How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Be a Trans Woman
I want to be joyful.
I’m finding it so important, as a trans woman, to focus on the liberating and fulfilling joy I’ve found since coming out. Life is by no means easier, but I feel happier and much more free—I love focusing on other examples of queer joy and success, too.
There are many, many examples of the challenges and pain we still have to face in a world as harsh as ours, but there’s so much to be joyful about within ourselves and the community at large.
I’m about five months into my transition, and nothing feels real. No one can fully explain the effects of feminizing hormones on the way a person experiences sensory phenomena, but it just makes everything feel different. I perceive differently. I experience temperature, moisture, and pain in new and unfamiliar ways. I bleed more easily. Colors are a little brighter.
I don’t know how much of this is psychosomatic and how much I can actually attribute to hormone replacement therapy. All this almost demands introspection, because there are entirely new feelings to process. And with that introspection comes reflections on the trail that led me here, the long and winding path I left behind.
Janusz, who asked me to write this essay as a follow up to something they wrote a while back, had a good term for it: queer breadcrumbs, or the idea that queer people leave behind these little notes for their future selves that say “yeah, you’ve always been this way.”
I don’t think my breadcrumbs were all that obvious. I mean, I obviously knew something was different about me because I couldn’t ever find a way to be comfortable in my own body, but I thought I led a pretty average cis-het lifestyle. But more than a few people I’ve come out to–people who’ve known me for years, even decades–have responded with “yeah, of course.”
So, clearly, there’s something that’s always been there. But, what?
Janusz uses examples from various media to explain their journey–Sailor Moon, Titanic, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But when I look at the TV shows that I consumed as a kid, nothing so obviously queer stands out. Sure, I related to Helga on Hey Arnold! and Catdog, as a single entity, but I knew to keep that shit to myself within the household. The gay agenda was lurking around every corner, I was told. Liberals were coming for my mind and the devil was coming for my soul.
Mine was the kind of household where MTV was the blocked channel list and primetime weeknights were dedicated to Fox News’ ultra-toxic back-to-back of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. We definitely didn’t watch Sailor Moon, and we were told that Harry Potter encouraged witchcraft in children.
Granted, being turned away from Harry Potter fandom certainly saved me a lot of grief later in life. A broken clock is right every once in a while.
And, to be sure, there weren’t a whole lot of queer icons to look up to around my tiny town. News about the existence of transgender people didn’t arrive in rural South Carolina for quite some time.
When I started to forge an identity in my teen years, I began to realize that the frame I was growing into wasn’t quite right. I felt like a foot in a boot that’s half a size too small. But, naturally, I didn’t have the words and experience to describe what I was feeling. I felt the urges and sensations, but chalked them up to the raging hormonal imbalances of the teens. I thought, for a little while, that I might be gay, until I realized that I actually wanted to spend as little time with men as possible. I liked girls, and I liked spending time with girls. I told myself that it was just a natural attraction complicated by puberty, until I started to notice that I was jealous of the way girls looked and how they got to wear all kinds of clothes: dresses, skirts, blouses, scarves, their bright and colorful jewelry and piercings. It felt unfair that I was stuck wearing boring shirts and blue jeans.
I dressed in drag for the first time when I was sixteen. It was for a school pep rally thing, part of homecoming week, where they got a handful of high school boys to wear drag and walk around the basketball gym in a mock fashion show. I was recruited by a girl I had a crush on—who happened to be on the homecoming committee—which was in need of another body for the gender-bending fashion show. She asked me, and I agreed without hesitation, for obvious reasons.
It was awful, awful drag. I remember it so vividly. A team of sixteen-year-old girls put me in cakey foundation, fake eyelashes, a horrible pink lipstick paired with a terrible orange wig, a blue dress that looked like it had just been liberated from a woman dying in hospice care, black flats with a permanent mustard stain on the left toe, gray tights, and a giant old-lady bra stuffed with cotton balls. A photograph of me in this outfit exists, somewhere–if it ever surfaces, I will surely die.
I looked awful, but as I strutted across the floor of the basketball gym in front of the leery eyes of a jeering and cheering crowd, I felt amazing. They thought it was a joke, but I felt seen for the first time.
That’s when I first knew, I think: circa early November, 2008.
I knew I was trans, but, again, I didn’t have the words to describe what I was feeling. So, I manifested my desperate desire to be different–my newly discovered gender dysphoria–into being a shithead punk kid.
Right about the same time I tapped into my queerness for the first time, I got really into punk. These two things are very closely related. I loved the music, I loved the attitude, but I was most enamored by the fashion, really. I cut my hair into a mohawk, spiked it with egg whites and Elmer’s glue, and colored it purple and orange. I started wearing the skinniest girl jeans I could reasonably squeeze. I smoked cigarettes and learned to enjoy dogshit beer. When I started driving, I would take my friends on three, four, five, eight hour drives to Columbia, Charlotte, Atlanta, Raleigh, Athens to see our favorite bands. I once drove to New Jersey just to see the Bouncing Souls.
I loved the bands, and I loved the opportunity to get the fuck out of town for a little while. These excursions were my first chances to get out and see the world. I was every teenage punk rock cliché wrapped up into one dysphoric package. It was so exciting and thrilling to be around all the punks, freaks, queers, and weirdos huddling around little stages in little corners of big cities, commanding our own little spaces among one another during our collective journey to find a place where we belonged.
So many trans kids were at those punk and emo shows between, say, 2005 and 2015–they were just waiting for the right time to come out. An entire generation of queers was born in smelly basements, dingy bars, and sticky rock clubs.
I was born in these places. More specifically, I was born in the Tabernacle in Atlanta, Georgia on June 17, 2012, while watching Against Me!, a band I love as much now as I did back then. This was, if I remember correctly, the band’s first tour after frontwoman Laura Jane Grace came out as a trans woman–a monumental moment in modern punk history.
Against Me! had been one of my favorite bands going back to middle school, when some horribly misguided older friend made the mistake of giving me a bootleg copy of Reinventing Axl Rose. That single gesture changed everything–that burned CD never left the changer of my ‘95 Lincoln Town Car. I’ve listened to “Walking is Still Honest” approximately 200,000 times by now. I carried that love all the way into adulthood, even when all the cool punks bailed on them for all the reasons cool punks end up turning on all their favorite bands that find success. I truly fell in love sometime in 2008, on the “New Wave” tour, after some swarthy adult-punk cracked two of my ribs in the mosh pit that erupted during “Mediocrity Gets You Pears.”
For most of their career, Against Me! was regarded as a notoriously grouchy punk band. Every time I saw them, they were stone-faced and intense, never wasting time on stage banter, hardly taking the time to introduce the songs. You either know the song or you don’t–poser.
But on that hot summer night in Atlanta, they were completely different. Laura Jane Grace’s trademark scowl was replaced with a wide, rapturous smile. She was the personification of joy, the embodiment of queer freedom and pride. She was practically floating across the stage. She laughed and danced and the band put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
And there were so many queer kids there, all young and sweaty and thrilled to see one of their own up on the stage, singing songs of rage and love back at them, embodying their wildest dreams, showing them what’s possible for queers like them.
She showed me what was possible. That night, I wanted to be Laura Jane Grace. I wanted to be a woman, free and proud. I wanted to be joyful.
That was a watershed moment for me, I think. The true journey began on that night ten years ago, though it obviously took much longer for me to reach a point of true understanding.
But that’s the nature of these things–the nature of queerness, I think. It really is a transition. There’s a long mental transition that begins long before the physical transition. I had to learn about the world and my place within it before I could really come to understand who I really am. I had to go places, leave home, make mistakes, learn how to love and how to lose. I had to experience new places, people, ideas, and spend a long time shedding the skin I was trapped within.
There’s a reason trans people refer to coming out as “hatching.” It really does feel like breaking through a shell.
To understand Against Me!’s important place in the dual queer and punk pantheons, one only needs to listen to Transgender Dysphoria Blues, which is about as neat of a summary of the trans experience as you can expect from a punk record.
But in her memoir, Laura Jane Grace points to “The Ocean”–the closing track of 2007’s New Wave, as evidence of her ongoing struggle with gender identity. In the second verse, she sings:
“If I could’ve chosen,
I would’ve been born a woman.
My mother once told me
She would’ve named me Laura.
I’d grow up to be strong and beautiful like her.
One day I’d find an honest man to make my husband.”
That song has become a standard at Against Me! shows since 2012, for obvious reasons. And in the half-dozen or so times I’ve seen them in the last ten years, there’s never been a time where those lines didn’t make me cry. I’m crying now, just writing them down–damn hormones!
But, if you ask me which of Against Me!’s songs mean the most to me as a trans woman, I would point you to “Joy” from their third and finest record, Searching for a Former Clarity. If we’re talking breadcrumbs–tiny signs of future queerness left behind by my younger subconscious for the older me to reflect upon–this is the song. It’s an unsung hero of Against Me! songs–a song that’s gotten me through dark nights, lonely nights, nights where hope of a happy life seemed to fade. It’s the song I turned to in the traumatic wake of a sexual assault. It’s the song I turned to when I left home for good. It’s the song I listened to in the moments before I came out for the very first time, just a few months ago, after a very long ten years.
It’s a song whose simple refrain has shaped me into the woman I am today.
“And all around us is a great, great failing
American rockets red-glare in most disgusting triumph
And in passing I am asked, ‘Do you believe in a god?’
I shrug off the answer, continue to get high
In this terror of no explanation
I am looking for a faith
My panic is the only reason there’s a joy
A joy in all I can see
A joy in every possibility”