“Phases pass, dysphoria does not. For example, as a child I did in fact spend a few blissful months tearing around my house on all fours with my fingers bent into paws in the hope of making myself as cheetah-like as possible. But I grew out of it and found other ways to appreciate the majesty of the world’s fastest land animal. I never grew out of knowing I was not a girl.”
– Caspar Baldwin, Not Just a Tomboy
Update: I changed my name from “Mimi” to “Marty” and started using he/him pronouns in July 2019. This article keeps the original “Mimi” and “she/her” self-references in order to maintain a sense of timeline.
During my later college years, I began feeling angry almost all the time.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened — maybe one, two years after I started college — but all of a sudden I was touchy and upset almost all the time, especially around the people who I was closest with. I had a solid group of friends and a loving, devoted boyfriend, but more often than not, I found myself making up excuses to avoid them.
I started seeing interactions with almost any other human beings as an exhausting act that I no longer had the energy to continue. That, plus the fact that all of my close friends were cis guys and thought of me as the “token girl” in the group, gave me uneasy feelings that I couldn’t quite explain. I was so uncomfortable with my emotions that I didn’t even know where to begin sorting them out. Instead, I became more and more reliant on external factors, such as my academic performance and future career, to give me a sense of self-worth.
I’d once loved hanging out with my friends. We were so tight that we often likened ourselves to a (very dysfunctional) family. As for the guy I was dating, well, we were serious enough that we’d practically moved in together and occasionally talked about spending the rest of our lives with one another. At twenty, I seemed to have the best support network possible, which was a pretty good feat, considering that been friendless for the majority of my childhood.
And yet, it seemed like I was always upset at one person or another. I was often irritable and prone to starting arguments, often ending up a crying mess in front of my partner almost every night. He would stare at me like I was a problem he had no idea how to solve.
I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him every time something like this happened. The confident, ambitious, well-groomed girl he thought he’d gotten into a relationship with had turned out to be sad and bitter, with a deep reservoir of rage and untreated gender identity issues.
This was what life was like the year before I came out as transgender — I was exhausted and irritated all the time, I pushed people away, and I was no longer having any fun. I felt wrong all around, and I was afraid that I was living in avoidance without even knowing what I was trying to avoid.
The boy who forgot himself
College had made me push my gender-identity questions to the back burner, so to speak. I was working all of the time, I finally had a social life, and my all-consuming goal was to land a job in Silicon Valley. I was already out as queer. My friends saw me as a masculine girl. That was enough for me.
That’s what I told myself, at least.
On the outside, I remained as pretty and outgoing as always. My grades stayed up, I joined Toastmasters, and I drove around taking photos for the blog. As long as I was doing something, I could ignore the fact that I was deeply unhappy.
By now, Sweetly Subversive had been going on for nearly three years, and with each passing year, I found myself more and more reluctant to address the person I had once been, the one who had been halfway out of the transgender closet in high school. I remembered all the times I insisted I was a boy when I was younger, my boobs continued to disgust me, and I still felt an unusually high amount of discomfort whenever someone referred to me as a “woman” … but for the most part, I was content with being a she/her, a “girl”, a “female” for all intents and purposes. I finally had friends, good grades, and the prospect of a bright future, and I didn’t want to compromise any of it by bringing out the things I had long buried.
Unfortunately, I was about to learn that repression and feigning ignorance would not make my gender issues go away. They were simply overshadowed by other concerns, but as time went on, these feelings of dysphoria and “wrongness” would find their way back to the forefront of my mind.
Moment of recognition
Things came to a head with my boyfriend on New Year’s Eve that year, when we attended a party in a fancy house on the Florida coast. I’d gotten way too drunk and had smashed a glass bottle after losing a game of beer pong to some white dudes. To add to the party-foul embarrassment, I’d refused to let anyone else clean up my mess, instead insisting loudly that I was no little bitch who needed help. I think I cut myself or something — the exact details aren’t clear. All I remember of the party from that point forward is a lot of broken glass, me stumbling around in my heels with a broom, and being led to the car by my boyfriend, who had been staying sober the entire time.
That ride back was a lot of fun.
The ride back I remember.
“You can still be a strong, independent woman while accepting help from others,” my boyfriend told me as he maneuvered the car through the warm January night.
I looked through the dashboard and tried to suppress those awful tears, that nasty lump in my throat, the unease in my stomach. I detested crying, and I seemed to be doing more and more of it as time went on. “I know,” I said through gritted teeth.
We drove along the water, the houses on the other side glittering like fairy lights. I hated that I had ruined was supposed to be a special occasion, hated that he’d insisted on driving me home, hated that I both didn’t know and knew exactly why I was so miserable at the same time.
Something about the entire situation — the way my opponents had clearly taken it easy on me, the looks on peoples’ faces when the bottle smashed, the way my boyfriend had escorted me out of the house — had made it clear that I’d been perceived as some girl who was out of control, who had had too much to drink, who needed to be taken care of. It had awoken some deeply familiar emotions that made me feel like I was a stubborn four-year-old again, hearing for the first time that certain words couldn’t be used to describe me because of my assumed gender.
You know exactly what’s wrong, the tiny voice that always spoke the truth suddenly piped up. You just can’t say it, because saying it would mean the end of this relationship, and potentially all of your friendships as well. All of the connections you’ve built with people over the last few years have rested on a lie about who you are. You know it, and they’re starting to catch on.
Damn it, shit always got too real when I was under the influence.
“I’m —” I began, closing my mouth as a wave of shame settled over me. “I —”
How could I explain that I’d reacted in such a way not because I felt the need to show that I was a strong, independent woman, but because I needed everyone to see that I wasn’t a woman at all?
“Hey, are you okay?”
My boyfriend pulled over to the side, and all of a sudden I broke into loud, gasping sobs, the kind that left me lightheaded because I was taking in so much air.
I had never felt so alone in my life. I simultaneously detested my existence, detested that I was so faithfully dedicated to an aesthetic that fundamentally made people see me as the opposite of what I was, and detested the fact that I was definitely coming off as an overemotional girlfriend who had had too much to drink. I resented my boyfriend for how comfortable he seemed with his gender, for the way others accepted his masculinity like it was an inherent part of him, for the fact that he’d never had to question this part of himself over and over and over, like I had.
On top of everything, I felt bad — none of this was his fault. It wasn’t his fault that I had been born this way, it wasn’t his fault that he’d thought I was somebody I wasn’t. Why was I burdening him, dragging him down with all of this bullshit that I refused to tell anybody?
I cried harder. Tears freely rolled down my cheeks and dropped into the pearl-studded statement necklace I was wearing. I’d put the necklace on to disguise the fact that my New Years’ dress showed more cleavage than I was comfortable with — I’d been in a hurry and hadn’t been able to alter it in time for the party.
Look at you, hiding yourself in plain sight, you fucking pussy-ass coward, the voice said now. He’s going to find out sooner or later. You may as well just come out and say it right now.
“Hey, Mimi? What’s wrong?”
I’m not a woman, I’m not who you think I am, and I’m so sorry I misled you.
“I —” I sniffed and wiped my eyes with my right arm. Attractive. I wanted to tell him that I was transgender, right then and there, but I wasn’t sure if that was the right term. What did you call a girl who was sure she was a boy, but actively enjoyed getting dolled up for New Years’ parties?
He grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “It’s okay.”
“No, it isn’t.” I sat up straight and shook my head. “Listen, I have to tell you something.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled. “I don’t think I’m a woman.”
He blinked. “What do you mean?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, I just really don’t feel like one. And back there, when those guys were taunting me like that, patronizing me … I got fucking pissed, and I’m sorry.” I looked at him. “Sorry for ruining your night.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m not a huge fan of parties anyway.” He raised an eyebrow, taking in what I’d said earlier. When he spoke again, his voice was serious. “But, Mimi, guys taunt each other all the time when we play beer pong. It’s a thing.”
“Well, yeah.” My friends and I had hosted dozens of school-wide parties by then; did he really think that I didn’t know how beer pong worked? “It’s not that, though. It’s the way they talked to me, versus the way they talked to each other, and even you. I was like that girl instead of just another dude.”
My face burned as I said it. Why did I want to be “just another dude” so badly? What was wrong with just being a girl who had gotten too competitive over a friendly game?
I don’t remember what happened after that, but he said a few more reassuring words, and we drove home, where I immediately passed out in bed. I had spoken up, sure, and it had been as close to the truth as I could get it.
My problem had changed. Now, it was that I lacked the words to define my problem, and that upset me almost as much as my actual feelings of dysphoria had earlier.
What did you call a girl who wanted to be a boy but was happy looking like a girl, anyway?
How could I explain that suffocating, restrictive feeling I felt at moments like this, as if I were in an intangible cage that only revealed its walls to me when I dared to come too close?
Would anybody understand me if I tried?
Would anybody believe me if I tried?
When all of this inevitably came out, who would still be there for me?
I didn’t know, and it broke my heart that I didn’t know.
The epilogue to that sad story
Fortunately, nobody ended up dropping me, though my relationships did change pretty drastically. That boyfriend and I mutually broke up the following summer. We’re still friendly; I came out to him the last time we really talked. I also pulled back and did my own thing for a long time, away from my friends, because I was a) nearing the end of my time at college and writing my senior thesis, and b) still unsure of what label best fit whatever I felt inside. At the time of this writing, we’re still friends, although we’re not as close as we once were.
I would try to tell people about my gender identity over and over again. I didn’t want to hide anymore, but the limited vocabulary that existed for people like me made my coming-out process a bit awkward. I called myself a masculine-of-center femme, then gender-nonconforming, then just femme (how could one prove that one was “masculine-of-center” when gender itself could barely be defined?
It wasn’t all bad, but the process definitely wasn’t painless.
I was in this weird gender-identity limbo until June 2019, when I finally accepted that I was a trans guy who had a different personal style and started going by he/him pronouns. How I wish I knew earlier that trans people could look like anything they wanted to look like! How much grief and time would it have saved me to simply be able to say “I’m transgender” and have the chips fall as they may? How much sleep would I have gotten back, how much more fun would I have had at parties, how much more honest and truthful could I have been with my friends?
Looking back, I was always on high alert for things that could potentially make me dysphoric, even if wasn’t consciously aware of it. I analyzed every social interaction I had, wondering if others knew my dirty little secret. Constantly doing all of this, on top of all of the stuff I was piling up on myself academically, severely burnt me out. It’s no wonder that I wanted to avoid others, or that I was so disconnected, worn out, and exasperated all the time.
These days, I’m doing my best to not demand too much from myself. Since I’ve come out, the feelings of rage and listlessness have all but disappeared. I realize that I have a long way to go, that confronting and acknowledging these emotions — along with the things I’ve done in the past because of my discomfort with my gender — are only the beginning. But I’m hopeful and excited to do this. I also now understand that I don’t have to do everything gender-related perfectly in order to make them count. There’s no such thing as a “correct” way to be trans.
This is a marked departure from the way I used to think, which was — I’m not good enough, there’s always something I should be doing to improve, if I’m having a bad time, then it’s all my fault and I need to be better. Throughout college, I was a huge fan of personal development books and programs, but none of them ever made those negative feelings go away completely.
Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly, after all), the solution was simply to accept the reality of who I was, and to go from there.
I’m transgender, my outward presentation doesn’t match my inner identity, I still get the worst dysphoric phases, and I’m not afraid of any of it anymore. As it turns out, I didn’t need to change myself to get rid of all of that anger.
I just needed to be okay with the truth of who I was. ♚