Darker shades of pink: Having depression when you’re transgender

1522095_10152076191576077_222205893_n (1)The past few years of my life have featured various events that repeatedly force me to update significant parts of how I understand myself.

I used to see little purpose in life and no path forward for myself, until I created an ongoing open-ended project to direct my energies toward, and coincidentally slid into utter femininity in a matter of months. I’ve gone from coasting on the decades-long assumption that I was still a guy – just an extremely femme one – to realizing that no part of me bristles against womanhood. I thought I didn’t have any gender dysphoria, and medically transitioning was simply a matter of taking things from “good” to “even better”. Then I started HRT and gained the perspective to see just how awful, how suffocating, how unbearable things were before – and how it brought me to a place where I was finally a happy, functional person who truly loved life.

About that last one…

You’d think, after all this, I’d understand that things are always going to keep changing. I should realize by now that if I believe the current state of my life will persist forever, I’m almost certainly wrong. Many of my writings should be considered mostly obsolete for that very reason. They’re snapshots of a certain time in my life, not conclusions meant to persist for all eternity – and as more time passes, they’ll become more divergent from reality.

Still: I thought I had fixed this. I thought I had found the answer – the reason why I had felt so pervasively uncomfortable for all of my life, and the solution that did what nothing else could and actually made everything better. I thought I was in the clear to check that off as decisively handled.

I’m now having another one of those moments where I’m forced to realize: I was wrong. I was wrong about having fully understood the nature of my problems. And I was wrong about the extent to which transitioning could adequately address them.

1. How I experience dysphoria

For the most part, my dysphoria typically doesn’t feel like discomfort with the physical form of my body. My dysphoria feels like depression. I wasn’t aware of this similarity at first, because I didn’t yet have an understanding of what depression feels like. Other people had to tell me.

When I wrote “8 signs and symptoms of indirect gender dysphoria”, I aimed to offer a description of the emotional problems which I experienced prior to transition, and which went away after I transitioned – experiences that had also sometimes been relayed by other trans people. I did my best to convey how this felt for me:

  • “I could force myself to get things done, but it would take a lot out of me. I would be irritable, snappish, annoyed by everything, and in anywhere from a mildly bad mood to a very bad mood almost every day.”
  • “As a child, I would cry almost every day at the drop of a hat. Anything could trigger it – being even mildly reprimanded, getting a wrong answer on schoolwork, the sort of insignificant things that no one else around me ever cried so frequently about.”
  • “A feeling of just going through the motions in everyday life, as if you’re always reading from a script.”
  • “When I worked on things, there wasn’t any higher sense of eventually working toward anything.”
  • “Nothing made me feel truly fulfilled, like I was accomplishing anything meaningful.”
  • “I often wondered how other kids could just go about their lives, talking and laughing and being so calm and happy, like nothing was wrong.”

Many trans people told me that this article resonated strongly with them; some said it was as if they were reading what could have been their own journal. Others pointed out that there was substantial overlap between what I described, and the symptoms of depression. Some felt that this overlap was so complete, the article was not a meaningful description of dysphoria at all – one trans woman called it “frankly, bullshit”.

To show a connection between these experiences and gender dysphoria, I had to rely on one key point: that these issues were present before I transitioned, and they unexpectedly subsided once I began to transition.

So what does it mean when they come back?

2. The limits of my understanding

Before transitioning, I had concluded that these pervasive negative feelings were simply an innate aspect of my personality, and something I’d have to learn how to live with:

I figured all I could do was ignore it as much as possible and focus on whatever positives I could find – I gave up hope of ever truly fixing this.

So, having decided that this is just how I am, I didn’t think to consider whether these issues might be due to an actual, knowable cause like dysphoria or depression. Even as I developed a better sense of my gender, it didn’t occur to me that there could be a link between finding a more suitable identity for myself and resolving my emotional problems. I saw these things as two parallel lines, each progressing on their own path but never intersecting. I didn’t regard transitioning as a way of fixing my mood issues – of all the reasons I was driven to do it, this just wasn’t one of them.

So it came as a surprise when these two things began to interact: I started HRT in 2012, and almost immediately felt free of all the crushing negativity for the first time in my life. Thus, I learned to recognize dysphoria. I did not learn to recognize depression.

This would prove to be a major deficiency in my understanding of the problems I’ve faced. Around the end of 2013, I started experiencing what seemed like the same thing all over again:

  • Being exhausted by everything, and irritable all the time
  • Feeling unable to handle the basics of everyday life
  • Becoming stressed to the point of crying at the end of every day
  • Seeing no ultimate point to anything I did, and feeling it was all meaningless
  • Wondering why I even had to be alive

Because I had previously associated these feelings with dysphoria, my first guess was that all of this had to be linked to gender-related factors. So that was where I started: Was it my recently-adjusted progesterone dose? Is it that I just haven’t had the right surgeries? I switched back to my previous dose – but the relief was only temporary. (Surgeries, obviously, are not quite so accessible or easy to experiment with.)

It just didn’t make sense – I didn’t understand why everything suddenly felt so horrible, even though very little had changed. I was starting to get scared. Things were fine before. What is this?

3. Looking beyond gender

My fiancée Heather has often provided a useful outside perspective on my issues. That just sounds really abstracted, though. The truth is, she’s the reason I realized I’d rather be someone’s girlfriend than their boyfriend. She was the first person to call me “she” all the time and make it feel normal, a simple fact of who I am. She started a new life with me, in a place where everyone knew me as a woman. She let me know that starting hormones would make me even more desirable in her eyes, not less.

Without her, much of my transition wouldn’t have happened with such efficiency, or happened at all. We’ve been together for nearly three years, and Heather knows me very well. She’s also struggled with depression throughout her life, and this provided her with some degree of insight into just what the hell was going on with me this time.

When she noticed I’d been miserable for weeks, and asked me what was wrong, I told her how all of this felt – how everything just seemed like too much, and I didn’t feel like I could handle it anymore, and I didn’t know why. It sounded familiar to her, and she raised the possibility of depression. I asked her: is this what depression feels like? She confirmed this. My next, even more desperate question: just how helpful is her medication?

4. Navigating healthcare as a trans woman

I only go to my gynecologist for HRT and the associated check-ups and blood monitoring. I’d have to find someone else for this new… thing. (I still wasn’t certain of how to name it, and I’d talk about it in terms like “this stuff” or “dealing with things”.) Before this, I actually didn’t have a regular physician, largely because I just didn’t want to deal with doctors. It’s not due to some arbitrary aversion – it’s because receiving appropriate and sensitive healthcare when you’re trans, even healthcare completely unrelated to transitioning, is a minefield.

Trans people have often found that when they seek care for any sort of illness, their doctors advise them to discontinue HRT regardless of whether their current health problem has any connection to this. Some of us don’t even get that far – one of my friends was unable to receive any medical attention for her asthma simply because her doctor refused to treat trans people at all.

This issue is more than anecdotal: in a national survey of over 6,000 trans people, 19% reported they had been denied service by a healthcare provider due to being trans. 28% had been harassed in a medical setting because they’re trans. And 28% also reported that because of disrespect and discrimination from providers, they delayed or avoided treatment when they were ill.

That may not be wise, but when cis people go to a clinic for a flu or a broken toe, they generally don’t have to worry about being turned away just because of who they are. We do, so seeking care can be a difficult thing to contemplate. When going to a new and unfamiliar doctor, we never know what kind of ignorance or hostility we’re going to face. It’s an alarming unknown.

So I went with the option that we already knew the most about. Heather’s family doctor had treated her depression and anxiety, and he knows that she’s queer – she told me of how she’d started crying in his office while talking about how her co-workers called her a “fag” every day. She’s never had problems with him. I’d also met him when we took our son for check-ups, and he was really friendly toward all of us. To me, he seemed like the best bet. Heather reassured me: “If he gives you any trouble, we’re all firing him.”

5. “Mild depression”

Outness is a risk factor for refusal of service: 23% of trans people who are out to their medical providers have been denied service, compared to only 15% of those who aren’t out. Nevertheless, I still listed my current medications on the intake form, and left helpful notes like “I am a transsexual woman (male-to-female)” in the “other information” section. I didn’t want to have to deal with any surprise issues if they only realized I was trans later on, nor did I want to see someone who would only be willing to treat me under the pretense that I’m cis.

Fortunately, all of this turned out to be a non-issue. Other than asking whether I was taking hormones under the supervision of a doctor and whether I’d had a blood test recently, the topic didn’t even come up. He asked how I was feeling, and I told him everything – the way that life had somehow become unbearable for no apparent reason, and the dread I felt at having to face every single day. And I made sure he knew that it wasn’t like this before, that transitioning had helped me more than I ever expected, that it really did make things so much better and I didn’t know why this was happening now.

He seemed to know exactly what I was talking about, even identifying the feelings I hadn’t yet mentioned: the monotony of everything, and the difficulty with finding the motivation to get started on almost any activity. Everything he said gave me the impression that he understood this well. He concluded that because this appeared to be a more recent and transient problem rather than a lifelong issue, it was likely a kind of “mild depression”.

We worked out a balance of which medication would be both affordable and effective for me, and ended up settling on his first recommendation – something he felt would give me more energy. “I take it myself”, he reassured me as he wrote the prescription.

6. Anything but trans

People widely regard being trans as an undesirable existence. Often, cis people just don’t want the people around them to be trans – whether this comes from a place of overt intolerance, or just pity and regret for the hardships we face. And trans people, sometimes to an even greater extent than cis people, have also been known to seek out any potential reason to conclude that they’re not actually trans and therefore won’t need to face expensive procedures and near-universal hostility from society.

This urge to avoid the possibility of transness manifests as a staggering variety of excuses and denials. The cis people around us, often our parents and relatives, may claim that our gender-related feelings can instead be explained as a product of:

  • Childhood bullying
  • Sexual abuse
  • Negative experiences with other members of one’s assigned sex
  • The influence of supportive therapists and other professionals
  • Following a trend among a social circle
  • Viewing pornography
  • Homosexuality
  • Unspecified “confusion”
  • Demonic supernatural influences
  • Low testosterone (for trans women)
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Autism
  • Depression

These are all things that trans people have actually reported hearing from various cis people, and this is not an exhaustive list. Given the prevalence of these creative explanations, trans people in search of reasons to doubt their own transness have ample opportunity to seize on them as well. But this fervent effort to locate any possible alternatives to transness extends beyond the poorly-informed folklore of laypersons. It’s also visible in the poorly-informed folklore of certain medical professionals.

7. Trans-negativity in medicine

Dr. Kenneth Zucker is head of the Gender Identity Service for children at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Under his direction, this program has subjected children to a form of reparative therapy to discourage them from being trans or questioning their gender. This includes taking away “girlish toys” like dolls from male-assigned children and encouraging more stereotypically masculine interests, an approach resembling the techniques of discredited “ex-gay” programs.

Zucker contends that cross-gender identification in children is driven by other issues not directly related to their gender, and calls their feelings “a ‘fantasy solution,’ that being the other sex will make them happy” – in other words, a misguided answer to a separate problem in their lives. He posits that their desire to live as another sex is instead largely rooted in family issues:

First, he thinks that family dynamics play a large role in childhood GID—not necessarily in the origins of cross-gendered behavior, but in their persistence. It is the disordered and chaotic family, according to Zucker, that can’t get its act together to present a consistent and sensible reaction to the child, which would be something like the following: “We love you, but you are a boy, not a girl. Wishing to be a girl will only make you unhappy in the long run, and pretending to be a girl will only make your life around others harder.” So the first prong of Zucker’s approach is family therapy. Whatever conflicts or issues that parents have that prevent them from uniting to help their child must be addressed.

Zucker is open about his belief that transness should be avoided if at all possible:

Despite these difficulties, Zucker clearly feels it’s important to at least attempt change. He points out that the burden of living as the opposite gender is great, and should not be casually embraced.

“We’re not talking about minor medical treatments. … You’re talking about lifelong hormonal treatment; you’re talking about serious and substantive surgery,” he says.

Failure to intervene increases the chances of transsexualism in adulthood, which Zucker considers a bad outcome. For one, sex change surgery is major and permanent, and can have serious side effects. Why put boys at risk for this when they can become gay men happy to be men?

(In fairness to Zucker, he is noted as “the first to acknowledge that no scientific studies currently support the effectiveness of what he does.”)

Alice Dreger, a bioethicist who previously compared gender-questioning kids to children who unseriously pretend to be train engines, promotes a similar idea. She’s cited unnamed clinicians as agreeing that these children are the product of “dysfunctional” families:

Here’s more unwelcome news from Ms. Dreger. A child’s gender issue may merely be a symptom of other family problems. “The dirty little secret is that many of these families have big dysfunctional issues. When you get the clinicians over a beer, they’ll tell you the truth. A lot of the parents aren’t well in terms of their mental health. They think that once the child transitions, all their problems will magically go away, but that’s not really where the stress is located.” Clinicians won’t say these things publicly, she says, because they don’t want to sound as if they’re blaming gender problems on screwed-up families.

Dreger likewise depicts transitioning as undesirable, and endorses alternatives where possible:

Sex-changing interventions are nontrivial. They involve substantial physical risk, including major risk to sexual sensation, and a lifelong commitment to trying to manage hormone replacement. …

But somehow if we wrap these major interventions around gender identity, we’re supposed to believe they are not that big a deal in terms of planning for a child’s future? And the clinician who tries to get a gender dysphoric kid to learn to like her or his innate body really is a Nazi? Not buying it. …

What if a boy could go to school in a dress and still be a boy? What if a girl could declare she’s going to grow up to be a man without being dragged to a clinic for a cure and/or prep?

effexor-poster-2As a trans woman, my diagnosis of depression exists within the context of these widespread attitudes. We live in a society where transitioning is regarded as a “bad outcome”, a last resort, only to be pursued when all other avenues for dealing with this discomfort have been exhausted. Are you sure you’re not just gay? Maybe you only think you’re trans because you’re afraid of other men. Can’t you wear a dress and still be a boy?

We’re warned that this may be no more than an illusory “fantasy solution” to our real problems. Commonplace medical practices reflect this overabundance of caution, something which became all the more striking when compared to my recent experiences. Unlike in 2012, I did not need to find one of the few therapists in a city of millions who would evaluate me and provide a lengthy referral letter for treatment. Instead, I was able to go to the same doctor as the rest of my family, and soon found myself sitting in an exam room full of detailed posters about depression and the drugs that might help. Within 30 minutes, I walked out with a prescription in hand. Trans people are often asked to consider whether they may just be depressed cis people – but depressed cis people are rarely asked to consider whether they might be trans.

Yet I’ve now found out that my ongoing unhappiness has persisted through transition, and so I’ve opted to receive treatment for depression. What am I supposed to make of that? And what will others make of it?

8. Relationships between dysphoria and depression

Actually, there are some critical (and obvious) flaws in the notion that other mental health conditions may serve as an “alternative explanation” to apparent gender dysphoria.

For one, there is no reason why gender dysphoria and other mental illnesses should be seen as mutually exclusive. If you’re trans, having depression doesn’t suddenly make you no longer trans. (For that matter, neither does childhood bullying, sexual abuse, autism, and so on.) Would anyone ever make a similar argument about physical conditions – that, say, you can’t have both Crohn’s disease and migraine headaches? Those also make me feel pretty terrible, but it would be absurd to claim that only one of these is responsible for the entirety of my physical pain. There is no reason they can’t coexist as contributors to that pain. And just as I’ve had to acknowledge that my gender dysphoria alone isn’t sufficient to explain all of my mood issues, it would be equally faulty for someone else to claim that my depression alone would suffice to explain this.

Does it seem at all realistic that there would be no occurrence of depression among trans people? People sometimes get depressed, and trans people are people. Scientific studies confirm, rather predictably, that gender dysphoria and depression can coexist. A 1997 study of 435 trans people found that they experienced psychiatric conditions at a rate similar to cis people:

Specifically, gender dysphoric individuals appear to be relatively “normal” in terms of an absence of diagnosable, comorbid psychiatric problems. In fact, the incidence of reported psychiatric problems is similar to that seen in the general population. Similarities in incidence included depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. … Although a small percentage of gender dysphoric individuals in this sample had prior identifiable psychiatric problems (7-10%), this is not inconsistent with the general population.

And a 2010 study found comparable levels of mental health conditions in 579 people diagnosed with gender dysphoria:

Adjustment disorder (6.7%, 38/579) and anxiety disorder (3.6%, 21/579) were relatively frequent. Mood disorder was the third most frequent (1.4%, 8/579).

Furthermore, studies of trans people undergoing medical transition have consistently confirmed that these procedures are significantly helpful in addressing the symptoms of other mental health conditions, and increase our general well-being. Hormone therapy, in particular, stands out as a key factor in reducing levels of distress. A 2013 study followed 57 trans people before and after HRT and genital reassignment surgery, and found that starting HRT was associated with a marked decrease in depression and anxiety:

A difference in SCL-90 overall psychoneurotic distress was observed at the different points of assessments (P = 0.003), with the most prominent decrease occurring after the initiation of hormone therapy (P < 0.001). Significant decreases were found in the subscales such as anxiety, depression, interpersonal sensitivity, and hostility. Furthermore, the SCL-90 scores resembled those of a general population after hormone therapy was initiated.

Another study of 70 trans people examined their self-reported stress and their blood levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. Being on HRT was linked to a reduction in perceived stress levels and cortisol awakening response:

At enrollment, transsexuals reported elevated CAR; their values were out of normal. They expressed higher perceived stress and more attachment insecurity, with respect to normative sample data. When treated with hormone therapy, transsexuals reported significantly lower CAR (P < 0.001), falling within the normal range for cortisol levels. Treated transsexuals showed also lower perceived stress (P < 0.001), with levels similar to normative samples.

And in another study of 187 trans people, initiation of hormone therapy was associated with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety:

Overall, 61% of the group of patients without treatment and 33% of the group with hormonal treatment experienced possible symptoms (score 8–10) or symptoms (score >11) of anxiety. The same pattern was found for symptoms of depression; the percentages were significantly higher in the group of patients without treatment (31%) than in the group on hormonal treatment (8%).

A study tracking 118 trans people before and after hormone therapy found that their levels of depression, anxiety, and functional impairment were much lower after HRT:

Psychiatric distress and functional impairment were present in a significantly higher percentage of patients before starting the hormonal treatment than after 12 months (50% vs. 17% for anxiety; 42% vs. 23% for depression; 24% vs. 11% for psychological symptoms; 23% vs. 10% for functional impairment).

And a study of 67 trans people found that those who received HRT had a higher quality of life, reduced depressive symptoms, and better self-esteem:

After adjusting for age, gender identity, educational level, partnership status, children at home, and sexual orientation, hormonal therapy was an independent factor in greater self-esteem, less severe depression symptoms, and higher psychological-like dimensions of QoL (psychological well-being and taking care of oneself of the SQUALA).

These studies suggest that the relief of depressive and anxious symptoms I experienced upon starting HRT was not something I only imagined – it is a phenomenon that has been repeatedly observed among many other trans people. Conversely, those trans people who did not receive HRT were noted to have higher levels of these depressive and anxious symptoms. This doesn’t bode well for the notion that trans people should first seek relief from their distress through means other than transitioning; medical transition may be exactly what they need.

This is not a mere “fantasy solution” as described by a handful of bombastic personalities who traffic in media controversy. This is real: for trans people, transitioning works. That doesn’t mean it’s a miracle cure-all – and really, what is? – but it does mean that it helps.

9. How transitioning helped me

For trans people who are depressed, treatment for depression is not a substitute for transitioning – it is an additional treatment for an additional condition. Being treated for depression hasn’t made me feel that my transition is any less necessary, or that my womanhood is any less important; I continue to be far more comfortable than I ever was as a “guy”. If anything, I know that the experience of transitioning has put me in a far better position to handle a challenge like depression.

Before I made the decision to start HRT, I saw it as something to put off for as long as possible: it was a last resort, to be used only in the event that any further physical masculinization became intolerable. Eventually, I took a more proactive stance, realizing that it would be better to avert those changes as early as possible. And when I finally started transitioning, I was astonished that I had been missing out on the mental benefits of HRT for so long.

What I learned was: don’t wait. I didn’t have to spend all that time enduring daily discomfort when there was a treatment right in front of me that could have helped. And I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. As soon as I recognized that I was likely experiencing depression, I made an appointment – there was simply no good reason to put it off. The sooner I received treatment, the sooner I could start getting better.

Transitioning taught me what it was like to feel truly good for the first time in my whole life. And this contrast showed me that what came before, the fog of constant unease and dissatisfaction and emotional numbness, was not normal. If I hadn’t transitioned, I might never have learned that there was an alternative – that I didn’t have to feel that way. I wouldn’t have known that this perpetual struggle to cope with my own existence meant that something was wrong.

So when my depression set in, I realized that my search for answers shouldn’t stop at “I guess that’s just how it is”. I knew I had to do something to fix this. As I described it to my doctor: “it feels like before I transitioned.” I have that frame of reference now, with an intimate understanding of just how awful and terrifying that feeling is.

Transitioning, quite simply, improved me. It made me into a more confident, capable, perceptive, outgoing, and overall emotionally well-rounded person. And it made me realize that I matter. At last, I love the person I am, the face I see in the mirror, the mind that can finally work at its full strength. Transition made me care about myself, and now I know that I deserve the best in life. I don’t deserve to suffer.

10. The story so far

Like HRT, I had no idea how this would feel before I started, and I wasn’t sure if it would even make a noticeable difference. But, also like HRT, I’ve now found that it makes a very noticeable difference. By the end of the day, the stress usually hasn’t overwhelmed me, and it fades more quickly rather than sticking around indefinitely. I’m getting more things done, and I’ve even started to write again. I’m just plain happy – or, at least, content.

Before, I’d been struggling to stay above water; now, it’s like sitting in a glass-bottom boat. I can still see and contemplate all the things that had dragged me down before – the sense that I’m worthless, the apparent pointlessness of existence, the question of why I keep going, the knowledge that my body is still wrong – but the dark things are behind a barrier now, and they’ve mostly lost their power to lash out and sink their teeth into me. I could choose to think about them, but I usually don’t; my mind isn’t drawn to them because there’s very little appeal there. Those thoughts rarely arrive uninvited, and they don’t stay for long.

Heather says that my mood is more like that of when I first transitioned. And it does feel like that. I once described HRT as like running my consciousness through a noise removal filter, and my antidepressants seem to have a similar effect. It makes me confident that I’ve made the right decision. It isn’t perfect – I’ve also had a moderate increase in panic attacks, and I’m now being treated for that as well. But, altogether, things are improving. My doctor agrees, and says I can stay on it for as long as I feel it’s helpful. He’ll see me again in three months.

I realize that these are still the early days and anything I say about depression and its treatment still comes from a place of inexperience. There’s certain to be surprises ahead, just as my first excited videos about HRT only offered a snapshot in time that couldn’t predict all the changes that would follow. It could get worse, like dysphoria can get worse. My current medications could eventually stop working, like hormones did. As always, things are going to keep changing, and I won’t know how until it happens.

I still worry that this pattern will keep repeating – that my entire life will just be a constant sprint from one apparent solution to the next, without ever being able to settle on any final answer. But hormones bought me a good year, and hopefully this will too. Transitioning meant checking one thing off the list. Treating my depression is checking off another thing. However long that list may turn out to be, I’m chipping away at it.

This is a pretty big deal for me

Autostraddle, an online news and culture magazine for queer women, recently solicited submissions by trans women on topics relevant to transness and queerdom. Today, I’m overjoyed to announce that they’ve published their first selection: my story of transitioning and falling in love with Heather. It’s a photo-essay-ish inside look at how I came to understand myself as a woman, and how this is inseparably wrapped up with our life together. I’m a total fangirl for Autostraddle and this is one of the coolest things I could ever hope to accomplish. I hope you enjoy it!

Guess who just got engaged?

An engagement ring

For those of you who don’t know, my partner Heather and I have been together for almost two years now. It’s been a long and amazing and awesome journey so far, and last night, she decided to pop the question! It was just about the sweetest thing ever, and we agreed to upgrade from partners to fiancées. Seriously, I’m a fiancée. Wow. Obviously we’re both really excited, and we’ll keep you all updated on any new developments.


Two years later: Notes from the future

First Rule: Never out someone to him/herself.

You may not think this is possible, but it is.

A Straight Person’s Guide To Gay Etiquette

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?

Another Earth

You made it happen!

Last year, when I asked my readers for assistance with the legal and medical expenses associated with transitioning, you all came through for me with a generosity beyond anything I had expected. And today, I’m happy to say that thanks to your kindness and support, one major obstacle is finally out of the way. Six months after taking my new name, it’s officially mine:

Name change order. Lauren.

As we stood at the counter waiting for copies, the young trans man who was there for the same reason beamed at me and asked: “Does it feel good?”

It does.

Thank you.

2012: end-of-year review

2012 has been a pretty amazing year. Every year is interesting and full of stuff that happened, but this one was special in a lot of ways. Barack Obama was elected for the second time, we actually won in popular votes on marriage equality for the first time ever, and a bunch of people were voted out of office after saying ignorant things about women and rape. Private Bradley Manning’s trial finally began, and I’m probably going to get dragged into that all over again. There was The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Paranormal Activity 4, and new music from The Birthday Massacre, Madeon, Ellie Goulding and Kesha. On the other hand, there was also a huge hurricane and a horrific amount of gun violence, but at least we managed to survive another apocalypse. Altogether, it’s been a hell of a year.

More personally, I have a yearly tradition of looking back and seeing how much I’ve improved myself, and in that respect, this has been one of the most significant years of my life in a while. I’ve always figured that if I look at myself a year ago and see that nothing has changed, that’s when I’ll be in real trouble. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of a risk of that happening any time soon.

This was the year that I permanently moved to Florida, at least until Heather and I move somewhere else. I got my first apartment with her, and as time has gone by, I’ve become a little better at being a stepmom. I spoke at the Florida Secular Rally, which was my first time giving a speech ever, and people seemed to enjoy it.

But by far the biggest and most wide-ranging change of this year has been transitioning. I know that many of you have been watching where I’ve been headed for over four years now, and it’s probably not surprising that this is where I ended up. It certainly took me long enough, but I finally decided it was time to take this to the next level. After living as a woman for over a year, I came out to my family, most of whom didn’t suspect a thing. I even told my grandfather, despite everyone warning me not to, but it all turned out much better than I could have imagined. It was all absolutely terrifying, yet somehow I did it, and nobody has a problem with it.

I picked a new name and filed for a name change, which should be finalized after the new year. I found a really good therapist and a doctor, and I’ve been on hormones for more than 3 months now. I’d been putting it off for a while because I thought I didn’t need it, and then because I was worried about how it might change me, but I finally decided I at least had to see what it was like.

Make no mistake: the physical and mental effects of removing your testosterone and replacing it with estrogen are significant. And I discovered that this is exactly what was missing in my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a tense and irritable person, and even the smallest parts of everyday life never really came easily to me. I assumed that being perpetually stressed was just how I am, and it was my problem to deal with, possibly with weed or something. But I was wrong.

This has improved me more than I ever expected. My body is changing to feel more comfortable than it did before – to put it bluntly, I have breasts now – and my overall mood has become so much calmer and happier. I can find joy in almost anything, instead of frustration. Emotionally, I can feel nuance instead of numbness, and I can finally cry when I feel like it. My life has gotten so much easier because of this one little thing – insofar as a second puberty is just a little thing.

The most incredible part is that if I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have known that my body and my mind had this much room for improvement. I thought things were as good as they get, I thought I could be okay with the way it was before – but then I found something that made it all even better. Life doesn’t suck anymore!

I know there’ll never be another year like this, but I do hope the coming year is just as transformative, enlightening, and all-around awesome. And I hope that at the end of it, I can look back and say that it’s surpassed even this one. Happy new year!

Well, don’t hold back or anything

“You will have the chance to prove that your soul truly belongs in hell.”

– Lucifer, Constantine

You can learn a lot about something by applying pressure to it. You get to see where its weakest points are, and where the first cracks form. You can find out what’s underneath it, what’s inside it all – what’s really holding it together.

That’s how I discovered the limits of my family’s acceptance and understanding, and the full extent of their ignorance. When I told them I’d be coming out to my grandpa, the one they had insisted on keeping this a secret from, I found out where they really stood. And it wasn’t pretty.

I’m sure everyone wants to know the details of how I finally got this over with, but to our surprise, coming out to grandpa turned out to be the least of our worries. Was it stressful, terrifying, and the most nerve-wracking 30 minutes of my life? Yes. Did it require thinking on my feet, using every last ounce of strength I could muster, and leveraging every last traditional trans narrative into which I could fit the events of my life? Absolutely.

But it was a success. He gets it, and it doesn’t change anything for him. Somehow, we managed to navigate through that vast space of unpleasant possibilities, and find the path that led to a Republican, racist, homophobic, devout Catholic octogenarian accepting that his “grandson” is a woman now.

The more surprising and disappointing event of the day was how unhelpful certain members of my family turned out to be when I told them I was going to get this over with. They’d always seemed entirely supportive, only wanting what was best for me no matter what. But on that day, I learned firsthand some of the more hurtful things that loved ones can say to you when you’re trans.

I recognize that a lot of this is simply rooted in a lack of understanding or unintentional insensitivity rather than active malice; my family has certainly never been overtly hostile to me, and the impact of certain attitudes can be difficult to understand if you haven’t lived this life yourself. But it’s insensitive and hurtful just the same, and it’s worth going over why some of these approaches to your trans relatives and friends are really quite insulting.

First, it certainly doesn’t help to tell me this is the most “extreme” thing I could possibly do with my life, or that it’s so “different” and “out there”. I already know it’s different. Obviously, most people don’t do this sort of thing. And I know that most people either don’t really understand it, or disapprove of it and are content to be huge assholes about it for no good reason. I understand the challenges of coming out – if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered to put this off for so long. I would have told grandpa when I first came out to everyone, instead of spewing 2,000 dramatic words about how much this makes Christmas suck. But I recognize that people tend to have difficulties with this, and that people like my grandfather in particular are less likely to be understanding, and more likely to view it as “extreme” and one of the worst things I could possibly do.

But it’s really not. Anyone who thinks this is as bad as it could get is severely lacking in imagination. Nothing about this is life-ruining, reckless, or damaging to those around me. It deprives no one of anything. It isn’t adversely affecting me, and it isn’t adversely affecting anyone else. There are a lot worse things I could be doing than, um, being a woman. I have a family of my own. I have a partner and children who love me. I’ve made a name for myself as someone with ideas that people like to hear. After such a long time, I’ve finally found what makes me happy in my life, and I’m feeling better about myself every day now.

This has come at the expense of nothing. I already have people in my life who are capable of seeing this not as something weird or disturbing, but as something triumphant. They would never in a million years expect me to regard myself as “extreme” or “out there”, so asking that much of me is seriously out of line.

It also isn’t particularly productive to go on about how not everywhere is “anything goes” – as though transitioning in the middle of Florida has been a cakewalk compared to staying in Chicago. Really, when you’re trans, there is no place where people’s attitudes toward you are “anything goes”. You have to stake out those spaces for yourself – tiny, cramped spaces – slowly, carefully, always keeping your guard up. The only place here where “anything goes” for me is in these four walls with my girlfriend and our sons, with outsiders only being let in after the strictest of screening. Do you have any idea how much of the world you have to cut off just to avoid getting hurt? The only reason this place is any better for me is that Heather is here, and the people who think this is asking too much of them aren’t. Just what would you have done if I did decide to transition while I was back home, anyway?

Speaking of which, it’s pretty lousy to hear you talk about how glad you are that I moved a thousand miles away where nobody knew who I was. I can definitely appreciate the value of having a clean slate, starting anew in a place where people have no attachment to memories of me. But when you tell me how happy you are that nobody will be looking at you strangely or talking behind your back, and how you just lie to everyone who asks about how I’m doing these days, that isn’t happiness for me. It’s happiness that you got me far out of the way before anyone you know found out that this is who I am, before I could make life difficult for you by being a woman. I don’t think treating a child that way is something to be happy about. And I’m pretty sure it’s a little too late for that, anyway:

Worst timeline ever.

Worst timeline ever. Also, worst closet ever.

Yeah, I’m sure our friends never suspected a thing. Thank goodness they won’t have to see me changing so much.

And really, as if nobody’s ever going to be talking behind my back because of who I am? In the land of “NOBAMA” stickers and gun racks on every 4×4, I’m going to be dealing with this for a long time. Forgive me if I’m not all that sympathetic.

I also wasn’t too keen on the idea that I could just stay down here forever, precluding any need to come out to grandpa. That’s a hell of a sacrifice to make for a secret. I don’t intend to walk away from everyone I once knew. I’m not going to cut myself off from my parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, friends, and everyone who’s known me my entire life. What I want is for our families to be together, to get to know each other, and be on good terms without concealment or deception. That’s important to me. It’s so important to me that I was willing to take the risk of telling grandpa I’m a woman now, so that one day we could all be united. That’s how much this is worth to me! I don’t have a problem with people knowing who I am. Let them talk behind our backs – if we love each other, if we’re there for each other, none of it should matter.

Likewise, it’s just not accurate to suggest you would have had to deal with everything and I would have been isolated from any fallout if this went south, simply due to physical proximity. Whether I see grandpa every day or not, what my family thinks of me still has the power to hurt me, which is even more obvious to me now. I certainly never stopped caring about any of you just because we’re far away now, and I know you haven’t stopped caring about me.

And I really don’t appreciate the assumption that I was just going to “drop the bomb” on him in the least tactful way possible, purely for “shock value”. That definitely isn’t how I came out to the rest of the family. It’s not something you lob at people like a grenade. I know you haven’t been on my side of it, but this is typically accompanied by abject terror at the possibility of losing those who are closest to you, because what you are is often considered so bad that it can even destroy a family’s love. I was scared half to death just to tell any of you! There’s no way of knowing what people are going to make of something like this. It isn’t something to approach casually, and I’m pretty confident that my success with grandpa demonstrated that I was serious about doing this as delicately, gently and effectively as possible.

And on the subject of just what this is, I hope you can understand that it’s not actually “a sexual thing”. I know things like sexual orientation, gender identity, being gay and being trans get jumbled up a lot, and most people aren’t exposed to this enough to tell them all apart. But it’s only a sexual matter in the same sense that not being trans is a sexual matter, in the same sense that being a person is a sexual matter. Using those terms makes it sound like who I am is on par with the TMI of what people like to do in bed, like my mere existence is unnecessarily sharing some sexual fetish with everyone around me. The difference is that telling grandpa what we do in bed is inappropriate, but grandpa knowing whether someone is a man or a woman is not.

Finally, while I recognize that tact is called for when telling elderly relatives that you now live as a woman, demanding that I omit any reference to attire, appearance, or even my name is simply not realistic. it’s pretty tough to explain your true gender identity without some concrete details as to what this entails in a practical, everyday sense – and grandpa knows that just as well as I do. So what should I have said, when he asked if this is “like crossdressing”, and when he asked if I was still [old name]? By the end of our conversation, he’d learned that I’ve been dressing like this all along, even if he hadn’t noticed at the time. And he knew his granddaughter’s name. And he had no problem with this.

I might be even more irked about all this if coming out to him had gone as poorly as you predicted. But as is, I’m really happy to see that every expectation of doom was proven wrong – not just for my own sake, but for yours. I’m hoping this is something that people in my family can learn from and think about for a while, before they try to hide who I am ever again.

It’s okay now

I conferred with my family at length today about whether to come out to my grandpa. It wasn’t encouraging. They told me there was no way they saw this ending well. They told me it would cause a rift. They told me I was putting them in a difficult position.

And yet everyone here told me it would be okay. You told me he’d probably guessed something was up already. You told me he might be more understanding than I expected.

So I told him. He understood, and he just wants me to be happy. He says he’ll always love me and be there for me. And that we’re a family.

It’s over. It’s done. We took care of this.

No more secrets, no more lies, no more fear.

Thank you.

The last closet: Why I won’t be home for Christmas

“Just don’t tell grandpa.” It’s been my family’s constant refrain throughout the entirety of my out, public queerdom. It should be easy enough, right? We just… won’t tell him. But no matter how well you keep it, a secret won’t stay contained. It seeps from the black box where we tried to censor it out of our lives, growing little tendrils that infect everything they touch. Any other thing your secret would change is a secret now too. We always end up with more than we bargained for, until we’re desperately leaping across the chasms it leaves in our world.

My grandpa doesn’t know I’m a woman. How am I supposed to hide something like that?

Sure, it was easier when I was 19 and came out to my family as a “gay man”. As I tearfully hugged my mom and sister, I was so grateful just to be accepted that I probably would have gone along with anything in return. But it was my own cowardice too. It did seem safer, after all. What was the harm in letting grandpa – racist, Palin-loving grandpa who goes to church every morning and evening and gets mailers about the UN’s “homosexual agenda” – keep believing whatever he wants?

The holidays and birthday parties at his house, the weekly dinners together that had become a tradition for us since grandma passed away, the avoidance of politics as we barely concealed our disgust, everything continued as usual. It’s not like I ever had any boyfriends to hide, anyway. Maybe that should have told us all something.

By the time I first came out, I was well on my way to feminine territory. But breaking out of assumptions, especially big ones like what gender you are, can take some work. You’ve lived as a guy all your life, you find you have an attraction to men (even if not an exclusive one), you lean toward the effeminate, and that’s the role society offers you: gay man. It was just the nearest place I could find for myself. I wasn’t yet ready to consider that I might actually want to be a woman instead.


Nope, nothing to see here

Sometimes I wish I were one of the people who had “always known” in some sense that they were really a man or a woman, the people who eventually have that epiphany all at once, and know exactly what their path is if they choose to take it. Sure, I knew what it would mean to be trans – and people who knew me online were already starting to see me that way – but I had to carve away at the space of possibilities until the only remaining option was too obvious to ignore.

So I spent two years putting myself together into what I wanted to be, for the first real time in my life. Two years of going by “he or she, either’s fine”, while being she’d and ma’amed in public more and more often. Two years of growing into something more than a gay guy. “Drag”, I jokingly called it. But really, it was just… me.

You’d think people would notice their child, their grandchild, their sibling becoming a woman right before their eyes. It’s obvious in retrospect, but you might not recognize what’s happening if you don’t know what to look for. For my little midwestern family, the idea that one of us could be trans wasn’t even on their radar. “Sex changes” were just some abstract thing that happened to other people, somewhere else, in the realm of Jerry Springer and Maury and bad comedy movies. When something is so utterly remote from your experience, you don’t even consider the possibility that it could happen in your own home. Not even if you see it every day.

And that’s how things stayed, with nobody really sure what was going on, not even me. I settled into what I had begun to call the “gender demilitarized zone”, not quite trans but maybe, definitely not a guy but still partially “he” for no reason other than the inertia of the years, not yet countered by enough of an opposing force to push me over the hump into outright womanhood.

Then I met Heather. We hung out in the same queer chatroom, but we hadn’t really noticed each other until we both ended up arguing with some guy who thought all LGBT people should come out, no matter the personal cost. She’d recently realized that she really was lesbian after all, and that things weren’t going to work out between her and her husband. And somehow, once we started talking with each other, we couldn’t stop. We marveled at having finally found someone we could talk to on the same level, who truly understood what the other was saying, who never ever got tired of being around us. We talked for hours each day, only parting when we had to, staying up late into the night, inexorably growing together. And she called me “she”. It felt so right, for both of us.

After just a few months of the closest friendship I’d ever known, we decided we had to meet. We counted down the days – 63, 62, 61… – until she arrived in Chicago for a long weekend together. We dreamed of what it would be like, of holding hands and holding each other, of looking out on the world from the top of the Sears Tower and promising we’d be together forever.

The top of the Sears Tower

I’m nothing if not oblivious. Maybe it runs in my family. Afterward, she told me she’d been afraid of telling me how she really felt and scaring me away. Me, I’d just never been in love before, not like this. I didn’t know what it looked like. I couldn’t put a name to it, even when it was right in front of me.

She ran to me and swept me up into a hug the moment she saw me, holding me tighter than I’d ever been held. It was like everything I needed in life came together as we embraced, bathed in the light of that moment we’d dreamed of, finally made real. We held hands and ventured off into the city, not caring where we ended up as long as we were together, stopping at whatever bookstores and sculptures and museums we encountered along the way. At the end of the day, we closed our eyes and leaned on each other in a dark room at the Art Institute, ignoring some black and white film about tunnels.

It wasn’t long before we found ourselves in bed, lips against lips against skin against skin for hours until the night descended. Neither of us expected that. We didn’t know where this was going, and it didn’t matter. If this was where we’d been heading the entire time, then it was right. I never wanted to let her go.

Before she had to go back to Florida, she asked if I would be her girlfriend. Sometimes, all it takes is one question to put everything in perspective. I was not a boyfriend, I would not be a boyfriend, and we both knew it. We were nothing like a straight couple. And I was nothing like a guy. I cried as she got into her taxi and promised her we’d be together again.

When you’ve already come out to your family as a gay guy, it can be kind of awkward to tell them you have a girlfriend now. It felt like taking something back, even if I was actually queerer than ever. But it would have been even more awkward to give them the full story, explaining the intricacies of gender identities and the true nature of our relationship. It wasn’t until months later, when I was about to move to Florida to be with Heather and her kids, that my famously non-confrontational mom finally asked if I was still gay. The most I could bring myself to say was “…yeah, just not only gay.” We were both content to leave it at that.

Adjusting to life as a stay-at-home mom was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, but it’s so normal for me now that I can’t really remember what made it such a struggle. My family was worried that this was a big step for me, being so far away from home for the first time. Really, it was better for me than I ever expected. I was with Heather every day, and I was finally in a place where everyone had always known me as a woman. She’d even taught her kids about “girls in boy bodies and boys in girl bodies”. I didn’t know how valuable this kind of unconditional support was, until I experienced it firsthand and found out what I had been missing.

People who love me for who I am

Left to right: People who love me for who I am

Being with someone who had been through her own journey of self-discovery, who had dated trans women before, who saw me unambiguously as a woman, I knew that she understood me. I knew that I was safe with her. When I finally reached a point where I had to find a therapist, a doctor, to take the leap into starting hormones, to file for my name change, to pick out my first bra, she was there with me. And when I decided to call up my mom and sister and explain that I’d really been her girlfriend all this time, she held my hand as they spoke those same words: “Don’t tell grandpa.”

Where does this all leave grandpa, anyway? He never knew I was gay – back when I was the other kind of gay – so it came as no surprise to him that I have a girlfriend now, that I have kids, that I have my own family. We still talk sometimes, and he loves to hear about how we’re all doing. “It’s almost like you’re the mom”, he said as I told him about Heather’s new job. Yeah, almost. I don’t have to hide anything about my new life, except for this one little detail that could tear everything apart.

I haven’t seen my family for over a year. Even if we had room in our finances and our schedules for a trip across the country, I don’t think I could do it, not while I’m still some secret they’re keeping. Not if I’d have to pretend to be someone else. For all the ridiculous fearmongering about how any mention of transgender people will just “confuse” children, I’m certain my sons would be much more confused to see their stepmom treated like a man, called by a name they’ve never known.

I won’t put us through that. I’m not going to act like Heather and I are straight, I’m not going to be a “stepdad” or a “husband”, and I’m not going to hide what my body has become. When I see my family again, I won’t be the person they want to pretend I am. I won’t be someone else. This is too important to compromise, so until something changes, I just won’t be there. I can’t do it.

The family he won't get to see

Despite how scary it is, how likely to end in disaster, I still want to tell him. I’m convinced that he deserves to know, even if he hasn’t necessarily earned it. When Heather and I get married, I want him to be there. The alternative, the ultimate passive-aggression of leaving him out of it all or waiting for him to die without ever knowing who I really am, is even more unthinkable. I want him to know that he has a granddaughter, that I’m making the most of myself and I’m finally, truly happy for the first time. He’s our last connection to the grandma we all miss so much, who never got to see me grow up, and I know she’d want to be a part of my life no matter what.

I still keep putting it off, and I don’t know why. Maybe I just want to have as many days as I can where I know I’m still loved and appreciated, even if it’s on false pretenses. Maybe I don’t want to have it confirmed that my own grandpa would hate me for who I am. Maybe I want to hold on to the hope that it might not be so bad. But every day he doesn’t know is a day I won’t get back, and that’s the price I’m paying for this secret.

It’s not that big of a deal… is it? I’m still the person he’s always known. The rest of my family treats me just the same – it hasn’t changed anything between us. It’s just who I am, and it should be the least important thing in the world. Why does it have to matter so much?

This can’t last, and we all know it. Everyone in my family has always valued keeping the peace above all else, and none of us are looking forward to blowing the whole thing wide open. But it has to happen. Some things are more important than peace, and too valuable to hide away forever. What am I waiting for? Just courage – the courage to put that missing piece back into my life, to wipe out that spreading ink blot of secrecy. This time, I’ll be the one to fill it in with the truth.