This is an old one! I wrote it years ago at my beloved hippie college. I was challenged by my advisory to write a personal narrative, so I wrote about starting hormones. I reflect on my life up until that point and attempt to answer the unanswerable question, which was demanded as a condition for being allowed to medically transition, “when did you first know you were meant to be a woman?” I’m still really proud of the result.
If you’re familiar with trans narratives, some of this might sound familiar. However, sadly, most trans autobiographies fail to contextualize the story within broader social histories. I wanted to talk about my identity as it both reflects and challenges a world where gender assignments are binary, naturalized, compulsory, and violently enforced. I also think about how my body interacts with the medical establishment that has been erected to maintain that very gender system.
I’m sharing my story because I haven’t posted much creative nonfiction here, and for all of the young trans folks who, like I once was, are pouring over the internet for empowering alternative ways to make sense of their desires outside of the prescribed Harry Benjamin-esque narratives of the medical-psychiatric institution.
Trigger warnings for mentions of violence and mental illness.
Silences Such as These (A Coming Out Story)
I stood in the doctor’s office, waiting to receive my prescriptions for estradiol and spironolactone. I thought about an old partner – the first trans woman to have become my lover and confidant, years ago. Her body was the first place I learned what these little pills could do. She had proven that it doesn’t matter what the paperwork says. My body is mine, and I can change it. I can redefine what it means to inhabit this flesh.
Yet, such powerful forces try to deny me this. They call me sick and mutilated. They call my desire perverse and my body a dangerous monstrosity. Whether said forcefully in front of the most powerful governmental institutions of our world, or quietly in intimate letters from our families, so many people continue to attack and despise gender self-determination and my own autonomy.
In that doctor’s office, I was about to do something the world tried to make impossible. My lover and I, and many others like us, would be punished for proving them wrong.
To get those hormones, I jumped through the doctor’s hoops and answered his questions – barriers he himself treated as antiquated and silly. For him, a high-ranking doctor at a prestigious clinic for LGBTQ and HIV-positive folks, they were obnoxious occupational necessities required by an old-fashioned bureaucracy. For me, they were insulting trivialities that distracted from the urgency I felt.
“How long have you known you were a woman? When did you first feel like you were different from other boys?”
Just give me the damn pills.
I wanted to answer by asking him when he first knew he was a man. I wanted to sarcastically quip that I couldn’t feel I was different from other boys, because I never was one to begin with. But instead I danced to the tune laid out for us by decades of psychiatric jargon, medical dogma, and unchallenged cultural assumptions.
Sitting in his cold, sterile office, jewelry dangling from my wrists, my face painted to cover the bits of hair I couldn’t rip or burn out, I moved to speak quickly. But, for an instant, nothing came out. Years danced before me. Memories seemed to bombard and overwhelm me.
The instant became longer. Still, I said nothing. Our culture breeds silences such as these. When did I first know I was a woman?
I had just turned 21 years old when he asked me that. As best as I can remember, it was probably 17 or 18 years since I first realized I was uncomfortable being a boy. I liked plenty of things back then, as I do now, that are considered only appropriate for boys, like soccer or baseball. But anytime I was called “handsome” instead of “pretty”, whenever I was forced to line-up with the boys, something just felt awkward.
I preferred to line up with the girls, and it wasn’t just because I had a thing for the Spice Girls or Disney Princesses. Maybe that’s why it was also more or less 13 years since I had first started “pretending” to be the girl character in all of my games. I remember trying to use the bathroom with my cis female cousin, and being stopped. I responded, “But I’m a girl” only to be told, “no, you’re a boy!”
It had been eight years since I first made love to a cisgender woman and wished my breasts were like hers. It was also about eight years since (the first, but sadly not the last, time) I was assaulted in broad daylight and called a faggot as a half dozen or so men nearly broke my ribs and left me a bloody mess in an alley. It was about then that I came out as bisexual, even though I didn’t really think I was bisexual, but I knew something was queer about me and that was the best word I knew how to say.
It was seven years since the first time I tried to run away from home to escape the implicitly and explicitly gendered demands of my parents, and about the same amount of time since I first received detention for wearing my girlfriend’s clothing and makeup to school. As a teenager, going to the barbershop was pure trauma. I fought to keep my hair long, the way I loved it. But every few months, after hours of bickering and hiding and slammed doors and running out of the house, my parents would eventually use literal force to drag me to the mall for a “respectable” boy’s trim.
I sometimes passed as a girl when I was out in public, and I loved it every time. When I was alone, I was called a fag. When I was holding hands with a young woman, I was called a dyke. I preferred being called a dyke, if I had to choose.
It was about six years since I started signing my journal with a feminine name and writing stories in which I narrated conversations between two people – one male and one female – who both spoke my thoughts. The boy always represented all the weaknesses I saw in myself, and the girl always embodied the strength and power I felt that I lacked.
It was four years since I had sex with a boy for the first time. I only did it because everyone, including me, thought that’s what women were supposed to do. It was three years since the first time I nervously took a razor to shave my legs, hoping no one would knock on the bathroom door as I shaved them. It was right before I went out in public ‘cross-dressed’ to a party.
It had been three years since I was forced into an all-male housing unit at university and started smoking pot, drinking liquor, and snorting pills every single day to deal with all that masculine violence. Without the support of my biological parents, I relied on the academic scholarship the university gave me for food and housing – but I only received that scholarship if I agreed to live in that fifteen story boy’s dorm where homophobic death threats and beatings were routine.
It was about two years since I gave up on all investment in maintaining the facade of masculinity, first discovered the word transgender in a zine I picked up by chance at a punk rock show, and immediately wrote my own first zine decrying the evils of coercive gender roles. It was around that long since I had been raped by a gay man who assumed it was always consensual to have sex with a femme.
That was the last straw I could bare on top of the daily harassment I received in the dorm and in my hometown, so it was also two years since I ran away for good. I slept on the sides of highways, in abandoned houses, tents, and stranger’s couches, shoplifting and eating trash to stay alive because I had nowhere else to go.
It was about one year since I decided that I would never be happy as long as I was forced to present as male and eleven months since I stood in front of a mirror wearing stolen makeup and a dress with a bra stuffed full of cotton. I immediately began to spend my nights furiously hunched over a computer screen, pouring over every book and website I could find about being trans.
It was about ten months since someone asked me what my name was, and I said Sadie. I don’t even know where it came from or why I chose it, but I loved it and it felt perfect.
It was maybe nine months since I told everyone to use female pronouns for me. Luckily, by this time I had discovered a wonderfully supportive community who had no trouble adjusting – but I was not prepared for how much it would hurt when strangers seemed confused about what to call me. Sometimes their cruelty would leave me in tears, or cause me to give up on whatever I had planned on doing that day.
That’s also when I learned what it really meant to be proud of who I am. I had to.
It was five or six months since the first time I slept with a trans woman who commented on my beautiful breasts and asked politely and sensually to lick my clit, when I also saw for the first time up close what hormones could do to my body. And it was about three weeks since I nervously decided to show up at the clinic and ask for a prescription to hormones.
Which of these moments could I possibly situate as “the moment I knew I was a woman?”
As far back as I can remember, I have felt a peculiar queasiness whenever anyone applied generalizations about masculinity or maleness to me. Was I a woman when I first decided to call myself a woman? Was it when I was twelve and for the first time felt confused and profoundly sad that I was not allowed to change into a bathing suit in the same room as my female cousin? Was it the first time a stranger saw me as a woman? The first time I put on feminine clothes?
Was it the exact moment my body contained more estrogen than testosterone? How could I isolate any of these events? It was all of these things and more.
But sitting there in the doctor’s office, I couldn’t say, “I just finished reading this book and I have decided that I would rather have a new type of body.” I cannot declare that vast cultural and technological changes have opened up new ways of moving through the world and new paths to conceive of my identity.
I was not allowed to say, “I have met people who introduced me to new ideas; I have been exposed to the radical possibility of living a different way, and I think that may be what I need to do to be a healthier person. I would like to give it a try.” That isn’t an option on the doctor’s forms.
Instead, I had to authoritatively declare, “I have always known that my body is wrong. I am trapped in this body, and I will kill myself if my condition is not cured immediately.”
The truth is, I have felt trapped in my body. But even more so, I have always felt trapped in the expectations attached to it. And I have felt suicidal because of my body. But even more so, I have felt suicidal because of the way everyone around me treated me as a disgusting freak, by the fact that my birth family disowned me and took away some of the people I have loved more than anything. If I’ve ever been mentally ill (and believe me, I have), that is why.
I once heard a trans person describe hir life as a “perpetual self-narrating freak show.” We must always be ready to recite a prescribed history on command. So I jumped through some hoops and performed my stunts. I summed up the entirety of a complex and ongoing negotiation of health and stability into a few sentences.
“I have always known that my body is wrong.”
The doctor took a couple of notes on a clipboard. And then we moved on: “Does your family have a history of heart disease or cancer?”
That’s it? That’s all I had to say?
Maybe he just knew that I, like every other trans person to come his way, had already been coached anyway. Maybe he was just as bored of hearing the same fake story as we were of telling it.
A couple of weeks later, I returned for blood work, to check for STIs and current hormone levels. I shook uncontrollably as the nurse stuck the needle into my arm and withdrew my blood.
A week or so after that, I found myself sitting in the office of a psychiatrist, awaiting the final formality of it all: The Diagnosis. I found the woman in front of me to be a caricature of every stereotype of Freudian psychoanalysts I had ever concocted. She spoke quietly with a thick Eastern European accent, her hands clasped as she asked me about my early memories of childhood. She was the first of what would prove to be an endless line of psychiatrists I would be forced to see for various reasons in the years to come.
She assured me that she did not view me as ill, but that she was required to diagnosis me with Gender Identity Disorder before I would be able to start hormones. She said she was merely trying to make sure I was “psychologically stable” and “mature” enough to make potentially life-altering and dangerous health decisions.
I didn’t comment on the inherently classist, racist, ableist assumptions built into the standards she used to judge my competency, stability and maturity – “Do you have a steady job? Did you graduate from school? Have you ever been in a long term, committed relationship?” Our culture breeds silences such as these.
Again, I played the game, left out all the right parts, relying on my relative privileges to cement the final step in gaining access to hormones. Years later I would return to the same clinic after multiple nervous breakdowns, daily panic attacks, constant anxiety, unbearable depression and despair, agonizing nightmares and frightening mood swings. Since that first visit, I’ve been diagnosed with several things.
I know what mental illness is, and I am not ashamed to say so. But I can honestly say that my first mental health diagnosis was utter bullshit.
Finally, not long after this, I sat in the garden by the back porch of my house, wearing a bikini top and a flowing skirt as brown as my hair color and the earth I stood upon with bare feet. I held the little red bottle full of tiny blue pills in my hands, watching it reflect in the sunlight. Exasperated and elated, I frantically paced the yard, smoking the cigarettes that I had assured my doctor I would quit.
The story does not end there. It was still another three months until I first told my mother I was a woman and ended up in a hospital emergency room for panic after our ensuing confrontation. Over a year before the courts finally finished processing the paperwork to pronounce me legally female. And almost two years later, like so many of us, I had to turn to sex work, escorting and making porn to pay my rent.
My “trans narrative” goes on — and plenty of it does not match the hegemonic medically-prescribed narratives. I still have my penis, and I have no immediate desire to be rid of it. I’m comfortable being seen as female by myself and by others, and what I use to fuck my lovers hardly matters to me. Maybe if it weren’t so expensive, maybe if I was less scared of surgery, maybe if it were less risky, maybe if I was guaranteed to be able to feel sexual stimulation just as vibrantly post-surgery… maybe.
Like all people, I weigh the positive and negative outcomes of every decision I make, and I decide what makes the most sense given the present social realities and technological possibilities. I figure out what makes me feel happiest and safest and most at peace with my body and the world I live in, I name my desire, and I realize what feels right. Just like everyone else — the only difference is that my desires are called false and evil, and the whole of society tries to stop me from exercising that choice.
I recognize that I make those decisions within a world that is based on sexist, cis-centric values — the exact same values that constrain all of our identities and choices, whether we are trans or cis. They are still my decisions to make.
But that’s not what makes me a woman. It’s not what’s between my legs, it’s not how much body hair I have, it’s not just how other people treat me, and it’s not just that unexplainable desire I felt for breasts and soft skin. All of these things — how I was labelled, how other people view me within society, the body I was born with and the changes I’ve made to it — impact how I live my life, but in the end it is not any single one of these things that makes me who I am.
The only thing that makes me a woman is how I chose to live my life. Part of that decision, for me, involved changing the dominant hormones in my body chemistry. But that is only one factor of what makes me a woman, and that choice was also shaped by many other cultural forces, personal experiences, and, yes, I’m quite sure there are biological factors too. Maybe there really is a genetic predisposition. But that question is irrelevant, because whatever the reason, it is one decision that I have never regretted.
All these years later, I still think about that moment when I first swallowed those pills. Maybe, almost certainly, in a different world, a world which might attach very different meaning to our bodies and experiences, taking that pill would not have been such a big deal.
Maybe I would not need them at all to be accepted (by myself and others) as the person I would know myself to be. Or, maybe I would have taken them much sooner without the fanfare and without the attached pressures, as a casual way to explore what kind of body I felt most comfortable in.
After all, it is completely natural for human beings to assign social meaning to our differences and our bodies. Everyone should have the right to self-determine where they fall within those social categories, and to use whatever technologies are available to change how they and the people around them relate to their bodies within those systems. I don’t want to live in a “world without gender”, a world where we’re all the same, where we don’t find value in our bodies. I want to live in a world where we were able to differentiate freely, where we each have autonomy over our bodies and can associate based on affinity, solidarity, and mutual aid, instead of being forced to differentiate based on hierarchies and oppression as we currently are.
So, maybe, in a world that didn’t so violently enforce strict, inflexible categories based only on one trivial detail or the authority of some doctor who never even met us or asked how we’d like to live our lives, perhaps more people would do what I did. If there wasn’t so much fear, so much isolation, so much violence surrounding our access to medical technologies like hormone replacement therapy, perhaps more people would be willing to try them.
Someday, maybe we’ll find out. Maybe we’ll live in that world together, if we start building it now.