially had an ambiguous gender for some time, and later decided to transition. She had walked the same path that she believed I was on, and she wanted to tell me where it would lead if I kept going.
She proposed that my increasingly feminine presentation and identity were better explained as an early phase of self-discovery for someone who’s trans, rather than just a gay guy doing drag. She pointed out that most gay men don’t do drag in such a way that they intend to look indistinguishable from other women, whereas many people who later come out as trans do initially explain away their gender transgression as merely being “drag”, and deny that it could mean anything in terms of their identity.
Just to drive the point home, she suggested that if I really considered myself a guy, then I might want to try presenting as a guy, and see if I was comfortable with that – after all, people who do identify as men typically want to be recognized as men. She also predicted that if I did see myself as a man, then I would be just fine with the continuing masculinization of my body as I grew older, but if not, then maybe I should consider the conventional treatment to halt this – that is, transitioning.
Of course, these are all completely valid points. Every bit of this ended up being applicable to me. Back then, plenty of people thought I had either transitioned already, or I was clearly heading in that direction. It was probably obvious to just about everyone, and for trans women who’ve been through this already, I’m sure it was even easier to make informed guesses about my situation. The person who sent me this message even told me, after I finally came out, that she was hoping to spark the realization that I was really trans.
I can look back now with a cool and distanced perspective and marvel at how accurate her predictions were, but at the time… it scared the hell out of me. Yes, I should have realized that these were all meaningful clues to where my life was going. Yes, I should have realized that I’m probably not that special, and it’s more likely that I was just another trans woman in denial. But I simply wasn’t ready for this yet. I won’t lie, I was seriously shaken by what she said.
Think about it: if you believe someone is actually trans, but that they’re so deeply closeted they’re not yet out even to themselves despite it being so obvious to everyone else, is it really a good idea to tell them they’re just going to become more and more manly? You’re literally telling them, “I know you’re scared. And you know that one thing you’re so deathly afraid of? Yep, it’s coming for you, just you wait.” There has to be some better approach to letting people know there are options available, because if there’s one way to hammer on someone’s insecurities, this is it.
But why did it disturb me so much when she told me there was an answer to all this – another path that I eventually did end up taking? Did she uncover some previously unarticulated desire to be a woman, forcing me into a traumatic epiphany without warning? Actually, no. It wasn’t even that. I was already aware that transitioning was a possibility. When you’re wandering in the wilderness of gender outside the safety of its two major outposts, you tend to become familiar with the landscape, and transitioning is just about the most obvious destination there is. This wasn’t anything I didn’t know.
But at the time, I didn’t want my body to change. Sure, I didn’t want to become any more masculine, and the prospect was frightening and profoundly unsettling. And yes, that should have told me something about myself. But I wasn’t prepared to be physically female, either. I was happy with how things were, and I didn’t want to have to make a choice like that. Not yet.
So while she was entirely correct about where I was headed, I still had to get there on my own. Just presenting the possibility, explaining it in detail, and trying to clear the path ahead of me still wasn’t enough to tip me over the edge. For instance, right now, I don’t really feel like having “the surgery” – you know, the one that most people are thinking of when they say “the surgery”. Sure, it’s possible that in 5 or 10 years, I might change my mind. But if someone were to inform me of my eventual choice with great certainty in the present day, that wouldn’t really help me. If anything, it would just make me worry about how long I had before my body began to feel not just odd, but unbearably wrong to the point of forcing me into action.
The really strange thing is, I know she was trying to help. I know she just wanted to provide me with some key insight she thought I was missing, an answer that would clear up the confusion she assumed I was suffering from. The questions she posed to me weren’t original. They crop up every time someone asks for advice about their gender, and they’re intended to trigger exactly that kind of insight. These are questions like: “If you could have been born and lived your entire life as the opposite sex, would you want to?” “Would you be disappointed if a hypothetical test told you with 100% certainty that you’re not actually trans?” “If you could press a button to turn yourself into a man or a woman instantly, would you?” And, of course: “How would you feel about becoming steadily more and more masculine or feminine over your lifetime?”
She wasn’t totally right about what I actually needed at that time, but ever since I started transitioning, I’ve often found myself in the same position as her. I’ve posed some of those very same questions to people when they’ve asked for help with figuring themselves out. Once you’ve been through it yourself, and someone else wants to know what they should do about their gender, you sometimes see an echo of yourself in them. And when you recognize that, there can be the temptation to evangelize a bit. To try and show them an enthusiastic and encouraging vision of what could be. To say, “Hey, I’ve been there before too, so here’s what you do. Here are the cheat codes. There’s your answer. Now you can skip all that and go right to the end.”
But there are no cheat codes, and you can’t just skip “all that”. Nobody gets to the point where they’re prepared to transition, without first going through their own personal version of “all that”. And if they aren’t there yet, it’s not my place to give them this sort of unsolicited advice. They might not be ready for it, and this definitely isn’t the time to pepper them with your personal speculation about their identity. Even when someone gives every indication of being trans, even when it seems that they’re almost all the way there and just need somebody else’s permission to admit it to themselves, I’ve still always made sure to tell them that their identity is their own to choose and discover and design. And no one else can dictate that for them.
When I see an echo of my earlier self in someone else, just as she once did, I force myself to remember what it felt like when I was on the other side. I remind myself that no matter how badly I might want to give them the answers I think they need to hear, that never helped me one bit when I was in their place. When you’ve walked the same path and you can tell someone where they’re going to end up, that’s not a power to be used without tact, discretion, and the gentlest approach possible. And when I start to see her reflected in me, that’s how I know where to stop.
It would be very hard to think, I’m over there. And, can I go meet me? And is that me better than this me? Can I learn from the other me? Has the other me made the same mistakes I made?