When they misgendered you at your memorial.

There were drains hanging from my chest when I made the first phone call. Not even two days before, I was under the knife, having a surgeon — an artist — remake my chest. These are scars that you will never see.

“Hey,” I say softly into the phone. “I think you should come over. I’ll explain when you get here.”

When I hang up, I straighten my spine and I slap myself across the cheek. Our friends are coming over, and I remind myself that I can’t crumble, not now. I’ve never had to disclose that someone is dying, to shatter the world as they knew it with a single sentence. I guess because I was the one that was usually on the brink of death.

This was not the thunder I wanted stolen from me.

There’s a knock on my door, and the words are falling out of my mouth before I can think of how to say them. “I’m so sorry,” I whisper. “Cris isn’t going to make it.” We hold onto each other for dear life, the drains pressed between us, filling with my blood.

The color is already gone from my face; I’m waiting now to see your ghost.

/

You are difficult to contain. A neuroscientist, a poet, a drag queen, a teacher — queerness, for you, was simply your way of being in the world, the shimmer held in every cell in your body.

“They” as a pronoun was the most natural thing in the world, because I can’t imagine how “she” or “he” could hold everything that you are, that you were. They, as in, “I hold the contradictions and make them beautiful.” They, as in, “I wear my trauma as drag and spin it into gold.”

I never understood how anyone could look at you and not see “they,” or hear the mirth in your laughter and not believe it to be sheer magic or mischief, or look at your delicate hands and assign you any essence other than “everything.”

Everything, the totality.

You were the scientist who loved astrology. You were the poet who could seamlessly reference Grey’s Anatomy without missing a beat. You toiled in a lab with mice by day and wore eight-inch heels and glitter on a stage at night.

You moved between worlds, always chasing something — the secrets you found studying zebrafish, the catharsis in lip-synching pop songs in gay bars — and I fear that neither one was enough.

You could find the wisdom in a Kelly Clarkson song and in the DNA of a jellyfish. I remember thinking, I’ll follow this queen to the ends of the earth.

If only you had let me.

/

Your memorial is organized by email. This is, I think, the first time I really understood what it meant to die as a millennial. You’re just a few months shy of your 30th birthday, but if I think about that for too long, I want to set the whole world on fire.

It was foreshadowing, I realize, when you told me how your novel was going to end, just a few weeks before you died. How the characters, realizing the world is irredeemable, decide to burn it to the ground so something new can grow in its place.

You lit the metaphorical match in your bedroom on a Sunday afternoon, and I still don’t know if it was a smoke signal or a death wish. I’m not sure if you knew, either.

My whole world burns down with it. Your remains nourish the ground underneath me. Grief is a brutal and unforgiving teacher, offering lessons I never asked for. Your tombstone is a mirror reflecting back all the ways my story could’ve ended just like yours.

Your mother makes me promise that I won’t end my life like you did.

I have to grow in your place now, become something new.

You used to tell me that no one understood trauma quite like we did, like it was a language that we spoke fluently, sometimes morbidly and always earnestly. In that way, I’ll never stop hearing your voice.

/

Your graduate advisor responds to the email about your memorial. Gently, I remind him of your pronouns.

I think back to all the conversations we had about what it was like to be a transgender scientist — struggling to be seen, carefully measuring how much of yourself you could be and how much you had to hide.

Sometimes, over coffee, you’d admit to me, “I’m so tired.” The resignation in your eyes was like the dimming of a thousand stars at once.

Your advisor snaps back so harshly that the wind is knocked out of me. “That’s the side you knew, but Cris, the young man I knew, had many sides,” your advisor lectures.

How can you call it “sides” when you never asked to be deconstructed? When it’s the world splitting you apart, never allowing you to be whole in the first place?

How could he speak of you as though everything you were in life — all the magic that moved through you — was simply too inconvenient to acknowledge? How can you take a prism and demand one color?

I’m trying to find the words to explain to him how painful misgendering is, but my rage is boiling over — not just at him, but at a world that was never good enough for you, determined to take the beauty of your queerness and grind it to dust underneath a heavy heel.

I tell the professor that he should be ashamed. He calls me a “hectoring, self-absorbed, pompous twit.”

The aftertaste of the same poison that killed you is sitting on my tongue. The taste is familiar, metallic, and cold. I remember the anguish of being invisible, how it eroded your spirit, how it clipped your wings into pieces that neither of us could stitch back together.

Without wings, there was nothing to break your fall.

/

When a transgender person commits suicide, it’s almost always murder in slow motion.

When you cut a flower at the stem, no one is surprised when it wilts. When your petals fell, I tried to hold onto them as long as I could. The world might know you now as a statistic, but I knew you as you breathed and bloomed.

The morning memorial begins with a passionate plea about pronouns from a trans femme you knew, and I’m silently grateful for her courage. But I’m left trembling when I realize that you never lived to see the day when your life didn’t require a disclaimer — instead, your death now required one, too.

The professor gives the closing remarks. He stumbles over his words.

When he misgenders you, he tries to correct himself, stuttering. The pain in the room is palpable, a living reenactment of the pain you held in your last breath.

When he refers to you as a son, your mother — in a moment more powerful than my words can hold — adamantly corrects him.

“My child,” she says.

Her child who, after being flown to New York for a final time, would be turned over to ash. “I blew glitter over their body just before they were cremated,” your mother tells me.

And this is how you left us, anointed by the shimmering breath of your mother.

It was one final gesture to remind you that, while the world may not have seen you, we still did.

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If you’re suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Hey, friend! Before you go…

cropped-heartThis blog is not sponsored by any fancy pants investors that are trying to sell you stuff.

It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Every donation counts. Help keep resources like these accessible to everyone that needs them! And help buy me a cup of coffee, because I write a lot of these blogs after work, late at night, so I could definitely use the caffeine.

Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash.

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5 important mistakes I made as a partner to someone with chronic illness.

About seven years ago, while at university, I fell in love.

Ray was easily one of the most brilliant and funny people I’d ever met — they stole my heart almost immediately.

While they can seem soft-spoken at first, they’re incredibly passionate and opinionated when you get to know them. They’re empathic, geeky, and tender. And they balance me out, too: their careful and considerate nature has tempered my impulsivity and reckless optimism many, many times.

In other words, we fit together wonderfully.

I knew Ray was special from the moment I met them. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise, then, that we later got married — and I’m very lucky to be able to say that after nearly seven years together, we are raising two perfect fur babies together (and more succulents than I can possibly count).

In many ways, ours is a love story that seems pretty typical. But in reality, it’s not quite.

Ray has a number of chronic illnesses, including Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS) and arthritis. With this comes not only a lot of physical pain and mobility issues but total exhaustion day after day.

After years of being partners, I’d like to think I know a thing or two about supporting folks in my life with chronic illness. But as much as I hate admitting this, these were lessons that I often learned the hard way.

I want to share some of the mistakes that I’ve made, because I’m hopeful that other loved ones can learn from my experiences, and in doing so, they can offer the kind of support that chronically ill folks truly deserve — support that is unconditionally affirming.

So where did I mess up, exactly? Here are five of the big blunders I made, and what I learned as a result.

1. I assumed that we had the same definition of ‘happiness.’

I’m happiest when I’m busy. I know this about myself. If I don’t have several projects up in the air, a regular dose of sunshine, consistent friend dates, and a lot of yoga on the weekends, I’m not very functional.

Particularly as someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD, the pace of my life and what’s on my calendar determines whether or not I’m functional on any given week.

Sometimes I would look at how my partner’s life was set up, though, and I’d wonder if they were making the “right” choices — just because their life didn’t look like mine.

How did they survive, I wondered, without regular social outings? Wouldn’t they feel better if they got out a little more? At first, I didn’t slow down to consider what happiness looked like for them. I used my own definition assuming that what worked for me would obviously work for them.

The reality is, though, that what makes me feel good is not necessarily going to make Ray feel good. What’s empowering or energizing for me could actually be completely draining, counterproductive, or even harmful for them.

I logically understood this. But even so, I’d still slip up at times, assuming that their life was lacking some key ingredient that their own recipe never called for.

In recent years, I started paying much closer attention to how my partner defines happiness. I work to support them in making whatever changes they deem helpful in pursuit of their goals, even if their goals look nothing like mine.

This means celebrating their successes, too, however they define success.

They get to steer the ship; it’s my job as a partner to support them in whatever direction they choose to go, and however they ask me to show up.

2. I had a lot of suggestions — but I wasn’t always making them accessible.

Ray and I have the kind of relationship where we do offer (solicited) suggestions to each other from time to time, always with the caveat that we aren’t pushing and we’re respectful when we offer guidance.

I began to notice, though, that sometimes my advice was consistently lacking something — accessibility.

If I was suggesting that my partner see a specialist, was I also offering to go with them? Was I making sure they had transportation covered? Was I helping them take notes on what questions needed answering?

Or was I just telling them what they should do without a plan of how we could make it happen?

If I was recommending that Ray join me for a particular (gentle) yoga or stretching class, had I spoken with the instructor first to ask if they knew how to work with clients with EDS? Was I willing to pay for a Lyft so that they didn’t have to walk to class with me? Had I researched if that particular activity was safe for their body in the first place?

Offering advice without consideration of how to make it actionable and accessible meant that my “advice” was useless — plain and simple.

Rather than creating additional work for my partner, it’s my responsibility to make sure I’m offering real support and not just ideas that will further overwhelm them.

3. I thought that nudging them to try new things would be helpful.

With my obsessive-compulsive disorder, I often need to stretch just outside of my comfort zone to improve my mental health. It’s helpful, then, when people in my life nudge me to go outside, try something new, and break out of my routine if I’m starting to isolate myself too much.

With Ray, it’s the total opposite. They need to stick to a reliable routine to ensure they have enough spoons to get their work done.

They have to mentally calculate whether or not they can afford to do something differently. If they stray from their routine on an average day, they risk exhausting themselves before they meet all their responsibilities, which can impact them for days or even weeks to come.

Earlier in our relationship, I did a lot of nudging — because I figured inching outside of their comfort zone would be helpful, rather than harmful, like it was for me. While my resistance to trying something new came from anxiety that I could work through, Ray’s resistance was a matter of survival.

That’s why, when we’re supporting any partner with chronic illness, we must always assume that they are the expert on their own experiences. I know now that my partner gets to determine the pace at which they move in and out of their comfort zone.

The best way I’ve found to navigate this is to ask questions! Some examples of what I would ask:

  • “Are you looking to brainstorm ways to feel a little better? Or do you just need the space to talk about what you’re feeling?”
  • “What is the most helpful thing I could do to support you right now?”
  • “Do you have the energy to try something a little different? Or are you on ‘power save mode’ right now?”

I know that sometimes, my partner feels stuck and needs a solid brainstorm to figure out how to address certain challenges. But they get to decide when that happens — not me.

4. I didn’t ask exactly how I should engage with others around their disabilities.

It didn’t occur to me for the longest time what about their experiences I should or shouldn’t disclose. Instead, I focused on whether or not I was comfortable having a conversation, rather than asking Ray what they did and didn’t want others to know.

An example: My partner was unable to work for a period of time because of their disabilities.

At first, I had no problem letting people know if they asked what my partner did for work. But after a while, the judgment from others made me uncomfortable — so rather than affirming my partner’s decision and pushing back on ableism when I encountered it, I eventually found myself being dishonest about our situation.

“Well, they’re preparing to go back to school, so they’re taking some time…”

“They’re freelancing at the moment…”

“They’re waiting for the right opportunity to come along…”

Here’s what I should have done from the start: had a conversation with my partner and asked them how they’d like me to speak about their situation if and when someone asked. 

Maybe they wanted me to have those tough conversations, explicitly supporting their decision to take care of themselves. Seizing those teachable moments could have been a powerful moment for allyship! Or maybe they wanted to keep that information private, and we could instead find a way to disengage in a way they felt comfortable with.

Either way, they should’ve been the one to decide on that narrative — not me.

I know now that it’s so important to check in with them and ensure that I’m having conversations around their disabilities in ways they feel comfortable with, rather than assuming that I know what those boundaries are.

(Which is why I first got their consent to write this article… and then we read through it together to ensure it felt empowering and accurate!)

5. I unconsciously carried the assumption that there was or someday would be a ‘solution.’

When it comes to chronic illness, there isn’t always a “solution.” There can be management, maintenance, even treatment… but in many instances, I’ve had to learn to accept that sometimes survival and self-care are the very best we can do.

Many of us grow up with the idea that if we go to a doctor, they have the answers, and that we’ll eventually be “better.” It’s a comforting thought, but it doesn’t hold up in reality, especially when we’re talking about invisible illnesses.

I had to learn quite early on that more often than not, doctors don’t have any answers for Ray — and sometimes they do more harm than good. Not every appointment was going to yield something helpful. No matter how persistently we advocate, there’s no guarantee that we will ever arrive at a “solution” that magically helps Ray feel good (or even okay) in their body.

Doctors don’t always have answers. In fact, most of the time, Ray knows a hell of a lot more about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome than their doctors do.

I’ve had to stop living in this fantasy world where Ray someday arrives at a magical “cure,” and instead, engage with the reality of their disabilities. That often means waking up each morning, checking in and asking, “What’s the very best we can do today?”

The truth is, there are ups and downs with these illnesses — sometimes a lot more downs than ups.

Was I prepared for that? If I wasn’t, I had better get my shit together.

I love and support my partner not in spite of their disabilities, but as a whole person, which is inclusive of every struggle and identity that they hold.

Loving someone that way means letting go of the idea that “health” is at the finish line — or that there’s a “finish line” at all — and instead, I focus on whatever goals Ray aspires towards, even if that goal is simply surviving another day.

What do they need from me as their partner to make their goals and aspirations a reality? That’s where I devote my energy now, and Ray gets to set the pace and the path forward.

The assumption that things will someday “improve” or “get better” — and that we, as partners, are in some way responsible for making that happen — has to be dismantled.

Otherwise, we’re not really loving them, are we? We’re setting up an expectation, rather than loving the person who’s right in front of us. It’s an illusion that’s rooted in a very ableist frame of mind.

Our job is to love our partners as they are, body and soul, here in this moment. And that means embracing an uncertain future — knowing that while love may not protect us from every challenge we’ll face together, its warmth and light can sustain us.

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Hey, friend! Before you go…

cropped-heartThis blog is not sponsored by any fancy pants investors that are trying to sell you stuff.

It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Every donation counts. Help keep resources like these accessible to everyone that needs them! And help buy me a cup of coffee, because I write a lot of these blogs after work, late at night, so I could definitely use the caffeine.

 

Photo by Hunter Newton on Unsplash.

My parents and I survived my ‘Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria.’ This is our story.

Yes, it’s true.

I am a survivor of Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, otherwise known as ROGD.

And if you’d talked to my mother back then, you would’ve gotten a very panicked account of how abrupt my coming out was.

But my story isn’t hers to tell.

(She, by the way, would totally agree with that statement. This is why she isn’t posting about me in online forums or participating in “studies.” Also: Hi Mom, love you.)

And while I wish I had the Perfect Transgender Narrative™ to convince you of my validity, I don’t. I didn’t always know I was transgender. I’m not even sure exactly when my dysphoria really started.

But if you knew my story, you might realize why that makes sense.

I was a sheltered kid growing up in suburban Michigan. And while I’d been bullied for being “weird,” and always felt like the “black sheep” wherever I went, I knew literally nothing about queer or transgender people… much less “gender dysphoria.”

There was no context to place that sense of isolation into. It never occurred to me that gender was a thing I could have feelings about, and I certainly didn’t know that I didn’t have to identify as a girl if it didn’t exactly fit.

Having an older brother that was so close to me in age, my androgyny wasn’t exactly odd, either.

I figured it was a natural product of being so close to him. We shared our toys as kids, played video games for hours, and my many interests — ranging from the stereotypically “feminine” to “masculine” — made me gender-ambivalent at best.

If you’d asked me how I felt about my body as I got older, I would’ve said I “felt ugly.” When asked to describe myself? “I’m just weird.” There was no other vocabulary available to me, because my world was incredibly, incredibly tiny.

Even if I did have some sense of dysphoria, I didn’t have the ability to place where it was coming from.

I was a kid with obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD. As such, I was in a constant state of anxiety and agitation growing up. When it became unmanageable, I would get really depressed.

In other words, emotional overwhelm was a constant in my life. Teasing apart where any of it came from wasn’t a simple process.

It only became more complicated as I got older. When I was a teenager, I developed an eating disorder and then found myself in an abusive relationship. The disconnect from my own body from there only became more intense. I was numb to it in so many ways.

Gender was not my concern at that time — simply surviving my mental illness and that relationship was all I could muster.

But thoughts about it started to surface, slowly but surely. When I began considering taking on a more androgynous appearance, and started questioning gender in my late teens, my abuser told me that I “wouldn’t be attractive anymore.”

My self-esteem was already so diminished. His comment made me feel so deeply ashamed for ever having considered being anything other than hyperfeminine and cisgender.

So I didn’t just tiptoe back into the closet… I leapt back in.

At first, I put any kind of gender-related thoughts on the highest shelf in a locked box. I couldn’t handle the idea of destabilizing my life in the way that transition — and by extension, ending that relationship — would’ve triggered.

There just wasn’t room for questioning my identity at that time in my life.

Between my OCD and my traumatic relationship, I was repressing the hell out of any gender-questioning thoughts. I didn’t have the emotional capacity, resources, and support to work through it.

It wasn’t until I got out of that relationship and started therapy that I could begin to untangle everything.

As I started to better manage my OCD and heal from the relationship that had destroyed my self-esteem, those questions about gender start to find their way to the surface again. I begin to wonder.

And I started searching online.

That’s when I really began questioning if some of my earlier feelings about being out of place — especially among girls my age — meant something.

I wondered if being disconnected from my body might be connected. I wondered if being drawn to androgyny (and the little things, like enjoying playing as “boy” characters on my favorite video games) might have meaning, too.

And I’ll be honest, I didn’t know for certain if those aspects of my earlier experiences did or didn’t have a gendered significance. Very few of us do in actuality, because identity is complicated, and gender is, too.

Not to mention, my history was very complex and painful. The thing about dysphoria is that so much of it is very abstract. Feelings aren’t as crystal clear as a lot of cisgender people seem to suggest.

Dysphoria isn’t this obvious neon sign that appears from the minute you exit the womb, especially in a society that does everything it can to make transgender people totally invisible to begin with.

We often don’t know where our feelings are coming from, especially if our backgrounds include trauma.

Which is why changing circumstances externally — our clothes, our pronouns, our names — can be so important. We do it to see how our feelings change so we can better understand what caused them, and more importantly, what we can do about them.

So I came out as genderqueer when I was 19 years old. I felt uncomfortable continuing to identify as a “girl” when I was having all these questions about my identity and my body.

I cut my hair, started changing how I dressed, started binding my chest, and began to imagine what my future might look like. I wanted to see if I would be happier or more comfortable in doing so.

For my parents, though, we’d never really had a conversation about my gender. What they saw was their teenager going off to college and catching something quite an awful lot like “rapid onset gender dysphoria.”

Except instead of the internet, it was that dang liberal arts school corrupting me.

But it became obvious, with each step of my social transition, that something magical was happening — I was coming out of my shell. I was happier. I felt a little more adventurous. I felt a little more at home.

I sat with myself and I said, “Okay. There’s something here.” I knew there was because with every change I made, I felt a little lighter in a way I never had before.

I soon learned that a disconnect from your body or self, disordered eating, anxiety, and a sense of isolation can all be a part of the transgender experience we call “dysphoria.”

It seems to be something a lot of us share. And more importantly, when some people transition, those experiences improve or even go away entirely.

When I finally understood that a gender transition was making me feel better and brighter… I was thrilled. But I was also hit with waves of very acute, very new gender dysphoria.

My internal reality was solidifying, but my experiences as I moved through the world weren’t aligning at the same time. That gap became more and more stark — and much more painful.

This was the “rapid onset.”

And if you talk to transgender people, a lot of us have the same story — we know our truth, but it also magnifies our pain. There’s the new distress of realizing that no one else sees it but us. The pain of invisibility.

While you are becoming the person you are meant to be, you simultaneously become invisible to the rest of the world — even to the people you love.

That is traumatic — and it can come on gradually for some people, and quickly for others, depending on when you came to understand your identity.

I knew who I was and I wanted that to be recognized. But it wasn’t. And the more erased I felt, the more pain I experienced.

I found myself focusing more and more about the aspects of my body that kept me from feeling seen. I’d never felt comfortable in my own skin, but now I had a better understanding as to why — and I had a clearer idea of what needed to change.

That’s when I started considering hormones.

At 22 years old, I was now growing impatient and miserable. I didn’t share these things with my parents at first, though, out of a fear of being rejected. They were your typical Midwest “ranch dressing” kind of parents — they knew very little about what any of this gender stuff meant.

But I came out to them anyway.

They were, in the deepest sense of the word, confused.

But more than that, they were terrified, because they’d never once heard me talk about questioning my gender. For them, the pain I was describing was sudden and life-altering.

And, yes, “rapid.”

But it wasn’t the dysphoric feelings that were necessarily new. It was the urgency to address them that was new — because I learned there was a solution, a path I could finally take.

That urgency made the dysphoria feel stronger. But in all likelihood, it may have been there in some form all along.

But either way, it hardly seemed to matter when it began. I just needed to know if testosterone could help me. And if it didn’t? I could always stop.

So I held my breath, emailed my parents, and told them what I was prepared to do. And my mother especially — while she was terrified about what would happen next — did what every parent of a trans youth should be doing: she stood by me.

Rather than looking to change who I was, or digging for evidence that I was delusional, or blaming somebody else in my life… she pumped the brakes. She moved through her fears and came out on the other side of that as my biggest supporter.

And being supportive didn’t mean that she wasn’t afraid. It didn’t mean that she didn’t have questions, doubts, or worries. It didn’t mean that she understood everything that I was talking about.

What it meant was that she had the courage to walk through those fears with me, and do everything she could to support my own happiness, even if the path was totally unknown and even scary to her.

My mom didn’t see my coming out as a fluke, nor did she see my transition as a threat. She saw it as an opportunity for her to grow.

And while she stumbled and wasn’t always graceful, she did everything she could to be there for me, no matter what.

Screen Shot 2018-09-08 at 11.46.18 AMWith my family’s support, I began my medical transition. I won’t lie — I was scared, too, at first. I wondered if I could be mistaken. I wondered if it was my OCD playing tricks on me. I worried that maybe trauma had led me astray.

But after years in therapy, and multiple gender specialists weighing in, this was the conclusion we had all reached. It was worth a try.

I’m grateful every single day that I took the chance. And I’m just as grateful that my parents were by my side, supporting me through it.

I started hormones, I got top surgery, and with each step, there was a light in my eyes that wasn’t there before. I came alive. I was happier, more confident, and the emotional overwhelm that seemed to buzz around me my whole life slowly began to fade.

As my parents saw this unfolding, even they couldn’t deny what was happening. I was finally calm. I was optimistic. And most importantly, I was ecstatic.

And one of the greatest, most unexpected gifts of my transition?

My mom (who I will freely admit, like most teenagers, was not my favorite person growing up) became one of my best friends.

Even as my mom struggled to understand me (and still does sometimes), that has never once been an obstacle in her loving and supporting me.

My parents are proud of their gay, transgender son. I know this because they don’t hesitate to remind me.

And looking at their example — two people who really couldn’t have been more unprepared for a trans kid — is what still gives me hope, even as proponents of this pseudoscience try to undermine and invalidate trans youth.

Hope even for the parents that participated in the Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria “study,” who may someday learn that their fear is worth embracing — that it’s an opportunity to grow, to love, and to listen.

An opportunity to better know this wonderful person that they brought into the world — to see, for the very first time, what lies in their heart, and to prove to them that they’re still worthy of love exactly as they are.

My parents embraced that opportunity despite all the grief that came with it. And when I ask them why, their answer to me is always simple: “Because we love you.”

We didn’t always know that I was transgender or that I even had gender dysphoria. But when my parents look at me today — and they see a happier, healthier adult — none of that really seems to matter anymore.

I hope that one day, we’ll live in a world where parents of transgender youth, no matter how “rapid” their coming out, will get to experience that same joy, too.

That moment when they look at their kids, brighter than ever, and finally understand that the journey is absolutely worth it.

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selfcare

If you’re suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386, or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

 

Hey, friend! Before you go…

cropped-heartThis blog is not sponsored by any fancy pants investors that are trying to sell you stuff.

It’s funded by readers like you via Patreon!

Every donation counts. Help keep resources like these accessible to everyone that needs them! And help buy me a cup of coffee, because I write a lot of these blogs after work, late at night, so I could definitely use the caffeine.

Beard hacks, finasteride hell, and 5 other things ‘trans masc’ folks might not know about.

Every so often — especially in transitioning — I’ll have one of those “why didn’t someone tell me this sooner?” moments. Because we’re in the age of information, I think a lot of folks in the transgender community just assume we already have the information we need.

But in actuality? Many of us don’t.

I’ve found that when I share some of what’s surprised me, there’s always a decent number of trans people who are also hearing it for the first time. While transition is a process of discovery, I can’t help but feel that life would be a hell of a lot easier if we did a better job of sharing what we’ve learned with others.

This article, then, is a mishmash of some of the clever, enlightening, or flat-out surprising things that I would’ve appreciated being told at the beginning of my transition.

As someone who is genderqueer — and more or less moves through the world as a “trans guy” — a lot of what I’m sharing here will be more relevant to folks on the “trans masc” end of the spectrum, though I do think there’s a little something here for everyone.

Not everything here will be life-changing information by any means, but I hope that at least a few things here will be helpful to someone who needs it.

1. There are (sneaky) ways to make your facial hair look less weird.

If Oprah gets to have her own “favorite things,” so do I, right?

If you read literally any guide about how to “pass” as a trans guy, they’ll tell you to shave your face. And as someone who had the misfortune of having much of their facial hair grow in thick but blonde (thanks, Dad), I get the impulse — my facial hair isn’t exactly uh, impressive.

The problem is, that little bit of facial hair? It’s often the deciding factor in whether or not my barista is going to misgender me, you know? So as counterintuitive as it may be, my beard has to stay, no matter how ridiculous and patchy it may look. Whenever I’m without it, I’m more dysphoric, and misgendered a lot more often.

We live in the age of makeup though, my friends. Drag kings have got this down to science, and I was fortunate enough to learn that there are ways to make your facial hair a little more… cohesive.

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Glossier’s “boy brow,” aka beard magic.

Drag kings often use mascara to create something of an imitation beard, but there’s actually an even better option for those of us who already have some facial hair and just need it to, you know, make itself known.

The brand Glossier (who hasn’t asked me to plug this or paid me to promote it in any way at all — I’m just eternally grateful that it exists) has a brow pomade called “boy brow” that helps make facial hair appear fuller, darker, and more filled in.

It’s subtle, but for the blonde hair on my face that refuses to show up, this has been a miraculous discovery.

I am never misgendered when I apply this to my face. It’s intended for brows, but it clearly has some benefits for trans folks like myself who need a little more “oomph” with their facial hair.

Observe the magic in action:

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Half of my face without “boy brow” (left), half where it’s used on my facial hair (right).

I’m personally using the brown shade that Glossier offers because it looks more natural on my face, though it does come in black as well!

If you look, you’ll notice that (1) I’m able to connect my sideburn completely, (2) my mustache is darker and has a more noticeable shadow, and (3) my beard has a lot less patchy weirdness to it.

I don’t necessarily apply this to all of my facial hair on a regular basis, but I did it here (apart from the parts of my face, like my cheeks, that I already shave regularly) just to give you an idea of what it would look like on each part of my face.

And it makes a lot more of a difference than you’d expect!

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The full effect, both sides! This is after a night out, so it lasts, I promise.

When I started doing this, a lot of people asked if I’d increased my testosterone dose, and no one was the wiser.

Not to mention, the misgendering really plummeted. All those “passing guides” that told me to go for the clean shave? They might’ve benefitted from knowing that this stuff exists.

But most importantly, I’m more comfortable. There’s this weird idea that using makeup to appear more masculine is somehow an unacceptable thing, but for me, it’s helped with my gender dysphoria and it’s changed the level of confidence I feel when I step out the door.

So before you shave your whole face in dismay, please know that this could be an option for you! Drag performers have been using mascara and brow pomade for ages, and it’s worth a try if having facial hair makes you feel more comfortable.

2. If you can’t find an LGBTQ+ therapist, you might be looking in the wrong place.

Real talk, having a therapist that’s in your own community makes a huge difference.

And you might be rolling your eyes and saying, “Well, OBVIOUSLY, Sam.” But I’m reiterating this point because I’m blown away by just how much of an impact this has had in my experiences with therapy.

Healing within your own community is a distinctly different thing from doing this kind of work with someone outside of it.

For the last year, I’ve been doing online therapy with a transgender and queer therapist. And that connection became even more important to me when, at the beginning of this year, one of my close friends (also transgender) died by suicide.

Having a therapist who knew what it was like to lose someone this way, and understood from a place of lived experience what queer grief is really like, became an invaluable part of healing for me.

I do know that therapy isn’t accessible to everyone, and it can be difficult to find a transgender or queer therapist on top of that.

But with the increasing accessibility of trans and queer therapists through online platforms like Talkspace (I wrote about this here), it’s worth investigating if you have the means. Some of these platforms even offer financial support, so click around and see what you can find!

3. Learning self-massage was the smartest thing I could’ve done for top surgery recovery.

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am not athletic and am, by and large, a very sedentary person (which is a nice way of saying that I’m a couch potato). But when I discovered a local yoga class that used “therapy balls” to teach self-massage, I was uh, intrigued.

Because after top surgery, I was wound so tight that a massage sounded like exactly what I needed.

After top surgery, my body was kind of a mess — more than I’d really expected. A few months out, I still had very little range of motion. I had built up scar tissue and lumps and knots — especially on the sides of my chest, in my pecs, and between my shoulders — that I was convinced would be there forever.

Surgery is bodily trauma, you know? Even if it’s entirely wanted and amazing, we still have to heal after all is said and done.

So I started learning self-massage with therapy balls (my instructor uses the book “The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body” by Jill Miller, but I’m sure there are others). My hope was that it would help me recover a little faster after surgery.

It definitely worked.

After a few weeks, I had regained full mobility and range of motion, including in my arms and shoulders. I am now even more flexible than I was prior to surgery. A lot of the built up tissue is entirely gone. The kicker? I’m only six months post-op at this point, and even my surgeon was amazed by how quickly I was able to recover.

A lot of people, as it turns out, use therapy balls and self-massage to manage chronic pain, as many of the exercises can be modified to suit virtually any body. Many of the techniques are exactly what a physical therapist would do with you in recovery — the only difference is that you’re using a tool to apply that pressure to yourself!

Google it, friends! Please! It’s something you can easily do at home, and while everyone’s body is different, finding ways to restore your range of motion after a major surgery is super important.

4. Binding your chest for a long time can affect top surgery results in some people.

Okay, I know, this should be common knowledge by now… but it definitely isn’t.

Apart from the documented (and expected) issues with binding — including pain, shortness of breath, overheating, that sort of thing — I actually didn’t know that binding could impact surgery results.

First of all, a disclaimer: Binding is critical and essential care for trans people, even with all risks taken into account. The relief it provided me from dysphoria isn’t something I would trade, even given all the nonsense I had to put up with during the years that I was binding and after.

But in the interest of transparency, I do want people to know that one of the lesser-discussed effects of binding your chest is the breakdown of breast tissue. Again, many of us know this, but we take on the attitude of, “Well, I’m getting top surgery later, so what does it matter?” (Hi, I thought that, too.)

But what I was surprised to find is that binding my chest impacted my top surgery results later on.

For those of us who go on to get a mastectomy, our tissue being broken down can affect our post-op results. Speaking for myself, as someone who opted to get nipple grafts, it became more difficult to construct them because that tissue was softer and broken down.

This means that some of us might notice that our nips look a little less distinct from the tissue surrounding them (in other words, they can wind up flatter than they might appear on cisgender men).

I am still thrilled with my top surgery results, but I think I would’ve opted for top surgery earlier had I known that the longer I was binding, the more that breakdown could affect the cosmetic results.

I was binding for about six years, so that obviously had a huge impact on the extent to which I experienced this. But it’s helpful to keep in mind if you’re trying to decide how long you should wait for surgery, or how often you should bind!

5. Testosterone exists in other forms besides injections.

I am realizing that not everyone knows this, so I’m including it on this list because I think it’s important. Time and time again, I hear trans folks saying, “I can’t start T because I don’t want to do the shots!” Lucky for you, there are options!

There are pills, though they can be kind of harsh for our bodies. More commonly, folks who are averse to giving themselves shots have the option of getting testosterone as a patch or in gel form.

I personally tried the patches and was allergic to the adhesive (fun times!). I have been using the gel for over two years now, and it’s terrific. It’s basically like hand sanitizer that’s a little thicker and has testosterone in it, and you rub it into your upper-arms and let it dry every day.

Super simple. No needles required!

6. Finasteride isn’t always safe — especially for trans folks with preexisting mental health conditions.

I talked about this quite a bit in this blog post, but it bears repeating. There has been some speculation that finasteride (otherwise known as proscar/propecia) can lead to suicidal thoughts in some people who take it, and some studies are showing that there are elevated risks of self-harm and depression when taking it.

It’s usually prescribed to slow down hair loss, which makes it a pretty common prescription amongst trans folks. But the reality is, its impact on trans people specifically hasn’t been studied much at all.

So, story time.

The only two times I’ve ever been psychiatrically hospitalized for suicidality came a few weeks after starting finasteride, with those episodes subsiding only after I discontinued it. I have never in my life experienced this level of depression and suicidality that I experienced while taking finasteride.

This is anecdotal, but there are many reports of others who experienced similar side effects that the World Health Organization is monitoring at this time.

Because all of these studies have only been done on cisgender men, we don’t actually know how it could impact transgender people, who are already more vulnerable to mental illness and suicidality.

All that said, what this means is that trans folks (or really, anyone) taking finasteride should proceed with a lot of caution! If you notice any increased depression or suicidal ideation, make sure you let your clinician know.

7. You can have gender dysphoria without realizing it.

I wrote about this at a pretty nauseating length in my open letter to truscum, but I’d like to highlight it a little bit here (and speak to, you know, the rest of us who aren’t transmedicalists), because I think it’s important information:

No one else saw me as ugly or ever said I was, but it was a feeling I couldn’t shake. I felt like, no matter what I did, nothing made that feeling go away.

I just thought it was a stupid teenager thing. Except that “stupid teenager thing” didn’t go away and I became a self-hating, uncomfortable, gross-feeling adult.

If you had met me when I came out in 2012, you would’ve said that there was no freaking way I was transgender. I knew I was miserable and I knew I hated how I looked, but “dysphoria” wasn’t a part of my vocabulary yet. While it had always been there on some level, I didn’t have any way to interpret what it meant.

And this isn’t an uncommon experience, trust me. Plenty of trans people come out and are still learning how to describe their experiences. For those folks, it’s sometimes much, much later on that they realize there was some dysphoria happening for them. Sometimes the label comes first — and that’s valid.

I didn’t grasp how severe it was for me until after surgery. Only when my dysphoria was considerably diminished did I understand just how heavy it was to begin with.

. . .

Some people also experience dysphoria only in the form of dissociation, or a state of unreality, numbness, or disconnection. They might not connect this to their gender at all, because it’s not an emotional state they can necessarily identify so quickly in the first place.

For trans people with other mental health challenges, trauma and mental illness might interfere with their understanding of their gender, and dysphoria becomes attributed to other causes (I also wrote about that here).

In other words, our brains work extra hard to try to protect us, which can make self-perception [of dysphoria] as a trans person a little wonky.

This is something that we, as a community, aren’t talking about nearly enough! Dysphoria is a very complex experience, and while we might not initially recognize it as such, there could be as many unique experiences of dysphoria as there are trans people.

So if you’re not sure that you’ve experienced dysphoria? That’s okay. Maybe you have and maybe you haven’t — or maybe you’ll understand it a little better with time. Your experiences are valid no matter what.

Transitioning is a learning experience, to be sure. Thankfully, it’s one that we can support each other through.

That’s why I love hearing from all of you in the community.

What are some things you wish you’d known sooner? What has been the most surprising part of transition for you?

Until next time,

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Yes, I have a ‘mental disorder.’ But it’s not being transgender.

It seems like every other week, some conservative with a podcast and an ax to grind announces that being transgender is a mental disorder — despite having no credentials that would actually, I don’t know, make them qualified to diagnose someone.

And I’ll be honest — it’s frustrating to still hear this.

You don’t have to look very far to get the general medical consensus. The World Health Organization and American Psychiatric Association have both affirmed that being transgender is not, in fact, a mental illness.

And while “gender dysphoria” can be medically diagnosed, this is specifically done to access gender-affirming care — not because being transgender is in itself a disorder.

It’s true that some people really and truly don’t get it. There are some folks that use this kind of language because they don’t know how else to talk about the trans experience.

They don’t know exactly what a “mental disorder” is or what it’s like to be transgender. And they see that we’re suffering and dysphoric — so they don’t know how else to talk about it.

As someone who lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and also happens to be transgender, I can tell you upfront that there’s just no comparison.

Being transgender and having a psychiatric illness aren’t at all the same. Comparing them isn’t just an “apples to oranges” situation — metaphorically speaking, we’re not even in the same food group here.

And why is that? To start, let’s talk about what mental illness is.

The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as a health condition that impacts thinking, emotion, and/or behavior in a way that creates distress. More often than not, this leads to difficulty functioning in social, work, and/or family activities.

For people who aren’t transgender, they might look at this definition and come to the conclusion that trans people are mentally ill, because many of us do experience distress, and being transgender absolutely does impact how we think about ourselves and how we behave.

The problem is, it’s not being transgender that, in and of itself, creates distress and dysfunction. It’s the difficulty in trying to be who you are when the society around you is deeply hostile towards you.

It’s not my gender identity that’s caused me distress. It’s moving through the world as a trans person.

If anything, identifying this way has brought me enormous relief and made me a happier person overall.

I started to experience distress because of how others treated me. I was distressed when I experienced invalidation, harassment, and rejection. I was distressed when I was closeted, trying to be something that I wasn’t.

And my functioning was impacted when I couldn’t access care, like hormones and surgery.

When I wasn’t able to be who I was, and when I encountered violence and opposition because of it, that’s when I was distressed.

When someone is suffering as a result of how the outside world treats them, especially when they are part of a group that has historically been marginalized, that’s not a mental disorder.

The word you’re looking for there is “discrimination.”

The more “insane” thing to do would’ve been to keep pretending to be someone I wasn’t, which was a much more agonizing experience for me.

Figuring out my gender wasn’t a problem. In fact, it was a huge relief and it improved my life, so long as society did not interfere with my ability to transition. I’m far more mentally healthy now than I ever was prior to transition… by a long shot.

And that’s why I consider my experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder and my transgender identity to be — categorically — two very different things.

It’s true that how society treats me because of my OCD, and a lack of accessibility to the therapies and medications I needed to thrive, were both contributing to my distress. Discrimination happens to people with mental illness, too, and it can have a profound impact on our lives.

But there’s a component to my distress that originates outside of that mistreatment.

OCD — and the neurobiology behind it — creates patterns of thought, emotions, and behaviors that are in themselves distressing, even under the very best circumstances.

Labeling those patterns as a disorder is the quickest way to say, “There are aspects of my biology and brain chemistry — mixed in with my environment and genetics and everything that makes me a human — that create specific and unpleasant mental/emotional experiences for me.”

Those patterns have been studied over the years, and they’ve been observed in many people who all respond similarly to particular solutions. The label exists to guide people like myself to the resources and solutions that will help reduce our suffering.

Many of these mental and emotional patterns associated with OCD feel at odds with who I am, and when I don’t work to mitigate their impact, my mental health worsens.

Being transgender, though, feels in alignment with who I am, and when I am able to freely explore and express this part of myself, my mental health improves.

The unpleasant experiences that stem from OCD aren’t reflective of who I understand myself to be; I feel more “myself” in the absence of those experiences.

As a transgender person, though, I feel more “myself” when I am able to embrace my gender identity. The more present I am in that experience, and the safer I feel in expressing that, the more whole I feel.

To call my transgender identity “disordered” implies that I need to minimize this part of my experience, but to be the very best (and healthiest) version of myself? I need the exact opposite.

The key differences here, then, are where that distress is coming from, and under what circumstances it improves.

Those two factors are where being transgender and being mentally ill diverge completely.

I don’t experience distress when I think about being a gender other than what I was assigned at birth, and I don’t experience distress from behaving accordingly. In fact, the more freely I am able to live my life in ways that align with my identity, the healthier I am.

But I do experience distress when I think, behave, and feel things as a result of the neurobiology we call “obsessive-compulsive disorder.” And the more I’m able to minimize and manage the impact of those thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, the healthier I become.

In that way, these are totally opposite scenarios.

When we diagnose someone, we’re essentially saying, “This pattern is present, but if it were less so, this person’s mental health would improve.”

So when you say that being transgender is a mental illness, you’re saying that suppressing or minimizing that identity would then lead to mental health.

But this simply isn’t the case. When trans people are able to be themselves and access gender-affirming care, their mental health outcomes are often better. This is especially true in situations where discrimination or violence is less likely, or in the case of youth, when they are supported by their families.

So by its very nature, being trans cannot be a mental illness — because invalidating and minimizing a trans person’s identity has not been proven to positively affect their wellbeing.

It’s the complete opposite.

If you were to classify being transgender as a mental illness, then, you would be making a recommendation to a clinician to treat us in a way that would not improve our health, which completely defeats the point of making any diagnosis in the first place.

But there are plenty of trans people who continually emphasize how much these attitudes harm us.

We don’t need transgender people to stop being trans, nor do we need to further stigmatize our identities and experiences. Gender diversity is not an illness — a society that is hostile towards it, though, is far more distressing.

If diagnoses are meant to help improve a person’s health, I’m still waiting to see any proof that labelling us mentally ill is actually improving our lives.

The sad reality is, many of the people who still insist that being transgender is a “disorder” don’t actually care about our mental health.

Because let’s be honest, if they did? They’d stop talking and do a much better job of listening.

People who are determined to label transgender people “mentally ill” — those who do so to rile people up on Twitter, not just because they haven’t thought about this much — do so because it’s a way of dehumanizing us.

It’s a way of suggesting that we are delusional and that we aren’t who we say we are. It implies that trans people need to be “cured” or “fixed,” and that we shouldn’t exist. To them, we’re mistakes that never should have happened.

That mentality is used to justify a lot of the emotional and physical violence that wounds and even kills us, and it perpetuates the hostility and self-hatred that drives so many of us to suicide.

But I want to be crystal clear about something: my being transgender was never a mistake.

My path hasn’t been an easy one in a lot of respects. But the strength and determination that I carry in my heart is part of a legacy — it comes from generations of transgender and gender nonconforming people, those who were willing to risk everything for a future they knew they might never see.

They stared down all of the dangers that came with that, showing up for each other and for a better world, so that one day, trans people like me could truly live. It’s a legacy that I now have the privilege of inheriting, and it’s one that I don’t take for granted.

For me, being transgender is an honor — and every single day, I step into my life knowing that from the moment I was born, I arrived with a purpose.

I want a future where every trans person can become who they are with every ounce of safety, love, and affirmation they deserve. And if that’s your definition of “crazy,” it sounds like I have my work cut out for me.

Challenge accepted.

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This is what I wish people who identify as ‘truscum’ would try to understand.

This is an open letter to transmedicalists.

I’m being direct this time, because I don’t want to talk about you as if you are some faraway, distant other. I don’t think that helps anything. You’re real people, and no matter where we differ, I don’t want to forget your humanity.

I’ve talked in the past about harassment that I’d experienced years ago from trans folks who identify as “truscum” (so, for outsiders, transgender people who believe gender dysphoria and medical transition are necessary to identify as trans — otherwise known as transmedicalists).

Most recently, I took to Twitter to vent about it. And, not surprisingly, a lot of you weren’t super happy with me about it.

Your responses got me wondering if I could’ve done things a little differently. Because I’ll be honest — I don’t know that it ever occurred to me before then to speak to you directly.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m not angry or hurt. But I don’t hate you, as some of you suggested. I just really, really want you to stop hurting other trans people.

Based on your responses, though, I wonder if you even realize that you’re harming anyone. I think you’re caught up in some of your own pain, too, and that doesn’t make this conversation easy for anyone.

So I’m taking a deep breath and doing what I should’ve done in the first place — unpacking, very carefully, exactly what I’m struggling with. I’m going to explain as best I can why this “truscum” thing is upsetting for me as a trans person.

And I want to give you the benefit of the doubt, because even if you don’t see me as part of your community, I still believe that you’re part of mine.

Relentless optimist that I am, I like to think that someday trans folks might join hands around a campfire singing “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac (I swear this song is a transgender anthem — just a personal, unrelated opinion of mine).

But I’d be pleased if we were just nicer to each other as a whole.

This is the longest blog I’ve ever written by far (sorry in advance). But if you’re wondering if I’m coming from a genuine place? Rest assured, I wouldn’t expend this much energy if I didn’t care about this very deeply.

If you’re rolling your eyes about how exhaustingly long it is, you can also bookmark it at any point and come back to it. It’ll still be here. And I’m breaking it up with headers, so hopefully it’ll be easy to find your place again.

So why am I even talking to you in the first place? That’s a valid question.

To understand why, you’ll need to know a little bit of my history.

The first thing you need to know is that I work in digital media. It’s important to mention this upfront, because it’s my public work as a transgender writer that got the attention of transmedicalists in the first place.

Back in 2015, I started receiving emails and tweets from self-identified “truscum” for a blog that I wrote about how much I hated the word “transtrender.”

I didn’t believe that the stance I took was especially controversial — but it drew a lot of attention to me as a trans person, and led to some targeted harassment, which continued for a while throughout my career.

The fact that I hadn’t yet medically transitioned led these folks to start asking invasive questions about my body. They were barging into unrelated conversations on social media to tell folks I was an imposter, contacting my followers with conspiracy theories about my transition (I’d made it all up apparently), and otherwise trying to discredit my work.

And of course, I was misgendered. Just to add a little salt to the wound, I guess.

The reality is, at that point, I’d never said I didn’t want to medically transition. It was that I couldn’t.

Initially, in 2014, I’d had issues with my insurance because I’d moved across the country. After that, it was my mental health status that led clinicians to deny me access to transition-related care (if you’re curious about how this nightmare happens, I interviewed other trans folks with similar experiences, and I wrote about it here).

So while this harassment campaign was happening, I was privately struggling with dysphoria that I could do literally nothing about. You’d hope that other trans people would see this as a rallying cry to demand better access to care. But these folks didn’t.

Instead, transmedicalists told me my lack of medical interventions made me invalid.

In a word? It was traumatic. I felt betrayed by my own community; I thought if anyone was going to understand my struggle, it would be other trans people.

It didn’t stop when I finally accessed hormones, either. Instead, transmedicalists had decided I was lying about that. When I posted a photo of me holding my testosterone gel, they suggested it wasn’t my prescription, and then they decided that because I hadn’t had surgery, I still couldn’t be believed either way.

Never mind the fact that I was desperately trying to access care the entire time.

These were my very first experiences with “truscum.”

I’ll be honest — never in my wildest dreams did I think that the folks harassing me would be other transgender people.

And it wasn’t just me, either. I watched this happen many times to others as well, including some of the advocates that I deeply respect and young trans folks who had only recently come out.

So I’ll just be upfront and say… you all didn’t exactly make the best first impression.

And I know, I know. You might be thinking, “But that wasn’t ME! I didn’t harass you! What has this got to do with me?”

I understand why the generalization might bug you.

But when you tell someone that they have the ability to determine who is and isn’t transgender, some people will use that mentality to justify some really abhorrent behavior. Whether you’re passively advocating for that or actively doing so, the ultimate result is that people then feel emboldened to play “gender police.”

They feel emboldened to decide who is and isn’t “trans enough.” And that means people get hurt.

That’s the crux of the issue for me. Regardless of what you’re intending, people are getting hurt.

And I have yet to see folks who identify as transmedicalists acknowledge that this is happening, and that there are valid concerns here.

If you’re still with me here — and if you are, I appreciate it — I want to explain to you exactly why transmedicalism as a concept is so troubling to me, with the hopes you can better understand the pain that I’m talking about.

Not because I want to lecture you or that I think you’re incapable of googling this. It’s just that I recognize it’s possible that folks just didn’t take the time to unpack it in a way you could hear it, and instead they became reactive in a way that felt dehumanizing to you.

So let’s establish my starting place (or bias, whatever) here: It’s true that I don’t believe the presence of dysphoria is necessary to identify as transgender.

I understand that from the get-go, that can touch a few nerves. But I want to explain why I think that’s an important place to start from, regardless of how it makes either of us feel.

I stand by those points in part because I don’t think dysphoria is a helpful measure in the first place — which I’ll explain in a moment.

I don’t say this because I don’t understand the knee-jerk reaction that can happen when someone says they haven’t been dysphoric. Because yeah, dysphoria is painful. It sucks. When I got my first rejection while trying to access top surgery, I began abusing alcohol to cope — it was not a fun time for me. The pain nearly killed me.

I know it’s hard to imagine someone as trans when they don’t understand that kind of pain, especially when it’s a pain you’ve known acutely for a very long time. I’m with you there.

I’ve reacted that way before, too. I’m human. Sometimes my first reaction to something isn’t always my kindest one.

In a perfect world, we would have some reliable indicator or litmus test for helping folks to figure out if they were trans or not — some singular measurement that erases all doubt. As a fan of simplicity myself, I get the appeal.

But the reality isn’t so simple — many trans people suppress those feelings of dysphoria, or they misinterpret them and struggle to connect them to their gender.

This can make it impossible to discern — especially as an outsider — if dysphoria is present. Requiring dysphoria to identify as transgender, for that reason alone, has way too much room for error.

A personal example: I’ve actually experienced some level of dysphoria for my entire life… I just didn’t know initially what it was.

I don’t want to do a deep dive into my history here, but suffice to say, the background that I came from made it very difficult to question my own gender safely.

So I experienced dysphoria, instead, as feeling profoundly self-hating and “ugly” (I wrote about this previously in this article, if you’re wondering). No one else saw me as ugly or ever said I was, but it was a feeling I couldn’t shake. I felt like, no matter what I did, nothing made that feeling go away.

I just thought it was a stupid teenager thing. Except that “stupid teenager thing” didn’t go away and I became a self-hating, uncomfortable, gross-feeling adult.

If you had met me when I came out in 2012, you would’ve said that there was no freaking way I was transgender. I knew I was miserable and I knew I hated how I looked, but “dysphoria” wasn’t a part of my vocabulary yet. While it had always been there on some level, I didn’t have any way to interpret what it meant.

And this isn’t an uncommon experience, trust me. Plenty of trans people come out and are still learning how to describe their experiences. For those folks, it’s sometimes much, much later on that they realize there was some dysphoria happening for them. Sometimes the label comes first — and that’s valid.

I didn’t grasp how severe it was for me until after surgery. Only when my dysphoria was considerably diminished did I understand just how heavy it was to begin with.

It was a kind of misery I was accustomed to, to the point where I was the fish in the bowl that couldn’t really see the water. You know what I mean? But now that I’m post-op, it’s like I’ve experienced a kind of joy and ease that I didn’t know was possible.

There’s also folks for whom their feelings of dysphoria progressively appear or worsen overtime.

I think of this as a kind of “hibernation.” People suppress all kinds of emotions, and dysphoric ones aren’t some magical exception. But as they start to experiment with language, and explore their identity and expression, those feelings start to surface. As the outside world begins to reject them, that can trigger those feelings they’ve managed to push down as well.

Some people also experience dysphoria only in the form of dissociation, or a state of unreality, numbness, or disconnection. They might not connect this to their gender at all, because it’s not an emotional state they can necessarily identify so quickly in the first place.

For trans people with other mental health challenges, trauma and mental illness might interfere with their understanding of their gender, and dysphoria becomes attributed to other causes (I also wrote about that here).

In other words, our brains work extra hard to try to protect us, which can make self-perception as a trans person a little wonky.

That’s what brains do with any kind of trauma. And this can show up as a total break from our own sense of dysphoric feelings, or misunderstanding the source or nature of those feelings. It’s more common than you’d think.

So when a trans person says they don’t experience dysphoria? It might be their truth at that particular stage in transition. But that doesn’t mean it always will be. Those feelings could surface in the future, become better understood and recognized overtime, or progressively appear as it becomes safer to process them.

But if we accuse trans folks of being imposters from the start, we might closet them before they ever figure any of that out.

So for me? One of the big problems with transmedicalism as a concept is its potential for “friendly fire.” When you use dysphoria as this “infallible” meter stick, you actually end up excluding a lot of trans people who are traumatized or vulnerable, and arguably most in need of support, especially if they’re emerging from denial or dissociation.

Transmedicalists are more likely to harm someone who is trans than successfully cast out an “imposter.” Because in actuality, more of us are traumatized than faking it.

When I first came out, I said that I didn’t want hormones and I wasn’t sure I wanted surgery. I am definitely the kind of “transtrender” that you would’ve rallied against (and, well, you did for a while).

Looking back, I have to laugh out loud. I can’t imagine not having medically transitioned.

With proper mental health care and, yes, incredible community support, I was able to get to a place where I could identify this resistance as a fear of rejection by society and my family especially. I was in deep denial because I was afraid of what would happen if I transitioned.

I didn’t want to lose my family. So instead, I lost myself. It took a long time (and a lot of support) to really come to terms with that.

That’s the thing, though: I needed space, support, time, and compassion to be able to figure out my path.

As of 2018, I’ve been on testosterone for a few years now, which drastically improved my life and my mental health. And I’ve had top surgery, which was the single best decision I’ve ever made. I am so much healthier and happier now.

But when you use a singular measure like dysphoria to decide if someone is worthy of those things, you run the risk of doing a lot of harm to folks who aren’t “faking” anything — folks like me who needed to process things before they could make the right choice.

And there are plenty of reasons why medical transition isn’t an easy decision, too.

Some people can’t access it for financial reasons or are denied access by clinicians. Some folks have chronic illnesses that would make medical transition risky or undesirable. Some folks might consider it safer to remain closeted. Some folks are in abusive environments where they can’t even begin to contemplate something like this.

And for some folks, right here and right now? They just don’t want to or aren’t ready to.

Maybe they’re questioning, maybe they’re afraid, maybe they’re overwhelmed, or maybe they’re just fucking tired. That could change and that may not… but it’s not up to us.

It’s not our business why and it’s definitely not our place to interrogate them, especially because we run the risk of doing serious harm for folks who might be going through some shit — shit that maybe they don’t even understand yet and can’t articulate.

You just. Never. Know.

It’s kind of like that quote, about how everyone is fighting their own battle. Even if it’s a battle you can’t see — because with trans folks especially, it’s the battles we can’t see that most often define our experiences.

So listen, I’ll give you this: Some disagreement over how we define “transgender” is bound to happen. It’s not the disagreement part that I necessarily take issue with.

It’s miraculous (and incredibly rare) that anyone agrees unanimously about anything. There are some people, for example, who don’t like Nutella, and that I will literally never understand. The difference here is that when someone tells me they don’t like Nutella, no one is actually being harmed in the process.

I acknowledge that there are going to be growing pains for our community, and I think this is part of that. These aren’t the first pains, and they won’t be the last. Historically, in every community ever, there have been divisions and disputes.

What I’m questioning here isn’t the definition of transgender. It’s what actually happens in the real world when we rely on your definition specifically.

Using dysphoria or medical transition as the way to define transness results in gatekeeping — and gatekeeping doesn’t work, because it’s too easy to get it wrong. And when we get it wrong? Trans people get hurt. Period.

The people who end up hurt most often (like, overwhelmingly so) aren’t actually faking anything and just wouldn’t benefit from doing so.

I was one of those trans people when transmedicalists harassed me in 2015. I was struggling to identify and understand my own dysphoria. I was being denied access to gender-affirming care by clinicians. I was struggling with PTSD and mental illness.

It was a battle you couldn’t see, and instead of offering empathy, I was harmed by folks who should’ve stood by me.

Are there trans people who haven’t experienced dysphoria and never, ever will? There could be.

Regardless of what you think, I’m not convinced that the existence of trans folks who don’t presently experience dysphoria is justification for disbelieving people who come out of the closet.

Those folks might want to access transition-related care in the future anyway, because it could make them happier or healthier. They might uncover that they have been dysphoric as they learn more and gain more hindsight.

Which means that either way you slice it, you can’t know for sure if someone is transgender or isn’t, even by your own definition — because people change and grow all the time.

Otherwise, I apparently wasn’t transgender in 2012 but I was in 2014. I wasn’t transgender when I was too traumatized to grasp it, but I was when I was able to access and process my emotions. Which… doesn’t make any sense.

Personally? I think gender identity is a diverse and complex thing — which to me is pretty exciting — but we might never agree there, I realize.

But you don’t have to understand their experience to respect their process.

Folks need to be able to explore their gender identity without hostility, because we simply don’t know their internal reality and we never will. The paradoxical reality is that the more fiercely you try to keep “outsiders” out of the trans community, the more likely you are to hurt trans people.

It’s not effective. It’s not helpful. It serves no other purpose than to hurt people.

So if someone says they’re transgender? You should believe them (or at least leave them alone, okay?), no matter how you choose to define “transgender” at the end of the day. The risk of driving a trans person deeper into the closet is simply too great.

It’s far more important to make sure that anyone who is questioning their gender has options and support, and that those options are protected no matter what, than trying to suss out who does or doesn’t “belong.”

So the moment they say “I’m transgender,” I congratulate them and I move on. What the hell do I know? That’s between them, their support network, their therapist, and whoever else they choose to involve.

Otherwise, there’s too good a chance that a transgender person who needs support will be denied it, just because of a misguided assumption about how they’re presenting in a particular moment.

We already get that from cis people constantly. Let’s not be like them, okay?

That’s why, when I define transgender as “identifying as a gender other than the one you were assigned at birth,” I do so with very intentional openness.

I want to be inclusive of folks who are questioning, and I want to give folks permission to evolve or change their minds, because that’s the only way to ensure that trans people can make the choices that are best for them.

The reality is, very few trans people emerge from the womb with an immediate and full understanding of their identity.

But people don’t make awesome choices when they’re being shouted at or put on the defense. Or in my case, harassed. Transitioning within a community that feels like a pressure cooker, demanding a particular kind of conformity, is never going to lead to the best possible outcomes.

And honestly? Asking trans people to put the horse before the cart — to know what they need and who they are before they can entertain a label — isn’t how a lot of folks actually operate.

The label is often what connects folks to more information, support, and self-discovery. It helps them uncover what they’ve suppressed and who they might become. So being possessive over the label actually winds up failing a lot of folks in the community, because they need the language before they can find a framework to operate from.

I want to say, too, that I understand it might be hard to let go of that impulse to judge.

When we identify with our struggles, it can feel insulting when someone who hasn’t struggled in the same exact way takes on a label that has so much meaning to us — a label that you feel you’ve earned, while others seem to just be sauntering right up and grabbing it.

Even so, I think we need to all agree — at the very, very least — that this is much more complicated than simply walking up to a label and dropping it into your identity shopping cart.

We’re talking about psychology, culture, language, trauma, biology, intimacy, sexuality, even spirituality — what aspect of the human experience is gender NOT touching on? And that’s ultimately why I think reductionist definitions fail us as a community.

Gender is messy and abstract. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be debating it literally all the damn time. The very fact that we don’t agree on this is simply proof that this is a complex thing we’re dealing with here.

And for that reason alone, I recognize that we will probably never agree 100% on what it means to be transgender. But I don’t think we have to — we just need to agree on how to treat one another.

You know, with respect.

So what do we do, then? For me, I’m just trying to do the least amount of harm. I’m asking you to consider doing the same.

There are so many different paths that people take to arrive at an understanding of themselves.

But if we close the door too swiftly on people who aren’t exactly like us, we run the risk of shutting the door on someone who needs us — someone with whom we might share a lot more in common with than we’d expect.

Personally, I don’t think people choose to be trans in a world that isn’t terribly kind towards trans people. And even if they did put on some kind of weird act, I’ve accepted that I can never know that for sure, nor can I really do anything about it.

But I can be kind and gracious with the hopes that, wherever folks end up, they find the path that’s right for them. Extending that kindness to them doesn’t harm me in any way, shape, or form.

At the end of the day, it’s more important (to me, anyway) to create a community that allows trans folks to thrive. Gatekeeping doesn’t allow for that — it makes us suspicious of each other, callous, and combative.

If we want trans people to be able to come out, we have to make our community a safe enough place for them to do so.

When I came out in 2012, I had so many incredible trans folks to look to, and I owe so much of my happiness and health to them now. If I hadn’t had their support, I would still be closeted, if I’d even be alive today.

Every person deserves the chance to question their gender and explore it freely, without pressure, harassment, or gaslighting. This isn’t just a “be nice” issue — this is about the mental health and resilience of this community.

And I so badly want to believe that the majority of transmedicalists don’t actually approve of the harassment that folks like me have experienced, and don’t want to see what happened to me happen to anyone else.

I want to believe that if they knew the full story and really thought it through, they would’ve been there for me, as a trans person who knows how hard it is to be trans.

But the only way to guarantee that we aren’t caught in the snares of gatekeeping, and harming one another, is if we end this culture of interrogation altogether.

When in doubt, we need to do the kind thing instead, and let people live. You may not understand where they are in their journey right now, but they deserve the freedom and dignity to walk that path and see where it leads them. They deserve all the time and space they need to figure it out.

They may or may not continue on that path — but it’s not for us to decide.

I’ve given you all the benefit of the doubt here, because I believe every one of us deserves it.

Will you please extend the same to other folks in this community?

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People-pleasers can be drawn to toxic relationships. It’s important to know why.

I’ve learned in life that when you observe a pattern about yourself, it might be worth examining (okay, this is an understatement — I can pretty much guarantee you that you’ll come out wiser).

One of my big “aha” moments this year was around a relationship pattern that I hadn’t noticed before. I realized that I’m a people-pleaser.

Being liked by others, especially in my personal life, came at the expense of voicing my true feelings and needs. It was more important to be liked than it was to have relationships that felt honest and nourishing.

And it’s a lonely place to be — it can feel like no one knows your true feelings or self, and that you are secondary in relationships that should feel equal. Unsurprisingly, this can lead to a hell of a lot of resentment.

And thus… a pattern emerged.

My favorite kind of person to love was someone I had to chase — the kind of emotional inaccessibility that, in my mind, was a love I had to “work for.”

I didn’t like love if it felt easy. I didn’t like love if it was readily given to me. The love and affection that I valued the most came from people who were withholding, because my self-worth was defined by “earning” love, rather than feeling inherently worthy of it from the start.

Is this sounding familiar?

The flipside of this, of course, is that I was quick to avoid people who immediately cared for me, and who offered their love freely and readily. I was more likely to run from someone genuinely caring than I was from someone who treated me poorly.

I avoided the people who gave me the kind of love I wanted, because it scared me, and I was sure that I would disappoint them with time. I thought they must be mistaken — I hadn’t yet done anything “worthwhile,” and so I was reluctant to believe them when they told me that they cared. It didn’t feel deserved.

So instead, I threw myself at the people who were inconsistent or withdrawn, because I found their distance to be safer, more believable, and in some ways, more fulfilling. Each time they finally reciprocated, it felt like a special kind of reward, reserved especially for me.

But that pursuit of approval meant a lot of the relationships I invested in were also toxic by my own design.

I was more concerned with approval than honesty. I was quick to “mirror” — saying what I believed I “should” say, deferring to someone else’s opinion even if I didn’t share it, and avoided being disliked at all costs, even if the end result was being disingenuous.

I would rearrange myself for a person if it meant these distant, withholding people might love me back. I’ve done this all of my life — and at times, it’s made me pretty miserable.

I became someone I disliked a lot of the time, but for a while, it was easy to overlook this as long as I had some special person’s approval or praise. My opinion of myself didn’t matter as much as the opinions of other people — and the more emotionally unavailable and authoritative I perceived them as being, the more their opinions seemed to matter.

For years, I didn’t even consciously realize that I was doing this.

The unnerving thing is that people-pleasers, because they so often defer and try to appease, can often attract very controlling people.

This actually makes sense if you think about it.

Someone who always wants to “win” will obviously enjoy (and even exploit) the company of someone who always lets them.

People-pleasers are more than eager to offer someone whatever it is they want — praise, attention, investment — to feel valued, while controlling folks thrive from the safety they feel from being able to offer or revoke their affection at any time.

That, in turn, creates a power dynamic. The people-pleaser is trying endlessly to earn “love” to sustain the feeling of worthiness, while the controlling person decides whether or not to offer that to them in return.

They can withdraw their approval at any time. This means they can choose when to be pursued to regain a sense of control, simply by giving or withholding love. This can be used in manipulative ways.

And often times, neither party involved actually realizes what’s happening. They’re both just pursuing what makes them feel safe. The people-pleaser is pursuing approval, and the controller is seeking, well, control.

As it turns out, this is a documented phenomenon — psychologist Shirley Vandersteen actually writes about the pleaser/controller relationship archetype at length. If you’re a people-pleaser like me, it might sound more than a little familiar.

Reading this, I was pretty convinced that Vandersteen must’ve met all of the ex-boyfriends I’ve had since age fifteen. Yikes.

The thing that’s important to remember, as Vandersteen explains, is that both people-pleasing and controlling can come from family of origin trauma.

I would take that a step further, too. I know many queer and trans people who were so fearful of rejection, they took up people-pleasing as a survival strategy, simply to cope with that fear. This is especially true of queer femmes, who are already conditioned to appease and offer emotional labor in this unreciprocal way.

If you internalized any kind of homophobic or transphobic self-concept, you might’ve found yourself overcompensating in other ways. If the world wasn’t going to accept your identity, you might’ve strived to be acceptable or even perfect in any other capacity that you could be. This offers an illusion of self-protection (the logic here being something like, “if I’m ‘good enough,’ maybe they’ll still accept me”).

The problem is, if this mentality goes unchecked, you’re likely to chase after a kind of love that just isn’t healthy or sustainable because it’s all you really know to do. You’ll be reenacting that trauma indefinitely until you learn to interrupt it.

At least, I was. The only kind of love I knew how to pursue or accept was one in which love and investment was currency — a kind of currency I had to work for, a reward for proper or desirable behavior. But this meant that I was rarely honest about my feelings, my needs, or my desires.

People-pleasers wind up giving up their autonomy in the process, too.

The pursuit of being “good enough” means that the other person holds all the cards — making your self-worth, security, and support entirely reliant on how that person feels on any given day. It’s not reciprocal. And more than likely, it doesn’t feel so great, either.

Worse yet, it opens us up for a type of abuse that is very difficult to step away from. The second a carrot of affection is dangled in front of us, the approval can be alluring enough to get us back on the hamster wheel again, and again, and again, without recognizing the true toll that it takes.

Even if that means getting hurt or never receiving the kind of love we actually want in our lives, the chase sustains the illusion that we might someday have it if we just try hard enough. It’s a comforting thought, but this is rarely (if ever) the case, because the people we’re chasing after are often the least likely to give us the love we’re actually looking for.

Here’s my advice: If any of this rings true for you, it’s time to get honest about it.

At the beginning of this year, working with a trauma-informed therapist (who is just fabulous) meant that I took a long, hard look at the ways in which I approached love and intimacy. And if you couldn’t tell from what I’ve written here… I uncovered some shit. Some really alarming, scary shit.

There’s no magical step-by-step guide that will help every individual person with these tendencies (everyone’s journey is unique — especially when it comes to trauma).

But I can share from personal experience what’s helped me. I’ll even condense it into nice bullet points, just to get you started:

  • Seek out trauma-informed care. I’m a broken record here on this blog, but therapy can be, well, therapeutic. I’ve actually found online therapy to be incredible in this regard. I am less concerned about my therapist on the other end because of the distance between us — so I’m actually more honest. I wrote about my experiences with online therapy here, if you’re interested.
  • Read up about complex trauma, especially related to families of origin. Pete Walker has written at length on this subject. His book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving To Thriving is an incredible resource, and I consider it to be one of the most important books ever written on this subject. If you’re not sure if you are “traumatized enough,” I wrote about that in this advice column. Self-knowledge really is power.
  • Approach your relationships mindfully. Sometimes we become so concerned about how others feel, we lose all awareness around how a particular relationship makes us feel. If you suspect that you struggle with people-pleasing, pay particular attention to how you feel after your interactions with the people you’re close to. Spoiler alert: You shouldn’t feel worse.
  • Look for the signs. Red flags can include feeling like a relationship is one-sided, feeling powerless, or even controlled. You might feel lonely, as if you can never say “no” or voice how you truly feel. You may notice that you’re rarely the person making decisions, that you’re a doormat, or that you cave more easily than others. You might even feel resentful, as though you aren’t getting what you want but it’s too frightening to ask. Guilt and self-blame can be really common, too, because we often attribute a relationship’s failures to our own shortcomings.
  • Take it a day at a time. Practice saying “no.” Practice vocalizing what you want or need. Validate that it’s okay to say things like, “I disagree,” “I wish I could help, but I can’t,” and “this isn’t working for me.” Take note of those moments when you say something for someone else’s benefit or happiness rather than how you truly feel. And above all else, be compassionate with yourself.
  • Stop avoiding the people who are generous with their love — even when it’s scary and even if you feel you don’t deserve it. For me personally, the biggest change I had to make was investing more in the relationships with people who didn’t hesitate to offer love and encouragement to me. I stopped avoiding their texts. I took them up on their invitations. I kept reaching out, even when it scared me. My life continues to get better and better, simply by inviting these folks into my life.
  • Take accountability. Realize that your relationships can only grow if you choose to be authentic. Recognize the ways in which you might reinforce unhealthy dynamics when you aren’t honest about your feelings. Exempting abuse, we can rob a relationship of its full potential if we aren’t being accountable for how we show up.

People-pleasing is often a survival strategy, and an understandable one at that. Thankfully, it’s one we can learn to push back on.

I genuinely believe that just recognizing these patterns in our lives can help us break out of them. And while it can be a painful process, I can honestly say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.

Each and every one of us deserves healthy, affirming, and reciprocal love. And if you haven’t heard this recently, I’d like to remind you that you’re already worthy, exactly as you are. Don’t let anyone — past or present — convince you otherwise.

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