Note: Most of this is going to be my experience as a MTF transgender woman. I am specifically not writing about trans men or trans people of color because I’m not one, and it would not be my place to speak to that. However, trans men and trans people of color erasure is a real thing, and it’s not my purpose to exclude anyone.
I‘ve always felt a little bit out of place my entire life. It took me over 30 years of being alive to come to the conclusion that I am a transgender woman. There was no magic “on” switch, I didn’t have an “Aha!” moment. And keep in mind, the experiences of one trans woman doesn’t equate to every trans woman’s experience. If you’re here reading this, there’s a good chance maybe you’re starting to have your own questions.
First, let me give you some background on me and how I came to say to myself “OK, I’m transgender. Now what?”:
A fun fact I used to throw around when meeting new people is that I am a retired Southern Baptist preacher’s kid. Dad had his share of grief from various churches over his wife (Mom) being married before him. They’re really not keen on a lot of things, let alone divorce. We moved churches a lot when I was little, and finally when dad semi-retired we settled on one. I grew up spiritually as a pretty serious Christian. That lasted through college, where I left after graduation to start a new Christian campus ministry in Virginia. That lasted for a very hard year of my life – then I moved to the Appalachian mountains in another state, and have been here since. I got married to a lovely pansexual genderqueer person in 2013, and we’ve been together since. She supports me enthusiastically in my discovery and exploration of my gender.
My entire life, I’ve been living as a heterosexual cisgender (identifying as the gender assigned at birth) white male. Once or twice for fun, I’d dipped into cross dressing – mostly for kicks at Halloween. I’ve never really felt comfortable bonding too closely with men – the ones I did befriend I could only awkwardly try to relate. “Manly” and “masculine” things were mostly fine as long as they were legitimately interesting. I liked dressing well and looking good, but only if I had somewhere to go and the spoons to dress up.
Conversely, I’d always admired women and the way they looked, dressed, walked, and were generally just beautiful. Men I knew didn’t get to be beautiful. Not like that. And god forbid you commented on a man looking handsome – because then you were called the worst thing: gay. There’s been a meme / hashtag going around for some time now that says “Masculinity so fragile:” and I think it perfectly sums up every irrational fear and hold-back I had most of my life with regards to my sexuality and gender. My masculinity was so fragile that in order to not appear weak, “gay,” or girly – sometimes I participated in cruelty. I may very well have been part of what made someone else put off coming out. In fact I’m almost sure of it.
So cut to last Halloween (2016) when I dressed up as a “sexy” cat woman. My wife helped me put on make-up and loaned me a nice black dress. I stuffed a bra with socks and painted my nails and toenails. I put on panty hose. I put on a silly fake cat tail and a cat mask and a cheap $3 blonde wig I picked up at a Store Where Things Are Generally A Dollar or More. I was actually pretty happy about all of it, and had a really great time at the Halloween party we attended. I won “Sexiest Costume” in our friends’ costume contest. And I felt so good being told I looked pretty – I felt right for the first time in a while. And that made my big ol’ anxiety/depression/Southern Baptist preacher’s kid brain go ape shit.
I’d known exactly two trans people in person at acquaintance level at best. I’d interacted with a few others, but I was generally someone who “tried real hard” to be an ally. But I was like “I love having a penis, how could I be trans?”
“I love having a penis, how could I be trans?”
My penis was a large part (heh, I’m twelve at heart) of my identity as a cis man. Not having a penis, after all, is looked down upon generally throughout history, especially if you’re a man. Because if you don’t have a penis, you’re only as good as what – a woman? But you can’t make your own babies without a penis, so you’re worth even less than a woman, right? I had a lot of really screwed up perceptions as a result of my conservative upbringing. I never thought I hated women, but I didn’t realize my attitude towards women was deeply seated and just as bad as hating women directly. That’s sort of the problem with misogyny, most of the time you don’t know you’re doing it. So many customs, terms, laws, and systems are long-standing and well-taught that we just treat this bullshit like it should be normal.
But, shouldn’t a trans woman hate her penis and want it gone? If I don’t fully transition, what am I?
I don’t hate having a penis. But I am way less attached to it than I was before. As my attitudes and perspectives shifted to be more intersectional and inclusive, I find my identity truly comes from who I feel I am inside and how I matter to the people I care the most about. So while I care about losing my penis in the same way I’d care about losing an arm or a leg, I don’t let my genitalia dictate my value.
In terms of labels, gender identity is not and should not be related to what genitalia is (or isn’t) in your pants. I am a transgender woman because I choose to identify as such. If I never presented female, had a beard, only dated women, and never really talked about it with anyone but my wife, I’d still be a transgender woman. I’ve always been a woman. I am a woman. Using “trans” as a qualifier is only there for whenever it’s relevant that I was not assigned female at birth.
You could also be non-binary
I spent a lot of time when I first started considering I might be trans wondering if I might just be non-binary. Based on what other people described of their own experience on Reddit, I felt like a “boy” some days and way more like a “girl” most other days. Since it fluctuated, I thought for sure I was probably non-binary. Non-binary doesn’t mean you’re “both genders” because gender is a spectrum. Non-binary could mean you’re agender or gender fluid or gender queer or just somewhere on the spectrum that isn’t the two traditional binary options of male and female. It’s also sort of a misnomer to use male and female as opposite ends of the gender spectrum, as male and female are not opposites, just different.
However, my thoughts on being non-binary were really just my internalized transphobia going “Oh man, being non-binary isn’t as bad as being transgender, so maybe it’s just that” in the same way I also told myself “you just think some men are handsome, you’re not bi or pansexual!” Again, my perspectives were still really screwed up and I’m trying to be earnest about my experience.
When I finally told myself there’s no shame in being transgender, I embraced it awkwardly. I didn’t tell my wife for weeks. I skated along back and forth, and kept reading trans-related subreddits. I never posted or spoke up to comment, just read the same haunting questions over and over again from newly trans folk. And I would find myself trying to surreptitiously sneak peaks at trans women’s Instagram accounts and Twitter feeds to see what changes were possible with transition.
Coming out can be terrifying
There’s very little you can do in your life, as decisions go, that will make you wonder if telling others about it will cost you your relationship with that person. Off the top of my head, “I killed a guy” and “I’m addicted to meth” are two confessions that might send someone packing. For many people, they have to worry about losing their spouse, family, friends, job, and maybe their faith. I was fortunate that my wife is so amazing. She has helped me change so much for the better. I had no fear coming out to her, because I knew she’d love me and be attracted to me no matter what. And I was right!
For my friends, I had mixed emotions about coming out. In the end, I wasn’t afraid any of them would react violently. I had some worries that a few might be rude or just struggle a lot with misgendering me. None of them would be aggressively mean. And I decided in the end that anyone who really cared about me would just be happy I was doing me.
I still haven’t told my mom or my stepdad. Dad passed in 2008 and had no idea at the time. I’ve come out to my wife’s family because I decided they could handle it and still let me come visit, and they did. I’m able to be in girl mode with almost everyone I care about.
For everyone else, I’ve told them either out of safety (they didn’t really have any ability to hurt or jeopardize my relationships or career) or convenience. A lot of my game night friends know because it allows me to attend game night and be myself.
Work, and balancing two identities
Being in the South, I wasn’t sure about work. I was feeling it out and waiting for a time to approach HR first. I wanted to start HRT (hormone therapy) and apply for a name change so I could present to HR all at once. Then I figured I’d get a new security badge, talk with my manager, and show up on a planned day in girl mode to hopefully little fanfare.
None of that happened, because I didn’t get the chance. However, now that I’m self-employed / unemployed for the moment, I’ve decided moving forward I’m going to be full-time as much as possible, including future job interviews. They either hire me or they don’t. I know it’s going to hurt my chances sometimes, but for the right company it’ll be a blessing to work somewhere that is trans friendly.
Every day at work in boy mode felt fake, fraudulent, and I couldn’t wait to get home and take the boy clothes off and relax. I lived for Friday nights at game night when I could get dolled up and go be me. I’m still not completely free of boy mode – I have some family friends and relatives who don’t know and I don’t want to explain it to them or have to answer questions. So I pack an extra set of boy clothes when I travel, and I take none of them with me to visit my parents.
Still, one day soon, there will be only girl mode. There will be no Dana, only Zöe!