Debates About My Gender Have Convinced Me Of One Thing: It’s Time To Get Louder

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I’ve gone down the Laci Green rabbit hole. Green, a popular feminist YouTuber and sex educator, gained quite a bit of popularity — and now, incredible notoriety — in social justice circles, positioning herself as an advocate for comprehensive sex education and gender equality.

I’ve been subtweeting about Laci for a hot minute, especially recently. She’s gotten cozy with anti-feminist YouTubers, whose vitriol have fueled a great deal of harassment targeting feminist and marginalized content creators. Lately, she’s been tweeting and creating videos that perpetuate transmisogyny (which I talked about quite a bit in this Twitter thread), even going so far as to call Kat Blaque, a Black trans woman and fellow YouTuber, a “sociopath.”

She has described herself as being a proponent of open and respectful dialogue, yet has responded to feminists calling her in in dismissive, hurtful, and arrogant ways. Most recently, she hosted a live debate around gender and the existence of non-binary identity, suggesting that invalidating and policing our identities should now become a spectator sport. This kind of “dialogue” has relied upon the assumption that the opinions of cisgender people are somehow of equal importance and validity to those of trans people when discussing our own lived experiences.

And while I believe that there’s a lot of worthwhile education that can happen with an open dialogue, this is not the dialogue I think any of us had in mind. I find it highly suspect that this “debate” is being dominated by cisgender folks (many of whom are openly hostile and even violent towards trans people), and led and organized by a cis woman who is not trusted or even respected by the community to begin with.

However sympathetic Laci claims to be, her insistence on positioning herself at the center of this conversation — the “rational,” moderate authority — legitimizes a ciswashed account of gender, sex, and identity.

She encourages a kind of cultural voyeurism in which transgender and non-binary people must repeatedly defend themselves for sport, while a white cis woman plays referee.

Sigh.

As a non-binary writer, I’ve personally felt the cultural backlash against non-binary people as we’ve made real strides in visibility. As someone who has published a lot of written work around gender and non-binary identity, I’ve been the recipient of harassment and abuse from total strangers who take issue with how I define my own experiences. I’ve also watched as other non-binary folks in my community have had to endure the near-constant pain of erasure, invalidation, and even violence.

But these aren’t the conversations that cis people want to have. They want to have the “is he or isn’t he lying about his identity” conversation, the “let’s turn your lived experience into a fun intellectual exercise” conversation, or my personal favorite, the “I see no problem with suggesting you don’t exist” conversation. And Laci has no problem capitalizing on it, either, even if she self-identifies as an “ally.”

But there is one thing I have to give her credit for: I’m pissed. I have never tweeted so furiously, for one. And I’ve never felt more fiercely protective and invested in my non-binary community. I started to ask myself, “When was the last time I donated to a non-binary YouTuber’s Patreon?” “Have I messaged any non-binary activists to thank them lately?” “Am I subscribing to, supporting, and boosting the signal on other non-binary content creators?

And I wondered, when so many of our battlegrounds are digital… maybe more of us should be taking up space as loudly and defiantly as possible.

So quietly, I pulled up my bucket list, and crossed “Start a YouTube Channel” off of my list. Because I figured, if you’re going to tell me that I don’t exist, you’re going to have to say it to my face. And because I hoped that, by building community with other non-binary folks on YouTube in particular, I could help to reclaim a dialogue that continues to be derailed by the folks who have the least at stake, with little consideration of those who could lose the most.

I’m annoyed that I have to give Laci, or any binary person with feelings about how I identify, the time of day. But that’s exactly why I want to see more non-binary folks connecting with one another, networking, signal-boosting, donating, and showing up for each other — because so long as our existence is relegated to the status of “debatable,” making noise and taking up space is one important way that we can resist.

Fat and disabled enbies, non-binary folks of color, agender elders, all of us — every one of us is a necessary part of this conversation. Start a blog. Become a YouTuber. Write a letter to the editor. Become a patron, send a supportive tweet, or share a video — if nothing else, let the folks doing this work know that you affirm and appreciate them. (And hey, tweet me and let me know what you’re up to and how I can support you. I’ve got you.)

My hope is that if non-binary folks take anything away from the Laci Green nightmare, it’s that we need to take ownership of this conversation. Hike up your leg and take a long piss on this “debate.” It’s ours.

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BREAKING: Local Resident Comes Out as Non-Binary, World Doesn’t End

Originally published at Wear Your Voice Magazine and republished here with permission.

OAKLAND, CA – Residents are profoundly underwhelmed today after an Oakland resident, Tyler May, announced their non-binary gender identity. What was expected to be the literal end of times, residents say that they were shocked to find that the event has had little to no impact on their daily lives.

“I said over and over again that acknowledging more than two genders would signal the apocalypse,” a local cisgender man explained. “But then nothing happened. Literally. Nothing.”

“I had designed a bomb shelter and stocked it up with canned goods for the next five years,” another resident said. “Come to find out, all Tyler wants is for us to switch pronouns.”

Many locals had believed that by in any way challenging the gender binary, it would spontaneously combust, resulting in widespread fires and a complete breakdown of the social order.

But to the surprise of residents, some are beginning to speculate that someone else’s gender may actually be none of their business, and that when identities are mutually respected, the lives of residents may actually improve.

“This might sound wild,” one resident said, struggling to grasp the words coming out of his mouth. “It’s almost like… if we treat others the way we want to be treated, things are… better?”

Still, some residents are disappointed, seeming to prefer conflict.

“I’m a real transgender person, a transgender man,” one resident exclaimed proudly. “I don’t believe in this non-binary thing. I think it’s just a ploy for attention. I’ve talked about this at length on my blog, YouTube channel, Snapchat, Twitter, and Tumblr!”

Pulling the microphone closer to him and smiling, he added, “Is this being broadcast? Is this going to be online?”

Other transgender residents felt similarly. “I find it insulting that they can just identify with a gender they weren’t assigned,” a transgender woman explained. “Like, who do you think you are?”

“It’s almost like someone’s gender has no bearing on my life,” another cis resident complained.

Cisgender and transgender residents alike agreed that they had hoped for more chaos or at least something to live tweet about.

“Tyler tweeted that they were non-binary,” a cisgender resident recalled with horror. “And then everything stayed the same. No pyrotechnics, no street fighting, nothing.”

With tears streaming down his face, a cis man quietly explained, “They said who they were, and nothing happened to me.”

“Naturally, I started to wonder about their genitals, how they have sex, what bathroom they go in,” a cis woman explained. “But then my friends told me I was being inappropriate.”

Pulling a pocket mirror out of her purse and gazing into it, she whispered, “Am I… a creep?”

Perhaps the most devastating part of this experience was the introspection that transpired after Tyler May explained their identity. Many residents were visibly distressed after reconsidering the idea that two genders could really encompass the complexity of the human experience.

“It’s too much, it’s just too much,” one cisgender man explained, tearing at the hair on his head. “What’s next, telling me that I’m my own individual, not defined by the presence of a penis?”

Asked what they thought of their neighbors’ reactions, Tyler May looked bewildered. “Why do they care how I identify?” Shaking their head, they added, “People are so weird.”

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Am I the Only Transgender Person Sick of Transitioning?

This is not your “before and after” video that shows me ten thousand times hotter than I previously was, confirming your suspicion that transition takes you from an awkward caterpillar into a glamorous butterfly.

This is not your “I found myself” testimony, where I explain how transition fixed all of my problems and how I’m now living my best life in my best body, the life and body I was meant to have.

Nope. This is your “this sucks, why does this suck, why didn’t anyone tell me that this would suck?” blog entry, by a trans person who is just as confused as before, only this time with more acne.

As a genderqueer person whose desired body leans masc, desired expression leans femme, and overall identity seems to be “alien boy” but I’ll call it “well fuck, your guess is as good as mine,” trying to transition has been a puzzle at best, and a cluster fuck at worst.

About eight months ago, I threw testosterone into the mix hoping it would ease some of the social and physical dysphoria, and maybe answer some of my lingering questions (questions like, do I want to live my life being perceived as a man? how much body hair is too much body hair? can I grow a better beard than my brother? will this make my butt more compact? you know, the important shit).

Spoiler alert, on testosterone I’m totally emotionally unstable, I’m greasy and covered in acne, I have the ability to braid my leg hair, I’m building muscles in places I didn’t know I could develop muscle, and I’m growing (admittedly very cute) whiskers on my face.

So in other words, I’m a moody cat on steroids that desperately needs Proactiv. These were not my #TransitionGoals.

Everyone tells me that, having only been on testosterone for less than a year, I should be patient. But the thing that no one told me is that medical transition – and really, transition generally – can suck SO HARD.

No one tells you that not every aspect of transition will feel right or feel good. That the side effects of medical transition may make you more uncertain than ever of your choices. That sometimes it’s trial by fucking fire, learning what you want and what you don’t as you go.

That it can take a long time before you look in the mirror and say, “Aha!”

That some of us – and this is critical – don’t know what will work for us. We only know what isn’t working, and that’s valid, too.

For non-binary folks, this delicate balance is even more challenging to achieve. Some of us end up back pedaling with our dose or coming off of hormones altogether, trying not to swing too hard in one direction of the binary or the other. Some of us have to settle for something imperfect, others of us are too afraid to begin.

Pass the Tylenol, please – navigating hormones in a binary world is enough to give anyone the migraine of the century.

Truthfully, I spend most days worried about how testosterone hasn’t been this magical, life-affirming journey that has made me more certain of myself – feeling like I’ve done something wrong, or made the wrong choice if I’m not perpetually ecstatic about it. 

I’d like to think that there’s room for trans people to feel something other than endless joy – that actually, it’s an unrealistic expectation that every transgender person on hormones will have the time of their life.

I’m not unhappy, I’m just waiting for it to come together. I look at myself in the mirror nowadays and like anybody else whose body is rapidly changing, I’m just really weirded out. I haven’t had that big moment (is there even a big moment for everyone?).

I’m just sitting around like, “Whoa, bodies are totally STRANGE” and “Did my face get uglier or is it just the acne eating me alive?”

If anything, medical transition has raised more questions than it’s answered. Questions about my relationship to masculinity, what gender identity truly is, about the layers of my dysphoria, about the fluidity of my own gender (and if it’s so fluid, how do I choose a static representation?), and most importantly, what it means to transition as a trans person who is genderqueer.

I did not sign up for some philosophical obstacle course, but here we are.

Mainstream narratives convince us that transition is reserved for people who are brimming with certainty and clarity, neither of which I have. Mainstream narratives convince us that transition will be revelatory and complete us, but I have yet to feel enlightened or whole.

Is it just me?

I’d like to think that it’s okay – and that we can make room for these experiences, too. Transition is not amazing all the time. For some folks, it isn’t amazing at all, but necessary still. And if we don’t acknowledge this, we’re just being really fucking dishonest about what transition is actually like.

So y’all, I’ll just say it: I’m tired. All these bodily changes, all these lingering questions, and the work that goes into deciphering your non-binary gender in a binary world – it’s exhausting, and it sucks.

Word on the street is that it’s worth it, though. And I may not know exactly what’s in store, but there’s no way in hell I’m going back.

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Being Non-Binary and a Trans Guy Isn’t a Contradiction

When we think about non-binary folks, we often think about agender, neutrois, or “gender neutral” people who do not identify with the categories of man or woman in any conceivable way.

Those folks are real, and absolutely deserve visibility and validation.

But I also think this is a very limited understanding of what it means to be non-binary. If we only think about non-binary identities on these terms, we fail to encompass the diversity of this community and the radical ways of doing (or not doing) gender.

Non-binary is defined as someone who does not identify exclusively as masculine or feminine (thus apart from a cisnormative binary). This can actually include quite a number of people and (a)genders.

But we forget sometimes that non-binary can encompass more than just someone who disowns the binary altogether – it can include someone who reclaims it for their own ends, expression, or performance.

For me, I am a very femme and genderqueer trans guy, who occupies masculinity and femininity and androgyny in a pretty equal and eclectic measure.

My non-binary identity is important to me – but so is my identity as a trans guy. They are totally inseparable.

My experience of my gender is fluid and moving, non-linear, queer. So while I do identify as a trans guy, my masculinity and my body are experienced through a very queer and non-binary lens.

In other words, I can be a trans guy and be non-binary simultaneously.

I do not exist in an exclusively masculine, binary space. I can embrace all the queer, femme, glittery, tender, and alien parts of my gender while simultaneously honoring the masculine identity that they are wrapped up in.

And I would argue that if we held more space for folks identifying as men or women to queer their gender and expression, we might find that non-binary community exists in more places and in more ways than we’d ever thought possible.

I don’t believe that being non-binary is about rejecting the binary out of hand for every single person. For some of us, it’s taking back the binary from oppressive and rigid social norms and breaking down those expectations.

I think that there is a way to take what is meaningful, resonant, or beautiful about what we’ve uncovered within the binary and take back what’s rightfully ours, making it our own.

For me, there are elements of being a “trans guy” that speak to my experiences – but it’s not quite enough to hold all the other queer, femme, and fluid aspects that make me who I am.

Non-binary, for many of us, is a placeholder because nothing else could contain us.

And at the end of the day, who’s to say that there aren’t men and women that are so queer, so infinite that they need that space held for them, too?

We should talk about the power dynamics and privileges embedded in how aligned someone is with the binary, sure. But that’s a very different conversation from the ones I’m being asked to have.

I have found a certain amount of skepticism of my non-binary identity since I started claiming “trans guy” as an identity as well. Many folks felt these categories were at odds, and that I shouldn’t call myself a non-binary writer or seek to represent the community if it wasn’t my experience.

But I believe that non-binary is a spectrum of experiences that can be held by people of many (a)genders, and that we can make room for all of those experiences without stepping all over each other or denying someone a label that really resonates with them.

If non-binary is to mean “not exclusively masculine or feminine,” we should be open to the possibility that anyone of any gender – especially in a binary system in which few, if any truly fit – might find themselves looking for language that gives them permission to be who they are.

And really, we should always be cautious and self-critical if our skepticism of someone’s truth is turning into identity policing. Denying someone the right to identify as non-binary is simply upholding the binary and imposing it onto someone else.

As non-binary, isn’t the imposition of that binary the last thing we want to be participating in?

I don’t believe that non-binary men or non-binary women are contradictions at all. If anything, it’s an indication that people are catching on.

The binary, on absolute terms, serves very few – and at least for me, being non-binary is about making room for every part of myself. I’m not surprised that others feel that way, too.

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Medically Transitioning is Not a Walk in the Park. (Sometimes, it Actually Sucks.)

If you follow me basically anywhere on social media (like this Facebook, that Facebook, my Twitter, or my recent fave, Instagram), you probably already know that my mental health has been garbage recently.

You may have also figured this out when I wrote my last blog entry about my friends helping me through some pretty scary depressive episodes.

What I’m saying, y’all, is that it’s an established fact that the universe is giving me a lot of shit lately (and you know, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to plug my social media #shameless).

I’ve been running back and forth between doctors, all of whom want to know why, after about two years of relative stability on my medication regimen and a life that I am really content with, I would suddenly be rapid cycling and spiraling down so quickly.

If I haven’t been locked in my bathroom, pondering why in the hell I am still alive and how it’s possible to feel this depth of emotional pain, I’ve been hypomanic and convinced I am the singular most important being that has ever walked the earth.

If you’ve never rapid cycled before, take it from me: Neither of these states of mind are particularly fun, especially when they happen in rapid succession.

We thought it was fluctuations in my hormone levels, but after a shift in medications and a stable dose of testosterone, this is starting to seem less and less likely.

And now the doctors are wondering if testosterone is simply a trigger for my bipolar disorder, if it’s my sensitivity to hormones overall, or if it’s severe PMS that necessitates a hysterectomy.

In other words, the hormones are fucking me up.

And I want to talk about this because no one – and I mean no one – prepared me for what hormone replacement therapy can mean for a transgender person with mental illness.

Not just the mood swings that have been the equivalent of a hurricane raging through my life, but the realization that the best thing that has ever happened to me is becoming my worst nightmare.

I still don’t know how to hold space for these two coexisting realities.

Sometimes the very thing that brings you total affirmation and joy can also be the thing that drives you so close to the edge that you almost tumble right over it. Sometimes the very thing you cannot live without is also the thing that leaves you feeling like you can’t continue living.

This contradiction – that these hormones can be both life-giving and life-threatening – is impossibly hard to negotiate and is a testimony to just how complex this intersection of transness and mental illness can really be.

The emotional turmoil of knowing you cannot go back, and yet realizing that it is terrifying and even dangerous to move forward, is not an experience that I was ready for.

Somehow I thought that hormonally transitioning, even with my bipolar disorder and anxiety, could not devastate me the way that it has. I didn’t know that throwing testosterone into the mix could distort my mind so deeply.

But it did.

I didn’t realize hormones could seep into my psyche this way, rattling my brain in ways that I haven’t experienced in many years.

Some days it has felt like the universe is just punishing me for being transgender. Some days I have just blamed myself for all this, as if I had any other option than to start HRT.

This experience has been profoundly lonely, and with it, there have been a lot of emotions and contradictions that I still haven’t been able to process.

And I can’t help but wonder what happens for neurodivergent trans people who do not have competent care and are left struggling – either being given more psychiatric medications to no avail, or being advised to stop HRT altogether, neither of which are real solutions.

I wonder how many folks who occupy this intersection are rendered completely helpless, faced with impossible decisions about whether or not hormones are safe for them, whether or not it’s worth the risk, whether or not the options available to them (like hysterectomy) are even feasible.

I was supposed to increase my testosterone dosage today. I walked away from the clinic being told that it wasn’t yet safe to do so. Because it’s not – not now.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t grieving that, even if I understand and know that this is the right thing to do.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t walk out of that clinic, turn to my partner and say, “I wish someone had told me this might have happened.”

I wish someone had said that HRT can make you lose your mind. Even if that’s not what we want to hear, sometimes it’s what we need to hear.

But I’m not saying that HRT is the wrong choice for trans folks with mental illness, or that we’re doomed.

If I had known the road would be this difficult, would I have chosen differently?

No. Absolutely not.

I’ve written extensively about all the joy that it’s brought into my life, joy I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Even on my worst days, being able to look in the mirror and see the self I was meant to be is indescribably beautiful. And I would rather endure this than never know what it was like to come home, to fill my own shoes, to be at peace with myself.

HRT was never a “choice.” It was, in many ways, inevitable. And it’s ridiculous to suggest that we should will ourselves to be content without it if it’s what we need.

But no one said testosterone would be this difficult. No one said it could set off a catastrophic episode. No one said that I should be ready for anything.

Nowhere in the literature or in the conversations did they say “psychiatric breakdown.” They said “mood swings, maybe, but it’s uncommon.”

The honest truth is that HRT can be the best decision we make for our mental health. But for a small but still important minority, it can be absolute hell before we get there.

As a part of that minority, I’m left mourning the revelatory experience I had hoped for and even, in the beginning, had. But it has been replaced with an ecstatic turmoil, conflicting emotions that seem impossible to navigate or negotiate.

I’m scrambling to find a space to just affirm that, yes, this is the best thing I’ve ever done and it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.

I’m left wondering if I’m the only person to fight with my own body like this.

I have to believe that I am not the only person whose body said, “What you need will save you and destroy you all at once.”

Here’s what I know for certain: Sometimes the most worthwhile things that we do will hurt. Sometimes they’ll hurt like hell. Sometimes they’ll sneak up on us when we are least prepared, when we aren’t ready, when we’ve just gotten comfortable.

I still believe that it is worth it just the same.

I also believe that there are trans people who struggle with their mental health and are afraid to get help. Afraid that it will simply “prove” that transitioning was a mistake, or lend legitimacy to the idea that trans people should be denied care, especially those of us with preexisting disorders.

I worry about those folks. I was almost one of them this week.

I’m recognizing that we need to create a larger conversation about the complexity of being a trans person with mental illness, especially when it comes to both accessing care (an astonishing number of us lie to our providers so that we won’t be denied hormones or surgery) and as we go through our transitions (during which there are countless triggers, biochemically and emotionally and socially).

Can we just pause for one fucking second and acknowledge that transition is HARD?

Like, y’all, can we take a minute and admit that transition, whether it’s medical or just social, is not always beautiful or magical?

Or that sometimes it is everything at once – sometimes it is both beautiful and awful, affirming and destroying, everything we needed and yet not at all what we hoped for?

Sometimes it’s just a mess of contradictions and that’s okay, too.

And that’s true for those of us with mental health struggles (which, hell, sometimes feels like it’s most of us, right?) but also true of those without.

Transition. Is. Hard.

So I’m writing this now to just hold some space for those of us who are so there, who are so done, so exhausted, so depleted.

Those of us who look in the mirror and say, “I’m happy with what I see but I’m not happy with how I feel.” Those of us who are fighting within themselves to know what the “right thing” to do is. Those of us who feel like there’s no easy choice.

I’m here for those of us who are tripping over obstacles we didn’t know would be there.

I’m pushing back against the reductive narrative that tells us that hormones solve everything, as if it is quick and easy and simple – the be-all and end-all – because while it may be true for some, it is far too simplistic to make room for everyone’s experiences.

And yes, at this messy intersection of queerness and mental illness, I’m here to say that sometimes shit is complicated.

I’m also here to say that we’re gonna get through it.

You and I? We’re in this together.

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Trauma and Transness: Why I Didn’t ‘Always Know’ I Was Transgender

There are a number of transgender people who have known, from a very young age, that they were a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. Their stories are encouraging , interesting, and important. Their stories are also not mine.

I knew as a child that I was different – but not because of my gender. I knew this because I had early onset bipolar disorder. My life, in so many ways, was consumed as I struggled to keep my head above water. While other children my age contemplated their place in the world, I contemplated hurting myself for reasons I couldn’t explain.

This disorder derailed my life – impacting my relationships, my self-esteem, and of course, my stability – until I finally started getting treatment for it when I was eighteen years old.

It’s not a coincidence that when I started receiving treatment for bipolar disorder (and anxiety, a later diagnosis), questions about my gender began bubbling to the surface. The only person who didn’t seem surprised was my therapist at the time.

“You might have had to suppress or avoid questions about your gender to focus on your survival,” she told me. “Bipolar disorder might have required all of your attention. Now it doesn’t.”

Bingo.

While every trans person with mental illness has a different story, I think that I was put in a sort of auto-pilot because of my trauma. There was no room to contemplate gender identity. I assumed the role and took the validation that came with it. I put my mental and emotional resources into surviving bipolar disorder and weathering the damage it did on a daily basis.

It’s hardly surprising that when my mental health began to rebound, I started to consider the possibility that I might be trans. As therapy and medication helped me to cope more effectively, I began to interrogate my assigned gender in ways I never had the space to before.

In this way, it’s impossible to talk about my trans identity without talking about my struggles with mental illness.

I believe that, in the face of trauma, I was unable to contemplate or comprehend my own truth (and not just about gender – mental illness made me feel less like a person and more like a body moving through physical space, aching).

There was no room to consider gender for a long time. It was deemed “non-essential” by the part of my brain that determined what I could and could not handle.

And honestly? I’m grateful for that.

Sometimes I do wish I’d started testosterone sooner, or understood my gender a little earlier on, or embarked on this journey at a younger age. But then I ask myself: Was that really possible?

I think about how much pain I suffered through earlier on in my life. I try to imagine if I could have handled a transition at the same time – the upheaval in my family, navigating social pressures and even societal violence, trying to advocate for myself and find resources in my small Midwestern suburb… all during a time when trans people were scarcely visible.

Could I have done this when I was in the throes of a mood disorder, being pulled into suicidal lows and manic highs?

I say that I’m “grateful” because I started to come into my own as a trans person at a time when my life was beginning to stabilize. It was a time when I had social support, a time when I could find other queer people, a time when I had more agency than I did as a kid. I was ready.

Not all trans people realize they are trans at a time that they’re ready to – they simply are, and they have to navigate that whether they are prepared to or not. And while I’m not suggesting that trauma is a privilege, I will say that my journey as trans could have been more difficult than it has been.

In some ways, I feel lucky that I came to know myself as transgender at a time when it was safer for me to come out. My transition could have put my mental health in further jeopardy had I begun at a time when I wasn’t mentally healthy or supported. Instead, it happened when I had full autonomy over myself and had a community rallying behind me.

When people ask me how I “knew” I was trans, the answer is much more complicated than they realize. Because while I could sift through my past and find moments that seemed to indicate the kind of discomfort or confusion they might expect, the truth is that it was the furthest thing from my conscious mind for most of my life.

Keeping myself alive in the face of mental illness was the only thing I knew for the first eighteen years. It was the only context for my pain. I had no concept of who I was or any future ahead of me – I only knew the turmoil of bipolar disorder and the trauma that I had lived through.

I’ve often said that I didn’t feel like my life truly began until I was 20 years old. Which, not-so-coincidentally, is both when my medications began to work and my transition began in earnest.

Trans people with mental illness are not a monolith, either, and I imagine many of us have different stories and trajectories. We’re all affected by our illnesses differently.

But for me, I was only able to see myself clearly when my recovery began. And I don’t think being a “late bloomer” in some respects makes me any less trans.

To say that gender is an objective, static truth that we all intrinsically understand from the moment we are born – as if it is untouched or unaffected by our trauma – erases the journeys that many trans people have been on.

It’s impossible to say who or where we would be without our trauma. But what I do know is that who I am now – both as a trans person and as bipolar – is at this intersection of everything I have endured.

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When Your Violin is Supposed to Be a Cello

This article was originally published on Ravishly.

cello.

They promised I would “grow into it.”

When I was small and new to this world, my parents placed a radio beside my crib.

“We used to play classical music for you,” they told me. “You loved Bach.” For years, I fell asleep to the sounds of 12 different violin concertos, the music bouncing off the walls and into my tiny ears.

My mother swears that this is why I took up violin.

My parents eagerly exposed me to any and every song with a violin solo. I went from Bach to Riverdance to Dixie Chicks, the music captivating me. By the time I was 12, I told my parents that I wanted to make beautiful music like the people on the CDs.

They made me promise that I wouldn’t quit after just a few weeks. I would’ve promised them the moon in the sky or my allowance for every week of my life to have a violin of my own.

They conceded. We went to a store filled with violins from countries all over the world. I had my eye on one that came from Germany. I remember holding it, expecting to make a triumphant sound like all the musicians I’d listened to since infancy, and was shocked that I could hardly make it croak.

“You’ll get better after some lessons,” they told me.

“And after you get some rosin on the bow, of course,” the salesman added with a wink.

It was a little too big for me, but the music teacher at school promised that I would “grow into it.”

I’m not sure I ever did.

* * *

I believed that Lily Peters was the prettiest girl at Rhode Middle School.

And I was the luckiest kid at Rhode Middle School, I reasoned, because I was one of her closest friends. We were cast in the school play together and for those three months, we were inseparable.

I remember looking at Lily with so much envy.

Lily was idyllic in my mind. I grew out my hair and wore it just likes hers, with the messy bun perched right on top of my head. I got contact lenses and I carefully applied the same powdery shade of blue around my eyes. I begged my mother to let me wear high heels for the school dances, the slip-on sort that Lily would wear.

I dragged my mother to the store to buy pleated skirts, but they could only be pink — Lily only wore the pink ones. And they could only be from Limited Too, the only acceptable store for Lily’s taste.

I tried doing all the same things — like it was an equation, and if I did the math just right the product would be the same — but was left with the lingering sense that it was some sort of farce.

When Lily became friends with Cameron from Speech class a month after the play was over, I could feel myself being pushed to the sidelines. I started to feel less and less important. Not even my pool party at the local recreation center — the one with the amazing water slide and the lazy river — was enough to regain her favor.

It all came crashing down one day in English class, when a giggling and mischievous Lily passed a note to Cameron. Cameron, delighted by what she saw, started to giggle uncontrollably behind me.

“Can I see?” I asked, feeling left out.

“I don’t think you want to,” Cameron said, smirking and shooting Lily a look.

Grabbing the note from Cameron’s desk, I opened it up expecting to laugh along with them. Instead, I saw the words, “Don’t you think Sam is really weird?” scribbled in Lily’s flawless cursive writing, a heart dotting each “i.”

My face began to burn, tears blurring my vision. Lily’s assessment was not unfamiliar. It was one that I’d pondered many times — why, no matter the equation or the formula or the number of pleated skirts I squeezed my body into, was girlhood so evasive?

Why didn’t I belong?

Lily never said. But the farce was confirmed, on perfect pink floral stationery, no less.

* * *

The teacher said that I was a gifted musician.

I was first chair in the Rhode Middle School Honors Orchestra, the best of the best. I was ecstatic to be the best at something. I was on my way to making beautiful music, like the violinists I now listened to on my CD player on the bus every morning.

I tried to move my wrists like they did, to make the vibrations hum and tremble, to make my violin weep the ways that theirs did.

We didn’t have anything but violinists in my old orchestra, but it was at Rhode that I heard a cello for the first time. While the violin made me excited, the cello had a stranger effect on me. The cello was deeper, more emotive, and twisted my heart until I thought it might burst.

Every day in orchestra practice I would stare at the cello players in awe. Their music made my high-pitched violin — something I once felt so accomplished in — seem so inadequate, so empty.

But it was too late, I reasoned. My parents had bought the violin and they would never stand to invest in another more expensive instrument, to pay for more lessons, to start over.

Besides, this is what I was destined to do. From the crib, remember? I recalled the stories my mother told me, when the Bach violin concertos lulled me to sleep. I remembered the Dixie Chicks concert when it was broadcast on the television, when they pointed at the violinist under the spotlight and said, “That’ll be you someday.”

I practiced diligently every day after school. Remembering, as I went over my scales repeatedly, the way my mother would squeeze my hand when the violinist at Riverdance played faster, and faster, and faster.

But sometimes, when I was all alone, I’d stand the violin up on my lap and pretend, just for a moment, that it was a cello. I would close my eyes and imagine the deep bellowing of Bach’s Suite No. 1 rattling in my chest, the most dizzying and captivating melody I’d ever heard.

But the vibrations of my violin against my chest, too high a pitch, were a tragic reminder of what I lacked.

I grieved — and the grief, at the time, was so unexplainable to me — contemplating the mistake I could not utter aloud. The mistake, the very undeniable fact that my violin could never produce such rich and deep and lovely sounds.

My violin would never be a cello.

* * *

I wanted to be good at femininity, the kind of femininity that girls like Lily and Jessica and Courtney could wear so effortlessly but I never could.

I wore the homecoming dress with the high heels, my feet aching, my stubbornness forcing me to wear them until everyone, especially the boy I liked, had seen me.

It was a performance, I knew it, but I gave it my best — lusting after the affirmations, the encore, someone or anyone to tell me that I had done good.

I didn’t want to be myself, but that was OK. I just wanted to be beautiful, to be worthy.

So I practiced applying mascara the way I practiced my scales: repeatedly, persistently, and with great attention to every lash and every note.

* * *

My best friend in high school, Lucas, was a cellist. At our director’s urging, Lucas decided that we should enter the state competition as a duet. He chose a concerto by Mozart and invited me over to his house after school one day to give it a whirl.

He brought me down to his basement and into a makeshift practice room, with sheet music strewn about and his cello leaned precariously on its side. He carefully tipped it upright again and, sitting down, drew it close to him.

As I removed my violin from its case, he began to warm up with a G major scale. I paused, letting the notes wrap around me and echo in my ears.

I wondered what it must feel like, to keep your instrument so close to your heart.

He looked up at me and smiled, setting down his bow.

“Hey,” he said with a laugh. “Do you want to switch instruments? For fun?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed, with a little too much excitement in my voice.

Handing over the violin to Lucas, I made my way to the cello, hands trembling.

What if I was terrible at it and all my dreams dissolved in a single moment? Or what if, miraculously, I was so proficient that I could convince my parents to let me switch instruments? The moment was ripe with possibility and heavy all at once.

Bringing the cello near — tilting my head and bringing my ear as close to the strings as I could — I took a deep breath. I pulled the bow across the strings in a hesitant, slow glide, and felt the weight of each note in my chest.

Something about the richness and depth of the sound, reverberating in every bone in my body, felt so tremendously right.

Playing each note so carefully, I looked at Lucas and confessed, “I should’ve played the cello.” The confession was drowned beneath the vibrations that filled the room.

In a single scale, I broke my own heart.

* * *

I can tell you the exact moment I realized, without a doubt, that I was not a woman.

It was when I put a chest binder on for the first time, during a freezing Michigan winter, late at night. It was when I recognized my own queerness for the first time.

Shocked by my own silhouette, I could feel everything shifting. I ran my fingers across my chest, studying myself intensely in the mirror, trying to resist the joy that was coming over me. I did not want to love what I saw, but I could not take it back.

“What do you think?” my partner asked me from the other side of the room.

What would the future be now? Now that I knew the truth?

“I think it’s…” I was holding back tears. “I’m trans. I really am transgender.”

“Yes, I know. Why are you sad?” they replied.

I recalled the moment that I held Lucas’ cello near me, and all the years after, when, no matter how beautifully I played my violin, I never felt whole or satisfied. The way my scales withered on the vine, how every pass across the strings was empty, and how the notes were always too shrill.

And the regret that washed over me — intense, relentless — when I watched Lucas every afternoon, swaying side to side as his cello beckoned so sweetly from across the room.

“Because nothing will ever be the same,” I whispered.

A thousand Bach violin concertos swirling around my crib, imprinting those melodies on my brain, had not changed the fact that I was meant to be a cellist. And a thousand “she”s, beginning from the moment that I was born, had not changed the fact that I had grown up to be a “he.”

It was in that moment — imagining who I might be, and the terrifying and glorious possibilities that it held — that I realized that the instrument we’re given is not always the one we’re meant to play.

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