A myth about transgender people is that we just wake up one day and decide we are trans. A couple more days of thinking about it and we’re ready to transition. Of course, that’s not the least bit true.
The confident transgender person you meet today is probably the result of years of wrestling with their identity, possibly decades of soul-searching. And some know sooner than others, just as we might learn any important thing about ourselves sooner than other people might. There are children who know their true gender at five years old, and those of us who took a few more…decades… to figure it out.
It’s similar to a ten-year-old loving to draw and showing some ability versus a fifty-year-old taking a continuing education art class and realizing not only does she love to draw, but that she’s pretty good at it.
What is at the heart of all of those examples, though, is a voyage. Whether you are five, ten, or fifty, learning about yourself is the product of a voyage of discovery. At any age, finding out who you really are is the key to knowing your authentic self. Knowing ourselves the best we can, honing in on who we really are, can be extremely valuable, regardless of who we find ourselves to be.
As I already hinted, my journey took many, many years. Mine is not the dominant narrative that you hear so much from trans people, that I knew when I was three and spent the rest of my life trying to get someone to listen and take me seriously (although I probably wouldn’t have had much luck in that department any way, having had the terrible luck to be born in the mid-Sixties when no one in suburbia had even heard for transgender, transsexual, or any other such things).
No, mine was just a childhood of unexplained feelings of alienation. I didn’t fit anywhere. I was a walking, talking round peg stuck in a square hole. It wasn’t until my teens when I finally thought that gender might be the problem. But it was still only the Seventies, and I still didn’t fit the prevailing narrative. I didn’t “want to be a girl,” or even know I was a girl. I just knew the only time I was comfortable — the only time the pieces of my life actually fit — was when I could see myself as a girl.
I was probably mid-teens when I finally found a word that I thought fit me. I was reading Dear Abby and a woman’s husband liked to dress up in women’s clothes and make-up. Abby said this person was obviously a transvestite. I had a word for myself. Only years later would I realize how demeaning this word could be. And how little it actually fit me.
As the years went by, I added the word cross dresser to my vocabulary. I really thought that’s who I was: someone who liked to dress up. I even read in a psychology book about paraphilias and the term autogynophilia. This is the idea that someone cross dresses for a sexual thrill, and at first blush, it seemed to fit me.
Dysphoria and My Inner Demons
Sure, I felt sexy when dressing as a woman, at least when I felt I looked good. However, it wasn’t what I was wearing exactly that made me feel the way I did. If I didn’t like the make-up job I did, if I didn’t think I looked feminine enough, I got very distraught. I would frequently stop cross dressing for months, maybe years, at a time when I felt like I didn’t look attractive en femme. And of course, I was my own worst critic.
I hadn’t heard of gender dysphoria at the time, and might not have recognized it in myself if I had. It was only later I recognized that feeling of distress, almost self-hatred as dysphoria. When I thought about this many years later, it finally made sense. I finally knew what made me angry. I was mad at my body for letting me down, for not always letting me see the woman I wanted to see in the mirror. I was angry with a world that would give me a body that didn’t match who I really was.
These feelings only fed into my existing internal struggle. I dealt with constant shame for my desire to be feminine. I thought I had a fetish and that there was something wrong with me. If only I could assert myself as male once and for all and be done with this. So, several times in my life, I purged all my feminine things and tried to live as a guy. Around the time I met my first wife, I had grown a (scraggly) beard and mustache, rode a motorcycle and smoked Marlboro Reds. I now refer to this time of my life as my “butch phase.”
My first wife new about the cross dressing but didn’t approve. She forbid me from doing it once we got married. I then entered a purge that lasted almost seven years. Like a spring that gets bent too far too long, I eventually could do nothing but spring back. I spent the last four years of our marriage cross dressing in secret and making friends with the many others I met online.
Who Am I, Really?
It wasn’t until our marriage fell apart that I was able to address the question of who and what I really am. Let me tell you, this was a confusing time. In addition to dealing with feelings of abandonment from my wife and I splitting up, I had no idea where to start figuring out who I was and what I wanted out of the rest of my life.
I would love to say that this process of discovery, the path I finally found that led me to the woman I am to day, but that’s just not how life works. And I’m not sure I would want it to be different. I needed those years of questioning, exploring, meeting other people I thought were like me, meeting still more people, some of whom were like me. It was almost two years until I finally determined who I really was, what I really needed to be happy.
My transition started tentatively, so subtly I hadn’t even noticed at the time. I uncovered in therapy that I wasn’t happy with spending just my weekends going out en femme. I realized I wasn’t just playing at being a woman, I was one. I needed to live 24/7 as the woman I finally knew I was. Easier said than done. I had no idea how to get started.
I found a transgender support group around the time I had started seeing a gender therapist. The support group was the best thing I could have done at the time, and I kick myself for not seeking it out sooner. I feel like I might have figured myself out faster that way. If nothing else, I developed a network of friends and a support system that made the all the difference when I transitioned in earnest. I wouldn’t have known what to do or how to really get started without these people. Although I had started seeing a gender therapist first, I think back to the first time I attended the support group and feel like that was really the first step I took in my transition.
What I Learned by Finding My True Self
You might be wondering what is the point of my telling all this personal history. It might be useful for others to know my narrative and how it differs from others, but that is not my reason for sharing here. My reason is because I learned a lot when I finally learned who I really was.
Once I started dealing with people as my true self, once I was authentic in a major portion of my life, all the shields I had up to keep people out came down. I was more open with others. My gender issues had been my biggest secret and they were now front and center, so I gave up being secretive. for the first time in my life, I truly had nothing to hide.
I also found community. I knew only vaguely that there was a transgender community out there. Until I became a part of it. I found my cynicism, my defense mechanisms, finally standing down. I could be a caring person and connect with others in a way that I never thought I could.
And successfully connecting with a whole new community, feeling the weight of all my secrets slip off my shoulders, all of that made me feel incredibly good about myself for the first time in, well, my entire life. Good bye moping, closeted person pretending to be a guy (and not doing a very good job at it). Hello self-esteem.
The Benefits of Truly Knowing Myself
All of this was down to my finding out who I really was and letting her come out. If I had still been in the closet, I would not have been able to let go of my secrets. If I had not set aside the time to really think about and explore who and what I was, I may not have ever discovered this beautiful person inside me trying so hard to be heard. Without this process of discovery, and the guts to take a long hard look at my life to determine what was wrong, I would still be an unhappy, miserable person. Becoming who I really am has made me an easier person to be around and — I think — an all around better person.
I now have a pretty full life. I work hard at a job I love, but I also try hard to give back to the community. Because participating in a support group was such an incredible formative experience for me, I continue to peer facilitate a local group. I love working with people with a variety of genders and at all kinds of points in their journeys. All seem to crave interaction with others who seem to be going through similar experiences. Many have become my friends.
I also sit on the board of directors of the advocacy, education, and support organization that runs my support group. I have helped plan and contributed my time to a number of events and programs that have shown members of the community that they were not alone, and educated friends, partners, and family of transgender people. I could not have contributed so much to my community had I stayed in the closet and pretended I wasn’t a part of it.
Being Your True Self: It’s Like a Super Power Everyone Can Have
So what does this mean for you? You might say, “that’s an interesting story Janelle, but I’m not trans. How does this relate to me?”
Good question. Here’s how. Remember how I had to take time out of my life and just think about what I really wanted? My response to a tough time in my life — the dissolution of my marriage — was to drill down deep and figure out what I needed, who I was, once and for all. I did this by asking myself questions: what do I really want? What have I always wanted? Why?
Once I had an idea what I wanted, what I really needed, I sought out experiences to validate that. I hung out with people I could relate to, and later “found my tribe” at the peer-led support group. I researched what it would mean for me to live full time as my true gender, to be seen as the woman I increasingly realized I was.
I learned the down sides of what I was getting into: hoops to jump through for everything from therapy to name change; threats to my body and well being from those who might do us harm; loss of friends and family members who don’t quite understand why we are doing this. There was only one main upside: being comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life. The upside, for me, turned out to be worth all of the downsides.
Think about what you need to do to find the most real version of yourself. Not the one others see or even want to see. The you that you want to see. That you have always known you could and should be. What is stopping you from realizing your potential? What is in the way of being who you really are?
Oh, the Things You Can Do…
Remember, too, what I said about all the great things I couldn’t have accomplished had I not transitioned? Think about all you could accomplish as your true self. That might be hard to imagine: I had no idea half of what I have accomplished in the ten years since I started my journey was even possible. But think of what you want to be able to do, how you want others to see you. Do you want to be the one who everyone turns to for advice? Someone who cares about and can love others because they finally love themself? You can.
“But wait,” you might say. “What if I get it wrong? What if I don’t really ‘find myself?’” That’s the great part: there are no wrong answers here. This is a process and, as long as you continue to dig for the truth of who you are, you cannot make a mistake. The worst that can happen is you’ll decide you have not unearthed the true you yet and have to keep digging.
Please, please, please don’t let self-doubt hold you back. The only way you will be unsuccessful is if you don’t allow yourself to honestly try. You have to start and you have to keep going. It might be daunting, but even the longest journey has to start with that first step.
Are you ready to start stepping?