I scheduled my first gynecologist appointment at age fourteen because I was sure I had undescended testicles. My freshman English teacher had recommended Middlesex to me and I identified strongly with Cal/Calliope, the protagonist, an intersex man assigned female at birth who comes to identify as male. This belief regarding my anatomy brought me no comfort, but felt more like existential dread. There was something fundamentally unnatural about me, something monstrous in the way I looked at other women, imagined during gym class that I was an emperor who could pick any of his female classmates on the field for his harem, and I understood this as misogyny fundamentally even if I didn’t have that vocabulary at the time, didn’t have compassion for myself as both victim and seemingly unlikely perpetrator.
The silhouettes of my classmates’ breasts excited me. This excitement caused a shame so visceral that for most of my adolescence and early twenties I associated sexual arousal with a pounding heart and stomach-roiling nausea. Cal, neither particularly feminine nor masculine, sensitive and empathic but fixated on his fellow swimmer’s breasts, sitting on the dock at summer camp staring at the awkward-looking mosquito bites on his legs, feeling uncomfortable in his swimsuit and wondering when his own breasts would grow, reminded me of myself.
Cal wasn’t a girl who wanted to be a boy. He was a boy who wanted to be a girl, tried to be a girl, and the dress just didn’t fit him as cutely, didn’t settle around him in a way that felt quite right. His clit was a crocus, a crocus, that phrase remains in my memory, brought all the blood rushing to my ears and face even though I read it in private.
I was relieved, not crestfallen, when the gynecologist told me I had perfectly normal ovaries, relieved when my period arrived later that year, wore padded bras sponge-like as foam insulation (false advertising!) even after my small perky tits followed the period, wore them until two months ago, in fact, and I am twenty-eight, and was not raised religiously, not inculcated with shame in any obvious or direct way.
I am a white man, a bisexual man in a female body to be exact, though I don’t think about it that way most of the time, don’t sit around having the explicit thought I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body, that must be why I feel so out of sorts and unable to function! I am a white man who grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, a place referred to by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby as a place where people go to be rich together, and though my estranged father is a pizza deliveryman and my mother worked multiple service-sector jobs throughout my childhood, that well-funded school district nurtured me enough to yield full scholarships to boarding school, then Princeton University, a place so steeped in archaic white-boy tradition that they have an annual event called a cane spree. Whatever that even means.
I’m a white man, pre-T, pre-op, moving through the world as an androgynous white woman. My mom is trying to accept me as her son. I am as privileged as a Trans person can be, yet I still hate myself, often violently, for desiring a cock in place of mental crocus. I can’t imagine how oppressive the intersection of internalized transphobia and external, ever-present threat to physical safety must feel.
I do not know, either, what it feels like to have always known. Perhaps I knew as a child playing with the crotch of my jeans, pushing up the fabric to create a bulge. But I played with dolls, hated sports and video games, preferred to dress up and stage make-believe, even as I also enjoyed climbing trees and hiking in the ravine behind my grandmother’s house. Cis people are afforded the luxury of complexity.
I can imagine myself as a hipster dude with a nice beard who likes to wear eyeliner sometimes- maybe kind of a pseudo-woke tool, albeit loveable- but because I have this hole between my legs, my androgyny makes me a transtrender, a confused, melodramatic, pathetic girl trying to get attention, like Youtuber Milo Stewart with his painfully off-kilter grin, and I have to resist the urge to misgender him just as I try not to misgender myself or call myself Phoebe in my own head. Faggot. Whatever it is, I’d fuck it. Eww, I wouldn’t. What a fucking annoying loser. The comments section of his Youtube channel reminds me of the middle-school bullies who followed me around chanting slurs and telling me I deserved to die.
I look at the Instagram accounts of trans people of color and find their struggle easier to admire, perhaps because of its doubled intensity, though I recognize the twin demons of transphobia and insidious racism at play in my reduction of white trans people to entitled, butt-hurt weirdos wearing fucking elf-ears, protesting that they are in fact triceratops-identified iridescent lavender stardust, in my flattening of trans people of color into impossibly stylish blue-lipsticked, bow-tied icons beyond narcissism, beyond self-indulgent flaw. The better question, of course, is why I allow the rhetoric of adults who police teenagers’ self-expression on Tumblr to impact my self-esteem.
I take selfies to see myself, to see my face, and can’t, because it’s someone else’s, it belongs to a girl named Phoebe, out of its mouth comes a high-pitched voice that sounds nothing like my own. There are hundreds of pictures of this girl’s face on my phone. Often I like the way she looks, take pride in the relative attractiveness of this body, mourn what I would lose by transitioning. I don’t hate my breasts, don’t urgently desire their removal, and this is a form of privilege. They disappear easily underneath a sports bra and collared shirt, and this too is a privilege: to be neither gawked at by strangers nor physically encumbered. Because they’re small, they’re sensitive, and I’d hate to lose sensation in my nipples from top surgery, hate to compromise sexual pleasure, though I’ve heard the keyhole method damages nerves less than double incision. My vagina and curves don’t repulse me so much as they feel surreal, mismatched as they are with my energetic body, the broader, leaner one mapped inside my head.
Re-writing narratives, forcing them to cohere, is tempting, but the truest truth is that, until recently, I would look in the mirror and perceive another face, a man’s face, bearded and angular, hovering behind my plump-cheeked, peach-fuzzed girl face, like a flash of movement seen out of the corner of an eye. I’d put on makeup, pin my hair back with fake flowers, to dispel this unsettling impression.
My sophomore year of college, I put on a friend’s suit and fedora, saw my reflection and rationalized it away. Began painting my nails every week. Ashamed of my messiness- men are such selfish, oblivious slobs, my mother always said, and personal experience of myself and other men inclines me to agree- I tried and failed to launder my sheets regularly, to maintain my nail polish collection in neat rows on top of my dresser, to sit with legs crossed and hunch inward.
I didn’t hate the timbre of my voice, not then, because I still wanted to cloak myself, to both camouflage and become the camouflage. Waking up from the recurring dream of growing facial hair, I felt shame, not joy.
“I wish I was more feminine,” I said to a friend once.
“What’s not feminine about you?” she said. “You’re wearing a flower in your hair.”
Many trans people take issue with cis people writing about trans people, because it is so rarely done in a way that truly humanizes us. To be born intersex and to be trans or gender non-conforming are different struggles, but they overlap in terms of the stigma associated with not fitting into the binary. According to peers of mine at Princeton, where Jeffrey Eugenides has taught creative writing, he wasn’t familiar with the term genderqueer when it was brought up in class. He’s a straight dude-bodied dude, with many of the blind spots one might expect, and yet Middlesex provided me with the second opportunity to see myself.
Ruth in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones provided the first. Her desire not to (necessarily) sleep with other women, but to crawl inside them vibrated with me. Truthfully, as intensely sexual of a person as I am, that’s the way I experience attraction to people of all genders, and perhaps even more with men than with women: as a desire to understand, deeply, to be entwined forever. So stereotypically dykey, so U-Haul. And yet what’s more stereotypically heterosexually female than a desire for emotional intimacy that frightens men, sends them skittering away?
Maybe I’m a confused, melodramatic girl after all.
The kinder part of me knows that I contain this girl. Has compassion for her and her legitimate hurt. Knows that cis-men are conditioned to be casually cruel. To sever parts of themselves, as if with a cleaver, and withdraw from anyone who touches those parts as if from a stove top. That queer, for me, means what a Reiki practitioner said once: maybe you’re just attracted to people’s souls, honey, and the physical doesn’t really matter. That I’ll never not be confused, and questioning, and that that could be a source of pride rather than self-hatred. Rather than the hunger for punishment that’s driven me to extinguish matches on my hips and forearms, to pound welts into my forehead banging it against brick wall.
As a teenager, I googled phalloplasty, and found a photo of a forearm that looked burned, its skin grafted into a nether-appendage smoothly unreal as a Ken-doll’s torso, perpetually artificially erect. Maybe I reconciled myself to defeat that early, before even coming out to myself, reconciled myself to biology, though I know my mind is a product of biology too, and this makes me wonder if those who would hate or ridicule me are right, if I am an abomination, misshapen, not meant to exist.
Isn’t it better to endure as a woman, if I can, to have this body, with its ample hips, to be a wanted, lovely object? After all, my clit can only ever grow into a crocus, and without phalloplasty I’ll always have a pussy, whether organically plump and wet or worn thin and fragile by T. I’ll always crave filling, crave the anchor of someone larger than myself, someone who laps at my shoreline, wearing my selfhood away even as I crave him, even as I’d also like to be him, to fill myself, to take comfort in the span of my own shoulders.
I bought my first proper vibrator, a rabbit, at twenty one. Though a combination of OCD, childhood sexual trauma and a libido so strong it often left me feeling unmoored caused me to masturbate compulsively as a teenager, I’d never tried to penetrate myself before. In all my fantasies, I was a man penetrating a woman. Still most of my emotional and intellectual crushes were on men. I genuinely enjoyed wearing makeup and dresses as often as I weaponized them against myself, as if feminizing my outside would bring my mind into alignment as well. The vibrator was big, I didn’t use lube, and it hurt. I turned it around and I had a sparkly purple dick, cylinders of silver beads spinning round inside its high-tech shaft. What a fucking freak, I thought, and began to cry.
Later that same year I scheduled an appointment with a past-life regressionist. I didn’t connect this at the time to having grown up with a Scientologist father who believed that gay people’s sexuality is a glorified form of masturbation resulting from past-life trauma, that Trans people represent an even more severe degree of “spiritual confusion.”
Sexuality felt so distressing, like an alien force descending upon me, incongruent with my idea of myself, that I legitimately wondered if I was possessed by demons, my skull a rattling hive of angry ghosts. Or else I imagined myself as a disembodied pair of eyes, floating around, unseen. In Van Morrison’s song Dweller on the Threshold, he sings of another self nested within the self, waiting in the darkness, as if in the wings of a stage. I thought maybe seeing a hypnotist could reduce the anxiety that chattered like a set of teeth in my stomach, but I recalled no past lives, no other selves, in the regressionist’s room, with its glowing salt lamps and pleather chair. He made me a CD, a recording of his voice instructing me to slowly relax each muscle, and I listened to it in the bathtub, soaking in colloidal oatmeal to soothe the hives that had sprouted, inexplicably, all over my body.
“He sounds so creepy,” my first boyfriend told me, imitating the hypnotist’s intonation.
When I lost my virginity, it hurt, and afterwards the hives connected into a red mesa across my back, formed plaques down my legs. My eyelids and fingertips swelled. The second and third time I felt curiously numb, detached from my body, though I took pleasure in my boyfriend’s pleasure, drew arousal from his arousal. I don’t think that experience is uncommon for cis- or trans-women: feeling like a receptacle for someone else’s fun, as though bringing a man to orgasm is not only enough but in fact the greatest form of validation, a coveted prize.
As my ex and I grew closer, more familiar with each other’s bodies, the hives subsided, my relationship to my own body shifted, and I discovered intense pleasure in being penetrated, in fact came more often than my boyfriend did, experiencing a new type of orgasm I’d never had on my own.
“You’re the most male-brained woman I’ve ever met,” he said one night, somewhat resentfully, not in the mood though I was.
I’ve always had a stronger sex drive than my male partners, been told that I kiss like a man, as if passivity were the mark of authentic femininity, as if shoving tongue down open throat would be preferable to being kissed back. In my dreams I too had a penis, bent my boyfriend over his bedframe, made his eyes squeeze shut, touched the core of him, but in reality, as in all my relationships with men, I’ve always been the one letting the other person in, the one shut out.
At twenty-one I also traveled to Haiti for the first time, staying at the Hotel Oloffson, run by the Morses, a family of Haitian-American vodoun rock musicians. The Oloffson, like vodoun, is an intrinsically queer space, a haven for the gender non-conforming. Gay men in Haiti are often said to have a particular affinity with Erzuli Freda, the more traditionally feminine aspect of the Erzuli spirits; Erzuli Dantor, protector of women and children, is said to be bisexual and polyamorous. Women are possessed by male spirits, men by female spirits, in a cosmology that collapses the binaries between genders, between absolute good and absolute evil, between the spiritual and material worlds. The Creole language itself is syncretic and fluid, full of revolutionary possibility, using only one all-purpose pronoun, the wonderfully versatile ‘li.’
I’ve been back to Haiti seven times over the past six years, forming some of the most meaningful friendships of my twenties. Understandably, people often find my love for Haiti puzzling, suspect and uncomfortable; there’s a fine line between love and infatuation, admiration and appropriation, and certainly I’ve been appropriative, from my tattoos to my writing, been naïve. Neither vodoun nor queerness is accepted in mainstream Haitian society, which has been heavily missionized by American evangelicals. I have a hard time articulating the unlikely sense of wholeness, of home, that I’ve experienced at the Oloffson, but it has something to do with knowing that there’s a faith in which people like me are holy rather than aberrant, even if this faith isn’t mine to practice.
While I haven’t always understood myself as Trans, I’ve nearly always felt, from childhood on, like a thing rather than a person, a deformed thing, deviant, outside the human family. In middle school I sang in the children’s choir at Chicago’s Lyric Opera house, donned lederhosen for their production of Hansel and Gretel because there weren’t enough boy sopranos. A costume assistant, seeing my short hair from the back, assumed I was a boy. This moment, paired with daily homophobic bullying at school, felt more humiliating than affirming, more like failure than victory. When I’d experience anxiety in the years afterward I’d soothe it by taking gender identity quizzes online. Someone calls you sir, or if you’re a boy, ma’am. Do you feel a) pretty darn good or b) eww, no, I’m a girl / boy! I’d tell myself I must be cis, if it felt so shameful to be recognized, to be called sir.
I’m still not sure whether I’ll ever be ready to gain male privilege, to part with cis privilege. Top surgery, prohibitively expensive, won’t be insured under Trump. Truthfully, the irreversibility of the procedure scares me. I’ve come to like my small breasts, though I feel I’m not supposed to admit to experiencing dysphoria in ways that don’t conform to the traditional narrative. The consequences of physical transition- restricted mobility without changing the gender marker on my documents and identification, which may become impossible after Jan. 20, difficulty finding proper medical care- frighten me even though the prospect of stretching out and inhabiting myself more fully, of broadening rather than shrinking, is thrilling.
I wonder, too, who will love me if I change my body. While I enjoy sex with women, have had romantic feelings for women, decoupling my self-worth from men’s desire seems like an impossible task; so much of my life has been spent in pursuit of their desire. The thought of being able to have an erection, albeit with an elongated clitoris / micro-phallus, excites me, but I worry that lovers will find my genitalia repulsive the more ambiguous and crocus-like it grows, perhaps because I have always been repulsed by my own ambiguity, my own confusion, felt unattractive even as I embodied society’s cis-normative, racist metric of desirability.
A Google image search for “trans man” yields pictures of rippling biceps and pectorals, of bodies I know I’d have to exercise obsessively to resemble, re-activating the same unhealthy habits that ruled my life when I believed my worth lay in becoming and staying thin. Now that I’ve come out, I worry that I will only be seen as valid and deserving of love if I grow a carapace of muscle. I worry about becoming nothing more than a fetish, someone’s weird kink, though I want to believe in love that transcends the physical, that doesn’t objectify.
Recently I’ve asked friends and family to call me Jason and use male pronouns. I’ve begun to dress in a way that feels more natural, shaved my head and grown out my body hair, stopped battling the slide toward comfort. Already I feel more stable, more present. Still, because I am warm-hearted and vulnerable, traits traditionally coded as feminine, I am read as a girly girl, not as butch or as the feminine man I am. The more I shift toward accepting my feelings, the more the discrepancy between how others perceive me and how I perceive myself bothers me rather than providing reassurance that I can, in fact, lead a normal life.
I don’t know that I’ll ever cross over the threshold into a true or authentic self, that I’ll ever pass as male or feel like a singular entity, rather than split. Being in a female body, being dismissed, patronized and emotionally abused in the ways women so often are, has shaped my understanding of human beings, of the ways we interact and exert control. I don’t want to become what I hate, to embody the monstrousness latent in masculinity, growing an extra layer of tissue separating me from my emotions and impairing my compassion for others in the process. I don’t want to be anything like my father.
A trans man I’ve become friends with describes his psychological state before starting testosterone, the inner chaos that rendered him absent from his own life, and the peace hormones brought him, a newfound balance due even more to neurochemical recalibration than bodily changes. I measure my vanity, my horror at the thought of being lonely and unwanted, against my health, my ability to participate in the world. I don’t know that I’ll ever stop hesitating in the wings, too shy of my own spirit, too afraid and unsure of whether I want to be seen for all of who I am.
Image Credit: Decalcomania, 1966, Rene Magritte