Society is slowly waking up to the idea that transgender people exist as something other than a fetish or punchline in a Hollywood sex comedy. When Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner came out recently, America’s reaction was no doubt less terrible than it would have been 20 years ago.
But the question lots of people ask is, “How in the world someone like Jenner can reach that age and then suddenly ‘decide’ they’re a woman?” Well, the answer is that it’s not that simple. We talked to a trans woman who didn’t make the transition until well into adulthood, and once again found out that society does not make it fucking easy. She says …
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Everything about transgender people must seem baffling from the outside. Why put yourself through a lengthy transition that upends your entire life, and may or may not involve invasive and enormously expensive surgery? How is it even possible that 46 percent of trans people under 24 have attempted suicide? Can it really be that big of a deal?
Well, before I transitioned, I remember once talking to a friend about their depression, and they mentioned that they didn’t mind waking up in the morning — it’s the other things in life they didn’t like. And that was when I realized that I didn’t particularly like any of it; not waking up, not even the basic human pleasure of putting on a warm, freshly laundered pair of boxers. Adopting what feels like a false persona at school, work, and around family is like going out in the world wearing a sandpaper body glove. There’s this painful friction between who you are and who you pretend to be.
Uros Petrovic/iStock/Getty Images
Lie lie lie
But that’s what you do when society says that every impulse and pleasure in your life is unnatural and wrong. This feeling of hating being in your own skin is there around the clock, on top of all of the normal stress that comes with school, work, sex, and growing up in general. I didn’t have that pressure relief valve that other people seem to have — I’d eventually shut down, miss school or work, and be mean to friends and family. I’d need a crazy amount of time to recharge into something resembling a decent person. And the whole time, I had no idea what was wrong with me.
Keep in mind that for most of my life, I didn’t know transgender people were a thing. The word “transgender” wasn’t even mentioned in my high school sex ed class — transgender health is not exactly compatible with the Floridian version of “health education.” We still teach that abstinence is the expected standard for teens — an expectation that seems pretty damn unrealistic, since we’re sixth in the nation for teen pregnancies. Go Gators!
Florida: the only wang more off-putting to me than my own.
So I slogged through as a boy, even though everything about that felt wrong. It was worst in the mornings, when I’d have to get dressed for the day. Being required to wear pants felt exactly as wrong to me as it would feel for most guys if the law suddenly forced them to go out in a dainty skirt every single day. I assume those guys would spend a lot of time trying to find the manliest one they could (“This plaid skirt kind of looks like Braveheart, right?”) and that’s what I did, but in the other direction. I could convince myself to wear certain things if they were comfortable enough or soft enough, but every morning was a bargaining game. Eventually, I found myself wearing sweatpants every day. Yeah, I was a damned fashion maven. But …
When I was a kid, soft things were my haven. I slept with a teddy bear every night, and my mother was kind enough to get me really soft sheets. Soft blankets were always on hand. I took a lot of comfort in having girls around and in being close to them, which was kind of like inadvertent “camouflage.” I’d take female-style attention wherever I could; in high school, I realized that I could get girls to play with my hair if I put gel in it, and that was like finding gold. I eventually got bored of the gel, but later, one of my female friends combed my hair while we chatted — she must’ve thought I enjoyed it for way more carnal reasons than I actually did.
I always made a point to wear my hair as long as I could, until the “You look like a girl!” jokes started to hit a little too close to home. When I was in elementary school, I remember sitting next to my girlfriend at the time, and was taken as a female by someone following behind us. That’s … not exactly a compliment to most men, and possibly straight-up fightin’ words for some. But I was all about it.
I also enjoyed being mistaken for my mother when answering the phone. And having smooth, soft skin. Of course, puberty threw a descended-testicles shaped wrench in that. Sure, approximately zero percent of kids have a puberty devoid of weirdness — it’s an awkward, confusing, strange-smelling time, and the only good part is discovering the odd cache of woodlands porn. But puberty is even weirder when your body is changing in ways that you don’t want.
My increasingly full body hair is what inspired me to start plucking. It was an endless, losing battle against the hair sprouting up all over my body. I was most upset when it came in thick and black on my legs. And then I got even older and, of course, it came in on my back as well. Nothing upset me like back hair; plucking that was my Vietnam. I have a little spot on my ankle that naturally doesn’t grow any hair, and I remember sitting cross-legged and feeling the softness between the increasingly dense leg hair that encroached on it. If any hair was unlucky enough to sprout in my little island of serenity, it would be quickly removed, sometimes distracting me all day until I could get some tweezers.
Eventually, I started wearing female underwear. It just sorta happened one day — I didn’t let myself think about it. At first it was sexualized, but eventually I stopped wearing boxers altogether and would go to work in a thong because it felt better. I hated wearing boxers, but eventually had to let them … box their way back into my life, when I started dating a girl. But when that relationship fell apart, I went right back. I remember saying to myself, “Well at least I don’t have to wear boxers anymore.”
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I struggled with who I was for years, thinking maybe I was gay, or weak (in which case, I needed to “man up,” whateverthefuck that means). Asking myself “Am I a woman?” was further complicated by the difficulty of defining exactly what a woman is. Around one in 5000 women are born without a vagina. Some women are born with a functioning vagina, ovaries, etc. … and also a Y chromosome, long considered the definitive badge of masculinity. Do you know what it’s like to drive yourself crazy trying to puzzle through something that, for most people, is so black and white that they never give it a second thought?
Because I was born a boy, and this was Southwest Florida, the expectation was that I’d meet and have sex with girls. This didn’t seem like as much of a problem at first, because I’d always really liked girls. They were so pretty, and they smelled so good, and they looked so good … I must be “normal,” right? But it turned out I was so fascinated by girls because I wanted to be one, which contributed to some rather unhealthy relationship dynamics. It’s hard to have good, close, emotional sex when you can’t stop imagining how much better it would feel to be on the other side of the flesh pile. The first time I had sex the right way (for me), I knew that all the other times had been shams.
But the desire to be “normal” is a stronger urge for teenagers than eating or pooping, and I’d tried to force myself to be “male” in order to keep fitting in. So I got very good at acting the way I was expected to act in order to avert suspicion. Unfortunately, the life I was expected to live — growing up to get married and come home to a wife with two kids, that kind of thing — was nothing like the life I wanted for myself. It didn’t even occur to me that the reason I felt so awful while pursuing those dreams was because they weren’t my dreams — they were someone else’s. And then, finally …
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My brain had been trying awfully hard to get my attention for a long time. A common refrain of people coming out later in life is how much we regret not putting the pieces together sooner. One question people asked me with some regularity when I finally came out was, “But how could you not know?” Well, the fact is that if anyone actually knew everything about themselves, we wouldn’t have therapists, psychiatrists, Zoloft, or an illegal drug trade. There are things about yourself that you’re completely unaware of that your coworkers knew within 30 seconds of meeting you. The human mind is funny that way — your biggest blind spot is yourself.
Noel Hendrickson/Blend Images/Getty Images The more I insisted heels were totally
a dude thing, the less everyone believed me.
Me, I realized I was trans when I was tripping on two-and-a-half tabs of acid while browsing Reddit and trying to roll a joint. I came across a thread called something like “What is your one deepest regret?” I scrolled my way through a few borderline-interesting posts until I got to one written by an apparent linebacker. He described himself as a small giant, over six feet tall and all muscle and so on, and he regretted that he would never be the beautiful petite girl he truly wanted to be. I read with a fervor, forgetting about the joint. Now, I was by no means any kind of linebacker, but I was firmly in the grip of the seeming inevitability of the damage testosterone was doing to my body. I knew exactly what he was saying.
Then, someone in the thread said, “It’s not about who you go to bed with, it’s who you go to bed as,” and another part of my mind was blown. I went into that thread thinking that transgender people were only created when a doctor failed to choose the right genitals for an ambiguously-sexed newborn. Suddenly, I realized how all of those years of wanting to be with my girlfriends had much more to do with me wanting to be my girlfriends.
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I have great parents. My dad, a man so doggedly conservative he left his Canadian citizenship behind to become an American, was instantly supportive. My mom has been wonderful, but … it wasn’t an instant process. I decided to come out to her in the wake of my first, mind-blowing experience of actually enjoyable sex. A few days after that, she’d given me an “I love you” as I was going down the stairs and, well, that seemed as good a time as any:
“I want to be a woman.”
She gasped as if I had told her I had stabbed the mailman to death. She blamed it on my ADHD medication, on ADHD itself, and on marijuana. Then I explained to her that it was very likely due to an insufficient delivery of male hormones to the developing fetus, and she blamed herself. When I finally convinced her that it was just a matter of pure chance, she told me it felt like her son was dying.
It took almost two months for her to stop freaking out. At one point after coming out, I remember overhearing her say, “Well at least he isn’t a murderer” (what, you thought I was exaggerating when I described her reaction above?).
Dick Luria/Photodisc/Getty Images Good thing I’m not a murderer, because the courts are even
That’s not the worst thing a young trans person has ever heard a parent say. It doesn’t even make the top, oh, quarter million things. But it goes to show that even wonderful, accepting parents falter in the face of a surprise like that. My mom was totally fine with the idea that I might be gay, but accepting a new gender after two-ish decades was a bridge too far.
She was also legitimately afraid for my future, saying, “Your life is going to be so much harder now.” She was wrong, of course — fighting the truth of who I was, that was the hard part. I finally knew my mom had come around the day we went out for dinner with an aunt of mine, who’d been the opposite of supportive — she spent the whole meal pointedly referring to me as male and using my birth name. My mom finally took her aside in the bathroom and told her, “My daughter has made her decision and I am going to back her up on that decision. She’s never seemed happier, and there is nothing I care about more than that. I don’t even care if she tells me tomorrow that she was wrong about the whole thing — I just want her to be happy. And Christina is so much happier now. I wish you could see it yourself, but you can’t be around her if you’re going to be like this.”
Mike Coppola/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Hollywood is finally trying to portray positive transgender characters, as opposed to using them as the punchline of a cheap gag where a character drunkenly hits on her at a bar. But there’s a catch: In the name of making them positive, their de facto standard transgender woman is incredibly confident and absolutely decisive about who she is. She also makes a conventionally attractive lady.
And hey, those ladies exist and they’re great. But simply coming to a basic understanding of what we are is a huge painful struggle for many of us, and that’s exacerbated by the fact that how we look on the outside will never match our gender. Keep in mind, Jenner’s transformation into a cover girl cost around $4 million.
Vanity Fair Each of her
2.5 million Twitter followers could have given her a dollar and still wouldn’t have covered it.
The fact is that our society judges “femaleness” primarily not on chromosomes or crotches, but on appearance. A general audience doesn’t have much trouble accepting Laverne Cox as a woman because duh, look at her.
Brad Barket/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images She is better looking than anyone you’ve ever
Because it took me a long time to “come out” even to myself, I missed my chance to stop puberty by a good ten years. A lot of damage has been done that can’t be undone. There are both subtle things and big things — shoulder width, arm width, hand and foot size, height, facial hair, and a penis large enough to cause unfortunate bulges. Estrogen pills and testosterone blockers are great for getting rid of body hair (not facial hair), but you don’t assume every dude with smooth legs is a woman. And for a newly transitioning person, every shade of stubble is like a punch to the gonads — which, by the way, we aren’t super comfortable with either.
That creates a very real fear of not being able to “pass.” That’s made more difficult by the habits we’ve built up all our lives. It took me a long time to get used to my new name, and I felt like a liar for months when I introduced myself as “Christina.” Sometimes when I’d meet someone new who I liked, I’d introduce myself by my very masculine birth name — half out of nervousness, half out of habit.
Most of the work I’ve had since coming out involves dealing with customers, over the phone and face-to-face. This means being constantly misgendered, thanks to the lack of clarity in the phone line and my relative inexperience at sounding like a girl. Yeah, your voice stays the same — some people are as good at faking the voice of another gender as Hugh Laurie is at pretending to be American, but transitioning doesn’t come with acting classes.
But eventually, I stopped feeling like a liar when I told people my name was Christina; now it feels like I’m lying when I use my old male name. At first it was weird going out in public — and it still is, because I still have thousands of dollars of electrolysis to pay for — but nowhere near as bad as when I would do so dressed and acting as a guy. Walking around in the sun in a sundress is literally worth living for, because it feels so goddamn right. The words that always play across my mind are “I feel so free.”
That’s something I had never experienced before without the aid of drugs. But now I can look at myself in the mirror and like what I see most of the time. If that doesn’t sound like much to you, well, that’s the point. People like me have to travel a long road just to get to a point most of you take for granted. And many of us never make it at all.
When not being distracted by her new female bits, Christina Hitchens likes making video games, talking to friends, and working on her autobiography. You can check out her utterly incomplete blog at http://thebigideacollider.weebly.com, or you can email her. Robert Evans runs the personal experience section of Cracked. Find him here on Twitter.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Awful Lessons I Learned Transitioning From Female To Male and 5 Shocking Realities Of Being Transgender The Media Ignores.
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