It strikes me, and may strike you, as a bit crazy to come out as transgender in an essay like this. I’m publicly revealing myself to be a member of a marginalized community in the midst of a moral panic targeting our very existence. Ascribe it to my defiant streak, if you will.
If you’re not aware that there is a moral panic about trans lives, then you need to pay attention. As of now, according to the list maintained by activists Alejandra Caraballo, Erin Reed, and Allison Chapman, over 400 bills targeting trans people have been filed with legislatures nationwide this year—more than in the past several years combined. Texas is at the vanguard with about 30 bills and counting. If the frenzy continues, it won’t end there, as former President Donald Trump’s recent speech and Michael Knowles’ rhetoric at CPAC on eradicating transgenderism make clear.
I’m hardly an ideal spokesperson. I’m 43, and I’ve lived my entire life up to this point (with fleeting exceptions) in the gender assigned to me at birth, which is male. Think of my biography as a cautionary tale. It’s painful and messy, and I’m going to tell you some of it. You may find this unpleasant, but I have no other way to say what I need to say. Only bear in mind that my experiences, though common, are not normative. I don’t speak for anyone but myself.
Growing up at the edge of San Antonio’s south side in the 1980s, I learned the usual things about gender and sexuality: Boys are boys and girls are girls and all that. My dad was a biology teacher. I knew the differences. But something seemed to be awry in me for, as far back as I can remember, I felt that I ought to have been a girl, or that in some strange way, I really was a girl, even though everyone treated me as a boy.
Adults policed my gender expression conscientiously, and I inferred that my feelings were unnatural and shameful. Still, I would sit in the pew at church as my parents took communion—we were Catholic—and silently rank which of the women who passed me I would most like to grow up to be. As a small, less-than-masculine child who hated sports, I became the target of bullying once I went to school. But I would lie awake every night, imagining myself becoming a girl—my only refuge from my strange alien existence.
Environmental factors didn’t make me this way. My parents were present and involved; my mother a caring, feminine homemaker and my father, a loud, masculine teacher and artillery officer who was sometimes frustrated by my unmanliness. Expecting me to grow up and marry and follow the same pattern, they enforced the “natural” gender norms they espoused every day of my life. Far from becoming trans through exposure to modern “gender ideology,” I was, simply and naturally, a trans child, even though everything in my upbringing went toward imposing a gender binary that itself represented an unacknowledged ideology. There is no “real me” beneath my transgender self. I have learned to mask it, yes, but if I were somehow to remove it, there would be no me left behind. No more could you remove the flour from a loaf of bread.
As soon as I was old enough to be left home alone, I began secretly wearing my mother’s clothes. Experimenting with femininity launched me into a deep and pervasive calm tinged with a fear of being discovered. After some years, I was found out through a misplaced blouse. I lied my way out of the tribunal that ensued—standing, panicked and alone, before my father and mother. My parents’ eagerness to accept my lies made up for their implausibility. The alternative was believing me to be some kind of queer, which I suppose is what I am.
My junior high coach, a morose sadist who later got fired and went on to a career as a campus cop, compelled boys to shower together in a dimly-lit subterranean cell. A small, undeveloped sixth-grader, I was thrust in there with big, masculine eighth-graders, their eyes ever-roving for some weakling to abuse. My unboyishness and isolation made me easy prey. As a transgender person whose brain was telling me that my body should be female, it’s hard to describe just how traumatic such experiences were. What made them unbearable—to such an extent that I began to self-harm and eventually to plan my own death—was that I had no words or concepts to describe or understand what was going on with me. I was simply a freak of nature, an abomination who had to hide in plain sight, surviving from one morning to the next, hoping that no one would discover my secret, dying a little each day.
You may believe that the problem here was not my being forced into a simplistic gender binary that left me vulnerable to abuse and trauma, but rather my gender dissonance, and that I should have been made to feel at home in my assigned gender. In other words, I should have been coerced into being a normal boy. If you think that, survey the research: It shows, overwhelmingly, that attempts to “convert” gender nonconforming people into traditional gender identities and other forms of rejection are ineffective and traumatizing—in fact, the scientific consensus is that all forms of conversion therapy aimed at altering a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity result in long-term harm—while care that affirms gender identity results almost universally in positive outcomes. It’s also clear that what negative outcomes do occur owe largely to hostile environments.
But since we’re in the middle of a panic about transgender people “invading” sex-segregated spaces, let me add this: Far be it from me to make anyone feel uncomfortable or unsafe, but I have never felt comfortable or safe in any male space. Nor, I believe, would I have felt better in a female space. I prefer privacy for doing such things as defecating and stripping naked, and I find our regime of communal showers and toilets just a little weird and, yes, oppressive. Perhaps that’s one aspect of the problem we should be examining?
There hangs in my parents’ home a circle of my annual school portraits, which show me becoming progressively sadder from year to year. My body was turning into an alien thing with the onset of biological manhood. By the time I graduated, my mounting dysphoria and social problems—I also had an undiagnosed autism disorder—led me to begin planning suicide. In secret, I painted a picture of a girl cutting her wrists. I was the girl, you see. In recurring dreams, I was a young mother. Despair held sway over my waking life.
It was either leave home or die, so I moved across the state for college. My plan was to wait a few weeks and, if nothing changed, to kill myself in a shower stall. Something did change: I found love and acceptance in the woman who became my best friend and then my wife. Several years later, I was still alive, presenting as female in the privacy of our home and as male when I went out. This made me happy. For the first time in my life, I began to approach peace.
It was the turn of the millennium. I was a shelver at the university library, which often left me alone in the stacks at night. Sometimes, I would work in the gender and sexuality section and take down books to try to understand what I was. Many of the books were out of date for that time, and much has changed in our understanding of transgender people since. In them and on the nascent Internet, I encountered terms and categories that didn’t seem to apply to me, reflecting a time when researchers developed theories with little input from the trans community itself. So my gender confusion persisted.
My fragile peace was disturbed when someone to whom we’d entrusted our key entered our home without permission and went through our things. I felt certain that my secret self must have been detected. Mortified and afraid of being outed, I threw all evidence in the dumpster. I grew a beard as a bulwark against “temptation” and began two decades of self-contradiction and mounting desperation, which brings us to today.
“You have to go the way your blood beats,” James Baldwin said in an interview. “If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.” Belatedly, I’m coming to grips with this. My attempts to cope with gender dissonance have consumed much of my life, taking hours away from each day, isolating me from loved ones, alienating me from my body, leading to bouts of depression, ideations of suicide, and alcohol abuse. It doesn’t go away. In middle age, I’m forced to recognize that nothing short of being who I am will resolve my profound inner conflict. The word “transition” is terrifying but, however catastrophic the process of coming out may be, I’ll not be much good to those I love if I’m burned out, incapacitated, or dead.
Knowledge is power. If I had simply known more, I would have been spared some suffering. The idea that I’ve been converted by the “gender cult” is preposterous. My starting point was my own experience, going back years before I could even articulate it. I simply was what I now call “transgender.” My brain and flesh and bones told me so. And peace could never be mine until I had uncovered its nature and found a way to live with it.
The many bills trying to prevent youth from learning about trans identity trouble me deeply. They seek to condemn another generation to the deathly dysphoria that has burdened me in the belief that people like me are misbegotten or perverted, and that state-imposed ignorance can prevent children from turning out like us
Painful though it’s been, too much good has happened in my life for me to have regrets. Still, I can imagine meeting perhaps not my actual younger self, but a version of that self living today. What would I want for myself? I would want knowledge and understanding of gender variance. I would want to know that I’m not alone. I would want adults who could sympathize and offer real solutions. And I would want the ability to pursue gender-affirming care in accordance with research-backed practices.
A growing body of research supports the thesis that gender incongruence has a biological basis, though the causes are a matter of dispute in the scientific community. Studies also indicate that the only effective treatment is gender-affirming care. Opponents of gender-affirming care often call it “experimental.” But the first gender reassignment surgeries were performed over a century ago. The use of hormones in gender-affirming care began as early as 1918. To put that in perspective, recall that the first heart transplant was performed in 1967.
Gender-affirming care was pioneered by the German physician Magnus Hirschfeld. As recounted in Susan Stryker’s Transgender History, Hirschfeld became a target when the Nazis came to power—he was both Jewish and gay—and Hitler denounced him as “the most dangerous Jew in Germany.” His Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was sacked and its library burned by Nazis in 1933, setting the cause of liberation back a generation. He fled the country and died in 1935. But the physician Harry Benjamin, mentored by Hirschfeld, went on to champion gender-affirming care in the United States, and since 1979, the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, now called the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, has issued the standards of care for transgender people.
The parallels between Nazi violence and the current trans panic are unmistakable. It’s easy enough to compare people whose politics you don’t like to Nazis. Still, if someone finds themselves following the Nazis’ footsteps and arguing that Hitler was clearly right about some things, it might be time for them to take stock of what they’re doing and why.
Julia Serano’s trans feminist manifesto, Whipping Girl, ascribes the perception of trans women as a public menace to the belief that masculinity is superior to femininity. In How Fascism Works, historian Jason Stanley cites numerous instances in which violence against the “other” in the name of protecting women and children has been used to cement the patriarchal fascist state. Quoting Serano, he notes that irrational fear of trans women in particular is a bellwether because of the threat we supposedly pose to the nation’s manhood. Anti-trans panic is the knifepoint of fascism protruding into the body politic. But as it slides in, the wound widens, cutting across other minorities.
Texas lawmakers, it doesn’t have to be this way. Trans people already live daily with the threat of violence and attempt suicide at far higher rates than the general population. You can’t “fix” us. You can only exclude or kill us. Protect children by all means. But educate yourselves on how interventions are actually made—in the vast majority of cases, they are tentative and reversible, and in all cases are pursued only under great scrutiny—and base your actions on valid evidence, not hyperbole or cherry-picked cases or cynical culture-war politics. Don’t tear families apart or force them to flee. Let them make well-informed decisions under the guidance of medical caregivers.
Trans people are not a threat. We just want to exist and be left alone. Our dignity cannot be taken. But the Texas Legislature is in danger of trading away its own. Sessions are short and come only once every two years. There are so many urgent issues that need your attention: fixing the power grid and the rest of our infrastructure, finding humane, secure solutions to the border crisis, and protecting our children from being murdered at school. Do the work you were elected to do. Don’t terrorize trans people.
I live in Uvalde. I used to have to describe where that was. I never will again. It’s hard to explain, but I doubt my egg would have cracked if I hadn’t witnessed the kind of things I’ve witnessed this past year. A whirlwind of grief. A spectacle of coverage. Incandescent anger of bereft families. Stultifying indifference of public officials. You’re not saving kids by going after gender-affirming care. You’re killing them. You’re killing them, and you’re leaving the ones who really do need your help exposed. It has got to stop.
Based on a recent Pew survey, I believe that most of the trans people in my generation are closeted. The recent panic has been motivated by “skyrocketing” rates of nonconformity in younger generations. If that concerns you, I’d like to introduce you to journalist Ari Drennen’s now-famous graph of the prevalence of left-handedness over time, which has progressed from Twitter to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to testimony before state legislatures.
We have always been here. We just haven’t always felt safe coming out. But there’s no turning back the clock. We’re going to win our liberation today or tomorrow. At most, those who wish us ill will succeed in causing pain and suffering on their way out. I call on their well-meaning allies not to help them.
But whether you do or don’t, I, for one, refuse to live in the dark any longer. You can hate me or kill me, but you can’t steal the joy that comes from knowing who I am.