Content warning: This essay discusses dysphoria, eating disorders, and suicide.
When I was 14, I experienced what I can only describe as a complete unspooling of my own identity. My friendships fell apart, I lost interest in things I previously enjoyed, and I couldn’t explain why except that something about me was just wrong. I remember lying on my carpet for hours on end late at night, staring up at the ceiling and just wishing to feel anything other than whatever this was. Unable to escape this feeling, I internalized it as a ruthless self-hatred. I was viciously critical of myself, of my awful voice, of my skin, of my clothes. A part of me thought that if I considered my endless shortcomings for long enough, maybe I would find the root of all of it in one grand epiphanic moment and I could finally begin to undo all of my wrongness.
The next year I tried going to therapy for what had become a deep depression that was preventing me from being able to focus on school. I sat in a big leather chair, sipping on bitter tea in between statements of, “Well, uh, I don’t know, I’m just having a hard time feeling motivated, but you know, it’s not all that bad…”
I only lasted a few sessions like this. I neither had the vocabulary nor the willpower to explain whatever was going on. I sent my therapist a polite email of You Know What I Think I’m Doing Better Now Thank You Very Much and decided to write it off as just a normal teenaged experience. Maybe it really was like this for everyone. It only got worse over the coming months. I could no longer visualize what I even looked like aside from some terrifying zombie I had pieced together from accidental side-glances in the mirror.
I focused hard on school, hoping to distract myself from this unspooling, and it worked somewhat. I found a long-distance girlfriend I absolutely adored, one who happened to see some light in me that I couldn’t see in myself (and who I’m proud to now call my wife). I did well in school, all things considered, but I had no interest in thinking about what came after. There were never any college plans, no idea of what I’d do with my life, just a drive to make it through the next day and let that be enough. I figured I’d end up at a local state school, pursuing a passionless degree in computer science and then, I don’t know, catch some horrible disease and die before I’d have to keep it up for much longer. I caught myself wishing for this exact fate countless times.
Thankfully, that’s not what happened. Through what felt like random chance, in the last couple months of high school, I won some awards for my art. It was hobby I’d never really taken seriously, but someone took notice of me and I got some scholarship offers to keep studying art in college. I initially laughed off the idea. My teachers encouraged me to apply just in case I changed my mind, however, and I got in. With the support of my loving partner and parents willing to cover the remaining costs, I made one of the biggest decisions of my life and dramatically changed course in a matter of days.
Beginning to build a new identity as an artist helped to cover up the void in my chest where it felt like a person should have been, but it was a small band-aid over a big wound. My growing discomfort with my masculinity became too great to ignore — my relatively slight frame still felt clumsy and massive, like I took up too much space no matter where I was or who I was around. Every “he” and “him” in reference to me felt sharp and foreign. Even my name, “Xander,” felt bizarre, like people were referencing someone I should have met by now but hadn’t.
In college, I made a new friend who identified as non-binary and used they/them pronouns — a phenomenon I was familiar with and had considered using for myself in the past before deciding I was too much of a coward to challenge people’s assumptions of me like that. Still, this was college, a time to try new things and maybe even figure out who I was. On my nineteenth birthday, after weeks of careful deliberation, I gave it a shot. I posted a photo of myself on Instagram wearing a lovely red overall dress my partner bought for me and holding up a sign with my pronouns. Reactions from my friends and family ranged from joy and celebration to quiet confusion, but it didn’t really matter to me — I was overwhelmed with relief at the wall I had placed between myself and the man I had been miserably failing to be.
My relationship to my identity, my body, and my own personhood barely improved, but I was just delighted that it stopped degrading for the time being. On good days, I donned this dress and some cute tights and pranced around in the safety of my partner’s apartment, somehow suddenly able to capture some glimmer of real, true joy. I tried my best not to think about what I was doing or why it felt freeing to me. I worried my happiness was like Schrödinger’s cat, that opening the box to look directly at it would cause it to disappear, or worse, I would be confronted by its realness and forced to contend with the ramifications of that discovery.
On most other days, bogged down by self-doubt and severe episodes of anxiety and depression, I reverted to what I can only describe as “trash-bag” presentation: a rotating set of stained hoodies and paint-covered jeans that did an excellent job concealing as much of me from the world as possible. It felt safe and comfortable and like not much else. Another wall to protect me. As my good days grew fewer and further between, I wondered if this trash-bag state would be a reality for the rest of my life.
As it turns out, every step I took to abate what I finally understood as gender dysphoria — a constant, often painful state of dissatisfaction with the masculinity of my body and how I was perceived by the world — the harder it was to avoid looking at the cat in that box.
One night in late December of last year, realizing that I would be graduating school still feeling deeply, wholly unhappy with myself, I broke down crying in my wife’s arms. She asked me what was going on and I told her that she must have figured it out by now. She had.
I’m transgender. This means that my gender doesn’t align with the one I was assigned at birth. Specifically, I’m a trans woman (as opposed to identifying as non-binary agender before, which still exists under the trans spectrum), and I’m taking steps under the advice of healthcare professionals in order to alleviate my dysphoria by looking and feeling more like my own gender. While I’ve only made this realization recently, I have always been trans.
I don’t think it’s helpful or accurate to view being trans as a purely medical reality, but it’s important to note that gender dysphoria is a diagnosable disorder with a myriad of possible treatments (some of which might not include any sort of physical transition at all). Recent studies show that transgender people’s brains are structured differently than those belonging to cisgender (meaning not trans) individuals of the same assigned sex at birth. Even if there wasn’t a way to medically diagnose dysphoria and all we could do was take trans people at their word, that would still be the morally right thing to do. Trans people are extremely at-risk for suicide and the best thing we can do to protect them is to provide medical support and to respect and accept their identities.
Not only does this diagnosis help explain why going through social and physiological adolescence had such a negative impact on me, but it forms a throughline for my entire life.
- When I was 6, I had to go home early from my female best friend’s sleepover birthday party. I was shocked and confused. It was the first time I ever considered that being a boy made me different.
- When I was 10, my friends were all obsessed with the Twilight books. One friend pretended he was secretly a vampire. I, on the other hand, claimed that I was the reincarnation of a dead teenage girl. My friends were pretty cool about it, all things considered.
- When I was 11, my entire Halloween costume was just “a girl.” I borrowed an old dress of my mom’s and my friends had fun putting their makeup on me. When people asked me why, I told them that girls were the scariest thing I could think of. Really, it just made me happy when people handing out candy didn’t understand that I had a costume on at all. I did the same thing the next year, too.
- When I was 12, I played Lysander in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A friend confided in me that the blouse in my costume was actually intended for a girl. I acted like I was embarrassed.
- When I was 13, I pretended to be my school principal in a skit my class put on. I wore a skirt on stage and everyone thought it was hilarious, and that was fine. They didn’t have to know.
- When I was 15, I took a freshman theater class at my high school. I’d always been a natural at acting and I loved it, so it just made sense. I was shocked when I had lost all the confidence on stage that I had before. I hated that so many people were looking at me. I didn’t like the person they were seeing. The next year, I decided to take art instead.
- When I was 17, my weight became a major concern for my mom. I was 6’2” but under 130 pounds. She thought I might have an eating disorder. Maybe she was right. I couldn’t put this into words at the time, but by this point, feeding myself or doing anything to take care of my body felt like a chore. I hated it. I wished someone could remove my brain and put it in a robot body and I wouldn’t have to feel my old body ever again.
- When I was 18, I didn’t go to senior prom because my partner was 19 and not allowed to come. I was sad to miss out on the experience, but I knew I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. I couldn’t explain why, but I was sick of the mythological American high school narrative. I didn’t fit into it.
- When I was 19, I read The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang. It’s a comic about a shy young prince who hires a seamstress to help him live a double life as a beautiful fashion model named Lady Crystallia. This book made me cry and cry and cry. I’d never seen a character I’d been able to relate to like this before. Lady Crystallia had a big nose like me and I aspired to be her.
- When I was 20, I complained to a female friend of mine about how tall I am. She said she wished she could be that tall and joked that we should swap bodies. It took everything I had to hide just how badly I’d love for that to be possible.
- Later that same year, I got married wearing a skirt. My wife and I wore matching flower crowns and capes and it was wonderful. Many a relative there expressed their dismay but I was unfazed. I was just so happy to be wearing something like a wedding dress.
- Last summer, I started working on my college thesis project, a visual novel about robots surviving on an alien world. One of the robots is transgender, and although I didn’t mean for her story to be my own, I wrote from the heart as I detailed her journey of discovery and transformation. I hope I get to keep telling it.
None of these things alone make me trans, but understanding who I am has provided me a lens with which to look back on my life so far and appreciate my own strength and determination in a way that I never could before.
I used to think being trans was awful. Living in the closet was a massive detriment to my mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. On harder days, thoughts of suicide were hard to push away, to the point that I never thought I would live as long as I have. However, in the past couple of months since I finally began to accept who I am, even without yet having experienced many of the benefits to quality-of-life that transitioning has, I feel happier and more optimistic about my future than I have since I was 12. It fills my heart with joy knowing that in just a few months, I’m going to be a mom — and one who can be proud of the fact that she’s setting a good example for her child by being true to herself, no matter how scary it may be. It’s also quite nice that not having to put so much energy into not thinking about who I am frees up so much time for other things.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my years of obsessive research on this subject, it’s that there’s nothing inherently terrible about being trans (and anyone who tells you there is likely has ulterior motives). Sure, our medical paths for transitioning are still developing as science advances, but they’re only getting safer and better understood over time. Nearly everything that makes being trans difficult — fearing for my life in public, having my rights and even my very existence constantly debated by uneducated people with too much power, and worrying about how many of my friends and family will stop supporting me when they find out — is a result of societal ignorance and a lack of empathy.
I have it relatively easy, too, being a thin, white, able-bodied individual from a middle-class background living in a blue state with a ridiculously supportive spouse. Many, many trans people have a much tougher road ahead of them than I, regardless of whether they’re “out of the closet” or if it will ever even be within their means to transition at all. Trans women of color in particular are incredibly vulnerable to murder and abuse.The fight for trans liberation is an ongoing one with a storied history and many, many trials ahead. I’m proud to dedicate my time and creative practice to educating people on trans issues and to advocate for policies that help protect us.
I legitimately love being trans. It’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. It’s granted me patience, empathy, and boundless serenity, and it’s connected me to some of the coolest and most wonderful people I know. As ridiculous as it sounds, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I hope this story resonated with you and inspired you to think about being transgender in a new light if it’s not a topic you’re familiar with. Here’s a list of resources if you’d like to learn more: