If I’m a Stranger Now, I Will Be a Stranger Forever (Reflections on Testosterone)

A cursive lettered tattoo that reads,

My favorite tattoo and my simplest one, too. A reminder.

I was at a poetry reading when an older butch woman sat down next to me and started to talk to me about her experiences in the lesbian communities of San Francisco.

Typical Bay Area. Queers chatting up queers. And for a little while, it was just an ordinary conversation for two gays in the Bay.

But then I looked at her. I mean, really looked at her. I saw the creases in the corners of her eyes, the years settling into her smile, her pixie cut graying.

“I wonder who I’ll be when I’m her age,” I innocently thought to myself. “I wonder how I’ll look…”

That’s when I panicked. I faked an important text message, pretending that some urgent situation had suddenly arisen. I picked up my things, said a hurried goodbye, and took a long, solitary walk on a hiking trail nearby.

It wasn’t getting older that scared me, per se, but the thought that I might spend the rest of my life being seen as a woman, as something I was not. It was the idea that I would be trapped in a body that felt alien to me well into old age, and with it, bearing a lifetime of misgendering, dysphoria, and invisibility.

I had a tendency to only think of my life in terms of the here and now – something of a survival skill I’d perfected after years of living with bipolar disorder.

But the thought that I would endure this kind of pain for life, the pain of being alien to oneself and misgendered by everyone else, made me realize that my transition wasn’t just about the here and now.

I could survive in this body today, but what about five years from now? Ten years from now? Twenty?

Could I really do that? When I reach the end of the line, counting down the days in my old age, when I look in the mirror, who do I want to see staring back at me?

And while I could nurse my wounds each time I heard “she,” and I could pick myself up when my dysphoria knocked me down, and I could swallow my pain and shelve it for a more convenient time, it finally occurred to me that it was not something I could keep doing for the rest of my life.

Today, maybe. Tomorrow, maybe. But all the tomorrows to come, all of the days I have left?

As adamant as I was about staying put, fear shackling me in place, I’d forgotten how the world still moves forward, with or without me.

And it was there in the woods, the smell of eucalyptus hanging in the air around me and my heart pounding through my bound chest, that I promised myself that I would put the gears into motion.

I promised myself I would get on testosterone.

/

Transition is not always simple, and not always certain.

Sometimes transition is guesswork – discarding what you are not to get closer and closer to what you are. Sometimes transition is not precise, just in the way that the beautiful pictures in our minds are never quite as beautiful when we manifest them on the page.

Being non-binary, neither a man nor a woman, is something like that. It’s knowing what I am not, and creating new spaces, new expressions, new ways of being to get closer to what I am.

I avoided testosterone for a long time. I thought, “Why should I have to choose? Can’t I just be?” It took years before I understood that not taking testosterone was just as much a choice.

There is risk in not acting. There is risk in staying the same.

Just because it isn’t precise, that doesn’t make the endeavor less worthwhile.

So I take another step. I throw another dart with the hopes it’ll strike near the target. I pick up the brush and let it kiss the canvas.

Gender has always been intangible. And when dealing with the intangible, we use what tools we have to articulate our truth – the closest approximation.

/

This September, I am starting testosterone.

I know, I know. I’m genderqueer. “If you’re not a man and you’re not a woman, what’s the difference?” they might ask. “Why do this?”

Because standing still and wishing away the pain will not douse the fire.

Because if I’m a stranger now, I will be a stranger forever.

Because all I can do is stumble my way through and hope that, on the other side of this, there is a reflection staring back that no longer scares me.

Because they will not bury me with breasts. Because they will not bury me under a false name like they did to Leelah. Because they will not mistake me for a woman at my funeral. Because they will not bury me in someone else’s body when I die.

Because of all the tomorrows that are coming.

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Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik (http://www.jessicakrcmarik.com)

How Did You Know You Were Non-Binary?

Header illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

I was watching an episode of Bones, oddly enough, when I first realized that I might be transgender.

No, I’m not kidding. I wish it were a more exciting story, but I have to be honest. I was just sitting on my couch, watching television, when the light bulb began to flicker.

In this particular episode, there was a distinguished anthropologist who had joined the team temporarily to help solve a case. I remember, vividly, the first moment that I saw this anthropologist on screen. They were androgynous — visibly outside the binary, sending the other characters into a complete panic as they tripped over pronouns and social conventions.

My heart raced throughout the entire episode. I don’t remember the murder, much less who the culprit was, but I do recall how captivated I felt by this character and their androgyny.

And then there was a thought that bubbled to the surface, one that changed my life.

“I want to be them.”

I wanted to be this person. Desperately. No, not an accomplished scientist, though that would be cool. I wanted to be androgynous and have everything that I imagined went with it.

I thought about how I might achieve that androgynous look, to confuse others and exist beyond categorization. But more than that, I wanted the freedom I felt they had — the freedom to be who they were without others forcing a label onto them.

Maybe I felt this way because, for a long time, I could feel so many gendered assumptions being forced onto me.

“Woman” had always felt like a filter that reduced me somehow, like it diluted me or masked me. I felt like an outsider to it, like it was a story I was told but never believed with any certainty. I had been wrestling with my gender, trying to fit in or at least coexist with it, but instead I came up empty and I didn’t know why.

I didn’t know at that time who or what I was. But I had a sense of what I was not. And I had known, for a long time, that I was not what people told me I was. I felt lonely and misunderstood without the words to express why. There was something about being perceived as a girl, and then as a woman, that made me feel alienated.

The image features the author, Sam, looking down contemplatively. I often wished that these labels didn’t exist at all; being called a woman was like being backed into a corner I couldn’t get out of, and the sense that I was trapped was, at times, suffocating.

I took baby steps at first. I cut off my hair and immediately felt a weight lifted. I stopped wearing makeup. And I started reading up about androgyny, contemplating my next move. And then something amazing happened — I met someone like me.

I met Ray, a genderqueer classmate who, much like the character in Bones, was spectacularly androgynous. And again, I could feel my heart bursting at the seams. I was envious, too, of how they seemed to blur so many boundaries. I thought of how liberating it must feel. I thought of how much I wanted to be rid of the labels that made me feel so uncomfortable.

Ray gave me resources, guidance, support, and yes, the language that I needed to begin to describe how I felt. I finally understood. I was drawn to androgyny — people like the doctor on Bones, Ray, and other queer people that I met not long after — not because of how they looked, but because my assigned gender itself was making me unhappy.

I realized that I wasn’t a woman because I knew, on an intrinsic level, that this did not align with how I experienced my gender and myself.

The discomfort with parts of my body and how I was seen, the deep longing for escape, the sense that I didn’t belong, the inexplicable sense that I was misunderstood, the painful desire to be “something else” but not knowing what that was, and finally, the uncontainable excitement that I felt each time I met someone who was visibly androgynous made me realize that I felt this way because my gender was something other than what I had been told.

Maybe I had other options. Maybe, instead of calling myself a woman, I could embrace this androgynous space that I felt so at home in.

I was transgender, and at age 19, I finally understood.

I knew that this angst around being seen as a woman, and my fantasies about “escaping” my assigned gender, meant that something was not aligning with how others saw me and how I really saw myself.

It’s hard to explain how we know our own gender. It’s often just a sense of who we are, filtered through culture and the words we have available to us. We know, with tragic cases like that of David Reimer, the existence of third and even fourth genders around the world, and the countless stories and experiences of transgender people, that gender is more than just anatomy.

But with something so intangible, it can be difficult to express who we are. When the language around gender is still evolving, we are limited in what we can say. It’s approximations, it’s our best guess, it’s prodding at the unknown.

So here’s what I know: Each step I took towards the gray — the in-between, the neither here nor there — made me feel more comfortable, more at home, more whole. And calling myself genderqueer has been perhaps the most honest thing I’ve ever said.

Identifying as non-binary was my way of saying to the world, “I know what I am not. And I am on a journey to discover what I am.”

I am still on that journey. And the excitement I felt when I saw that androgynous scientist for the first time is now the excitement I get to feel each day, when I get closer and closer to articulating what it is I feel and who it is I want to be.

There is a conviction I cannot shake, one that urges me forward, a certainty in my bones that tells me that who I am exists beyond this binary. A binary that, no, cannot contain me and no, was never meant to.

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The Elephant in the Room: Your Questions About My Gender and Transition, Answered

cheeeeeese

Photography by dana at the outlaws photo project

[The photo features the author, Sam Dylan Finch, standing near a lake. He is a white, androgynous person with dark-rimmed glasses and a colorful, knitted sweater. He is smiling and looking off toward something in the distance.]
  

IMPORTANT NOTE (2/1/2016): I answered these questions over a year ago now. Time sure does fly! My sense of my own gender is constantly shifting. The answers here may no longer reflect how I describe or perceive my identity. Check out this updated version to read my most recent answers to these questions!

 

I write a lot about my identity as transgender. And thus far, it has created some thoughtful, interesting dialogue around gender and transitioning.

However, there was never much of a “coming out” to my readers. To this day, I receive a lot of questions about how I identify, what it means, and how I arrived where I am now. These are great questions! And leaving them unanswered has, at times, felt like an elephant in the room.

So today I wanted to pause and take a moment to answer some frequently asked questions about my gender and my transition. Hopefully this helps readers better understand my perspective and my journey as I write more about trans issues in the future.

It’s important to know that you aren’t entitled to any information about someone’s transition, body, or gender identity. Remember that other trans people may not be comfortable answering the questions that I have chosen to answer here.

Ready? Let’s go! Here are some of your questions:
    

What is your gender? What pronouns do you use?

I identify as transmasculine and genderqueer (defined below, don’t fret!). You can also describe me as androgynous.

My pronouns are he/him/his.

 

What does genderqueer mean to you?

Genderqueer most commonly refers to a person who does not identify as strictly man or woman, but rather, identifies as both, neither, or some combination.

At my core, I am an androgynous person; I don’t feel that I fit in any kind of gender box. I’m not a man, and I’m not a woman.

I use the word “genderqueer” to describe my gender identity.

   

What does transmasculine mean to you?

If we imagine a spectrum of sorts, I express my gender in a more masculine way than I do a feminine way. Masculinity and femininity are subjective terms that describe the way that we “perform” gender, and can be useful markers in helping us figure out our own sense of gender.

A person of any gender can take on qualities or an appearance that is more closely associated with masculinity or femininity.

While I don’t identify as a man, I still express my gender in a way that is considered more masculine, thus I use the word “transmasculine” instead of “trans man.”

I typically use the word transmasculine to describe my gender expression.

 

What is the difference between gender identity and gender expression?

Gender identity refers to someone’s sense of themselves, their subjective experience of their own gender. Simply put, it’s what’s on the inside. It’s who we know ourselves to be.

Gender expression refers to how someone performs or presents gender. This is what we see on the outside. It’s our costume, our performance, our exterior – and it may or may not reflect something about our identity.

On the inside, at my core, I am an androgynous, genderqueer person. On the outside, I express my gender in a more masculine way through my choice of clothing, haircuts, and body modifications.

 

So how can someone be “non-binary”? I thought there were only two genders.

Actually, the idea that there are only two genders is pretty flawed and outdated.

Many cultures in our world recognize more than two genders. The idea of binary gender, or two genders that are contingent upon anatomy, is a pretty Western phenomenon.

Even anatomy itself is not binary, as is the case with intersex people. Sex characteristics are variant and diverse, and the lines between “male” and “female” are very blurry and arbitrarily assigned.

The point is, there could really be as many genders as there are people, depending on how you look at it. The idea that there are only two is something we as a society uphold, but that doesn’t mean it is an objective fact – just a cultural phenomenon.

As it turns out, many people like myself experience their gender outside of those parameters, which is evidence that perhaps this binary system isn’t so perfect after all. The binary system leaves a lot to be desired.

I love this video over at Sexplanations about gender that I think is helpful if you’re interested in this topic.

 

How did you know you were transgender?

I realized after a while that I dressed and behaved in ways that were “feminine” because I gained social approval that way. People complimented me when I wore a dress. Folks fawned over my stylish makeup and shoes. I performed femininity because everywhere I turned, I was given praise for being “good” at femininity.

When I took a gender studies class in college, this performance began to unravel. I realized how much of what I was doing was because I craved the affirmation I received when I was the woman I was expected to be. I realized how I’d been inundated with so many expectations and ideals – the expectation to be beautiful, to be thin, to be soft, to be curvaceous, to be… a woman, whatever that meant.

I’ve always said that “woman” was a label I was given, but never a label that I chose. When I started to understand the ways that “woman” didn’t fit or make me happy, I learned about what “transgender” meant. And I owed it to myself to explore if that could be true for me.

This was back in 2010.

Around the same time, I saw a character on television that was androgynous, and I fell in love with the idea of “becoming” that. Though I didn’t have the words “transmasculine” or “genderqueer” yet, I started to wonder if I would be happier as an androgynous person. It had never occurred to me to try it until I saw someone else living it.

Over the course of the last five years, I’ve transitioned toward queerness and androgyny. I cut off my hair, began binding my breasts, changed my name, got some tattoos, opted for new pronouns, acquired some prosthetics, and began living full-time as genderqueer.

Most importantly, I stopped allowing gendered expectations and roles to colonize my mind. Instead of seeking the approval of others by conforming to my assigned gender, I carved out my own vision for who I wanted to become. And it has been incredibly rewarding, exciting, and fulfilling.

 

When did you come out, and what were the reactions you received?

I’ve had mixed reactions. Some friends were supportive – a great many of them, in fact – but some were resistant or hesitant.

I came out to my mother only recently, and she seemed unsurprised. I’m fairly sure neither of my parents were surprised for various reasons. I’m still in the process of coming out to most of my family, but I’m taking it at my own pace.

    

Does your family know about your writing?

They do, and they’re supportive. However, I’ve set the boundary that we don’t discuss my articles unless I bring them up. This takes the pressure off of me – I can write honestly without worrying about what they will say.

 

How has your transition been so far?

Beautiful. Heart-wrenching. Confusing. Worthwhile. Painful. Inspiring. And exactly what I needed.

 

Are you taking testosterone? Do you plan to?

I am not sure if I want to transition hormonally. It’s not a decision I feel ready to make. I am comfortable saying that I don’t have all the answers and I don’t know where my transition will take me. I am taking my time. It’s not a race.

 

So what’s in your pants? And will that change?

That’s not really anyone’s business.

    

Have you always known that you were transgender?

I didn’t. I didn’t have any clue until my late teens. Being trans is different for everyone, and we don’t all share the typical narrative of “I was born into the wrong body and I knew it from the time I was a toddler.” There’s nothing wrong with that narrative, but it sometimes overshadows the realities of many other trans folks who don’t figure things out until later in life.

For me, being trans was like… this sounds silly, but kind of like cooking? I tried new gender expressions until I found something that I loved. I tasted femininity, and masculinity, and androgyny, and I mixed things together until I found the perfect recipe for my happiness. I didn’t know what I was missing before, but now, I can’t imagine my life without my transition.

I think it’s possible that I might have gone on living my life as a cisgender woman if I hadn’t gone to college, and maybe I would have been okay. But it would never have compared to the happiness I found when I transitioned. It doesn’t matter if I figured this out at age 4 or age 18 – it’s still who I am, regardless of how soon or in what ways I arrived at that truth.

 

If you aren’t a man or a woman, what is your sexual orientation?

I think “pansexual” is the closest approximation I have. I’m attracted to all sorts of people, and gender is not a deciding factor for whether or not I’ll date someone.

    

What has been the hardest part of being trans?

Being hated by complete and total strangers simply because I don’t conform to their idea of what I should look like. The constant fear that I’ll be attacked or harassed for looking “too queer.” And the constant anxiety that I’ll be rejected by people I love because they don’t understand or don’t approve of who I’ve become.

Maybe even more difficult than that is grappling with internalized transphobia – these really pervasive, negative attitudes about trans folks that really impact the way that I perceive and treat myself. It’s insidious, it’s hard to describe, but it’s present and something that I’m still working to undo, even now.

    

Did I answer all of your questions!?

If you have other questions that aren’t answered here, feel free to [respectfully] ask them in the comments below! I will do my best to answer as many as I can.

 

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More than Just Ink: How Tattoos Were a Vital Part of My Gender Transition

newtattooilo

Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.


[The image features an androgynous person with light brown skin, flexing their bicep in a powerful pose. Their body has numerous tattoos, some geometric and others floral. They are wearing a chest binder.]

When I was younger, I never anticipated being the kind of person with tattoos. I have the pain tolerance of a goldfish, and I’m not exactly edgy or hip. I used to think that tattoos were reserved for rough and tough, leather-donning rock stars – which, if you couldn’t tell, I didn’t exactly fit the bill.

Yet today, I can’t imagine my body without tattoos.

I didn’t get my first tattoo until I was 21, only a few short months after I got my first chest binder. I don’t think that is a coincidence, however; my tattoos were not a random decision, but rather, born out of a need to reclaim ownership of my body.


I felt as if I only knew my body on someone else’s terms.
I had been told what a “good body” looked like. I had been told what a “woman’s body” looked like. I only knew my body in light of society’s interpretations. And that pressure to conform made me feel empty, confused, and alone.

I knew what society wanted from me. But what did I want?

At first, I didn’t know that I had a choice. But as I reached my early twenties, it became apparent that the emptiness I felt wasn’t going away. “Woman” was a label I was given, but it was never a label that I chose. I didn’t know what the alternative was, but I knew that something had to give.

It wasn’t long after that I embarked on my transition. And as I progressed, my desire to be inked grew. I fantasized about the tattoos I would have, where I would place them, and what they would mean to me.

Exerting control over my body and making it my own was a central part of not only transitioning, but tattooing as well. A tattoo became as much a necessity for me as a chest binder or masculine pronouns.

Having some sense of mastery over my own body was much-needed after years of policing from others. I could still recall the pain of being told by an ex-partner that transitioning would make me ugly and unattractive to him; being told by family that short hair would be the worst mistake I could make; insistence from others that tattoos would ruin me. With every choice I made, it was implied that I was now damaged goods, a less valuable commodity when I dared to step outside of stereotypical “womanhood” and pursue my freedom of gender expression.

I started to question who my body really belonged to.

In spite of the backlash, I pushed forward. Because my body did not exist for other people to objectify, ridicule, or appraise. The value of my body was not about to be measured by somebody else.

When I finally got my first tattoo, I felt a kind of high that I didn’t think was possible.

For too long, it felt like society had created this barrier between my body and myself – telling me what a “good” body looked like, what I should strive to become, and all of the ways that my body was not enough as it was.

I spent hours, bottle in hand, tipping it back and wondering if my body was just a mistake. I had bruised knuckles from punching a reflection that I thought I wasn’t meant to have. I spent my showers looking at the tile on the wall, straight ahead, afraid of what I would feel if I looked at myself for too long.


But as the ink made its way beneath the surface, it was as if I was taking my body back – back from unrealistic ideals, back from gendered rules and roles and expectations, back from this notion that I could never feel happy as I was.

Through the pain of that first tattoo, I felt like I’d reached a breaking point. I settled into the vibrations of the needle, the lines being drawn onto my skin, and my blood warming up in my body. I hadn’t felt this grounded inside myself before.
Before that moment, I’d never felt the gravity of my own self, the space that I occupied, the presence that I held.

I was having an uninterrupted, honest conversation with my body – a body that, for too long, I declared my enemy. Or worse, something I painfully tried to ignore, avoided looking at, avoided knowing.


My tattoo became the gateway to self-love and empowerment.

My androgynous hair, my tattooed arms, my pit hair, my nose ring, my bound chest – these were all intentional choices that I made, directly opposing conventional notions of what was “attractive” and what I should want for myself.

I was self-made. And the act of “making” myself was the best thing I ever did for myself.

tattoos

Not afraid to show off my tattoos!

[The image features the author, Sam, with his arms raised and his hands behind his head. He is a white, androgynous person with dark-rimmed glasses and short hair. On his left forearm, he has a tattoo of a fox; on his right inner-bicep, he has an intricate feather tattoo.]

When I look in the mirror now, I see a body that is undoubtedly my own. It’s not a collection of parts, not a gender that I was assigned without consent, not a compilation of failings or “not enoughs.” I no longer see a body I am resigned to having; I see a body that I chose of my own freewill.

And as a transgender person, being able to reclaim a body that I did not feel belonged to me was essential to my transition and my healing.

When I look at myself now, I see a beautiful, complicated, queer body that is remarkable in its own right.

My tattoos were born out of a powerful realization that changed my life forever: the realization that I could abandon everything I was told was unquestionable, unfathomable, and impossible. Instead, I could become the person I’d always wanted to be.

Every tattoo on my body is renewed commitment to passionately pursuing my own notions of gender, my own vision of beauty, and my own truth.

And that’s more than just ink. To me, that’s a revolutionary act.

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