This is Part II (Part I is here) of a guest post by thissoftspace, a woman in her late 30s who experienced gender dysphoria, began transition to FTM, but pulled back and now writes her own Tumblr and WordPress blogs celebrating her return to herself as female. As in Part I, her mother’s thoughts are also included in this piece. thissoftspace is available to respond personally to questions and discussion in the comments section below.
As I read this second part, I was struck by the extent to which her insight and overall mental maturity helped thissoftspace to desist from a trans identity:
I am so grateful I have had the life experience with my mental highs and lows that I was able to recognize the patterns as soon as I did.
How much more difficult must it be for younger people to change their minds? They have so few prior life experiences to reflect upon; they lack the patience and foresight of a woman in her 30s, who, even so, nearly transitioned herself. Her story has made me feel all the more strongly that we parents must fight for children to be allowed to reach adulthood before considering such monumental, life-changing decisions.
Part II: There and Back Again
While using the labels “agender,” “non-binary” or “genderqueer” made me feel better by being not-female, I soon realized those words were meaningless to the general public. In order to get the message across that I was not female, I had to bend my presentation further towards male – just like so many other “non-binary” young women I had seen online. Once I did so, everything seemed to slide neatly into a more traditional trans narrative. I clung to the gender-neutral labels a little longer, but it was clear my intentions were to escape female by transitioning to male. Why not just use male pronouns, a male name, to make the message loud and clear?
My mother’s words:
I truly wished to keep the matter personal and give it time. I wanted to see how things worked with her changing her name with a few friends who would understand, rather than be out in public with a male presentation. I did purchase her some new men’s clothing and spent many hours tailoring shirts so they fit properly. I felt this I could do, this was how I could help. I had trouble with the male pronouns, often saying “he/she” instead of just “he”. I tried to keep things as normal as possible. We spoke about giving space and trusting more, but there was a current of stress at the time.
Articles and pamphlets from PFLAG and GLAAD and the HRC insisted my new identity should be embraced and recognized. Bruce Jenner’s interview on broadcast television supported my “feeling” of being more male than female as perfectly valid. I watched videos and read blogs of various female-to-trans people and took in all their enthusiasm and encouragement, all their happiness and all the celebration surrounding their lives. PBS News Hour ran a special on transgender kids that was heartbreaking. Look at them! Don’t they deserve happiness? Don’t they deserve the freedom to be who they are? I shared some of these things with my mom. I told her I could be a man, a straight, normal man, dress the way I wanted, be the person I’ve always wanted to be. I could freely love women if I wanted to. I could be my brother’s cool younger brother instead of his weird little sister. I could finally just be myself. She couldn’t have tried harder to be patient and understanding.
My mom said, “As long as you don’t cut your body.” I didn’t understand why this body I so hated was so precious to her. I would lie awake at night thinking about physical transition. Despite looking in the bathroom mirror and telling myself I had a male body because I said I was male, I knew others wouldn’t see so clearly. For so many reasons, I wanted to fully transition. I wanted to get rid of the breasts and the organs I’d feared all my life. A third of my hypochondriac worries could be gone in a few operations. I wanted to use testosterone to shrink my thighs, to build my shoulders and arms. Big boned? No, I would be strong, as I had always been, but now it would be right. As a transgender man, everything that had always seemed wrong about me would finally be right.
My mother’s words:
I knew very little about transgender and seeing she had done research on the Internet, checking doctors and psychiatrists as well as interviews from those who had transitioned, I trusted her opinion. We also watched the Bruce Jenner interview and a few other shows about transgender issues. I became convinced this was the best for her. However, I believed firmly that the body should not be cut to conform, and I was not supportive about using hormones either. What would happen to her overall health? Even with the name change through the courts, I was concerned about the cost—let alone, her paying for medical changes.
I had travel plans coming up in several months, so I decided to work on transition without making any permanent changes until after my trip. This would give time to experiment and see if I was right or wrong about it all (and I am so thankful for this now.) I researched how to change my name, settling on a male one. I styled my hair to resemble those cool eccentric guys I’d always loved. For the first time since my early teens I let every hair on my body grow out, my big dark eyebrows, my legs, my armpits. I was thrilled at how many dark chin-hairs I had, that I had been plucking forever. One night I ended up staying up late looking at how to shape a goatee. What a difference that would make! I shaved my face because a “passing” guide said it would help me pass as male, with no “female peach fuzz” to be seen.
I bought a binder from a very friendly, helpful company run by “queer and trans people.” When I wore it in public, people called me “young man” – enough of a triumph to make me ignore the back pain it caused. I went to an air show and stood right up against the fence with the men with their cameras, asserting myself as having the right to be there because I was one of them, not some weird woman trying to worm her way in, as I had always felt before. It was so exciting to feel possibilities opening up before me like that. I spoke lower, spoke less. I pushed myself out physically. For some reason, I felt a little angry all the time.
Deep down, a part of me was grieving. A part of me felt I was betraying all I had ever really loved, all the wonderful lesbian characters I had written of and my faith in the invincibility of strong women. Deep down, I felt a part of me had given up, had surrendered. Maybe other women were invincible, but not me. I could only assure myself life would get better as a man; life could only get better when I wasn’t a woman at all.
In the midst of this, friends new and old supportively told me, “Whatever. We like you whatever.” I can’t express how much the word “whatever” stung. It sounds like such a sincere offer of unconditional love and support, but please understand: I did not want anyone to remain attached to any part of the person I had been. I had decided that person was a failure. Worthless. Something I hated deeply, something I was trying to escape. I didn’t want to hear “We like you whatever.” I wanted to hear “We love the new you!” I didn’t want unconditional acceptance of who I was. I wanted absolute celebration of what I was becoming. I wanted my new identity validated so badly it consumed my days and began affecting my health.
My mother’s words:
Try as she might, she never did look like a man, certainly not a man her age. She looked like a teenage boy, similar to her nephew, though when people called her “young man” I was supportive as it seemed to make her happy. I didn’t want people to be confused, so while in public, I had to be sure to support her and even say “my son.” I felt I was walking on eggshells, trying to give as much support and keep her as happy as possible because it was so stressful and she seemed so strained.
We no longer could talk openly and honestly without anger and emotion; I couldn’t say “You keep trying but you can’t totally look like a male. Why can’t you go back to being my daughter?” I did insist, however, that she be honest and present when friends visited – I would not let her hide in her room and become totally obsessed with this transition. I wanted her to know that even if she changed herself to a point, life would still be the same, with the same challenges and expectations. When people responded positively to her changes and new identity, I thought,wow, she really is accomplishing something, but I always woke up wondering what new thing would she be experimenting with today. I would go to bed wondering how everything would work out.
Looming before me was The Bathroom Issue. I was anxious about using a men’s bathroom, but increasingly afraid of being “caught” in the women’s bathroom. I had trouble sleeping, worrying how I would handle it all. My digestive system ran amok with the stress. I felt terrible, unfocused, distracted, unhappy. I played simple puzzle games for hours as my mind spun. How would I get the money for T and for surgeries? How would I bring this up to my doctor? Would T end up giving me cancer? Would I lose my hair? What would my brother think of me? Would I ever see my nephew and nieces again? How could I continue my work, so tied to my name and identity? How would any of this ever work out?
Time and time again I thought, stressed to my limit, “If it doesn’t work out, I may as well kill myself. There is nothing else. There is no alternative.” I felt trapped on a treadmill. Sometimes exhilarating – but I wondered how long I could run.
It happened that in the midst of this I volunteered to drive my mother and her friend to an opera three hours away. It was Mozart’s The Magic Flute. He had been one of my special cool guys growing up and I’d always wanted to see The Magic Flute, so I was happy to go along and do the driving. But the night before I found myself staring at the ceiling, wondering how I would use the bathroom. The venue, I knew, would be full of older conservative people. As this weird in-between thing, how could I use the bathroom? What would I look like to them? Could I ever just walk into a bathroom again? Would life ever be normal again? The ordeal before me – six months? a year? three years? five? – loomed in the darkness, full of impossible costs and fears.
In that frustrated and tearful moment, I wanted this transition to be over, but couldn’t see any possible end. I checked the time and the night had slipped away in sleepless worries. Feeling sick and so very tired I tossed and turned, desperate to get some sleep so I could drive safely, knowing I had six hours on the road ahead of me the next day. I would not be able to keep my eyes open. I could get us in a terrible accident.
Then it suddenly dawned on me: my quest for this new identity had become so overwhelming I was now putting other people’s lives in danger because of it. That thought struck me like an arrow. This was deeply unhealthy. This could not be right.
The push for validation and the self-absorbed mindset I had seen in some trans blogging and trans communities had always rubbed me the wrong way, but finally seeing it in myself was stunning and humiliating. This was not the kind of person I was, not the kind of person – male or female – I wanted to be. I wanted to be useful; I wanted to be happy. As I stepped back and looked at it objectively, not only was this fixation on transition potentially harmful to the people around me, it was also not helping me at all. It was obsessive, inescapable misery, as much as any bout of hypochondria or depressive cycle. Despite the flashes of hopeful possibility, at the end of the day it didn’t actually fix anything. It only made everything worse. If I had been self-conscious before, it was nothing compared to the constant struggle to assert myself as the opposite sex, both to others and to myself. And that constant self-involvement was destroying all the best parts of me.
I am so grateful I have had the life experience with my mental highs and lows that I was able to recognize the patterns as soon as I did. I had spent almost six months dedicated to this desperate hope that transition would solve all my problems – six months of trying to change everything from my name to my underwear – none of it easy, none of it comfortable. And then I woke up.
The next morning as I hurriedly ate breakfast, I told my mom to drop the male pronouns and just call me by my real name because there had to be another way. Somehow in that night of turmoil I had realized the transgender narrative would not solve my problems. It was just too difficult, too much, too illogical, too separated from material reality. I had no idea where to go from there, but I knew there had to be another way.
The opera was lovely, and though tiring, the drive turned out fine.
The next day I sat down at the computer and with great trepidation typed “transgender critical” in the search bar. I found Third Way Trans and my eyes were opened to some of the psychological issues behind gender confusion. I found 4th Wave Now and my eyes were opened to the societal issues, leading me to begin reading about radical feminism, which led me to deeper reading about lesbianism and the experiences of detransitioned women. Gleaning all of this information, so long unknown to me, was like waking up in a hospital after a horrible accident. Suddenly I was surrounded by voices that could explain how I had been hurt, why I had been hurt, and what was being done to repair the damage. These were no linguistic band-aids, no cosmetic cover-ups of old wounds. This was major surgery and strong medicine. It made me angry and it made me sad – there was so much about myself and the rest of the world I had to finally see and accept – but little by little, I began to heal.
My dis-identification from being female was healed by the knowledge that I was born female, down to my very chromosomes. No one – not even myself – can deny that natural fact or take away my right to be female. I was female when I was the kid with muddy knees, I was female when I was being mistaken for male, I was female when I was telling myself I had a male body. As a female human being, I can be useful and I can be happy without any confusion, without ever having to prove what I am. Those hated parts of my body? The bushy eyebrows, the fat thighs, the breadth of my shoulders and the sound of my voice: I learned that those, too, are all natural parts of the female human body. I am a perfectly good female human being. I can just be, residing in this body, and at last – at last – feel a real connection with other women, other female human beings, for the first time in my life.
My sense of shame and failure at being a woman was healed by the knowledge that the things I thought made a female a real woman – beauty standards, pornographic sexuality, submission to men – were not natural inclinations I was somehow missing, but rather forced upon all women by an oppressive society. Others have treated me the way they have only because I existed outside their frame of reference; I was something foreign to their idea of what a female human being should be. I can understand this myself, because it was my own limited ideas of what a woman should be that drove me to believe I was not one. Those views, however, only serve to reveal the narrowness of an individual perspective; they do nothing to actually invalidate who I am. The harsh judgment of “what a woman should be” is something I imagine all women, at least now and then, experience and endure in our society. Now I live with the constant hope to see all women free from those judgments, free to just be themselves, sweatshirts and jeans and all.
My rejection of my sexual orientation was finally healed by the knowledge passed down from mature lesbians – not lesbians depicted in the media or young women just beginning to experience their sexuality – but older lesbians embodying what a female-loving female actually is. All my life I have feared and repressed my attraction towards women because I had only ever learned what male attraction is, and as a lesbian, I wanted no part of it. The knowledge that lesbian attraction and sexuality exists distinct and separate from the male gaze – that lesbians are not like men – was revolutionary to me. At last I could open my heart, regardless of how I present myself or what clothes I wear. The only thing that has ever mattered was the sincere love I have always held for other female human beings.
My mother’s words:
What a relief when she said she would just be my daughter again, and when she shared with me the new information explaining how transition is not always the answer. When she spoke of what she had learned, I felt she was very sincere about it – there was no possibility left for her to change her mind. The information she brought me made so much more sense, I wondered why I hadn’t known about it before.
I still wonder why both sides of the transgender issue are not presented together. The material from trans-positive sources now sounds like propaganda in comparison. So much difficulty could be avoided if the right information were available to both young people and their parents.
Our relationship is now better than ever. Going through the process over several months built a stronger trust and friendship, allowing us to be more honest about everything. I respect and love her as who she is, a gay woman with many talents and a wonderful human being. For the first time I believe she finally knows who she is, and has the confidence and independence to move forward in both her work and personal life. This has lifted a weight from my shoulders, as I had always worried about her, not knowing how to help. Now I know so much more about the issues and challenges she has faced and can even relate them to some of my own, so that we can properly support each other through them. Though she had to find all this out on her own, we really took the journey together and became better friends because of it. It was not easy, but thank heavens she discovered her true self.
Now, for the first time in my life, I feel like I have the right to exist just as I am. Yes, the words matter – embracing the words “female human being” and “lesbian” matter a great deal – but underneath those words is, at last, an understanding of the basic truths of human nature, that we are what we are and deserve to be loved and respected for that alone. It is only longstanding societal fears and ignorance that insist otherwise, and their effects are more subtly damaging to vulnerable individuals than we might often assume.
People tend to approach a person struggling with their gender identity with the words “I support you in whatever you need to do, even though I don’t understand,” as if gender confusion happens in a personal bubble. In the current cultural climate, it’s now seen as rude and harmful to even question a person who is considering transition – certainly no one ever questioned me. But I so wish they had. Nothing I experienced stemmed from some essential “feeling,” some innate discord between body and mind. All of it, as I’ve written about here, emerged from a lifetime of experiencing oppressive gender roles and confusing expectations, ignorance about what it meant to be a homosexual woman and both internal and external homophobia. It added up to the long-term reinforcement, in a very susceptible mind, of the idea that I was “wrong” in my body and my sex, and that led me to identify as transgender. Transition to male seemed to be the only fix for what I had deemed so unacceptable in a female. For the sake of so many others, I hope these root causes are further discussed and explored, so that transition is no longer viewed as the immediate answer to gender identity confusion. It is an act of compassion to ask “Why do you feel this way?” It is an act of compassion to ask, “Where do you hurt?” We may be surprised by how many of these pains we share.
For myself, I feel like I can finally start living as who and what I am, no longer obsessively worried about how I appear to others or what sort of strange being I might be. I am simply a female human being who loves other women. And it’s a consolation to know that the kid in her sweatshirt and muddy jeans was always okay just as she was. I just wish she had known all along.