When I came out to my mother, she asked me: “why can’t you just be a lesbian”? Ignoring for a moment the irony of that statement, considering my mother’s low opinion of lesbians, she hits on a valid point. Being a lesbian doesn’t require the level of medical, surgical and hormonal intervention that being transgender potentially does. It makes sense that it would be a preferable choice. If it fit. And it doesn’t.
Her views are not unusual among those who would argue that our world has evolved such that a woman can do everything a man can. This view implies that a transman’s main motivation for transition is politically motivated, stemming from a desire to engage in traditional masculine activities, such as playing sports, studying engineering or hanging out with the boys on a Friday night.
I can’t speak for other transmen but this outdated view of masculinity is not what inspired me to become a man.
Growing up I had two sisters and no brothers. My father, a man who struggled with health problems for as long as I can remember, didn’t teach me how to play rugby or cricket or how to fix the family car. My mother, on the other hand, tried desperately to awaken in me a love of cooking, an interest in feminine pursuits like plucking my eyebrows and in boys.
And yet, as I looked around me, I felt myself at odds with the role I was assigned. I found make-up boring, shaving my legs pointless, and the idea of pregnancy off-putting. It felt like I was constantly out of step with everyone around me. And I didn’t understand why.
For a time, I did toy with the idea that I was simply a lesbian. But with puberty came the awareness that my sexual attractions were not limited to girls. Males too, awoke within me sexual stirrings. So what did that make me, exactly? Bi?
I did not really understand how to tease apart the concepts of birth sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. Surely women were meant to be attracted to men and were born female? How else to define them? But where did that leave me? I knew I was bisexual long before I knew how to articulate what gender I identified with. But slowly, over time, I realized that just because I was assigned female at birth didn’t make me a woman. And just because most of the women who were held up to me as examples of achievement were assigned female at birth and were attracted to men, didn’t mean I was destined to be one of them.
My desire to dress androgynously and my rough and tumble boyishness drew little comment when I had yet to hit puberty. But once that threshold was reached, it was clear I was at odds with the development of my peers. Most women, I discovered, did not question their own femininity. And while many of those I watched growing up seemed quite at ease with the roles they were assigned, even those who showed more independence of spirit seemed quite satisfied with their bodies. At least insofar as their desire to remain firmly in them.
Sorting out my feelings took some time. I knew what was expected of me and that my body was female. And no matter how I felt on the inside, I didn’t think it was possible to prevent what I’d been taught was inevitable – breast development, and monthly menses that marked my entry into womanhood.
If I’d been satisfied with the body I’d had, would I have found my identity in the “lesbian” community? I can’t honestly answer that. Because the truth is that for as long as I could remember I was at war with my own body. In PE class, I felt embarrassed about my naked body and hid behind bathroom stalls when changing into my sports gear. While self-confident in one on one situations, agoraphobia (a fear of crowds) would grip me when I found myself surrounded by boys and girls – I had no sense of where I belonged. This disorientation deepened dramatically when my first period arrived. I simply could not accept the bodily changes and did everything I could to prevent them. I starved myself in an attempt to delay my period, and for a time it worked. But I knew it was a temporary solution to a permanent problem.
Surrender to the inevitable
As I entered my twenties I was severely depressed. I could see no future for myself in which I could possibly be happy. I told myself to get with the program as best I could. I attempted to be more feminine, using makeup, shaving my legs, even wearing the occasional dress. I attempted to find some sense of attachment to the blobs of flesh others called breasts. At 21 I even got a boyfriend. But I found little enjoyment in being touched. I disconnected from my body as much as possible. It was the only way I knew to survive. I trusted no one, spoke to no one about any of this.
By 21 I was cutting my wrists for pain relief and seeing a therapist for suicidal depression. I was convinced I would be dead by the time I was 30. I simply couldn’t imagine living my life like this. Faced with the choice to end it all or take a giant leap into the unknown, I chose the latter. I started the slow process of aligning my inner sense of myself with the outside, visible version of myself that others saw. I began hormone injections and was assessed for surgery. I had my breasts removed and later my uterus. I legally changed my name and my gender.
Slowly, gradually, hope crept back into my heart. I learned a future where I get to live as a man, was possible for me. It was the most frightening journey I’d ever undertaken. But it beat suicide, so I did it anyway.
Almost ten years since my first hormone injection and I feel lucky to be alive. When I look in the mirror I recognize the man staring back at me as me. And it only cost me my birth family and years of depression. I don’t see my identity as a political statement; it’s simply who I am. I may not know why this condition chose me, but it’s the hand I drew in the great game of life.
It’s the hand I’ll play as best I can.