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Gina Conners

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.


Gina Conners

(I belong to a local transgender support group in the Washington, DC area, and we hold social gatherings every so often to which everyone in the transgender community is invited. After one of these recent gatherings, a local trans-woman posted a comment online to the effect that she didn’t think that many of the trans-women who attended the event were “really” transgender because they hadn’t transitioned and had gender confirmation surgery. She also derided the “crossdressers” because she thought they were detracting from the image of transgender women the fulltimers had been trying to create. A lot of people responded to her comments. Here is my reply.)

I think you can see from the responses to your comments that you’ve touched a nerve among the members of this group. What you have done is articulate one side of the most fundamental fissure that exists among the transgender community – who exactly is, and who isn’t transgender.

There is a subset among transsexuals who believe that, unless you have transitioned to living full time on a permanent basis and had gender confirmation surgery, you are not, and can’t be truly transgender. Often, those trans-people deride and belittle “part timers,” calling them fetish crossdressers who only “indulge” for the sexual pleasure it engenders.

Personally, I believe that view starts from a flawed predicate. Transsexuality, crossdressing, transvestism, etc., are not separate conditions derived from unrelated origins. I am convinced that there is only one factor that “causes” every gender issue in every person, irrespective of how it may be expressed in their lives. Every transgender person is motivated by the same thing, a seminal disquiet in the center of our being with our physical gender.

I know this to be true because my life has exemplified this reality. I’m 60 years old. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t feel that I was living in someone else’s body, that the gender the world told me I was wasn’t the way I felt inside. I know – now – that the voice inside me that told me that wasn’t a lonely singer in a desolate wilderness. She was one among a choir of voices within the hearts of millions of individuals around the world who, at the same time as me and forever before and after, were struggling to make peace with their own gender.

Like most of us, I began by “borrowing” things from my mother and dressing in secret. As a teenager that progressed into acquiring a small wardrobe of my own and dressing at every conceivable opportunity. But, no matter how often or seldom I dressed, doing so was never far from the center of my mind. The moments when I could see the girl inside me actually in the mirror were the only instances of true peace I experienced in my childhood. But, this was also the mid-1970s and, while Stonewall had taken place and changes were happening in society, they weren’t happening in the world in which I lived. The community where I lived most of my youth was said to be so Republican that Democrats didn’t get their trash collected. (It wasn’t true, but three members of Ronald Reagan’s first cabinet came from my home county.)

Add to that the fact that both my grandfather and father were Marines, and my dad spent his entire career in the Marines. And, even though my parents separated when I was eight, the ethos of the Corps suffused the tapestry of my childhood. Men, in that world, didn’t dislike being men. Men, in that world, didn’t want to be women. When I came of age I wound up facing what I have come to learn since is the dilemma almost every trans-individual of my era dealt with: do I pursue a path in life that lets me become the gender I knew I was inside, or do I fulfill the role I had been conditioned to live since birth? In short, do I choose my gender identity or my “social” identity. I’ve also learned since that I chose the path that most transgender people like me did at that time – I chose the responsibilities and affirmation of society over my personal fulfillment.

But, again, while I stopped dressing throughout my 20s and 30s to marry, raise a son and pursue a career, a day didn’t go by that I didn’t think about the woman inside me. I felt her presence in everything I did. I wondered what she would be doing at different moments had I chosen that other path in life. Quite frankly, because this was also the time when AIDS was devastating the LGBTQ community, I wasn’t at all sure that I wouldn’t have fallen victim to the disease and ended up a square in the AIDS quilt they assembled on the national mall in Washington in the 80s.

It wasn’t until I was 45 and had had gastric bypass surgery (two years before) and lost 200 pounds that I met that girl inside again. I was on a business trip to Boston and decided to visit a makeup artist who specialized in transgender makeovers. I told myself it was just a lark, just a small indulgence to see how I might look as a woman after losing all of that weight. And that’s all I really thought it was, until the makeup artist turned me around to face the mirror when he’d finished his work.  

Several seconds went by before I remembered to breath again. There was that girl, now grown into a woman. She was there in the world again after more than 25 years. She wasn’t an illusion born of artifice and artistry. She was an inner truth made real and whole by that person’s expertise. And even though she doesn’t live day to day full time even now, she has never gone back into the shadows since that first time.

The point of recounting my experience is to show you that you and I, and every other trans-person no matter where they may fall on the spectrum of transgender expression, are the same. We are kindred victims and beneficiaries of the gender diversity that exists within us. And even though we may have chosen different paths through life, we have experienced many of the same trials and triumphs in learning to live with our unique complexity. We have felt the same pains and experienced the same pleasures. And we seek the same sense of fulfillment and the same inner peace, whatever our individual journeys.

C_____ is right. None of us are better than any other of us. But all of us are better if we recognize that we need each other to find a better place for our community in the world. Petty insults and meaningless derisions only detract from that larger purpose.