How I Knew (Becoming Trans In Eight Episodes)

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(Lena Balk, Upsplash)

1: Two Spaldeens

I was about five years old, give or take a year. It was a typical New York summer day: sunny, hazy, humid but not insufferably so. I was not much of an outdoor kid, being bookish and precociously (i.e., annoyingly) talkative, but that day I was playing outside vigorously, bouncing pink rubber Spaldeen balls against the garage door and trying to catch them as they came back. I returned to my room, physically spent but still mentally wired.

My mother came upstairs to check up on me to tell me about some new books that she bought for me. She always made sure that books were plentiful in our household. We often spent hours in the living room reading silently in each other’s presence, while my father glossed over the newspaper headlines, watched the sports report on television, and fell asleep in his chair or, more often, sprawled out on the floor.

Suddenly, inspiration struck from out of the blue. I took the two Spaldeens, shoved them under my shirt, and proclaimed: “Look Mom! I’m a girl!”

Mom chuckled weakly, amused but not too amused. At that moment, however, my father walked by in the hallway and did a double-take.

Get them things out of your shirt, right now!” he exclaimed, scolding me through his clenched teeth. He often did this when he was angry. “You’re a boy. Stop that!”

I complied, but I was perplexed. What was the big deal?

Under all the layers of awareness, I came to realize that gender was a big deal, in two ways.

First, people — parents especially! — made it a big deal, a set of roles set in stone, whose rules are exceptionless. Boys are boys, girls are girls, no in-between, no exceptions made, no transgressions tolerated.

Second, gender was a big deal to me, but not in the way that the adult world made it out to be. It was less a role than a perception. For a split second I realized I liked looking and feeling like a girl (albeit a post-pubescent one at least 6 years older than I was), which generated a vague realization that I might not be what others understood and expected me to be.

2: The Public Humiliation

I was lucky: I was not the one who was humiliated, but a classmate. Had it been me, this narrative might have taken a different turn.

My Catholic elementary school was located one block from my home. Because I lived so close, the nuns who ran the school allowed me, and a handful of others, go home for an hour to eat, and to return at the end of recess. I thought I was lucky to be granted this privilege. My milk was not sour like my schoolmates’, having been delivered into rickety wooden bins, languishing in the summer sunlight and freezing in the winter snow. I was not limited to soggy sandwiches for lunch. I often got to eat hot soup!

This made me, and my fellow go-home-for-lunchers, the subject of ridicule. “Yeah, go home to mom-my! Go home for lunch you big fag! Enjoy your souuup!” I was nonplussed by this. You bet I’ll enjoy my “souuup”! And my fresh, non-sour milk. I am sorry you do not get to experience these little pleasures.

One day I returned, a little late, to school and, ascending the stairs to my classroom, heard intense bawling and wawling and “Please, Sister I-I-I’m sorry!” The scene when I entered: one of the boys in the class apparently was caught talking during the silent prayers that commenced afternoon religion class. The nun in charge had a spare girl’s uniform in storage and punished the boy by making him dress in the uniform and sit, for the remainder of the class, at the front of the class, bombarded with major taunts coming from the boys (and a sense of resentful embarrassment from the girls). The message was: girls are relentless, shallow gabbers, and as your offense was “acting like a girl”, you get to be one for forty-five shame and humiliation filled minutes.

I was gobsmacked by the cruel intentions of the nun who did this — what kind of life-lesson is imparted by doing something like this, which she knew would only traumatize this first-grade boy? But I was also offended and confused by what this punishment implied. Namely: why are you also humiliating the girls in the class, by insinuating they are uncontrollably loquacious, and therefore silly? Why should dressing like a girl occasion so much shame and humiliation to begin with? What is so awful about wearing a plaid jumper and knee-socks? Why did sister think that being a girl for a while was a punishment? Why did she think that being a girl was second-rate? She’s a girl herself!

The whole episode struck me, even then, at age 6, as sick and sadistic — to both the boy in the sartorial stocks and the girls who had to suffer being put-down as part of the “silly”, frivolous gender.

3: The “Guess who I am?” Game

My best friends, for as long as I can remember, have mostly been female. I usually felt uncomfortable in the company of boys when young. I cringed at their mocking, insulting brand of humor, and winced at their tendency to turn everything into a battle or contest. I realize that this may be a function not of masculinity per se, but of a peculiarly 20th century American form of masculine bluster and toxic aggression. This is a nation that elected Donald Trump, after all — a paradigm case of hollow machismo that conceals a limitless emptiness, a narcissistic demand that can never be satisfied. There are alternate conceptions of masculinity in circulation in the world at large, and more power to them. Still, I thought girls were far nicer. They were gentle.

I was hanging out one afternoon on the stoop of one of my girl friends, playing a game of “guess who I am?”, like twenty questions, where you had to figure out the identity the other player was pretending to be. I pretended to be Mickey Mantle, John F. Kennedy, and Paul McCartney; she pretended to be Wonder Woman, Jacqueline Kennedy — and Abraham Lincoln. It was fun, and then she remarked “Hey, I pretended to be a man: now you pretend to be a woman.”

Whereupon I replied “Oh, jeez, look at the time, I have to go home now!” And I sped away.

In retrospect, this reaction speaks volumes to me. The discomfort I felt about pretending to be female, in a child’s game for godsake, was not a matter of playing a role that felt alien to me — although that’s what I was telling myself over and over at the time. It was a fear that my secret would be out. The idea of being a girl both comforted and excited me. But it was not the kind of thing that I would dream of broadcasting to my friend, no less the world at large.

4: Glam Rock Commentary

While my father was strictly a Frank Sinatra/Tony Bennett guy, my mother’s taste in music was broader. She loved Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. “Who is that?” she exclaimed when I was playing it on the living room stereo. “That’s beautiful! Not like the other crap you listen to”, meaning Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Steppenwolf, and pretty much everything else in my vinyl collection.

I was in my early teens when rock music took a turn towards the exotic and glamorous. We were watching Ed Sullivan, and a musical act came on — it may have been Hunky Dory era David Bowie but I am not sure — who was wearing velvet bell-bottoms, a fancy psychedelic silk shirt, and long well-groomed hair. “Wow, look at him”, my mother remarked. “Get a load of his get-up! I’ll bet he’d really like to put on lipstick and high-heels the way he’s decked out.” Her voice was soaked in disapproval.

I thought, however, “Well, who wouldn’t.” But I kept the thought to myself. I knew that most guys wouldn’t — but I would. And “The Secret” must be kept . . .

5: The Therapist

“Look, don’t worry. You’re not a woman trapped in a man’s body or any of that nonsense. That’s bullshit.”

Thus sayeth the psychologist conducting an intake interview for the therapy practice which I was checking out, anticipating by several decades the transphobic bile that nowadays drips from the lips of Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek and thousands of Gender Critical “Feminists”.

“The Secret” was taking a toll on me. It started to seriously interfere with my peace of mind. I was sexually attracted to women, and was at that time happily married to a woman I loved deeply. I couldn’t reconcile my sexual orientation with my confusing gender identity. It generated a lot of guilt and shame. I concluded that I needed to resolve my inquietude by ridding myself of “The Secret”, not by revealing it, but by extinguishing it.

(Little did I know, then, that gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things. Unfortunately, therapists in the 1980s were not exactly clear about this matter either. Now they tell me…)

Thankfully, the therapist to which I was eventually assigned did not share the attitude of the intake-guy. Maintaining his neutrality, he got me to open up about “The Secret” to him, and to work through my guilt and shame about it. Every therapist I have had since then has likewise helped me, with considerable success, with adverse feelings about my feelings, sex/gender related or otherwise. It did not weigh as heavily on me as before. But I was still evading the crux of the problem. The secret would not snuff itself out.

I never thought that the metaphor “a woman trapped in a man’s body” was a particularly good one. I never felt contempt for my body per se, but perceived that parts of it were at odds with others — my genitalia (plus secondary sex characteristics) and my brain, respectively. Furthermore, what I longed for was to feel at ease not so much in my body but in the world, the social world, wherein I could be acknowledged as who I am and acknowledge others from my own honest and true perspective. There was a lack of fit between how I perceived myself and how the world perceived me. And that was the motive for keeping “The Secret”. For I feared that if I revealed it, the world would banish me wholesale. I would shrink to a vanishing point.

6: The Denial Beard

Since my early 20’s until my transition, I had sported a beard. I kept the beard neat and trim and avoided the Grizzly Adams/Z.Z. Top/Thoreau look deliberately. I did not want to appear like a wild man, but a civilized, sophisticated, cultured man. While I did not want to exude toxic masculinity, I was aiming at exuding, well, masculinity.

The beard looked nice on me, but then again, I looked fine without the beard. Occasionally I’d shave it off, but almost immediately I would grow it back again. It was obsessive, and compulsive: I felt uncomfortable without the beard. I thought I did not know why I did this, but I knew full well why I did. I had kept “The Secret” so well that I was fooling myself. No, more like deceiving myself. The beard was a talisman, a kind of rabbit’s foot of masculinity. I dared not lose it, or “The Secret” would be out. But one cannot keep a secret from oneself for too long — it always comes back to nag at one’s conscience and sense of integrity. The beard was a disguise.

7: First Time Out

I was single for the first time in decades. Nothing prevented me from letting “The Secret” run out of the corral for a while before I planned to rein it back in. I revealed myself to a friend, set an afternoon date in Manhattan for coffee, and made an appointment with someone who specialized in “transformations.” Goodbye beard. And without a trace of regret…

I had brought a black V-neck dress, breast and hip forms and a waist cincher, a dark brown wig, and patent black high heeled pumps, donned them, and sat down for the makeup artist to work her magic. About a half hour later, the transformation specialist proclaimed: “there she is!”

It would be a cliché to say that “something in me snapped” or “the scales fell from my eyes”, but the thing about most clichés is that they are not so much false as they are exaggerations of a truth, and that have lost their impact from careless overuse. But something did change. I was seized by a kind of inner warmth, and a realization that I had done the right thing, a momentous thing. I was strangely calm, not nervous at the prospect of heading into the East Village and hanging out. “What do you want your name en femme to be?”, she asked. “Laura”, I replied. Always my favorite woman’s name.

As I headed toward the car, the makeup artist commented, “You’re glowing!” I certainly felt the glow.

The drive into Manhattan was uneventful; after searching for and finding a parking spot I realized that I would be publicly presenting as Laura for the first time. While I was nervous, I was determined not to let it get the best of me. I walked to the café and met my friend: I discovered that walking any distance in Manhattan in high heels is a fool’s errand. I wasn’t being “clocked” as trans, which may have been a function of the expertise of the makeup-artist, or the characteristic inattentiveness to the out-of-the-ordinary exhibited by Manhattanites — or a combination of the two. My friend said she never saw me saw me smile so brightly.

The waitress approached our outdoor table and greeted us with “What’ll it be, ladies?” It was a thrill: about time. My heart was at peace.

When we ladies parted I walked back to the car and realized that I had left my male clothes in a small suitcase at her studio. I phoned her and asked if I could dress back at her place when I returned, but she said she had another customer and that the best she could do is leave the suitcase outside her front door. This posed a problem. I was supposed to meet my father — alcoholic, crochety, and set in his ways — for his birthday dinner, in male mode. He was none too pleased with the Spaldeen incident: he would not be pleased to see me in a sexy little black dress. So I pulled into a strip-mall parking lot, sought out a space far from the stores and other cars, clambered into the back seat, and contorted myself into all sorts of positions as I switched clothing.

When I was back in male mode, I felt like I was in costume. That was when I let “The Secret” go. It took some time, and I took my time, but I realized then what I was being beckoned toward. My honest self, the woman I had perceived myself to be all along.

8: Mansplained!

Fast-forward to about a year ago, before the pandemic cloistered us and election-anxiety led to interrupted sleep. I had been socializing pretty much exclusively as a woman for about a year. I realize that I am privileged to live in a place that is not just tolerant but generally accepting toward trans women and trans men, and lucky that the worst I have thus far experienced was a group of people in a sushi joint giving me the stink-eye. I quickly ditched most of my anxiety being trans in public — although I have acquired the skill of noticing when someone is walking behind me on a nearly-empty street at night, and then grabbing my purse tightly and cranking-up my hyper awareness. You never know. Women need to know what they are up against.

There is a bar in Manhattan’s West Village that I am very fond of. The bar staff is friendly and the beer selection is exceptional. I was a bit buzzed one day when the guy sitting on the stool to my left struck up a conversation. He was beyond buzzed, well into inebriation, on his way, possibly, to delirium and unconsciousness. He seemed to be keen on me.

I make it a policy to reveal that I am trans as soon as possible. This is because I think it is fair to let any interlocutor know how it is with me, and also because I am proud to be trans and sick of keeping secrets. So I told this guy all about it. It did not seem to register. Which was fine for my tipsy self: it was a bit of a rush to find someone who perceived me as an attractive woman. I played along.

The topic turned to music. “You know who’s the best guitarist? Eric Clapton! By far! He is the best! He can play anything! And no one can copy him!”

Being a guitarist myself, I begged to differ. I learned electric guitar by copying him. He plays pentatonic blues scales: if you know them you could play pretty much anything he plays by memorizing the riffs, and by developing your vibrato and other chops. His vibrato is great but, frankly, he cannot hold a candle to the Yardbird who replaced him, Jeff Beck. Etc.

“No no no. Eric Clapton. The best. “Key to the Highway”! Can’t copy that! He can play anything! Layla! You got me on my knees!”

I suppose this could be interpreted in a number of ways. Was he comparing me to Layla? Was this a drunken expression of attraction and enchantment?

It did not matter: I interpreted it otherwise. I was being mansplained-to. Clapton was the best. Girls don’t get that. “Key to the Highway!”

This could have gone on for a while, but he lapsed into a kind of stupor, staring at the floor. I took that opportunity to close my tab, give the barmaid a kiss on the cheek, and embark out to 7th Avenue and the number 1 train. I had lost my mansplaining virginity.

I had arrived. Welcome to womanhood, girl.

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.

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