And shortly thereafter, I start to write about it. This is what I wrote about a week after I made my decision (which had actually been making itself over the course of many years):
If coming out to oneself as transsexual marks the beginning of transition, then I suppose I am just beginning. However, if transition begins with the onset of questionning of and discomfort with one’s physical sex and/or culturally prescribed gender identity and presentation, then I’ve been transsexual from the beginning.
I remember looking into the term “transgender” (TG) about 4 years ago (late 2003) after answering a survey aimed at lesbian and bisexual women. I had self-identified as bisexual for nearly a decade by then and had been out for a number of years. While responding to the survey, I noticed that there was as alternative to “female” under gender: “transgender”. This was a brand new term for me. I had heard of transsexuals (TS), and even met a couple, but . . .transGENDER? Being an anthropologist and being well aware of the difference between sex and gender, I put two and two together and figured that maybe transgender referred to someone who changed their social identity without necessarily changing their sex. This idea appealed to me and I was fascinated with the idea that I no longer had to limit myself to “female”. It felt good.
However, when I looked into the term, I got into the murky waters of terminology wars and was left more confused than even. I understood that some people used TG as an umbrella term for TS as well as for anyone who did not identify with their ascribed gender or sex but that others used it interchangeably with TS. Yet others found that lumping TS under TG was problematic. In this exploration, I found other interesting terms such as bigendered, pangendered, genderblended, genderqueer, genderfuck, and so forth. After trying a few of these labels on for size (I’m well aware of the whole label debate but humans communicate through symbols and that’s what these terms are. I don’t believe in letting labels limit us but self-chosen labels can be a concise way to describe oneself, leaving more complex explanations for one-on-one talks with friends and journal entries) and eventually genderqueer stuck.
Now, another thing that happened during this exploration was that I learned a little more about TS. I would up on pages written by transsexuals about their views of sex and gender. I found myself very perplexed, nervous and scared. On one hand, the idea that one could change their sex was . . . like a shining light. It stimulated me, in many ways. On the other hand, so many of the people writing sounded so alone, sad and miserable. Years later, I’ve found many, many happy TS accounts to counter this first impression but at the time, the overwhelming physical and emotional sensation that I had when I saw T or TS was . . . aloneness. Despair. A form of death. So I stayed safely away and stayed with the friendly sounding genderqueer.
I began to explore my own gender identity by creating a persona called Gary. Gary had long hair (like I did) and a beard created by applying mascara to my facial peach fuzz. He had male genitals constructed out of condoms and hair gel. He went out with my bi friends on occasion but went to great lengths to reassure them, or at least himself, that he/I was not a transsexual. Almost apologetic, Gary lacked self-assurance. He would turn his existence into a joke, assuming that others would if he didn’t, but got mad when people laughed and took him to be a joke. “This is serious, this is an expression of who I am inside!” he would argue. But he would continue to introduce himself as Nancy and mumble something about putting on a beard for laughs.
Eventually, in 2006 Gary hit the stage as a drag king and I got addicted to the feeling of being perceived as male and treated as male. I gathered some interested peeps to start up a troupe and in February 2007 we put on our first full show. By that time, I had improved by beard techniques, purchased a chest compressor and a realistic male “package.” I had also practiced moving like a man. And boy, did I like it.
After that show, I began to pack daily to go to work. I packed soft, of course, and with a small sized packer that I could feel but that no one could really see unless they were 2 feet away from me and at eye-level with my crotch. I had already been nearly exclusively wearing men’s clothes for about a year by then but packing changed everything. It changed the way I walked and that felt good.
But I still refused to let go of my genderqueer identity. I would glance at the term TS on occasion and wonder what it would be like to even contemplate transition for myself. I would get scared . . . though not as scared as I originally was. While the first encounters with TS were brief and had sent me running, now I would stop and linger, fearfully looking over the edge of the cliff with my heart racing.
Over the following months, I repeatedly ran toward that cliff and stood on the edge trying to see what was down there. The first few times, I panicked as I felt myself slipping. I would flail my arms madly, grab onto some branch that would appear at the right time and retreat. The branch had something different written on it each time: “What about Jacob?”, “What about your hair?? T could make you go bald!”, “What about sex with men? They won’t want you anymore!” and, most importantly, “Don’t change your sex! You’ll be buying into that biological determinist crap! You don’t need to become physically male to express yourself because it’s all social and cultural anyway!”
But repeated ventures to that edge forced me to confront myself and make some important realisations. My academic and feminist backgrounds were working against me achieving piece of mind . . . even more so than mainstream gender standards. I had to sit close to the edge of the cliff . . . .but not too close . . . and examine my own ideas about gender, sex and the relationship between the two. And I had to examine them in both a general context and how they applied to me. And to do the latter, I had to go back and examine the development of my own relationship with myself.