I remember laying wide awake in bed at five in the morning, waiting. The sun was barely poking through the windows and yet I refused to go back to sleep for fear of missing my chance. All I could do was think over and over again what I would say to my mom.
I heard her shift in her bed two rooms down from mine. She was gradually waking up, going through her morning routine. I laid as still as possible. I didn’t want to rush her into a talk. I wanted her alert and attentive, not groggy from sleep, so I waited.
I waited as she moved from the bathroom to the kitchen: the sound of drawers being pulled and plates being moved. Then, all was silent. I could imagine her eating, the sounds too soft for me to pick up.
I debated whether to get out of bed at all. I felt ashamed, scared of her reaction. I could go on pretending I was asleep and no-one would be the wiser. I could go on with my life without forcing myself to confront her on this.
I heard more sounds and I panicked. It was earlier than I expected. Either that, or I had lost track of time in my musings. I knew she usually left for work very early, before the rest of us were out of bed, but I didn’t want to miss my chance. If I didn’t go through with this now, I would find excuses to chicken out next time, then the next and so on.
Bare feet, dressed in only the first pair of pants I could find, I walked to the kitchen. My mom was there, dressed and ready to leave at any moment. She saw me coming and stopped what she was doing.
She was surprised to see me up this early. It might have been my state of undress, the way I stood, or the look on my face that clued her in: she asked me what was wrong.
I told her we needed to talk. She put away her purse and sat me in a chair at the kitchen table. I sat at the end of the table while she took a side seat. The table corner between us was my last bit of protection as she gave me her full attention.
She asked me again what was wrong. I was too ashamed to speak. She asked me if it was about school, and I shook my head: no.
Was it about the bullying?
Was it related to the family?
She paused, at a loss.
She asked me if I was gay.
I didn’t deny that one, but it wasn’t what I wanted her to take away from this either. Sure, I could say I was and brush the whole thing off. It would satisfy her curiosity, and it wasn’t even technically false at that point, but it wasn’t enough.
“I want to be a girl,” was all I said.
It’s funny how so many years later I barely remember the ensuing discussion with my mom, but the lead up to it remains so vivid.
Contrarily to my transition at the age of 21, I do not have a written account of my impressions and feelings when I was 14. All I have are memories colored with hindsight, idealized or dramatized with time. My mom and a friend helped me fill in the gaps of my patchwork memory.
I cannot pinpoint one time in my past where I became aware of my dysphoria. It became much more pronounced with puberty, though.
I waited as long as I could before shaving the light fuzz that grew on my upper lip. The boys were proud to brag about their first shave, comparing the age they started using a razor as though it was an accomplishment of their masculinity. For my part, I wanted nothing to do with it. I didn’t want to use a razor, nor did I want to see my fuzzy face in the mirror. I ignored the hair and pushed back the task as much as I could. The only reason I ended up shaving was because the glimpse of myself in the mirror brought more unease than the dysphoria of going through with it.
Speaking of mirrors: I couldn’t stand my own appearance being reflected back at me. Mirrors, glass, pictures, even the voice recording we needed to do for our Spanish class: they were all off. I didn’t think much of it back then. Everyone was going through puberty; everyone was complaining their voice sounded strange, or they had pimples, or were dissatisfied with their body in some way, shape or form. My own feelings fell perfectly in line with what others were living, so I never questioned why I kept thinking I would look better as a girl. I simply assumed everyone felt the same.
I went through the first few years of high school without much self-awareness. Gender identity wasn’t one of the topics of our sex-education class. Rather, most of our classes centered over biological sex, STI, safer sex measures, and pregnancy. There was so much focus put on safer sex that at one point the topic bled into our other classes. For a few months, whether it was chemistry, French, English, ethics, or physical education, the only thing our teachers would talk about was safer sex. More than one students ended up either disgusted, desensitized or disillusioned. Thinking back, that might have been the teachers’ goal: what better way to keep a bunch of hormonal teens on the straight and narrow than to overwhelm them with exactly what they were interested in? Again, my own feelings of aversion towards my own body fit right in with the other students’.
During high school, I knew what I wanted. However, I didn’t have enough knowledge of LGBT narratives to think my desires were more than wishful thinking.
I had found some stories about transpeople, sometimes on news websites told from the perspective of a cis person. The narrative was often the same: the person said they always knew; they felt trapped in the wrong body; they were depressive; they crossdressed from a young age; they related more with people from their chosen gender; they were sure.
That wasn’t me. That couldn’t me.
I didn’t know for sure how I felt. I didn’t feel trapped. I wasn’t unhappy; in fact compared to my bullied grade school years I was happier than ever, with a great family, good grades and a growing circle of friends. I never crossdressed, nor did I have that many female friends. I had one good one whom we’ll call Marie, and there were a few other girls who hung out with my other friends so I considered them friends as well even though we didn’t talk much. I didn’t feel any closer to them than my boy friends.
I didn’t fit the narrative, so I couldn’t be trans.
I was disappointed, but not much more. I was happy. Between school, swimming and board games, I had plenty to distract myself.
And books. Lots of novels. There is something reassuring in the escapism one gets from some ink on sheets of paper. Books had followed me ever since I binged the Amos Daragon series in grade school. They were the same old fantasy stories I loved, except for one thing: I now only read stories with female protagonists.
I related more with female protagonists than male ones. I was fascinated with their emotions and reactions and I could imagine myself in their shoes facing the same trials much more readily than the latter. After a few such stories, male protagonists left me unsatisfied. They were missing something, a lack of depth that made them uninteresting to my fourteen years old self.
One of the books to feature almost only women characters was Thendara House from the Darkover series. It was part of a large box full of books left behind by my brother after he left home. The book was old, with the cover scrapped around the edges and with the middle third not even glued to the rest of the binding.
The book follows two plotlines, one for each main character. I was more invested in the story of Magda Lorne, though. Her character arc led to her making efforts to adopt the natives’ culture as a diplomatic move to integrate the colony with the rest of the interstellar empire. Part of said culture was an openness to lesbian women among the group Magda joined. At first prejudiced, Magda gradually opened up to her new sisters. She developed feelings of her own and, confused, she spent a while in denial of them. The romantic sub-plot was a small part of the book, but seeing her struggle with her own feelings and the subsequent release when she finally admitted them to herself… I could relate.
The romance itself wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was still one I could picture myself in more easily than those teen romances between a boy and a girl.
Now, I know what most people reading the above would say to this: girl on girl is hot; it’s a teenage boy’s wet dream; of course I would be interested.
Except for the fact I had my sexual awakening only three years later, that I had just come out of a short relationship I didn’t feel comfortable in, and that the book didn’t have any erotic nor even suggestive scene, I would tend to agree. As it was, what I took away from that book was the realization I was more comfortable seeing myself in a lesbian relationship than a straight one.
A few months before I read Thendara House I had a brief relationship with Marie. I talked a little about it in an earlier post. She asked me out and I agreed despite my confused feelings.
I felt like I was following a script of how to act in a relationship instead of living it for my own sake. I was stiff and awkward, but again, it’s puberty. Who isn’t?
At the same time, a guy we’ll call John hung at the same table as me and my friends. I was one of the satellite members of the group, there for the few people I knew. The rest of the group were friends of friends I wasn’t as close to. He was probably around for the same reasons I was.
John was quite open about the fact he was exploring his bisexuality. He had had a few crushes on girls that didn’t work out, and had tried to flirt with a few boys as well.
I think he had been flirting with me prior to my getting together with Marie, but I can’t quite remember. I was oblivious to those kinds of social cues at the time, and it took Marie’s confession for me to realize that she had been trying to become closer to me for a little while. John might have tried the same, though his attempts flew over my head. All I know was that when Marie and I made it official (asking me out in the cafeteria in front of everyone kind of made it official by default), John became more obvious in his flirts. Or maybe I was more on the lookout for them from my girlfriend so I also noticed his more?
I dated Marie for a month. By the end of that month, I couldn’t pretend anymore: I didn’t feel attracted to her the way she was to me. I broke up with her but wanted us to remain friends, which we did. Once there was no script to follow, I felt more at ease with our relationship. I felt closer to her as a friend than as a partner.
John was never far behind when Marie and I were dating, but after we amiably broke up, he grew more daring. He was competing for my attention while at the same time backing off whenever Marie got fed up with him. He had enough respect of my friendship with Marie to ask her permission before doing anything with me, whether it be holding hands, sitting next to me, or kissing me. On her end, Marie was polite enough to take a hands-off approach and let him experiment with me if I was up to it, thus she agreed more often than not. I went along with it, not too sure what to think.
It was a few months later, with the recent reading of Thendara House on my mind, that John and I found ourselves to be the only ones at our usual table at the cafeteria. We decided to walk around the school without destination, talking all the while.
After some mundane talk, I asked him how being bisexual felt to him. He mentioned his attraction to boys and that he wasn’t really sure he was bi, but he wanted to keep his options open and take his time to explore both sides.
He told me he found me cute. I knew that. He had been rather obvious about it.
He continued with more seriousness. He confessed his feelings and asked me if I wanted him for boyfriend.
I turned him down as gently as I could. I wasn’t attracted to him, and we didn’t have the same kind of friendship I had with Marie. I wasn’t eager to get back into a relationship before having sorted out my confused feelings.
He took it in stride, and we resumed our earlier chat. However, I didn’t want to leave it at that. I wouldn’t get over my feelings by thinking about the same things over and over again, so I made a confession of my own.
“I want to be a girl.”
Perhaps it was because he had shared his own confession earlier; perhaps I felt he would understand; or perhaps it was because he was distant enough as a friend that I didn’t fear to lose him if our relationship changed as a result of my confession. In the end, I told him. He was the first person I ever shared this desire of mine with.
He kept silent for a few seconds, then asked me if I wanted to go somewhere more private. Nodding, I followed him to an empty staircase leading to the balcony of the gym. No-one ever used that staircase.
We sat down on the steps, and he listened as I talked.
I told him about my disdain for my facial hair. I told him the thoughts I had whenever I looked in the mirror, and how little things kept making me think everything would be so much better as a girl. The silent wishes upon my birthday cakes, the fact I had thought about it at least once a day for years now…
At some point I started crying. It was cathartic to speak about these things, to admit they were real. I thought I was coping well enough, but that illusion came crashing down the moment I opened my mouth. I couldn’t contain my feelings, and so I let them all out.
He hugged me and said nothing. He listened until I was done, and comforted me until I calmed down a bit.
He tried to relate, but it didn’t help. He wasn’t living the same thing, and the experiences he shared missed the point. He tried to ask me questions about what being a girl meant to me, whether I was more attracted to boys or girls, but that didn’t help either. I didn’t know. Did I need to be attracted to boys to feel like a girl? I didn’t know.
At a loss, he did the thing most teens have seen in movies when one needed to provide comfort. He kissed me.
And I kissed him back.
It wasn’t the first time he kissed me, not by a long shot, but it was the first time I returned the gesture. That both surprised me and confused me. He was a flirt, one not to be taken too seriously. I enjoyed his company, but we didn’t share enough interests and values for me to consider him a close friend. I wasn’t attracted to him, so why in a moment of weakness would I kiss him?
What did that say about me?
I pulled away from him and excused myself. He apologized and said he shouldn’t have kissed me, but I was too out of it to answer coherently. I needed some time alone to think.
I avoided him for the rest of the day. In fact, I avoided a lot of people that day.
It was while waiting at a bus stop in between my transfers, with a few hours of distance and the cool air soothing me, that I came to a decision: I might be bi. I thought I should thank John for helping me discover this about myself and to have seen me through in a moment of distress.
The next day I did just that. John apologized profusely, even though I didn’t see it as his fault but rather mine. He had been his usual self, and he had a history of kissing me at awkward times; no surprise there. I had been the one kissing him back, so I felt the responsibility fell onto me. We were awkward around each other for a little while afterwards.
Looking back, I was lacking the introspection to unearth my true feelings about this situation. I was just mimicking the reaction I had read in Thendara House, where Magda (much in the same way) was confused by her reaction to the advances of another member of the sisterhood, even though she expected these advances. Magda thanked the sister for showing interest, but politely refused them in favor of finding answers by herself.
I was adrift in feelings I didn’t understand, and so I clung to the only role model I knew who had been in a similar situation. I didn’t know better.
As opposed to what I had told John, I did not discover I was bisexual from that one kiss. The impact wasn’t that clear cut. What I did get from it was momentary relief. It was a single moment where I didn’t repress my desires. I wanted to be held and comforted like a girl. I had feared ridicule and dismissal for so long that the simple lack of these reactions felt validating. For all of John’s awkwardness, he listened. He held me, he comforted me. That meant a lot.
However, I felt also uncomfortable having shared this secret with him instead of say Marie or my parents. I wasn’t close to him, and this kind of vulnerability felt at odd with the type of relationship we had. It could lead him to believe we had a deeper connection than I was comfortable having. Furthermore, I felt guilty towards the people who should have been in John’s place, those whom I wanted comfort and validation from. It was unfair to keep this secret from them when I shared it with a distant friend.
Yet, I couldn’t gather the guts to tell them.
There was one other book that affected me enough for its name to stick with me for all these years: the manga Kashimashi Girl Meets Girl.
The premise of the manga is that a boy named Hazumu died after confessing his feelings to a girl. He got crushed in a failed UFO landing. The aliens, feeling responsible for his death, brought him back to life as a girl and announced that fact to the entire world.
While the premise might sound strange, it is an excuse to explore the relationships and personal growth of a transgender person when physical transition and social transition have been taken out of the equation.
Nowadays I can see the unfortunate implications of a person being assigned the wrong gender at their rebirth and for them to readily accept it and live by it. I’d prefer not think too deeply about that.
Rather, as a thought experiment of what would happen if some of the biggest hurdles of transition were made into non-issues, the story is quite entertaining. Hazumu seems genuinely happier as a girl from the start, which is why I think of her more as a transgirl a step ahead in her transition instead of a transboy resigned to go with the flow.
This manga was the first work of fiction I read involving a transgender protagonist. Similarly to Magda, I could relate to Hazumu: the introspection, the focus on emotions, growing into one’s femininity, etc. However, Hazumu made me feel something I never felt while reading about Madga:
I wanted to be her. I wanted to be her so, so bad.
If there had been a button that magically changed me physically to a girl and everyone knew about it, accepted it and encouraged it, I would have been ecstatic. Every thought I had had over the years would disappear and the world would finally make sense.
Reading Kashimashi gave me a glimpse of what life could be if I transitioned. It put words on my desires and expressed feelings I didn’t know I wanted to express. Reading about Hazumu growing more and more feminine as she became more comfortable outside the male social role, it was as though I was right there along with her, living through her transition, sharing her happiness.
All too soon I had caught up with the last chapter of the manga. And my dysphoria became much worse.
I tried to satisfy my need for escapism with other manga in the same genre, but none came as close to satisfy me as Kashimashi. Either I couldn’t relate to the protagonist, or the latter expressed desires to return to their original gender, or the situations arising around them were so contrived and fetishized they broke my willingness to disbelieve.
Whereas books had been my source of escapism for years, after reading Kashimashi I no longer felt satisfied reading at all. Boy leads, girls, lesbians, gender-benders, I didn’t care. They all felt alien to me.
I thought about Kashimashi day in, day out. I kept replaying the scenes in my mind, as those were the only things that felt like me. I bottled my feelings while searching desperately for another outlet.
I didn’t find another book, so I dreamed. Without anything to fill my evenings, I started to go to bed early after doing my homework. I took refuge in my head, where I could be the gender I wanted to be. I was reluctant to wake up in the morning. School didn’t have the same appeal anymore.
I didn’t keep that up long. I knew I was only fooling myself by remaining idle. I knew what I needed to do.
Thus one morning, before my mom left for work, I got up early to have a little chat with her.