The pitiful child lay in my lap, a crumpled heap of misery.
I couldn’t see any sign of life. It just lay there, tightly balled round its belly. Its bony fingers clutched at opposite shoulders, as though huddling their owner from unseen terrors. It’s eyelids drooped in sorrow. “Dead”, I observed. I started to wail.
“Who could do something so monstrous? How could anyone abandon a child this way?”
I had found the starveling in the back of a closet. In all my time in that house, I had never thought to open that door. It was in a room that I had seldom entered.
But one day, I did. And there I had found the poor creature. It lay in the furthest reaches of the closet, buried beneath a mass of blankets and clothes. What had it died of? Suffocation? Fear? Loneliness? How long had it survived? How long had it clutched at and hugged itself – alone in the darkness?
I raised the tiny ball to my chest and examined it more closely. It wasn’t a baby. It was a child! How old was hard to tell. Four? Five? It was so miss-shapen. I wasn’t even certain of its sex. Had this poor thing ever known joy? I started to sob anew. “What kind of monster could do this to you?!”
I hugged the child closer and started to rock it in my arms. Bent as it was, it was still a thing of beauty. Beneath its skin, I could trace the outline of ribs and bones. Had those legs ever run and danced? I regarded the eyelids, etched with sadness. Had this babe ever known innocence and laughter? I hugged it still closer – as though my warmth might revive it.
And it did! An eyelid opened. It opened. An eye stared up at me.
And, oh, the pain! For, as soon as it saw me, the child shrieked. It clutched itself into a tighter ball and commenced a whimpering sob.
That look of terror said everything: Who was the monster that did this? Apparently, me.
. . . . . . . . . .
I lived with this nightmare for most of my adult life. Untold times, I would wake in the darkness, my pulse racing, my face perspiring. What did the dream mean? Who was this child? How could its tormentor be me? Everyone who knew me considered me an affable, loving person – and a very loving father.
It wasn’t until mid-life that I finally unlocked the code: I was the child in the dream. I was the tormentor.
. . . . . . . . . .
From the time I was very young, I knew that there was something different about me. I vividly recall, when I was five, the family gathering around the television to watch Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. I was transported! All that night – and for weeks after – I imagined myself in the title role. Later, when I read the Bobbsey Twins, I followed Nan and Flossie far more closely than I did Bert and Freddie. As a young teen, I read all of the Hardy Boys books. But I was always more curious to know what Nancy Drew was up to. From very early in my life, I identified as a woman.
It wasn’t that I wanted to be a woman. It was that I thought like one. It was how I processed my emotions. It was how I conversed. It was how I saw the world.
I was most at ease in the company of women. My first girlfriend, Angela, had two sisters. Though I didn’t understand it then, one of the things I enjoyed about our relationship was that I got to spend a lot of my time hanging out with all three girls. It was my ersatz sisterhood.
Men, on the other hand, were a continual struggle for me. It wasn’t that I disliked them. I just didn’t get them. I didn’t share their emotions. I didn’t boil with their adrenaline. I envied them. But no matter how hard I tried, I could never recreate their alchemy inside me. There just wasn’t’ the same fire in my belly. They were from Mars and I was from . . . . well, I didn’t really know.
I was a child of the 60s and 70s, so “transgender” wasn’t anywhere in my vocabulary. I simply assumed that I was different and unique – a sensitive male. All the while, I tried desperately to fit in. I dove frantically into sports. I played army, joined the Boy Scouts and attended an all-boys high school. In college, I went out for crew and rugby. When that didn’t work, I covered sports for the college paper. My junior year, I joined an all-male eating club.
Nothing worked. Inside, I was miserable, never knowing a moment’s ease. It didn’t feel like me on the sports field. It didn’t feel like me exchanging quips in the locker-room. [Locker rooms were a special trial. This is where many men like to share their most vulgar jokes and escapades – their stories larded with female anatomy. It always made me uneasy. It wasn’t mere decency on my part. I felt violated! It wasn’t until years later, when I added “transgender” to my vocabulary, that this reaction made any sense to me.]
The men in my college eating club used to gather every Sunday afternoon to watch football. How I longed to feel a part of their comraderie! I got up early on Sundays and frantically reviewed the sports section of the New York Times, hoping I could memorize enough trivia and strategy to join the discussions. But the rhythm of their dialogue was always beyond me. I would just sit quietly in the corner, marveling at their command of the game.
All the while, somewhere deep within, the person inside me looked on in mute horror.
. . . . . . . . . .
I am not offended by the term “transition”. But I dislike it. It misses the essence of what I’ve gone through. It suggests a shift from who I was to someone I’m inventing. It implies a departure from the past. It suggests that what I am doing is focused on the future.
To the outside world, this is perfectly understandable. After all, I now dress and speak quite differently. I play sports differently. I am taking hormones and scheduling surgeries that will substantially alter my appearance. I take voice lessons. If that isn’t a transition, what is? But consider “transition” from the perspective of the person inside me – that child who once haunted my nightmares. Since childhood, I had shuttered that person away in the deepest recesses of my mind. All my life I had attempted to silence it – to confine it to darkness.
To the person inside me, this isn’t about transition. It isn’t about starting something. It isn’t about creating anything new. It isn’t about killing someone off. To the person inside me, this is about ending decades of violent self-repression. It is about giving voice to the person who was there all along. It is about stopping a murder in progress!
* * * * * *
When I finally decided to “transition”, I wasn’t thinking about what I wanted to become. I was only thinking one thing: “Stop killing yourself! For God’s sake, stop!”
In my lifelong struggles with gender, I had always defined victory in terms of mastery over the person inside me. I was determined that I would “man up” and conquer this dread condition. If anyone was smart enough to do it, it would be me. I threw myself into an unending stream of activities and relationships with that one end in mind: to beat this mother f—er.
But nothing I ventured ever worked. With each passing year, I simply dug myself deeper and deeper into a hole of my own making.
All of that changed in a single night. Struggling with yet another bout of depression, I finally confronted my greatest demon – me. Victory, I realized, lay not in “mastering” my gender. It lay in accepting the one I’d been given. I had been my own greatest enemy.
. . . . . . . . . .
Yes, this process involves a lot of transition. But it isn’t about transition. Transition is an outcome, not a driving force. I’ve no desire to become someone new. In fact, trying to become someone else was the mistake I had been making all along.
Frankly, I don’t care what my gender is. I’m not trying to become someone new. All I am trying to do is to learn to accept the soul I was given – and to take joy in my gift. I am trying to allow the person inside me to come out of the closet and walk in the sunlight. Perhaps one day, with the rest of Whitman’s America, she will “sing with open mouth [her] strong, melodious song”.