There is a face I don’t recognize. It shows up at the strangest times: when I’m climbing out of the shower, or about to go to bed, it appears in a flash. It is gone almost as soon as it appears.
When I catch myself in the mirror at a certain angle it almost seems as if, for a brief moment, I might be someone else. It’s not as if my ostensibly masculine features disappear. My face isn’t changing. It would be easier to say that the way I see my face is changing. Something shifts. It registers in an instant, and in that instant my heart leaps. But it doesn’t last forever. Within a few moments reality prevails and I am reminded of just how much my face hasn’t changed.
I’m a late bloomer. I’ll never pass. I’m OK with that. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to, even if I could.
There’s a before and after in my life, split neatly on either side of one significant event: the day I discovered I was transgender. I didn’t know from a young age. I didn’t experience a lot of the same formative experiences many of us do – no dressing in mom’s clothes, playing with dolls, or any of the other “traditional” signifiers to which the news media tells us transgender women are drawn. The preponderance of those stories was one of the reasons why, even after the word “transgender” had entered the public discourse, I still never saw myself reflected in any of the new generation of trans “role models.” My symptoms were still too diffuse, seemingly unconnected to my gender, manifesting mostly as depression, anxiety, and apathy. I spent years in therapy bemoaning the fact that psychiatric drugs never really worked quite so well as I thought they should, and that no amount of willpower could bring me to wrest control over the sliding wreckage of my life.
This is a familiar story. Maybe you were a late bloomer too and shared something similar.
One significant problem with being clueless for so long about something so critical is that so many other parts of our lives are touched by gender as well, and these parts can be hurt without our even knowing it. Without having all the information about who I was, I had no hope of understanding any aspects of my life that are inextricably tied to gender. Most of what I believed to be true about myself was revealed to be lies. Categories I had believed in good faith to be fairly settled suddenly erupted into confusion and insecurity.
Categories like sex.
One day I woke up believing I was a heterosexual cis male, and went to sleep knowing I was a transgender woman. That previous belief had rested on a foundation of custom and familiarity. All I knew, really, was that I wasn’t attracted to men, and if I didn’t have any interest in men, I must be straight. QED. Right?
The moment I knew I was trans my mind began the painful process of reorienting my thoughts to match the new reality I had entered. It wasn’t just painful but at times scary to realize how much of my life had been hidden from me. I could feel tumblers moving in the nether reaches of my brain, gears turning in private recesses. Very quickly I realized that not only were there still regions of my own mind which had lain undiscovered for decades, but that these regions were already occupied by thoughts and ideas that had never before found voice.
My ideas about sex were neatly fastened to my ideas about gender. If I ever started to question the solidity of either of these ideas, any doubt or confusion was banished with little fanfare to one of those aforementioned distant regions of my mind. It was extremely important that I never pull on the thread of wondering why, for instance, sex was always so dissatisfying, if not purely disastrous. Why had I never had a fulfilling sexual relationship? Why had every woman I’d ever slept with seemed slightly unnerved by the experience? Believing you are an inept lover is a terrible and isolating feeling, especially when masculine virtue accepts virility and sexual stamina at or near the apex of male achievement. I wasn’t completely unattractive, but there was something missing in my personality, and this elision manifested in a few curious ways: one of them was my inability to even imagine what a fulfilling sexual relationship might look like, and the other was a deep jealousy of sex and sexuality that manifested as feigned disinterest or outright hostility. Frankly, I hated people who loved sex, who knew how to do it, how to find adequate partners, and even how to explore alternate possibilities of sexual expression. I was filled with envy and desire that could only devour me from the inside out, like flames reaching up from my gonads to tickle the base of my brain.
I had spent a lifetime as a man filled with frustration and self-loathing over my failures as a lover. The worst part was that I thought this was just the way it was supposed to be. Sex was a mystery, and even though I felt what I believed to be a “normal” and “healthy” degree of sexual attraction, my sexuality was an old garden hose that had been tied and kinked too many times to work properly. It just didn’t, for whatever reason.
Imagine my surprise when I realized everything I had ever known about sex turned out to be wrong.
While it is certainly true that as a man I was a poor lover who suffered greatly from self-loathing as a result, in hindsight that makes perfect sense. I was terrible at being man, and the list of things I couldn’t do very well as a man is very long. It wasn’t because there was anything wrong with me, however. There was something wrong with my gender. As soon as I discovered my secret identity as a trans woman, tumblers fell into place. The door was unlocked. It swung open and there I was.
Once I discovered the meaning of “dysphoria,” my relationship to pornography changed overnight. Rather than simply using porn to get off, I knew that the part of my brain that was starved for femininity had used porn as a means to regulate the confusing sensations of feeling like a woman while identifying as a man. When I understood my own feelings better, I understood why I sometimes spent so much time looking at women’s bodies and faces in ways that didn’t seem solely or even primarily sexual. The strange and shameful emotions I associated with porn, feelings permeated with unaccountable misery, were expressions of jealousy. When I saw a beautiful woman there was a part of me that responded not as a man with sexual desire (although that was always there as well), but as a woman who felt the pangs of dysphoric longing. Now that I knew who I was and what dysphoria felt like, it was going to become possible to rewrite the rules of my relationship with sex.
I still like and am attracted to women – that never changed. I am still antipathetic towards men, sexually speaking, although I am confused by certain notions that surface periodically as a result of what I now realize was a lifetime spent secretly role-playing and identifying not as the male performer (which is what I assumed all men did, or were supposed to do), but as the woman. Personally I distrust (cis) men, and this distrust is based on nothing more than my previous lifetime’s experience as a man, and an intimate familiarity with how the creatures think. As of now, I don’t believe I could ever bring myself to place my confidence in a (cis) man not to hurt me in some way.
There was, however, a third option, one which I could never have understood while still believing myself to be a hetero cis man.
Coming out to myself as trans has meant coming to grips with a seemingly infinite number of terrible events and overwhelming anxieties. Any trans person can identify with those kinds of negative emotions. But I have also felt for the first time in my life, a life spent mostly as an alienated and unhappy man, that I have finally found a home within a community of my peers who accept me as myself. I never felt like I belonged anywhere until I made friends with other trans women, but now I share something like an unshakeable bond with millions of other women across the world. Any trans person of any stripe who feels the same dysphoria, and suffers the same material, emotional, and spiritual consequences of seeking the only guaranteed treatment for dysphoria in our transphobic world, is a part of me.
I never used to think trans people were beautiful – or so I thought. In all honesty, I didn’t spend much time looking at pictures of trans people at all, at least that I acknowledged. Why would I, a normal hetero cis male, do such a thing? What I didn’t know at the time was that the secret and unexplored parts of my brain that were silently working to undermine my masculinity were also busy at work assembling information about transgender life. I needed to see something other than what the TV showed me: I was thirsty for it but had no clue as to why. Sure enough, as I became aware of the existence of a much larger spectrum of trans lives than I had ever previously guessed – as I met and befriended and (unknowingly) nursed intense crushes on gorgeous trans women across the internet – the idea became normalized. Every trans Twitter acquaintance or Facebook friend-of-a-friend brought me one step closer to the inevitable realization that I wasn’t just secretly fascinated by transgender life, but that I was transgender myself. Looking back I realized that even if I had not been consciously aware of what I was doing, I had already known for a long time that I was attracted to transgender women.
And why not? When I look at another trans woman, I see a spark of recognition that is otherwise absent. There is a longing and inconsolable need in the faces of other trans women who trade selfies online, or who appear in queer-centered pornography, a naked desire to love and be loved that has been so often stymied by the circumstances of our compromised lives. I see myself, my own desires and insecurities and fears and frustrations reflected back at me. The uncomfortable power differential that can exist between men and women in the realm of sex is absent when trans women, equals in the eyes of a disapproving world, regard each other as objects of beauty. We’re in this together now.
We want so badly to be seen as beautiful, to give love and to be given love in return. I desire other trans women partly because I know that for a trans woman to feel desired can be the greatest feeling in the world. We are our own Pygmalions and our own Galateas, forced to create and define our lives in a hostile world, often alone, given the wrong materials and broken tools, and told simply to make the best of a bad situation. We want to be with someone else who understands what it feels like, this desolate, destructive thing curled up in our guts. We want to feel welcome, somewhere, even if we barely feel at home in our own skins.
When I catch myself looking like someone other than myself, the shock of unrecognition is powerful. Imagine that, seeing someone new in the mirror after all this time! It almost feels as if there’s something wrong, some defect or tiny crack in the glass that distorts the image. In those moments, though, I don’t necessarily see myself as a woman. I feel female, and when I embrace it that is the most empowering and life-affirming feeling I’ve ever experienced. But I don’t look “female,” not really, not in the same way as the rich trans women on TV. Maybe I never will. Maybe I’ll always have too much masculinity in my face to be completely ironed out. Maybe I’ll never be able to make my low, raspy voice sound properly feminine, or find cute shoes to fit my too-large feet.
But I will always be trans. And I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful.
by Megan O
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