I came out to myself as transgender four years ago, when I lived in Flagstaff, meaning I decided to try accepting my transness instead of continuing to fight, ignore, and deny it. This was a birthday present I gave myself. I was twenty-seven. It was April. I was still reeling from a September breakup caused by coming out to the person I was dating, and I had been dealing with the emotional damage by, well, being tremendously depressed and drunk for most of the next year.
Coming out to myself was a moving-on gesture. I thought of it as simplifying. It meant “Now I don’t have to lie to anyone about this part of me ever again.”
I had suspected I was trans since I was…well, there are a few moments.
When I was twelve, my parents brought the internet to our home. The internet let me research me. Sadly, trans people were mostly allowed to exist in the late-1990s internet as the objects of sex fetish sites–Chicks with Dicks, Shemales, Ladybois, Live Hot Tranny Action, etc. I spent most of my adolescence and undergrad years thinking that “the part of me which knew something was horribly wrong with my body’s physical gender” was just a sex fetish, not tied to my identity, something stimulating but shameful (thanks Roman Catholicism, thanks sex-shaming culture) and ultimately ignorable. Nevermind that I thought about how good it would feel to have a female body in non-sexual contexts. I couldn’t make the distinction then. I didn’t have the words, I didn’t have the concepts, I didn’t have the education, or the self-awareness, to understand what was going on, and I had nobody I felt safe talking about it with.
Before I was twelve, I watched The Jerry Springer Show, where I saw my first trans people, and learned how shameful and bad and wrong it was to be trans, based on audience responses to what we said, to how we dressed, how we talked, our gender nonconformity in general. People would boo at nearly anything we said, and Jerry would pace the aisles, sometimes scrunching his mouth, sometimes furrowing his brow, bobbing atop the sea of disapproval. Everything we did was suspect, some cheap performance, a bad imitation of the real deal. I am speaking almost exclusively about trans women. If trans men were on Jerry, either I don’t remember them because I just forgot, or they weren’t as sensationalized, weren’t as shamed, weren’t yelled at with as much vitriol as the trans women were, so I had even less reason to remember them. Or maybe I just missed all the trans men episodes.
I know now that sexist ideas probably also made the trans men less sensational–if it’s better to be a man than to be a woman in American culture, if males and masculinity are more valued than females and femininity, if masculinity is viewed as natural and femininity as artificial, then wanting to be male made more sense and seemed rational in that context, while wanting to be female and casting off one’s precious masculinity read like blasphemy, like madness. Wanting to be female calls into question the value of masculinity, since someone is choosing to discard it, to value something more. Suggesting masculinity is worth less than femininity pisses off the insecure male types whose identities are based around their manliness and manhood. Whatever I understood when I watched Jerry, it kept me closeted and ashamed, reinforced those feelings when I started being able to put words to them once I had the internet.
Once when I was seven, I told my Dad that when I grew up, I wanted to be Samus Aran, protagonist of the Metroid game franchise, armored space gal, alien slayer, bounty hunter extraordinaire, a resourceful, powerful, and badass (imaginary) woman. He asked who that was. I said nobody.
Back to Flagstaff. After accepting my transness, I came out to friends later that month. It was a bright, balmy April night on the high desert. The mountains glowed red in the sunset. The stars were huge, felt close, like I could blow on them and they would shiver. I went out with some of my writer cohort to celebrate my birthday, and got extra drunk because I was planning to come out to people, which made me super anxious, but I left the bar grateful for the support and willingness to learn that I encountered from my friends.
I came out to my mother in May, and her response to me saying I was trans, “I wish you weren’t. You people all turn out like freaks with breasts,” basically ended our relationship for some years. I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the summer, and had a sleep-deprivation-and-anxiety-induced hallucination in July.
In the hallucination, I was female, and it felt amazing, until a fire-breathing dragon appeared and torched the happy place a friend had helped me build in my mind (we had spent the afternoon doing progressive relaxation and visualization exercises to try and help me sleep). That dragon, so angry, rage incarnate, filled the burning realm with its lizard howl. At some point, female-me tames the dragon, gets it to stop destroying the world. Female-me gives the dragon a hug. The dragon hugs back, but the dragon has transformed into me as a male. Female-me does not know how to takes this. She offers male-me a tomato sandwich, and he accepts, and they have a little picnic on the bank of a river. Female-me says something like, “Maybe it’s time to do my own thing, let this guy have his own space,” and then I woke up covered in sweat. An hour had passed since I last checked the clock. I rolled over and slept soundly for the first time in months.
I came out to my father the following October. It was one of the last conversations I had with him before he died. All he wanted to talk about, what he kept steering the conversation back to, was the crap he had learned from trans-exposé television programs, those transphobic freakshows that follow trans people around while they get surgery after surgery, talk about their genitals and how much they hate them, and basically fulfill all the damaging narratives cis people make us perform in exchange for getting any exposure in the media.
In the October conversation, my father asked about my penis, repeatedly. “So when are you gonna chop off your dick?” I’ll never forget. I write essays about that conversation, poems about that clause. He assumed being trans meant I liked men, because why else would anyone transition unless they wanted to get fucked by a guy, right? He couldn’t separate the idea of sexuality from the idea of gender identity. He couldn’t separate the label “trans” from the biocentric idea that genitalia is the last word on gender. It was one of the most difficult discussions I’ve ever had. But I was out to him. Finally. Irrevocably. Afterward, I felt great, like I was glowing. A friend invited me over for dinner. He said, “That feeling you have right now? Hold onto it.” And I did. It lasted weeks.
Now, two years into hormone replacement therapy, I don’t come out. I get the impression people can (often) see my trans status when they notice the discrepancies between my face and my body, my bone structure and my clothing, my beard (what’s left of it) and my breasts. Or when I talk. Or sneeze. Or cough. The eyes that dart over my form, gendering it, throwing templates upon it I fail to fulfill, criteria I fail to meet. I am always out.
I feared not-passing (read: not looking like a cisgender woman) for so long. It was one of the arguments I would use when convincing myself to stay closeted; it was the argument my mother made when she wished I wasn’t trans.
Now that I’m out, always, I kinda like it. It keeps things simple. Since I can’t hide, I don’t hide. I don’t have to come out.
I’d like to live in a world where there is no societal shame that drives people into the closet, that makes people think being closeted is the right, or safe, or rational mode to live by. I’d like to not have to come out. I’d like there to be space in our cultural narratives for trans people, for LGBQ people, so that we never internalize the ideas that make us stay closeted in the first place.
I don’t want there to be a closet. I don’t want there to be “coming out.” It’s way better out here. It’s frightening, and hateful, and violent, and stupid, and uninformed, and misgendering, and exclusionary, and generally difficult. Still, there is Friedrich Nietzsche:
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Happy National Coming Out Day 😀