I Thought I Was Ugly. I Didn’t Realize It Was Gender Dysphoria.

For a long time, I couldn’t place why — I just felt ugly.

And not just in the insecure way, but in the something-is-so-wrong-but-I-can’t-place-what way.

No matter what I did, or how often my friends reassured me, nothing seemed to change the fact that something didn’t feel right when I looked in the mirror. And no one seemed to see it but me.

As someone assumed to be a girl, I figured that hating how I looked was a rite of passage. I could never articulate what I didn’t like, though. It wasn’t my nose, or my lips, or my teeth.

When people asked, I helplessly explained, “I don’t know, I’m just ugly.”

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When I look at old pictures of myself, though, I start to understand. For one, it doesn’t even look like me.

It wasn’t that I was ugly, so much as I didn’t look like myself. But not even knowing what “transgender” meant, I didn’t have a point of reference to understand my feelings at the time.

It wasn’t that I was ugly by some objective measure, or even that someone had told me I was and the comment stayed with me. It was that I was dysphoric — the body I was in didn’t feel like mine, and I could only react to it with discomfort and, at times, disgust.

There’s this narrative around transness, that we all knew immediately that we were meant to transition, meant to live in a different body, that the gender we were assigned is not the gender we actually are. For many of us, however, that’s simply not our story.

For me, none of that occurred to me consciously for a long time. I just knew that I didn’t like how I looked — that I was deeply uncomfortable with myself — and at times I felt that very strongly. It took much longer to understand why.

Transitioning happened for me a little haphazardly, and maybe a little organically, too. I was drawn to short hair, and after cutting it, I felt euphoric in a way I couldn’t deny. I loved androgyny as a style, and after experimenting a little, started to find new ways to express myself. I followed my intuition, not entirely sure where it would lead me, trying not to overthink what it said about me or my gender.

And then I noticed something: The further I moved away from the gendered expectations that came with being perceived as a woman, the happier I felt.

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Ugliness is such a profound, raw, and vulnerable emotional experience for some trans people. For me, it was the driving force in my transition.

“Ugly” was the only word I had to describe my dysphoria, which meant it flew under the radar for a long time.

It didn’t raise any alarms for the people around me. It just confirmed the sexist notion that women are supposed to be insecure, and therefore my discontent was an acceptable, albeit sad experience that came with the territory of my assigned gender.

But something intuitively pushed me forward. Part of that was finally meeting other transgender and non-binary people, who gave me the language I didn’t have, and filled in the gaps of knowledge I desperately needed.

I became acquainted with the feeling of gender euphoria — the sense of affirmation and even joy that comes with being “seen” as the gender you truly identify with. For me, I had waves of euphoria as I started hearing my new name, my new pronouns, and my new reflection staring back at me, being shaped before my eyes by testosterone.

Dysphoria is a complicated experience, and I think it’s very misunderstood, even by some folks in the trans community.

It’s not like I looked down at my body and saw a vision laid before me, immediately understanding that I wasn’t a girl. It was, more often than that, the sense of lingering discomfort, confusion, and profound emotional rejection that unsettled me, often on a deeply unconscious level.

Dysphoria, for me, has always been the battle between my conscious desire to take the easiest and safest route in life — one that cis people repeatedly told me would be living as a cis woman — and my unconscious and, at times, desperate need to transform my body so that I could live authentically and comfortably.

At first, it was easy to reject my dysphoria as feeling “ugly” and nothing more, because it felt safer to consider myself a cisgender person who felt ugly, rather than stepping into my life as a transgender person, considering the many risks and struggles that came with it.

Dysphoria never provided me an answer or a clear path forward, as it sometimes does for other trans people. For me, it created a problem, and it was one that I didn’t initially know how to solve.

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But as it turns out, transition was the right thing for me, even if it took years to understand that.

The profound anxiety that I had when I looked at myself has been replaced with a kind of joy — a joy I’d never had before transition, in which I can see myself and not only do I look good, but it looks right.

My friend Jes Baker, a fat activist and incredible blogger/human, said to me before that a lot of our unhappiness with our bodies happens when we look at the mirror expecting to see someone else (paraphrasing, but you get the idea).

In some cases, coming to terms with our bodies as they are can be our greatest act of self-love. There’s abundant messaging in this world that tells us to reject our bodies, and unlearning that shit takes time. But for others, change is how we make peace with our reflection.

I think it all begins with the question, “Who am I expecting to see looking back at me?”

Every day, I think the person I was waiting for is finally coming back to me. And I can’t even begin to describe how beautiful that feels.

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"IMG_0866.JPG" by Aimee Ardell is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

5 Totally Normal Questions Transgender People May Be Afraid to Ask, Answered

One of my favorite concepts that I’ve encountered as an activist is the idea of “holding space.”

To break it down further, “holding space” is about making room for certain experiences, feelings, or perspectives to be acknowledged and affirmed that may otherwise be pushed aside or invalidated.

Holding space can be powerful. I’m a big believer in giving people the space to open up – and in doing so, building greater understandings of where someone is coming from. A little affirmation can go a long way in making someone feel whole.

And one thing that I’ve noticed as a transgender person is that people hold very little space for us.

Society at large has a very particular idea of what the trans experience is – and it doesn’t give us room to have honest, real conversations about what we’re going through, especially when it contradicts this narrative.

This leads us to struggling internally with some big questions that we’re afraid to ask – because in asking them, we’re fearful that it undermines our identity or will lead others to question our authenticity.

So today, I want to hold a lot of space for the complicated feelings that sometimes arise when we’re coming to accept ourselves as transgender.

Because what we’re told is that we’re born with a crystal-clear understanding of our gender, embark on binary medical transition, and achieve ultimate happiness and certainty. Right? But what I know from experience is that, for many of us, it’s much more complex than that.

So let’s talk – and I mean really talk – about some of the questions many transgender people are thinking about, but might be afraid to ask. And together, let’s hold space for all of the complicated feelings that arise as we explore them.

1. Am I Really Trans? What If I’m Making This Up?

Confession: I ask myself this a lot.

“Wait, Sam,” you might be saying. “You write publicly about your identity! You’re active in the community! You’re even taking hormones! And you mean to tell me that you’re unsure if you’re trans?”

Yes, that’s precisely what I’m saying.

In fact, I can assure you from firsthand experience that many, many transgender people grapple with this question – even years into their transition.

And I have some theories as to why, too – if it helps.

If someone told you your whole life that you were a terrible dancer and suddenly you received a first prize trophy for a dance competition, you’d probably feel like an imposter, right? Similarly, when society tells us we’re cisgender (and that being cis is the only option), it can take years and years before we feel secure in ourselves as trans.

Not only that, but trans people are often called into question for not being “trans enough,” are accused of “faking it” for dubious reasons, and are met with disbelief when we first come out.

There’s this culture of interrogation around transness – namely, that trans people have to prove that they’re trans (to get respect, to get healthcare, to find support).

We constantly have our validity called into question by cis and trans people alike. It leads us to internalize this voice of doubt and to intensely question ourselves as society at large does to us.

Feeling invalid or like an imposter is actually a totally normal thing to feel as transgender. It can be difficult to believe in ourselves when people seldom believe in us.

Getting past that hurdle can take time (look at me, I’m still trying), but it’s good to keep this in perspective and remember that feeling this way does not undermine who you are or make you any less “trans” than someone else.

2. Is It Okay If I Wasn’t Always Like This?

The short answer: YES! That’s absolutely okay!

Unless you screamed, “I’m queer and I’m here!” as you exited the womb, it seems like society is dissatisfied with trans people when they come into consciousness at a later age (it’s actually a double-edged sword: We’re too young to actually know, or we’re too old and we’re supposed to know sooner – we can’t win!).

The dominant narrative says that transgender people are expected to have always known – on some deep, intrinsic level – that we were destined to identify with a gender other than what we were assigned at birth.

But we all have reasons for when we came to terms with being transgender.

For me, it was trauma that delayed my realizations around my gender. For others, they didn’t know “transgender” was even a thing and never thought to question their assigned gender. And for some, their safety was at stake if they tried to explore their gender.

Whatever the reason, people come to terms with being trans at different places in their lives.

And there’s no “right time” or “correct way” to arrive at that conclusion – whenever you discovered your gender identity, you are completely valid, and it doesn’t mean you are more or less trans.

Identity in general is very complex – and everyone, trans or otherwise, will grow and learn about themselves at their own pace. Figuring out who we are doesn’t happen in a day. It’s okay to take your time.

Instead of viewing it as a race in which other trans people are your competitors, try viewing it as a journey that is for you and you alone. It’s my hope that the trans community will be beside you, cheering you on.

3. What If I Regret My Medical Transition?

So it’s important to first say that not all transgender people will medically transition. That’s a completely valid choice; medical interventions do not make someone more or less trans.

But for those of us who do pursue some form of medical transition, it’s unbelievably common to worry about regret.

Because our validity as trans people is always coming under fire, it doesn’t surprise me that we question our choices – especially when these choices involve some form of permanent or semi-permanent change.

Lots of transgender people worry about transition regret for different reasons.

For some, they may not feel ready to make such a big change because of other issues they’re grappling with. They may not feel prepared to come out to family, which medical transition can require (showing up to a family reunion with a deeper voice and beard without forewarning is apparently frowned upon).

Fears around transition regret can also come from a lack of knowledge – whether it’s myths about surgical regret (often pushed by anti-trans activists) or an “all or nothing” understanding of hormones (for example, the misconception that non-binary people cannot hormonally transition).

For me, I resisted medical transition because I was actually deeply ashamed of being trans (which I’ll talk more about later in the article).

I think if you’re having questions about medical transition, it’s a great idea to seek out a support group, community center, or gender therapist to help you figure out why you have these hesitations.

Fear is a normal part of transition – but confronting those fears can be a major part of healing.

4. What If I Don’t Know Exactly What My Gender Is?

Hey, welcome to the club! Here’s your official badge. Let me teach you the secret handshake and anthem.

Seriously though, I think the world would be a much better place if we stopped putting pressure on people to know their gender identity and, instead, encouraged people to explore their gender identity and expression.

Because while it may seem that most people are incredibly sure of themselves, I’m betting there is a huge number of people who are actually really unsure. And I’m baffled as to why this has to be a problem.

Uncertainty can be unsettling, but it’s also an opportunity to explore who you are and give yourself permission to step out of your comfort zone.

Uncertainty is not, however, proof that you are not transgender or an indication that you are “less than” other trans people.

I feel like my understanding of my gender changes by the day, sometimes even by the hour.

Uncertainty can often mean that you’re on the right track – that you’re moving away from what felt safe to open yourself up to the possibility of something more honest and fulfilling.

So I say embrace the uncertainty! It’s not at all a bad thing – and I, as well as many other trans people, know it well.

5. If This Is My Truth, Why Do I Feel So Ashamed?

The hardest thing about being trans, for me, has been coming face-to-face with the fact that I deal with shame and guilt around being transgender.

When you grow up with the idea that there’s a “right” and “wrong” way to do gender, it’s a perfectly reasonable response to suppress or resist who we are or who we want to be in favor of what feels safer or more socially acceptable.

We’re taught, in subtle and overt ways, that straying outside of “gender norms” is wrong, disgusting, embarrassing, or even immoral. It’s normal and even expected to feel ashamed in a society that teaches us to be ashamed if we are not perfectly cisnormative.

In this way, being proud of being transgender and being ashamed are not even mutually exclusive – you can be proud of your identity but also grapple with the shame that comes with claiming it, and they’re both valid emotions and experiences.

My shame around being trans led me to grapple with every question on this list.

Shame convinced me that I was “making up” being trans because I couldn’t deal with the truth. Shame made me question if my journey was valid because it felt like I was doing it “wrong.” Shame made me fearful of medically transitioning because I feared my own happiness. Shame left me suppressing my identity and making it difficult to ever feel secure in myself.

I’ve written before that I didn’t even want to be transgender and compared being trans to the stages of grief (if you’re dealing with shame, I encourage you to read them or bookmark for later). The responses that I got to these articles pointed overwhelmingly to the fact that shame is a common part of the trans experience.

I talk about shame not because I want to discourage people from being trans – it’s because I want us to be honest and to validate the very difficult emotions that come with being trans in a transphobic society.

If you feel ashamed, you aren’t alone.

To deal with my own shame, I’ve found it helpful to talk about what I’m going through with other trans people, to seek out support groups (online or offline), to find a trans-competent therapist, and to journal about my transition so I can be aware of these feelings as they come up.

The important thing to remember is that shame does not have to make your decisions for you. It doesn’t have to hold you back. And feeling shame does not make your truth any less real or your identity any less valid.

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There’s one last feeling I want to hold space for. If you read this article and found yourself saying, “Wow, this is me,” I want you to take a moment to sit with that feeling.

The feeling of being validated, seen, recognized.

I want you to remember this moment the next time you’re struggling with these questions, and to know, always, that you are not the first person to ask these questions and that you aren’t alone in what you’re feeling.

Too often, we’re afraid to be honest about our experiences because we fear that being this vulnerable opens us up to be ridiculed, interrogated, and questioned. As trans people, we already face this kind of interrogation in our daily lives – so it makes sense that we hold back on what we’re struggling with.

But I want to encourage you to open up.

At the very least, I want you to acknowledge the weight that you’ve been carrying around in trying to shoulder this alone. I know that weight well. That weight has kept me down for a long, long time.

It’s time to chip away at that heaviness. Let’s start here: I want you to know that your fears, questions, and doubts do not undermine your truth or your identity.

You are enough. And what you’re going through and the feelings that come with it deserve validation and respect.

You, my friend, deserve validation and respect. And I hope that this article is just the beginning of all the space you’ll hold not only for your own struggles, but for the struggles of others in our community as well.

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This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Everyday Feminism.

As Let’s Queer Things Up! Turns 3, I’ve Got Big, Gay Plans

Back in the summer of 2014, I was packing up my entire life to move across the country to the sunny and oh-so-gay San Francisco Bay Area.

Back then, I was practically a baby queer, feeling both terrified and excited for the next chapter of my life. Having just recently come out of the closet as transgender, and having struggled for many years with anxiety and depression, the idea of just being able to hit the “reset” button on my life was appealing.

So as I left (almost) everything I knew back in Michigan, I did three things: I changed my name. I said goodbye to my therapist (she wouldn’t go to California with me ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). And I started a blog.

Since then, I’ve grappled with trauma, sobriety, mental illness, gender dysphoria, suicidality, transition, and two psychiatric hospitalizations. I’ve also found my own path in recovery and resistance. This blog has been a living diary of the person I’ve become through those experiences — and a place where queer people with similar struggles can see themselves reflected back.

Three years later, it has grown to be a thriving online community and an important resource for queer/trans and disabled people. It’s a space for complicated and honest storytelling, with the hopes that folks like me — queer, non-binary, crazy, tender — can feel connected to someone like them, no matter what part of the world they’re in.

As I’ve talked about before, being a super anxious, queer teenager meant that my first experiences of real community came in the form of blogs and online forums. The resources and support that I found in these spaces became my lifeline, carrying me through as I held on for dear life.

But I’m not a kid anymore. I’m a crazy, queer adult that survived. And that’s what I think makes this blog so special — stories of resilience from people like me are seldom given a platform, especially one that doesn’t attempt to pigeonhole them or diminish their voice. It’s incredible, too, to watch other folks in the community connect to that voice, and feel empowered to reclaim their own.

Readers, I want to do more of this.

When I created this blog, my only plan was to write. But as it’s grown, I’ve started to wonder how I could commit more time and more energy to do this thing that I love. I didn’t want blogging to be my back-burner hobby. I wanted to create more resources for folks in my community and share my experiences in a meaningful way.

At first, I couldn’t wrap my brain around the idea that I was allowed to ask for compensation for my labor. So many marginalized folks throw ourselves into content creation because we love the hell out of this work, and then burn out quickly because we didn’t think to ask for support.

But then… capitalism/life.

I squirmed at the idea of monetizing any aspect of my blog, thinking it would be selfish of me, or feeling weirdly like I didn’t deserve that.

And then I almost lost my apartment multiple times. I accumulated medical debt like it was going out of style after I was hospitalized twice from severe depressive episodes. I hung on by a thread, bouncing from contract job to contract job, trying to keep my head above water.

And I realized that if I kept undervaluing my work, I was going to undervalue myself into a complete financial crisis.

Meanwhile, a lot of people said that blogs were now obsolete money pits. That’s not something I was willing to accept, though. When I was first struggling with mental illness, as well as when I came out as queer and trans, other bloggers helped me carve out a safe space for myself.

I saw myself in their experiences. How could that ever be obsolete?

I want to believe that I can be a blogger AND not have to emotionally drain myself with unpaid labor to do it. That’s why, looking ahead for LQTU, I want to start thinking of creative ways to make this platform really work for everyone.

Let’s make something that’s good for both of us.

Here’s what isn’t changing at LQTU: My core values. Meaning, I’m still a crazy queer feminist that’s a total nerd for nuanced, complex conversations around queerness and mental health. While this is my personal blog for my feelings and thoughts, I still remain committed to creating a community that challenges all of us (yes, including me).

But resource-creating and curating takes labor. Labor, I’ve realized, that really needs to be supported. So as of today, I’ve finalized my new Patreon campaign (with new goals, new rewards), where you can regularly support this blog and get cool incentives for doing so.

Here are the rewards (aka, the fun stuff):

  • $1 per month: Access to secret, Patrons-only blog entries. You might be thinking, “Why even charge a dollar? It’s just a dollar.” Yes, it’s only a dollar — but if lots of people buy in, it makes a huge difference.
  • $3 per month: A follow on Twitter! If you want to be Twitter friends AND support my work, this is the option for you.
  • $5 per month: Access to my Patrons-only vlogs/videos. Every month, I’ll post a new video where I talk about the topics that you’re interested in. I’ve been told I’m fun to watch on camera. (…NO, not like that.)
  • $8 per month: Q&A Club, which means you get to choose the topics that I talk about in those videos. No matter how outlandish they are.
  • $15 per month: A letter! From me! I’ll write you a letter on adorable stationery.

I love these rewards because it offers me a new way to connect with the community here AND get some support to keep on creating.

There’s also some bigger prizes, if you’re into it.

I wanted to create some incentives that help support other folks in the work that they’re doing as well. So I’ve included some new reward tiers that allow me to fund this platform while also boosting yours.

Check out these cool collaborative things we can do:

  • I’ll workshop your writing: Imagine that, every month, you send along an article or blog you’re writing. In return, I send you thorough and awesome feedback (and you know it’ll be good, I’m an experienced editor). For $20 dollars per month, for as many months as you decide, I’ll workshop a piece of your writing each month.
  • I’ll plug your project, product, or page: Every week, I publish a column called Crazy Talk, a mental health advice column. And I figure, why not support your work with a mention every week? If you’ve got a rad thing I might like, $25 dollars per month gets you a dedicated space to plug your work, and gives you access to our audience of over 26,000 readers.
  • I’ll mentor you: If you’re trying to break into feminist media and/or publishing, why not let me mentor you? Every month, we’ll hop on Skype and talk personal brand, pitching, and goals. $65 dollars per month, for as long as you decide.
  • You can sponsor a post: I’m open to sponsorship, either blog posts here or posts on social media. Contact me if we might be able to work together!

These rewards are all outlined on Patreon. Check it out!

So what happens now?

More content, for one. I’m shifting into high gear, eventually working up to publishing three blogs per week, including my new column, Crazy Talk.

And with enough Patrons, we’ll be launching a YouTube channel together and, hopefully (!!) I’ll host a monthly livestream/show where we discuss queer mental health together.

That’s the dream, anyway.

I’m passionate about the tender power of an honest, queer blog. And if I can get some additional support, I’ll be in a better position to fund all the projects I’m interested in doing.

But it takes a whole team to make it happen.

That’s why this cute, nifty link will now be at the bottom of every article:

PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING AS LITTLE AS $1 PER MONTH TO MY PATREON CAMPAIGN TO HELP FUND MORE FREE RESOURCES LIKE THESE, AND ACCESS EXCLUSIVE CONTENT WHEN YOU DO!

My awesome partner, Ray, will now be helping me manage the increase in content, new projects, and social media management that makes this blog run smoothly. My cat, Pancake, will be providing additional emotional support.

And with your donations, I’m bringing on a curator for our Facebook community to diversify the content on our feed, and hopefully a moderator to keep the space free of trolls.

It’s important to me to be a good neighbor, too.

This is why I’m in the process of creating partnerships with different pages, activists, blogs, and platforms to boost the signal on work that I think is important, regardless of their follower count or what they’re able to offer “in return.” This is why you might have noticed over on Facebook some of the same pages and names popping up.

If this sounds like something you’re interested in, be sure to reach out and let me know!

I’m also committed to donating a portion of my Patreon funds to other content creators in the community, as I’ve done from the very beginning. For every $100 dollars earned from this campaign, at least 10% is reinvested into platforms led by queer & trans people of color.

If my work has been valuable to you, please consider supporting me!

My ultimate goal is to be able to make this work more sustainable for me, while also building more community and connection in the process. I think Patreon is opening the door for a more thoughtful way to crowdfund, one that can support me while also offering something to you in return.

This blog will continue to have great content that anyone can access. The difference is that it’ll be backed by some rad folks in the community, backing me as I create those resources.

And I’m excited to see what’s next! Whether you’ve got a dollar a month or just a comment to cheer me on, please know that having you in my corner means a lot. Thanks for sticking with me.

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Capture Bonding: How I Both Need and Grieve My Gender Transition

If we were to believe the dominant narratives around gender transition, we could only conclude that it’s a magical, affirming, and life-giving process. With these stories—and the glorious “before and after” photos that accompany them—we’re told that the uncomplicated truth of transition is that when the transformation is complete, we emerge on the other side whole and shimmering.

I am not whole, nor am I shimmering.

I often wonder: Can it be true that I can’t inhabit this body anymore—with its curves and parts that alienate me—but am still bonded to it? Top surgery is on the horizon for me. While I can’t fathom living the rest of my life with this chest, a part of me is grieving this loss. These curves were always guests (never residents), but their absence still means something to me.

I understand it only in metaphor. Imagine the kidnapped person who bonds to their captor. Imagine that the trauma forces them to forge a bond that will sustain them and wound them all at once. Imagine the attachment that is both real and illusory, born out of a need to survive.

For many transgender people, we find ways to form attachments to the assigned bodies and identities that harm us so that we can bear the burden for another day. And so the euphoria, disgust, and the fear come all at once. Behind the joy, my transition has been grief. My transition has been letting go. My transition has been hard.

I am losing the face that I knew. I delight in my beard, yet I long for the softness that was once underneath. I am angular in all the right ways, yet I still have affection for the youth I once held in my cheeks. And I wonder if it’s possible that the face I rejected (the dysphoria and the distress still real) wasn’t mine to keep but still meant something to me.

I know the feeling of being misgendered, like a knife perpetually wedged between your ribs. And I know the feeling of entrapment in a body that isn’t “right,” a fleshy coffin that conceals and suffocates you. And someday, I hope I’ll know the relief of having broken free of those things—to recognize myself fully when I look in the mirror.

But I live in the real world, too, where the pretending had to be so emphatic, it flirted with the truth. I had to be something I wasn’t long enough to reasonably convince myself, and the feelings there are residual, even now. My breasts disgust me, but they are familiar to me, too—sometimes I cringe, sometimes I cry, sometimes I laugh, sometimes I even smile, and sometimes I feel nothing at all.

When your body is the captor, and your urge is to survive, how do you go on? For some of us, we dissociate, we separate, we detach. But I believe that some of us form attachments, too—to our dead names that our protectors used to coo as they cradled us in their arms, to our bodies that lovers used to gently trace with a finger or lusted after from across the room. And while we know in our hearts that we must change, the intimacy and meaning of what we were was never lost on us.

And it’s this attachment that too many trans people are deeply ashamed of. How can I be seen as valid if I am not willing to abandon the entirety of what I was, of what that felt like? Am I truly transgender if I am unsure, afraid—or grief-stricken, even? If this is everything I need, but it hurts just the same? How can I hold this contradiction if it threatens my existence?

My brother, on occasion, slips and calls me his “sister.” Like a good trans person, I correct him. But some part of me cannot admit that when he says it, I am sometimes comforted—not because I am a woman or was ever a girl, but because I remember the warmth and protection his voice carried when he said it to me, when I was small and still new to this world.

When he says “sister,” it evokes a memory—a very particular one—of blood. When I cut my head open when I was 13, and despite his undeniable phobia of blood, he held his breath and a towel firmly against the wound while I cried. He was brave and he was sensitive and he spoke so softly to me. Then, and many times over, I was so proud to be his “sister.”

I admit that I am still learning to be proud of being his “brother,” too.

Like many trans people, I am learning to reattach to new words and new parts. I imagine what my body will be with immense joy and fear, worried and wondering what of “me” I’ve gained and what of “me” I’ve lost. Every year that passes, I fall more deeply in love with my name—Sam Dylan Finch, which rolls off the tongue like a tender incantation—while still wondering if the name I buried lives on someplace else. The unfamiliar becomes sweetly familiar, while the once familiar nips at my heels like a neglected dog.

It all had to mean something—and in a parallel universe, I think it still does, living on just as it was—because for this life to be bearable, I had to make meaning of these things. Because while the trauma of my assigned gender was at times like a clenched jaw around my body, it was, at first, the only thing I knew. And I created safety with what little kindling I had; I built a fire. Though it may have burned me and even, for a moment, engulfed me, it also kept me warm.

The truth of transition, they will tell you, is that it is pure and unadulterated joy and discovery. It makes for a touching story, to be sure. But quietly, I hold the space for something more—the messy reality that mingling with that joy is also raw and relentless grief, a letting go that too many of us struggle to make sense of.

To live these lives—to survive the trauma of being transgender in a world that denies us, invalidates us, destroys us—we’ve struck a delicate balance of detachment and attachment, forming bonds with our captors that we are unlearning as we become who we’re meant to be.

They tell us that those bonds make us confused or invalid. But I write these words to speak the truth: those bonds are a testament to our resilience. And whether you choose to break them or protect them, what matters most is that you’re still here.

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This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Unapologetic Feminism.

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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The (Third) Elephant In The Room: Yet Another Gender Q&A

One reason why I’ve really enjoyed having a blog is being able to see how my views and self-insight have changed overtime. And this is why I’ve done a question & answer about my gender almost every year now — I want to demonstrate the ways in which gender can be fluid, and affirm that our ideas around identity and transition can shift or evolve (and yes, that’s totally okay!).

I’m a little late on this one (we’re like, halfway through 2017 now, can you believe it?), but if you’re new to the blog, this is something of a check-in to see where I’m at in my transition. And as always, if you have more questions, you can tweet me!

These are essentially the same questions as the last two years, with a few new ones thrown in that I’ve been coming across in my inbox lately. Here we go!

What is your gender? What pronouns do you use?

I’ve been pretty attached to the descriptors “non-binary gay boy.” I go with he/him pronouns, but I also respond to they/them.

What do those words mean to you?

“Non-binary,” for me, means that I don’t view my gender identity as being exclusively masculine or feminine. It gives me some latitude when expressing and exploring my gender.

The additional phrasing of “gay boy” kind of helps refine what I mean (non-binary is such a broad category, I think that’s why so many of us under this umbrella use multiple descriptors).

“Gay boy,” to me, acknowledges that I’m plugged into a specific subset of queer culture here in San Francisco (sometimes gendered language helps denote community ties, you know?).

It also pinpoints the gender role in society that I’m most comfortable occupying/being read as (in a binary world) without the expectation of cisnormative masculinity the way that “guy” or “man” gives off.

Have your self-descriptors changed since last year?

Yeah, definitely. This last year has been about confronting my relationship to masculinity. I’m not very invested in traditional, normative expressions of masculinity, so I’ve shifted to using language that better reflects that.

I use “genderqueer” less often and “non-binary” more often lately, though either is fine and both are accurate.

Are your gender identity (sense of self) and your gender expression (how you express it on the outside) the same? Different?

I’d say that they’re about the same! The cool thing about the language that I use is that it gives me a lot of room to experiment. My clothes are a little more masculine than I’d like them to be, but that’s because I haven’t had the money to replace my old stuff.

How did you know you were transgender?

I’m way less interested in this question than I have been in years past (I’ve answered it a few times, it’s out there on the internet if it’s important to you). I think gender is just forward motion, and this is my trajectory, whether I could anticipate it from the start or not.

“How did you know?” sometimes becomes a way to measure the authenticity of some trans people against others, and I think it’s worth restating that all trans people are valid regardless of their timeline. So that’s what I’ll leave you with.

Are you still taking testosterone? Do you have other plans for medical transition?

I’m offering up this information because I want to, not because I’ve been asked to (Riley has a great video on why this distinction is important).

I’ve been taking testosterone for… a year and a half now? I don’t think I look super different, but here are some photos for reference:

I have a lot more body hair (which I have pretty mixed feels about), my body proportions are different (narrow hips, broader shoulders), my voice has dropped a bit, and overall I think I read as a lot more androgynous which was my big goal when I went on T. My beard is also finally coming in — I have whiskers all over the place which might look silly to some people but I think it’s totally endearing.

As for surgery, I have my first consultation on July 10th. I should be overjoyed, but instead, I’m struggling with it. My future is kind of up in the air because I haven’t been able to secure a job here (and freelance writing just isn’t enough right now), so I’m not even sure if I’m staying in the Bay Area or moving out of state. Which means that my top surgery might end up delayed (again) if I’m forced to leave here.

Top surgery is vital for me — my greatest source of dysphoria is my chest. I don’t know what I’m going to do if it gets delayed again.

(If you want to help, becoming a Patron through my Patreon is a great way to support me. Hint hint, nudge nudge. I’m less active there than I should be, but I’m circling back, I promise.)

I’m trying to stay hopeful. But I’d be lying if I said it’s not really difficult right now.

How are you feeling about your transition so far?

I’ve written some pretty contentious articles talking about the complexities of transition. My favorite one is this narrative I published last April. Overall, I feel happy with where things are headed and I don’t have any regrets (which is good!). I also think it’s okay to feel conflicted or uncertain sometimes, too, and I’ve definitely been there on more than one occasion.

How does your sexual orientation factor into all this?

I’ve really appreciated seeing the word “gay” evolve a little bit to have multiple meanings. It’s not just men who are into men. For me, I’m “gay” in that I’m attracted to (sexually and romantically) folks of similar genders. So non-binary folks, genderfluid folks, the occasional masc person.

I also identify as greysexual (on the ace spectrum), which I haven’t talked about much. But sex itself is not a big priority or drive for me, and it’s not a significant part of my life. So while I have partners, those relationships focus on emotional intimacy and companionship, and I’m perfectly happy that way.

What’s been the most difficult part of being trans for you (since you last answered these questions)?

Not having access to what I need. My top surgery was delayed over, and over, and over again. I only own one chest binder, which was sent to me by a super generous friend. Most of the clothing I own is from four or five years ago, before I really knew my own style or identity. It’s hard to feel comfortable in your own skin when you can’t alter your body or appearance to push back against the dysphoria.

Being transgender costs money and it’s a price tag that I really can’t afford at this place in my life.

It’s worth saying that this being my biggest challenge is a manifestation of privilege in some ways. For the most part, I don’t move through the world fearing for my physical safety, especially since I’m white and perceived as masculine. I want to keep that in perspective not to invalidate the dysphoria I feel, but to highlight that within the trans community, our struggles have different consequences, different realities.

How was your first pride weekend?

OVERWHELMING. I documented it over on Instagram. I’d avoided Pride up until now because huge crowds of drunk people sounded like something out of a nightmare. But I did go to Trans March! I’d never seen so many trans folks in my life, and it was empowering (and exhausting, tbh) to march alongside them.

Trans march was excellent 🌈🎉💕☀️👍🏻

A post shared by Sam Dylan Finch (@samdylanfinch) on Jun 24, 2017 at 1:05pm PDT

 

It took me like, the whole weekend in bed to recover. But it was worth it for sure.

What’s next? What do you see for yourself in the coming year?

If I can just financially stabilize, I can stay in the Bay Area, keep my apartment, and get my surgery. Finding a stable job has been my sole focus right now. I don’t know what’s next, but I do know that I’m not going to give up.

The reality is, especially under this administration, there will always be obstacles for trans people. But we’re resilient. I’m resilient. So we keep going, even when things seem uncertain and even hopeless.

I hope that by the time I answer these questions next year, I’ll have had my surgery and I’ll have the safety that I need in my life. I’m not going to stop trying until I do.

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Cis ‘Allies,’ You Probably Think This Work is About You

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by cis “allies” that if I don’t directly appeal to them in the most generous terms possible, I can’t expect their support. And as far as I can tell, this is a pretty explicit way of saying, “I will not affirm the humanity of transgender people unless their movement caters to me.”

I mean, at least you’re being honest so I know upfront that I can’t count on you.

A lot of fake allies came out in full force when I wrote an article in late March, really unpacking different trans-antagonistic microaggressions (in plain terms, acts that hurt trans people in subtle but important ways). I put an incredible amount of labor into that work, trying to hold space for cis folks’ emotional realities while also being firm about what is and isn’t acceptable when interacting with folks from my community.

“Oftentimes, as we try to support the people we love, we can make mistakes – and that’s a normal and expected part of the process,” I explained. “The best way to make it right is to learn a little more, do some self-reflection, and not just apologize, but commit to changing our behaviors.”

Wow, I’m so mean… (sigh)

I offered a piece that I believed could bridge gaps in understanding for cis folks, particularly loved ones, who were struggling with their own emotions around transition. I put an incredible amount of intention behind every word that I wrote. And I wrote from the place of someone who has firsthand experience trying to hold space for my family, my friends, and my own pain all at once.

I’ve often said that when I write these rare pieces that are designed to reach folks of privilege, I’m (in some ways) giving them my heart. And a few months out now, and thousands of responses later, I find myself questioning why I did that in the first place.

Cis folks, I’ve been told over and over again that I’m not patient enough, nice enough, generous enough. That if I’d just be a little more understanding and a little less hostile, you’d come through.

(And this is a familiar refrain for folks who are marginalized. This isn’t new. “Allies” love to hold their support hostage, making it as conditional as possible so that they feel justified in doing nothing. I see white queer folks in my own community doing this right now. White folks who are looking at Black folks protesting at Pride for the right to exist, telling them they’re too angry, too disruptive. As if the comfort and feelings of white people somehow matters more than Black lives.)

Allies, most having never shown up for these communities beyond a filter on their profile pictures, love to tell folks that their tactics are wrong. As if marginalized folks haven’t lived in these bodies and persisted through these struggles their entire lives. As if allies are somehow better positioned to determine how communities should advocate and care for one another.

“Allies” like these think that they know better and that they’re owed the emotional labor and warmth of marginalized people at all times… otherwise we’re not worth the time of day.

Cis people, you’re breaking my heart. But that’s what I get for putting it on loan, right?

In fact, some of you find it more offensive that I’m calling you “cisgender” than you are with the rampant amount of violence waged against trans women of color. You’re outraged by a label, a category that does nothing to endanger or disempower you — one that names the safety that you possess in this world because of your identity, and asks for you to acknowledge it.

A simple acknowledgment. And you accuse us of asking for too much, of being too much.

But this was never about me. I’ve held your hand. I’ve held this space for you on more than one occasion, applauding your good intentions and giving you the benefit of the doubt. This was never about what I did and didn’t say, how I did or didn’t say it — I know this because I’ve coated it in honey for you and you still said it was bitter.

When it comes to privilege, it’s almost always about comfort. Your comfort. And until you’re willing to sit with that discomfort, my approach and my labor are irrelevant at best. I could hand it to you made-to-order, to every specification, and it still wouldn’t be enough. If you’re not ready to be made uncomfortable, not just once but many times over, you were never going to be my “ally” in the first place.

And to be clear, I’m not here to make you feel comfortable.

My work, first and foremost, has been giving folks in my community resources to help them survive — whether it’s a tool to start a conversation, or the affirmation they need to feel a little more whole in a world determined to irreparably fracture them. Even when I’m taking the time to teach cis folks, I’m doing it because I want trans people to live in a world where we don’t need to have these conversations anymore.

You emailed, and you tweeted, and you commented, determined to make it about you and what I apparently owed you. You told me that I was unkind, and that I’d never get allies if I didn’t cater to you.

That article had sugar on top and ice cream in the middle, and you said it had a bad aftertaste.

Instead of sitting with those feelings, wondering how you could process in a way that would translate to meaningful action, you rejected everything out of hand. You unloaded your feelings and fragility onto me, demanding that I take it all back. You lashed out, as if to say, “If I have to feel uncomfortable for even a minute, I’m not interested in the pain and fear that you experience every minute of every day.”

I’m not going to claim that I’ve never been defensive, uncomfortable, fragile. I’ve encountered my own learning curve around my privileges, particularly around race, class, and education. But I’ve learned (and oh-so-generously spelled out for you in this article about call-outs) that navigating this graciously is part and parcel of being a decent human being.

Cis folks, I’ve never asked you to be perfect. I know better than anyone that when we’re trying to unlearn all this toxic shit, it takes time and intention. Marginalized folks have been saying ad freaking nauseam that showing up for us and doing the work is a process, not a destination or a title that you earn after you collect enough cookies.

(The concept of “ally” itself is dubious at best. Bless Indigenous Action Media for this article about the “ally industrial complex” and being accomplices rather than allies, some further reading if this conversation has miraculously sparked your interest/you haven’t angrily tweeted me already).

But when I hand you my labor and my heart on a silver platter, and your instinct is to withhold your Very Precious Allyship™ (as if trans folks can’t get on without you — talk about self-important), the problem isn’t with me. It’s with you. 

The amount of labor (emotional, intellectual) that goes into directly engaging with attitudes and people that dehumanize us is, in itself, far deeper and more difficult than any momentary discomfort you experience when a trans person asks you to do better.

And your inability to honor that labor tells me that my approach here isn’t the problem. It was never the problem. Your unwillingness to engage in conversations that don’t flatter or comfort you is. And if that’s your idea of allyship, you can keep it. I won’t miss it.

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