I only became conscious at 27 years old that I am a transgender woman. Some trans people know it from a very young age, and others only discover their gender dysphoria much later in life. As one of the latter, when I came out last year I spent nearly a month writing and rewriting a letter to my family, fretting over how to explain to conservative baby boomers what it all means, and why I only figured it out after so many years.
In the past I’ve struggled with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse – none of which I was able to really explain to myself or anyone else. But thanks to a miraculous convergence of therapy, an opportunity to report on trans rights, and an exceptionally supportive wife, I managed at last to make sense of the deep discomfort that my repression couldn’t contain any longer, and found the strength to admit that I am a woman.
My best hope when I sent the letter was for them to tell me “that’s weird but we still love you.” What I didn’t expect, what I didn’t dare hope for, was for them to really get it. How the hell do you take such a tangle of personal history and psychological harm and elucidate it for loved ones who aren’t all that familiar with trans issues? Will they be comforted or threatened by my coming out? Can I finally make sense of my earlier drug abuse? Is it even possible to explain to cis people how gender dysphoria feels?
And so I share with you an excerpt of my coming out letter, a thought experiment I devised to make it relatable – because it was weird, and it worked. Here’s how it’s done:
Imagine that all of a sudden you have some kind of long term amnesia, and you find yourself in the middle of a public place. You look down at yourself and see that you are the opposite gender to your real one – BUT, and here’s the fiendish bit, you don’t know that it’s not your real gender!
A whole bunch of your living memories might have been wiped, but muscle memory remains, a bit like Jason Bourne waking up in the first film and being surprised and horrified at how good he is at beating up German cops. You’re quite good at performing this wrong gender that you don’t know you’ve been assigned. You walk like that gender. You’re dressed like it.
And also, you feel everyone’s eyes on you. You can’t tell why it is that you’re so anxious at their surveillance, because you can’t remember that you’ve been dropped into a body that isn’t yours; but you’re more or less conscious of the fact that if you fail to perform it in this public space, someone will do or say something unkind to you. You know furthermore that this unkindness isn’t something you can simply ignore, that each time it happens to you it hits you hard, right in the feels, an ineffably old pain.
So the level of concentration you pour into walking ‘properly’ is intense. Imagine if right now I asked Dad to walk like a woman, believably, from the kitchen to the dining room. Don’t worry, I think it’s funny too. But if he was compelled to do it by some unspoken force he’d internalized years before, and couldn’t do it properly – what kind of funny does it then become? Is your laughter at his poor performance of this womanly walk still gentle when he feels bound by this silent coercion not to be allowed to stop?
I hope your answer is ‘no Laurie, actually that sounds quite distressing’.
Go back to imagining yourself in the street with amnesia. You are crossdressing and you don’t consciously know it, except for that ancient knowledge stored in your very bones, more salient but more hidden than a memory, that this isn’t how you’re meant to be. And you focus so hard on getting the performance right because you can’t pinpoint that feeling, what with it being so fiendishly elusive.
Every inch of your body feels like it needs your conscious thought to wrestle into the sort of motion that will convince people you are playing that gender role properly. You don’t belong in it but you have no memories to tell you that you don’t belong in it, so you can’t process the unease.
So of course another memory of yours that’s been wiped is that of having gone through the wrong puberty. This is probably a good thing: imagine the endless horror if you’d had to go through it consciously!
Imagine, Mum, you’re back in the boarding school you hated so much, but you also had to deal with the appearance of chest and facial hair, unusually pungent sweat, a lower octave in your voice. The bone structure of your hips remains awkwardly narrow, while the shape of your face becomes gradually more masculine in its definition.
Imagine, Dad, you’re 14 years old, surrounded by other horrible 14-year-olds, and you have estrogen rather than testosterone working through you. You feel not only horror at yourself but also the absolute fear of what the other boys will do or say once they find out. You can keep it a secret at first, but as your vocal chords fail to thicken and you start to grow breasts?
We make jokes about trans people precisely because we are terrified of the boundaries of our own genders, of the fragility of our sense of self.
So all the memory of this queer nightmare has gone away in your amnesiac state, but the years of anxiety and terror and bullying and paranoia and hiding still sit in your body as muscle memory, still written deeply into your synapses. And having gone through that, even if you can’t recall it; it makes you tired all the time. So, so tired.
It’s enough to make you want to make the feeling go away, and as that tiredness starts to grind you down, you learn ways to stave it off. Getting drunk, for instance. Or smoking. And if you don’t make it go away with these little tricks, the anxiety makes you tetchy, angry, it feels like everyone around you is scrutinizing you to make a mistake so they can get on your case. All day. Every day. Every fucking second that you’re awake and sober.
And if you can’t reset that feeling for a little while, regularly, you get too jittery to be able to focus on your work, and your loved ones start to dislike you, or find you annoying, even though you’re trying so very hard to live up to their expectations. And you resent them for expecting this of you, even though, because amnesia, you have no idea why, and you know that you’re being irrational and unfair. It’s a choice between hating them or hating yourself, and you’re trying to be nice, so you pick the latter.
You don’t want to resent the people around you, you’d be totally alone if you gave into it…so you have an absolute fiendish ache to flush that resentment out whenever you can. Before you snap and do something terrible. This isn’t only about being able to live with yourself, it’s a matter of public safety.
In those circumstances, getting high doesn’t sound so terrible, does it? And if someone judges you for it (because, let’s be fair to that person, it’s pretty fucking stupid to do to oneself in the long term), and they don’t know your secret, you can’t help but feel hostile towards them. Because you don’t know your secret either. It’s not their fault, but it kind of feels like it is. If only you could tell yourself, then you could tell them.
When I came out, I didn’t just want to tell my family I’m trans – I wanted them to finally understand what was going on under the surface that caused me to nearly wreck myself with substance abuse. My letter worked on both counts, which didn’t just liberate me, it let everyone forgive themselves, for finally seeing the self-destruction in its proper context and knowing, finally, that when they raised me they did a pretty good job.
This is only my experience and is slightly tongue-in-cheek. I want to be clear that my personal history of gender dysphoria (and starting to heal from it) is far from the only one, and that most of us are not, in fact, repressed drug addicts. It’s just one story among millions. But I hope it can be useful to cis people trying to get their head around what we go through, and I hope it can encourage trans people to believe that sometimes even their older and more conservative loved ones can be brought to understand our plight and love us for who we are.
“I always wanted a daughter,” my dad later told me in a text message. “I just didn’t know this was how I was going to get one!”