Growing up I embraced the conservative Christian beliefs of my father (i.e. that we are all born in sin), observed a culture steeped in violence (South Africa just before the fall of Apartheid was on the verge of civil war), and inherited a dark outlook on the future passed on to me by my anxious, frightened parents. Xenophobia was in the air we breathed. Not to mention homophobia. AIDS, my father told me, was God’s way of punishing gay people for their bad lifestyle choices. Transsexuals weren’t even on the radar of God’s wrath they were so far down the hierarchy.
My childhood wasn’t happy but I didn’t know it was unusual back then. I thought everybody’s families were like mine. Sure, it occurred to me that at least some other people seemed happier than what I was or what my parents were, but in my childish naïveté I thought it was because they didn’t understand how crappy things really were. My father knew, because he was a psychiatrist. He knew because people respected him, and because, well, who was I to argue? He saw the dark side of human nature every day in his private practice.
My mother had even less empathy for childish insecurities than my father. She believed that her children had to learn to be independent – the sooner, the better. And that meant that she wanted as little to do with us as possible. “I’m not your friend,” she would say to me when I asked her for help because I was scared to go out alone, “I’m your mother”. I thought that meant that I wasn’t supposed to ask her for things. So I didn’t. And because I was struggling with depression, I figured it would be better if I just closed the door to my bedroom and climbed under the blankets. Maybe, I told myself, maybe if I lie really still, nothing bad would happen.
But bad things kept happening. Depression darkened my mind and by age 12 I was thinking suicide regularly. No actions yet, just thoughts. At 16, I stopped eating with my family and lost a bunch of weight. My father fed me antidepressants he got for free from drug reps who visited his office and I was sent to see a nutritionist. At 18 I was pretty convinced that I would end my life before the age of 30. I couldn’t see why anyone would want to be alive in this messed up world. At 21 I overdosed on antidepressants and cut my wrists. I spent a week in the psychiatric unit of a hospital, terrified that I was going crazy. My shrink said I wasn’t crazy, but if I wasn’t, and the world really was as messed up as I thought it was, then why was everybody acting like nothing was wrong?
At 24 my life changed. The change started a year earlier, actually. I met people who were different, odd, but alive. They were making decisions about their bodies that I hadn’t even imagined possible. They were daring to live according to their own beliefs. I watched in awe as one friend, a poet and a scientist, told me about taking hormones to masculinize the body. They had been born female, like me, but that identity no longer served them. Really? I thought. You can change your gender? But what about my genitals? Don’t they proclaim me woman?
I had explored lesbianism but it didn’t really fit. I was attracted to men as well as women, and besides, I wasn’t really a femme or a butch. I had not interest in playing any roles. I just wanted permission to be me. But what I was didn’t have a name. At least, not until then. When I read up about transgender people, transsexualism, and intersex conditions, I knew that I was reading my own story. But accepting the label wasn’t so easy. Transsexuals were ostracized in mainstream society. People made fun of us. Did I really want to choose to marginalize myself by claiming an identity that was, in many ways, taboo?
But at age 24, I was at a crossroads. Choose to live my masculinity, or die. The choice was that stark. I had tried to be a masculine woman, an androgynous asexual, but I was miserable.
I didn’t want to take hormones. I hated the idea that I would have to inject it into my muscle every two weeks for the rest of my life just to achieve a body that would allow me to feel more like myself. My mother accused me of being a drug addict. She told me the hormones would destroy my liver and cause me to die. But wasn’t it better to live, even for a short while, like the man I felt myself to be, rather than exist as a living dead person? Besides, why was it OK for me to be on four different drugs for depression for the rest of my life, why wasn’t that considered an addiction, but taking hormones to begin reclaiming my life was?
Nothing made sense anymore so I decided to go for it. I had nothing to lose. It was a last gasp attempt to live.
The day I went to get my first hormone injection at the university clinic, my palms were sweaty, my heart beating a million miles a minute. The nurse showed me how to pull up the viscous liquid, how to find the right spot to inject, how to make sure I didn’t hit a vein. When it was over, tears flooded my eyes. It was relief. It was me learning to breathe again. It was the beginning.