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I’m standing in front of a mirror. There’s nothing particularly important about that mirror, just a simple dirty mirror in the poorly lit bathroom of a sleepy emergency room at midnight.
Staring back at me is a young man with tousled ashy brown hair, a Mickey Mouse shirt and commercially torn black jeans. He’s wearing a look of panic, eyes open wide. The corners of his mouth are pinned tight with a hint of sadness. He fidgets, jamming his pale hands into his pockets and tries to distract himself from the anxiety by playing with pocket lint.
He looks scared. I look scared.
I take my hands out of my pockets and place them shakingly on the cold sink. Breathing deeply, I look at myself.
How did I get here?
Looking at myself, I see the man I’d always dreamed of. (No, not Jeff Goldblum.) It’s the man I consistently strived to be, the man I’d always hoped to grow into as a little kid.
How hard have I worked to get to this point, to being perceived as the man I always was? How hard have I worked to have all trans experiences legitimized? Why was I so ready to throw myself into pain and suffering, over and over again?
Wasn’t transitioning supposed to keep me from feeling this way?
When I publicly came out as a trans man, I prepared for the worst.
Personal trans experiences, much like mythological tales of old, are steeped in immense sadness and resilience. You learn to expect the worst, especially as someone who grew up before the word “transgender” became a common word heard on CNN or pronounced clumsily at the dinner table by a conservative uncle.
Instead of being met with jeers and taunts, I was blessed to be surrounded by people who deeply and completely cared for me. My parents saw the changes my medical transition brought me, and the joy it created in my life. I finally found myself, they said. I agreed.
My friends accepted me with open arms, even going so far as to host a “T party” to celebrate my first testosterone injection. They made me cookies that spelled out, “IT’S A BOY” like Hagrid celebrating Harry Potter’s 11th birthday.
It felt like I had finally gotten my ticket to wizarding school. The reception I got was truly magical, make no mistakes about it.
A few months later at a family party, a well-meaning relative came over. She was smiling so hard her eyes were almost closed, and she threw her arms around me, loud bracelets jangling in my ears.
“I’m so happy for you,” she tearfully said, “Finally, you’re you. We see you.”
“Thank you,” I stammered back, still anticipating negative reactions. My mind thought of my fellow trans friends, thinking of their own coming out experiences. They were thrown out of their homes, made to feel responsible for a parent’s cancer returning, or told they were abominations. Here I was, having the most welcoming experience, and I was still scared.
“Aren’t you happy?” she continued, “You’ll never be depressed again. I’m so happy for you.”
Never be depressed again. Her words bounced around my mind like a rubber ball in an antique store. Is that what people thought transitioning would do for me? Did people expect mental perfection from me? Was I still depressed?
The wheels of anxiety started spinning wildly like some sort of deranged pinwheel in a hurricane. I had started hormones a few months prior, but still was waking up with heart-pounding anxiety. During my first two weeks of hormone treatments, I was so worried that I would be a disappointment to my loved ones that I had a panic attack in my sleep so intense it woke me up. I couldn’t breathe, so I called an ambulance.
I didn’t want to admit to people that I was scared because I thought it would invalidate my transition, and be taken away from me. “Men don’t get afraid,” I repeated to myself, “they get tougher.” John Wayne mantras aside, I was still terrorized by simple things.
Was I a fake trans person? Did other trans people become serene in ways I couldn’t possibly fathom? Were people transitioning, and becoming enlightened Buddhas in their own right? Had some trans delegate passed out evaluation sheets without me knowing? Damnit, I wanted my gold or rainbow star too!
My well-meaning relative’s comment haunted me, and my anxiety was tossing catastrophes around like the poltergeist of a failed knife-thrower. Like so many people, I absolutely fear expectations. I’m the kind of person opts out of a competition because the weight of my own expectations causes me to break out in hives. My least favorite day of school was the first day, where teachers passed out the course outlines and reminded us there was a final project to work towards. Those essays or oral presentations felt like oncoming execution dates; just more ways I could fail to meet my own lofty ambitions.
I gripped my binder and tugged at my shirt nervously.
Was I a trans failure?
The longer I transitioned, the more I realized a hard truth: my inner world hadn’t changed… people just changed their behavior towards me because I seemed physically different. I still spoke the same way, I still laughed the same way and loved the same way as I always had. Nothing fundamental changed in myself, I didn’t flip some sort of “gender behavior” switch in my mind. People just started to pick up that my masculine aesthetic was “man” rather than “butch”. It’s a hard realization to have, that a large part of being seen as “authentically ____” heavily relies on the public perception of my gender presentation.
It wasn’t that I had succeeded in presenting as a man, it was just luck. The arbitrary guidelines that are so often read as “man” just happened to suddenly match my presentation and how I felt comfortable in my body. The same things that so often made me the point of ridicule by my peers in high school were now a benefit. My height wasn’t too tall now. My jawline didn’t need to be softened anymore, it just added to my overall look. My body’s natural tendency towards hairiness wasn’t an invitation for gifts of laser treatment, it was just an affirmation to others that I was a “man”.
Which… is bullshit. It is utter and complete bullshit.
It’s bullshit that women can’t be all those things while still being respected in society. It’s reductionist to think there’s only one “reason” a woman would not want to perform femininity (“oh… she must be a lesbian”). It’s absurd how women are seen as flawed for not adjusting their bodies natural aesthetic in order to fit a particular rigid view of womanhood. It’s small-minded that society’s understanding of “masculinity” relies on policing people’s bodies in general.
And it doesn’t just hurt women, it hurts everyone. It’s just that women are punished the most for disobeying the heaven-sent “gender rules”.
However, I still would have gender dysphoria, even if those parts of my body weren’t demonized.
I didn’t transition because it was harder to be a woman in our “modern” society; I transitioned because it was agonizing to not be seen as who I truly was: a man. I would see a guy walking down the street, and feel a sense of recognition deep within my core. Dysphoria came when I realized that others did not see me as I saw myself, and it would break me down every time.
Sometimes, gender-critical people (read: anti-trans activists) will point to trans people who died of suicide and make it seem as though these tragedies are evidence that transitioning is wrong or a failure. They are not.
Claiming that transitioning fails someone because they still struggle with depression or anxiety is a failure to understand mental health.
A lifetime of dismissing ourselves and our inner desires doesn’t go away overnight. It won’t go away by taking hormones or dressing in gender-affirming clothes. We still bear the scars of our experiences, and we suffer daily from people who lack simple human compassion. Trans people are still marginalized every day; we’re still largely misunderstood or fetishized. We’re not treated as equals for the better part of society. Again, nothing changed about me. People just started to see me as I wanted to be seen.
The realization hit me hard. My disabling anxiety wasn’t a failure as a trans person but a failure to recognize that I still needed to work hard on my own mental ecosystem. My reflection in the mirror of the hospital wasn’t the end of my journey. It was the beginning.
I decided to rethink my experience. Initially, I considered it a failure to feel anxious to the point of sickness but that wasn’t true. Narrative is vital if you’re planning to get through some of the toughest parts of your life, and boy, did I need to rewrite my own story. So I did.
I got really honest. I dug deep down inside and addressed some of the most tender wounds I was still nursing from childhood. I began viewing my anxiety differently. I would never be rid of it, but I could learn to live with it. I could learn to maybe make friends with the pain and panic it so often brought into my life, and maybe if I could, others could too.
The experience of seeing myself in the mirror brought back to a memory of when I was very young, and nightmares used to keep me up at night. When I told my dad there was a purple monster chasing me at night, he told me to sit down with it and make friends. I was appalled, he clearly knew nothing of monsters. My dad reminded me that maybe the monster was as scared as I was. I considered that fact as thoughtfully as a four-year-old could.
That night, I had a dream where the monster and I played checkers. He let me win, and I never had another nightmare about this monster again.
I realized that I had made those same steps to accepting my transness only a few years prior
Deciding to transition meant ultimately becoming friends with the parts of me I wish didn’t exist. If I had a magic wand that could have transformed me into a cisgender man, I would have used it. But I didn’t. I had to acknowledge that being seen as authentically me meant accepting all of myself, and it wasn’t a death sentence to transition. It was a death sentence not to.
In the same way, I had to become comfortable with the fact that transitioning wasn’t going to solve all my problems in life. Testosterone wasn’t a cure-all panacea. It could grow an amazingly dense coat of body hair, but it wasn’t going to evaporate my biologically gifted anxiety.
For some, transitioning means changing their name and clothing. For others, they desire surgery and think of themselves as people with a complex medical condition. Whatever changes or exploration needs to be done, let yourself do those things. Let people explore without being quick to judge them (or yourself) for not being “perfect”.
Your moment of change is not the end of your story. It is only the beginning. You’re on a wonderful adventure, and you’re going to be your own best teacher. Become friends with every part of yourself, even the parts you think you dislike. Ask yourself, who taught me to be afraid of these bits and pieces? Who benefits from me hating myself into oblivion? You are only at odds with yourself if you see those parts as enemies. All of you is deserving of respect, not just the parts that are respectable.
So enjoy friends and stay kind to one another and yourself.