This is a guest post by commenter thissoftspace, a woman who experienced gender dysphoria, began transition to FTM, but pulled back to embrace herself as female.
This account is a bit different from the previous two in my ongoing series of guest posts from women who’ve experienced dysphoria or dis-identification from female. Woven into the narrative are vignettes from thissofstspace‘s mother, who shares her own thoughts and feelings about her daughter’s journey.
Parents and their offspring who decide to “transition” are sometimes ripped away from each other in the process–whether the transitioner is a child or an adult with the right to make her own medical decisions. Some online trans activists even encourage young, questioning people to forsake their “transphobic” families and seek community only with strangers on Internet forums. This account from thissoftspace and her mother is a testament to the bond that endures between us parents and our kids—no matter what decisions are made, or how well we understand each other at a given time.
I’ll be publishing her piece in two parts. Here, in Part I, thissoftspace takes us through her “gender nonconforming” childhood and on to identifying as an “asexual agender aromantic.” Part II will chronicle her decision to transition and begin testosterone–until an epiphany one night leads her to return to her original female self.
thissoftspace will be available to respond personally to questions and discussion in the comments section below.
Please also visit her on WordPress and Tumblr, both blogs entitled “Nurturing a Healthier Habitat for Female Human Beings.” And if you know any young women who struggle to identify as female, send them here for a boost of self love.
Part I: There and Back Again
I can only tell the story as I experienced it. I can only tell how I grew up, how I came to view myself through the lens of others, how that led me to identify as transgender, and how I found my way back to myself. I’ve been living with these issues for nearly four decades, though the height of my gender identity crisis happened within the past two years. My mother, with whom I share a home and a close friendship, has been along for the journey, and I’ll be including some of her thoughts.
There is no definitive path for any person who identifies as transgender for any length of time – there are too many variables involved – but I hope this account gives some perspective on the internal and external forces involved, what I was going through while I was identifying as trans, and the hope there is to find another way.
My mother’s words:
I did not wish to see my daughter change into a man. She was my child, a young lady whom I admired. Why did she have to be a man? Yet I did not wish to lose her. I was afraid of her emotions, worried about her stability as a person. I wanted her happy and to be able to be a person who could function in the world.
It began with my name.
My first and middle names are both old, traditional feminine names. Looked at objectively, they really are quite lovely together. My first name happens to be similar to that of an international personality, and when I was very young, I was often (and still am) called by her nickname. The problem was, when I looked at her on television, I saw the pinnacle of what a woman should be. She was blonde and blue-eyed, gentle, poised, elegant, gracious, always dressed to a T. Flawless. Beautiful. Every time I was called by her name I felt an uncomfortable dissonance. I was nothing like her. Why did people call me by her name?
I was a kid in jeans and a sweatshirt with an oft-uncombed pageboy haircut, knee-deep in the pond after polliwogs. I was hollering as I set off fireworks with my older brother and I was galloping around the fields like a horse. I was climbing trees, pulling night crawlers out of the soil on damp summer nights, playing with Erector Sets, Legos, Transformers, model airplanes. Growing up, I never imagined any difference between my brother and myself. I have no memory of being held back from any activity because I was a girl, though I’m sure there were occasions. If there was a reason he played football and I didn’t, I never thought about it. When he removed himself as my playmate in his teens I felt an immense loss, and never could fathom why he had left me.
I didn’t think much about being a boy or a girl. I was what I was. My concept of what it meant to be female was fuzzy and confused from a young age, my default always leaning towards male. The only stuffed animal in my massive pile of furry friends that I called “she” was a dog that had puppies zipped into her tummy. Back then I couldn’t yet argue with biology. All of my other stuffed animals were male, to the point of cutting the “feminine” eyelashes off a toucan with scissors.
Away from home, I crashed into femininity in church and at school. I hated the tights and the dresses and the shoes I had to wear for church, always so itchy and restrictive and uncomfortable – and I was so terrified of spilling my Sunday School juice on them. On my first day of kindergarten, my grandmother had to drag me out from under her kitchen table and carry me onto the bus.
I was lost at school from the beginning. I had no idea how to relate to the other girls, watching them skeptically in their dresses and skirts with little colorful clips in their long hair, playing clapping rhyming games I’d never heard. I felt like a visitor from another planet and just kept trying to do my usual things. I got in trouble for taking a group of kids back to the stream that ran behind the playground and for keeping a grasshopper in my desk. Though I tried, I never seemed to have more than one real friend at a time. I remember going to a girl’s birthday party and being so overwhelmed and feeling so out of place I had My Very First Panic Attack and threw up. Social anxiety starts young.
The sense of otherness slipped into more than just social roles. When we would line up to be weighed for our yearly physicals, I always seemed bigger and heavier than the girls around me, though I was fit. I remember turning to the nurse, feeling self-conscious, and saying “I have big bones.” My body wasn’t even like their bodies. They were so small and delicate. I was… something else, broad-shouldered with big hands and big feet. I came in for picture day in 4th grade after being out sick, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. The teacher asked me, “Are you sure you don’t want to have it done on the rain date?” I said no, I was fine as I was. In the picture, I look like one of the boys. It’s one of my favorite pictures from elementary school. I was comfortable, a big smile on my face. I was me.
My mother’s words:
My daughter was a bright-eyed, inquisitive, joyous little girl. I was confused as to why she didn’t like dolls, as I had loved them when I was a child. However, she did have many other interests and toys, including many beloved stuffed animals. When she began coming home from school early due to stomach pains, and when she was sick at a little girl’s birthday party, I did have my concerns. Her first grade teacher debated whether she should be placed in the gifted program due to her intelligence and creativity, or tested for learning disabilities due to her distraction and lack of involvement at school. I worried about her dislike of school, as I had always loved school myself, but she always succeeded in her classes. She remained happy on her own and when playing with her brother or a few special friends.
Then one night while lying in bed I felt something funny in my chest – a little bump right under my nipple. Nancy Reagan had been on TV talking about breast cancer, and I was filled with fear. Absolute terror. Something was very wrong with me. My mom took me to see the school nurse, who examined me and said it was perfectly normal. I was just developing, going through puberty. I was becoming a woman. I thought of Nancy Reagan and breast cancer and did not want to become that. I was terrified.
I never have lost the sense of something being physically wrong with me. Hypochondria has been with me for as long as I can remember. Worries about breast cancer still float through my mind almost every day.
With puberty came the further separation between girls and boys, and consequently between the girls and me. Girls spoke of liking boys and I didn’t understand what they were talking about. In the girl’s lavatory one day while a group of us were gossiping, my best friend at the time said to me, “What, are you gay?” No no, I quickly retorted. No, I just didn’t like that guy you were talking about.
But… I liked Mozart. I liked Edward Scissorhands. I liked the Phantom of the Opera. As my friends found their feminine identities and began wearing skirts and makeup and dating boys, I came to identify with a collection of eccentric male characters, so often misfits and underdogs who loved the girl but were denied her affections. I could relate to them. When I began writing stories, the first-person voice was of a 14-year-old boy. His presence as I grew older served a dual purpose: through him I could have some sense of freely expressing myself, and due to my preoccupation with this male character, no one would assume I was gay.
Of course I didn’t realize any of this at the time, all of these subtle coping mechanisms. Being a lesbian wasn’t an option for me. I had no reference for it; I didn’t know of any lesbians in my community. Sometimes kids would snicker and point at a gym teacher, but no one mentioned homosexuality openly. The homogeneity of the surrounding population was overwhelmingly white, straight, middle-class, and religious – nothing else was spoken of in anything but hushed whispers. I knew nothing other.
I watched Ellen Degeneres come out on her sitcom and lose her show. For some reason it made me incredibly angry, but I didn’t know why. I listened to Melissa Etheridge and thought she was awesome, but wouldn’t think about how she was singing the songs I loved to women. I got my hands on a copy of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle when my brother’s girlfriend was reading it for a college class. I read it in a few days, enthralled. But I never could make the leap to applying any of it to me.
My mother’s words:
Having been a 6th grade teacher, I had often picked up on little girls beginning to like little boys and vice versa. My daughter did not seem interested at all. When boys would express an interest, I would wonder, “He’s such a nice boy, why doesn’t she like him?” I wondered if she did not know what getting kissed, dating, etc. was all about. I worried about her appearance, looking square and boxy in large men’s shirts, and tried to encourage her to choose dressier clothes she liked and felt comfortable in. She had to wear dresses or skirts for band and orchestra concerts, and I thought she looked beautiful, but she clearly preferred the pantsuit we bought for her senior picture. In high school she had a number of friends from the marching band and gifted program, and I thought these were the intelligent, creative people she needed for her friends, which provided a supportive group for her. When others wondered why she was not dating, I spoke honestly that she was more involved with her interests and hobbies – writing, drawing, and art – than boys, and that was fine with me as long as she was happy. I was concerned, however, if she would be able to handle life away from home, as she spent so much time alone with her creative pursuits.
At college, I avoided male attention like the plague, which wasn’t difficult since my “masculine” dress and lack of interest served as a kind of ward against their gaze, as it probably had been – possibly intentionally – for a long time. I couldn’t help but be envious of all the other girls, though, and how effortlessly groups of students, male and female, came together so naturally. There were girls I desperately wanted to get to know but didn’t dare approach; after all, I didn’t want to be misconstrued as gay. My best friend at the time seemed to assimilate without much difficulty, and gradually abandoned our regular hangouts to go on dates with men and out for drinks with women with whom she related better. We eventually fell out; she would be the last close friend I would have for a long time.
I dropped out of college after two years, never fitting in, never getting a foothold on figuring out what I wanted to pursue. I had become painfully self-conscious about how I looked and presented myself. I dressed “too masculine” in flannels and jeans, yet I loathed my wide hips and big thighs. I began a continuous cycle of exercising and dieting trying to get rid of the natural fat on my legs, even though I was never overweight according to the scale. I felt caught in a place between what looked like “male” and what was supposed to be “female.” I plucked my naturally full, dark eyebrows almost out of existence, because looking “male” was so wrong though I disliked looking “female” as well. Even my voice seemed too low for a woman’s, but I hated the thought I might sound like a man.
Anxiety followed hypochondria followed panic attacks followed depression. I got a diagnosis of panic disorder and some pills but no one ever offered therapy. I wonder now if that wasn’t a blessing, if it wouldn’t have put me on the path to identifying as trans at a much sooner and more vulnerable time. Instead of therapy, I ended up on the Internet.
Thank goodness for the Internet in so many ways, because it finally gave me a community outside of the conservative pocket in which I lived. I found others who loved writing, drawing, building things, creativity, video games. I found stories that introduced me to women who loved women in a way I could finally grasp, and at last – at 30! – I was able to accept and explore the idea for myself. Coming out as gay was like a new life blossoming. Though I still had to deal with the conservatism of my family and surrounding environment, I could at least drop the pretense of being straight and explore parts of myself I’d repressed for a very long time. My mother was supportive. I was open with my new friends. I wrote stories about lesbian characters and drew their portraits and it was wonderful.
My mother’s words:
When my daughter told me she was gay, I was relieved and happy, as before that time she had often seemed angry and withdrawn. Once she opened up about it I knew I could support her in whatever she was working through, and I let her know I would welcome any female partner she brought into our lives and our home. Of course, I had some fears and preferred to keep quiet about the subject. I did not want anyone to attack our way of life, including her brother due to his religious beliefs. I have always liked and admired the gay people I have met in my life, but I have also been aware of how people have attacked them due to their difference. I did not want to see her hurt in any way. These were my worries as her parent, and I understand now how my concerns might have been frightening or stifling to her at the time.
Yet I could not find a foothold in the gay community, a role model or identity to connect with. I looked online, joined this forum and that, talked to people, read articles. I was turned off first by the overt sexuality I saw everywhere, the importance placed on physical attractiveness, just like the mainstream media. But worse, I could not find myself among the plethora of gay faces. The butch/femme divide looked too much like straight gender roles to me. I was not a lesbian in makeup and a dress, after all; neither was I the picture of butchness with a buzzcut and men’s button-down shirts. Frightened by those apparent “gender roles” looming in front of me, I shrank away from a lesbian identity. There was too much I couldn’t come to terms with, not only in the homophobia in the world around me, but also in the sense that I wasn’t butch enough or femme enough – not man enough or woman enough (and definitely not “sexy” enough) in my mind. It was the same struggle I’d always had, and in retrospect a terrible misunderstanding of what it means to be a lesbian.
Then, a few years ago, I got the flu. While I was lying on the couch recovering, I was watching one of my favorite TV shows, featuring one of those slightly eccentric men I had always idolized. Maybe it was the haze of the flu, being tired, being stressed, being unhappy, but I looked at him and I thought, “Maybe I should try to be him. Maybe that’s the answer. Maybe I should grow my hair out and wear paisley shirts and just be him, and maybe then everything would get better.” It was that simple, that sincere. I had run out of solutions to try to fix my conundrum of not fitting in until this one last possibility occurred to me: Maybe I was transgender. Maybe I never should have been a woman at all. Maybe I was supposed to be a man.
I dipped my toes in a little at a time, reading, watching, learning from the Internet. I was both filled with hope and terrified. I made no big moves. I got together with some of my online friends but told them nothing of what was lurking in the back of my mind. But in the back of my mind, I felt so very different from them, more than ever before. Because now it was a big deal. Now they were “cis,” and I was “trans.” Now I was on a journey none of them could understand. It was especially alienating being with my female friends, some of the best friends I have ever had. It was heartbreaking to sit beside them and think, “You don’t know it yet, but I’m really nothing like you.” I felt sure all of my friendships were soon to come to an end.
So I withdrew to explore the idea of being transgender and figure out how to rebuild myself from scratch. It was a good time for it; my previous online community had dissolved and my work was in flux, leaving me socially isolated much of the time. Exploring all these little things that made me different filled the gaps. I ended up on the AVEN forum – the Asexual Visibility and Education Network community – because I had never had an intimate relationship. That’s where I was introduced to the plethora of labels. Within a week I had discovered I was an agender aromantic asexual. There were so many like me! It was wonderful. A vast community of people coming together to celebrate labels without ever really wondering why they needed them.
All I can say about this crucial turn is this: When I felt like I could no longer be identified by others – whether due to social isolation, mental illness, trauma, sexual orientation, lack of gender role conformation or a combination of all these things – I became desperate for some way to identify, to validate my unique existence. I felt unidentifiable, and the current “queer theory” offered identification and validation. There are so many labels to choose from. From the moment I picked up “agender” I severed myself from identifying as female, and all of the confusion and embarrassment that came with being female began to evaporate. It was easy then to try on new pronouns and names; with the backing of so many others who also identified as agender, I no longer felt afraid to try it myself. Remarkably, when I announced to my mother and my friends I needed to be called by another name and gender-neutral pronouns, they were more supportive than I ever imagined.
My mother’s words:
When she came to me with the different name and pronouns, I was skeptical, but I also wondered if this was the final answer. Had she had finally worked out what had been holding her back for so long? The names she experimented with were never fully male names, and with the gender-neutral terms and her physical body, I was relieved she was keeping a little part of her femaleness and not going 100% male. I could support the name, the clothes, the haircut, as she never did seem to be trying to be just like a man, though I felt I had to handle all of this with kid gloves. All the information she gave me was so positive, but her enthusiasm did not seem entirely natural to me, and I wondered what exactly she was doing. As her mother, it did not seem quite right, but what did I know?
It seems like such a small thing, just a handful of words, just pronouns and a name. But those words, when spoken by others, validate every belief and crush every doubt. Those words were a statement of who I wanted to be. And when you have never been able to be yourself, finally having an identity recognized by others is the most precious thing.
But everything after that becomes an effort to support and maintain that identity.