Image Credit: “Self-Portrait” by Egon Schiele (1911)
After twenty minutes on the phone with Andrew, our friend in L.A., who had just asked “so what’s on your mind lately,” my rock of a partner started nudging me—go ahead, you can do it—and so, without as much build up or fanfare as I’d have thought this kind of thing would involve, I said, in that awkward half-yell we automatically switch to on speakerphone, “I’m … uh… trans.”
Coming out to someone on the phone isn’t like coming out in person. When I came out to my partner, it was in hushed but exhilarated tones over a third glass of wine at one of our favorite neighborhood restaurants, with candles on the table, and I could put my head on their shoulder, we could hug, we could immediately start feeling out what impact it would have on our connection with each other.
But on speakerphone, it was almost like ticking off a box. Andrew is the best, and reacted how I’d want a friend to react—no challenges, no confusion, no exclamations of “I don’t care” or “it doesn’t change how I see you” that misguided cis people will say when they think they’re being allies but are actually dismissive and erasing—just: “‘Ona,’ got it. Well, I’m proud of you and thank you for sharing this with me and I love you and can’t wait to give you a hug when I can. What was your journey like getting here?”
The conversation lasted about a minute (I didn’t have the energy to fully answer that question) before we changed the subject to music, what we’ve always talked about since middle school, and that was it. The next day he texted me to follow up on more music stuff, like nothing had happened. I didn’t shower or get dressed, I spent the day in the gym shorts and t-shirt I’d slept in, with no make-up (i.e. in boy mode) and I was too busy with work to do my voice training. I made up scenarios in my mind about what it would be like to come out to my work, to my family, to Facebook and Instagram. And I worried that I was making the wrong choice.
In our virtual support group, several of us have shared the unique brand of dysphoria that has arisen in isolation. A big part of experiencing gender—both our discomfort with our assigned at birth genders and our desire to live as our true genders—lives in how we contrast our own self-perception against how others see us and interact with us. Part of how I know I’m not a guy is how I feel when men take that schmoozy-guy-talk tone with me, how I’m unable to match it, how it fills my head with static and makes me want to crawl under a rock. We figure out who we are, not just in terms of gender but in all aspects of our identity, in the crucible of social interaction—we try out different modes of acting in different situations, holding what feels right and sloughing off what doesn’t work, constantly making and remaking ourselves—like throwing clay on a pottery wheel, seeing it take shape while whirling against the constant pressure of wet hands.
But when the pottery wheel suddenly stops, and the hand draws back, and the clay is a half-formed lump, not a vase, not a cup, not a bowl, not anything—what does the clay do to will itself into its proper form?
I sign up for Stitch Fix boxes. I try to go as many days in a row as I can without wearing male clothes. I learn how to apply eyeliner and mascara (and in the process discover an exciting new brand of dysphoria—my eyes are too hooded!). I start training my voice with an iPhone app. I spend all day scrolling through trans forums on Reddit, scrolling a secret Twitter feed full of trans women and wonder if I can ever be like them or if I’m starting ten years too late. I constantly monitor my interior—do I feel male right now, do I feel female, what does that mean, am I playing right into the binary’s hands—does this hurt, does this soothe? I spend more time in the shower than ever before, listening to a Spotify playlist full of the kind of girly pop music I spent twenty years denying myself (it was around fifth grade that I learned to be embarrassed about my music taste, and very consciously one day decided no I don’t like N*Sync, I like Blink 182). I learn to shave in the shower, without a mirror, so I don’t have to see my face while doing it. I gradually expand the areas of my body that I shave—first my chest, then my armpits—then ankles, then calves, up to thighs, and belly. I research hormone therapy and call my insurance to see if they’ll cover informed consent treatment from Planned Parenthood. They won’t. I call Planned Parenthood and leave a message asking about their out-of-pocket costs. They don’t call me back. It’s understandable, they are probably overwhelmed right now. We are all overwhelmed right now.
I haven’t stepped foot outside in about two and a half weeks, since we had to take our cat to the vet. Not for the grocery store, not for a walk, nothing. I’ve been fighting off an agoraphobic urge my whole life, and the quarantine has given me the perfect opportunity to finally, breathlessly indulge.
Part of it, now, is that I have to choose between going outside and dressing in a way that makes me feel OK with myself. Every day I’ve been choosing the latter. The only days I don’t dress in girl mode are the days I don’t have the energy to get dressed at all, and on those days I certainly don’t have it in me to go outside into the anxious, gutted city just for the sake of fresh air.
The last time I went out just for a walk, I regretted it. New York is no longer New York. It’s the biggest New York cliché there is, but I fell in love with this city for its “energy,” the feeling you got when you stepped foot outside, a hot and noisy force of purposefulness that wrapped you up and pulled you down the sidewalk, every step forward an honest-to-god step towards something.
Now, New York is dead. There is no towards, only away. The anxious shuffle away from aging Gen-Xers who don’t seem to care about social distancing, the constant mindful tug of “How many blocks away from home am I now? How long will it take me to get back? Have I gone irresponsibly far away?” There is no pleasure in walking now—which leaves me with no pleasure to be taken in the outside world at all.
It doesn’t hurt not to go to restaurants, the movies, the office. I understand that it’s our duty not to spread the disease. But it hurts not to enjoy walking outside. It’s all I’ve loved about living anywhere no matter where I’ve lived, since the summer after sixth grade, when I found myself unable to communicate with anyone my age, too wracked with the certainty of rejection to even try to make friends with my classmates outside the strictures of the school environment, so I spent all summer walking, first half an hour each day, then an hour, two hours, three. I spent my whole life walking, and I moved to New York because it was the best city in America to walk in.
But maybe walking was never actually healthy for me. It was always escapism. A way to occupy my body so that my mind could turn inwards—not to actual thought, not to anything making meaning of my real life, but to daydream, to fantasy, to imagining any life unlike the life I was living now. An imagined future as a rock star, a famous poet, a history-changing civil rights lawyer—and a re-imagined past, someone who applied themselves better in high school, who always had a sense of purpose—and now, someone who knew they were trans when they were young enough not to miss out on youth altogether.
Whether it’s my daydreaming’s fault or my gender’s, I feel as though I never got to be young. I watched my youth play out in front of me like a detective watching their partner interrogating a suspect from the other side of a two-way mirror. Now, turning thirty in a few days and knowing I won’t get to see any friends or family, won’t get to go to our favorite bar in Park Slope with an outdoor patio that never gets too crowded, a hopelessness consumes me: transitioning now won’t give me back all the time that was taken from me. I can’t ever transition into a girl. I have to transition into an adult woman. A woman who never had the chance to enjoy her girlhood.
Through my window I know it’s a beautiful day outside. I’ve always loved the first days of May, when the sun is strong and the air is warm. My partner video calls me from their walk to show me a cat curled up in the window of the cat café, up for adoption. My partner seems relaxed and happy, enjoying the outside world. I can no longer imagine what that’s like, only remember how it used to be.
I try to remember that I’m about as lucky as a trans girl in quarantine can get. I have a loving and supportive partner helping me through these early stages of transitioning. While I think coming out to my family will be hard, I know that they are at least in theory supportive of trans folks. And I’m financially stable—I have a well-paying job that I can do from home and so far hasn’t had any layoffs, pay cuts, or furloughs, and even if that happened I think my parents would still be there to support me. With this alone I don’t think I have any right to bemoan my trans fate. And I’m healthy, to boot.
Natalie Wynn on her YouTube channel Contrapoints says that being trans essentially knocks you down a class—if you’re upper middle class, coming out as trans will make you essentially middle class, etc. I don’t know if I believe that. As far as I can tell my job won’t fire me for coming out as trans—I know the employer has policies in place for accepting employees who transition (though policies only go so far—and I couldn’t help but notice the irony that the policies are written using “he or she” rather than “they”). I don’t know what will happen when I come out. I know life will get harder in some ways. My nighttime walks home from the subway, should they ever resume, will be marked by a new anxiety—worries like “does she think I’m following her?” will surely transform into “is he following me?” But class is such a powerful dividing force. I want to practice solidarity with my trans siblings, but solidarity requires honesty, and I don’t think it’s honest to pretend that coming out will so dramatically diminish my privilege. Did Natalie Wynn forget about Caitlyn Jenner?
So many trans narratives were written by cis people.
The feelings that I’ve come to name as trans reach back through my entire life, such that digging through my memories in the effort to piece together my identity has given me a clearer and more unified and linear view of who I am and how I came to be than I ever had before. But the thought that I could be trans first occurred to me only a year ago. I did not know ever since I was five that I was born in the wrong body. I didn’t try on my mother’s high heels when no one was looking. I didn’t insist I was really a girl.
What cis people overlook when they expect trans people to know that they’re trans from the time that they’re five, to have these secret but easily legible histories of overt gender transgression, is that by the time we are five years old, we know how to feel shame. And we know what we are supposed to be ashamed of.
Many of my memories of childhood are of the fear of failing boyhood. By the time I was five, I’d already felt the sting of speaking or acting in an unknowingly feminine way and being ridiculed for it. I knew what boys were supposed to like and what girls were supposed to like, and I knew boys weren’t supposed to like anything girls liked. But I was no good at identifying which was which (such as not realizing that only girls liked N*Sync until I was in the fifth grade). So I lived in terror of accidentally doing or saying or wearing a girl thing. And that terror developed an unconscious instinct to overcorrect and to avoid anything that could possibly fall anywhere into girl space. No unisex bicycles, my bicycles must clearly be a boy’s Power Ranger bicycle (i.e. Red Ranger only). No unisex toothpaste, my toothpaste must be Spider-Man toothpaste.
Literally everything made me cry back then. And I knew I was supposed to be ashamed of crying. And the shame would make me cry harder.
On Twitter, Alexander Leon writes:
Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimize humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.
I stuff my heart with these words as I set my phone to playing Taylor Swift before climbing into the shower and dragging razor blades all over my body.
Today, I’m wearing black skinny jeans and an athleisure-style tank top. Over the tank top is a men’s gray button-up, but I still feel OK with it because it complements the rest of the outfit. I think of how, when my therapist asks me what I’m doing to develop a more positive relationship with my body, I tell her I’m being more deliberate about my appearance, from shaving, to skincare, to even using an electric toothbrush and teeth whitening strips. And now, for the first time in my life, I’m thinking about how one article of clothing complements another.
It’s superficial, yes, but that’s most of what I have right now. I’ve spent most of my life avoiding even a superficial relationship with my body. When David Cross’s character on Arrested Development was outed and ridiculed as a “never-nude,” his need to always be wearing at least denim shorts, even in the shower, played off for laughs, I didn’t laugh; I felt seen. And laughed at. And ashamed. I remember how my camp counselor had to pull me aside one week into camp and beg me to shower, how I’d desperately hoped to get through it without being noticed, without having to bathe with the other boys around. My hygiene was awful as a kid. Even alone at home, the shower was a dreaded place.
The first time I ever liked anything about my body was when I crashed through a window and cut my arm open, leaving an 18-inch scar from the middle of my forearm through the middle of my tricep. I liked the idea that my body was marked—that when you looked at me you would see a sign of something that happened to me. I liked that a little bit of how ugly and wrong my body felt could be manifested into a sign that I had survived.
It’s easy to talk about these things without even mentioning gender, and I never consciously understood any of these feelings as gendered. I understood them only as shame.
In addition to the clothes, I’m wearing a loose chain necklace with a trio of moon-shaped pendants, and a bronze perforated bangle that my partner gave me. Amateur eyeliner rims my upper eyelid with too-long, scratchy wings fighting their way out from under the hood of my brow, and spotty mascara makes my eyelashes look like spider legs. A bobby pin does what it can to hold back one side of my thick hair which, thank god, hasn’t started receding yet.
These small acts teach me that if I am deliberate about how I look it can make me happy, even while I still hate how I look.
Listen, I’m barely out to anyone at all and I haven’t started transitioning in any way I can’t switch off when I do need to go outside. Me writing about being trans is like a literal baby writing about what it’s like to live on Earth. I’ve yet to experience almost all of the things that define trans experience. I’m an egg squawking about my life as a chicken.
And that’s, ultimately, why I all but stopped writing for like five years. No matter what I wrote about, I wasn’t qualified to write it. So I went to [redacted] school, so I became a [redacted]. So I got a prescription for Lexapro and a cat with piercing orange eyes. So I let my driver’s license expire and my hair grow long again. Fearfully I let my partner paint my toenails pink, then let my toenails grow too long because I haven’t worked up the strength to use the nail polish remover I need before clipping them. So I hated my face a little more each day, so I gained and lost and gained the weight again. So I got a subscription to a couple newspapers and cancelled, disgusted. So I tried. To live some kind of life. And it brought me here, to the confines of this studio, which is a pretty nice place to be confined all things considered, whitening my teeth and searching for meaning in denim pants that are cut a little differently than the denim pants I’d been wearing all my life.
Is there any meaning to be found in my transness? In the absence of having to go out and be trans in public where the public will act towards me the way it does to other trans people? If a trans girl puts on a dress and no one’s around to call her a pedophile, does her pain still make a good Amazon Prime original dramedy series?
I am building my life in secret. It doesn’t have to be a thing of pain, does it? Though it can’t stay secret forever. One day the quarantine will end, work will call me back to my office. I’ll have to put on the powder blue collared shirt and gray chinos that have been pushed further and further into the dark recesses of my closet these last weeks. I’ll have to be a body in the world, visible to all. And I’ll have to decide if I have the strength to treat that body with the same deliberateness as I’ve been practicing in secret.
But I can’t go back to who I was. I’m on the other side of the two-way mirror now. Interrogator and suspect, thrown clay and throwing hand. An egg furiously hatching as it whirls atop the accelerating pottery wheel.
Ona Woods lives in New York. Under a different name, she holds an MFA in writing from Columbia University. She loves her partner and her cat very much.