The following are some of the firsts that happen in a trans-person’s life. I don’t believe people who aren’t trans have many similar experiences. To be sure, not all trans-people experience all of them, but I think most will know many of them. And I’m pretty sure nearly every trans-person experiences some of them. In many ways, they define us, both to ourselves and the rest of the world.
There are firsts you may or may not remember, depending on how old you are when they happen. Such as the instant you become aware that you’re different, when that narrator in your head first articulates the thought, “I don’t know why or how, but I’m not normal.” Or, some time after that, that you realize you’re actually more girl than the boy they’ve always said you were (or boy than girl), than everyone, including you, expected you to be. The farther into your youth you are when these moments happen, the more discomforting they often feel.
Later on, you experience that electrifying instant when you dress and present as your intended gender for the first time. It feels like a fuse has been lit in your soul when you see that person you’ve seen forever in your mind’s eye, standing before you in a mirror. It may be followed quickly, or not so quickly or, sadly, not at all, by your first steps beyond the chrysalis of your bedroom, or your bathroom, or the privacy of a hotel room – into the real world as the real you.
There is also the moment you curse the affliction of your gender the first time you lie to a loved one to get a few hours, or a few days, away from your “real life,” to be your authentic self. Unfortunately, the guilt usually lessens with time and guile and practice – the process of which leaves a different kind of emotional scar. Akin to this experience is the first time you are caught crossdressing by a loved one, friend, colleague or acquaintance. There’s that moment of cold terror in the pit of your stomach when you see the shock in their eyes and realize that the carefully made contrivance of your “real world,” may be over or, at the very least, never the same again.
Then there is the first time you get stopped by a cop. (This is almost an inevitability, no matter how virtuous or law abiding you may be. I don’t know why, but there is some sort of kismetic attraction between the exact moment when you are at your most real, and therefore your most vulnerable, and when you most want to blend in with the world around you – and the nearest member of law enforcement. It will happen. If you are extremely fortunate it won’t involve handcuffs, billy clubs, legal fees, or court dates.)
Even though a lot of us can’t find the words to talk about it, there is also a moment too many experience – the first time we consider suicide as a release from the prison of our turmoiled gender. Forty-three percent of transgender people do more than think about it. They attempt it. If they don’t succeed, it leaves a mark on their soul. If they do, it disfigures the souls of everyone their loss affects.
Please don’t misunderstand, living as a trans-individual isn’t only about shadowed truth, transient fear and episodic pain. Far from it. There are countless small triumphs and powerful moments that leave you dumbfounded that an act as mundane as crossdressing can cause, or be the catalyst for, so much joy in a human heart. The first time someone refers to you by the correct pronoun, or calls you “Miss,” or holds a door open or pulls a chair out for you (if you’re a trans-woman), is just such a powerful and affirming moment.
Then there is your maiden excursion shopping as your real self. You could be walking into Target to buy underwear, but the fact that you’re outside the exoskeleton of your birth gender in a public place shopping for the genuine you – you feel like Cinderella descending the main stairway to meet Prince Charming the night of the ball. You are terrified and exhilarated all at the same instant.
And then there is something like this. Three years ago I went to my first transgender conference, the Keystone Conference, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (yes, they actually have them, all over the world.) Keystone is the largest such gathering in the United States with nearly 700 trans-men and women attending every year. That first moment I walked into the hotel and saw so many people who were just like me, who had lived through so many of the same oddly-angled challenges and victories that had defined my life, it was impossible to find words to measure my feelings at that instant. Later, when the tears finally stopped, I understood exactly what I’d experienced. Even though I’d never set foot in that building before, it felt like I had come home. I felt safe and normal, for the first time in my life.
There is also the cascade of emotions you experience when you decide, after however many years, to come out as transgender to the people who populate your world. However well you know them, however sure you are that they love and value you, you are horrified that they will reject you because of your gender reality. Almost as much as you fear their disdain, you mourn the loss of the awkward comfort of the lie you’ve lived every moment of your life, up until that time. Once you are out, particularly if you’re coming out to transition to live full time in your intended gender, you can never go back in. And the unknown horizon beyond is terrifying.
After that conversation comes the inevitable regret. If it goes well, you regret all of the time you wasted hiding and lying and living as someone you weren’t. If it doesn’t go as you hoped, you regret having broached the subject in the first place. Either way, the regret is usually followed by the relief that the person you have always been, and the person you are to the rest of the world, are finally becoming one in the same.