BY JOHN SMITH
I am transsexual.
When I say that my time in law school has been more transformative than I ever could have imagined, I’m talking literally, as in female to male.
I feel a bit awkward sharing my personal life in a public forum, but I think it’s for the best. It’s true that on some days I find my transness utterly inconsequential and completely normal, but those are the good days.
I’m telling you because of the bad days.
Only 16% of people are aware of knowing a transgender person (2002 Human Rights Campaign poll). The rest may very well know a transgender person who is stealth, that is, one who does not go around telling everyone that they used to be a different sex (since that often has the unfortunate effect of then being seen as less than the man or woman they are). With a personal knowledge figure that low, there is a lot of room for misunderstanding and fear. So I want to tell you a little bit about my story because I know that that is the only way I can make the world a safer place for myself and all transgender people.
In junior high, my mom actually asked me several times if I thought I was a man trapped in a woman’s body. It happens, you know, she admonished. I laughed it off–no mom, don’t be silly, girls can wear guy’s clothes. In reality, however, I was ashamed to shop in the men’s department, just more ashamed to do so in the women’s. I wonder what would have happened had she phrased it differently – do you wish you were born a man? Do you wish you didn’t have breasts? Would you like to be a man? Any of those might have allowed me to consider the question, but a man trapped in a woman’s body? That was too frightening. If that were the case, wouldn’t you just be stuck there forever?
The sad irony is that trapped is exactly how I felt, only I had no idea why. I only knew that I wanted to get out of my body, so suicidal thoughts were a standard part of my life. They weren’t really suicidal, however, because didn’t want to actually cease existing. Dying was the only thing I could think of that would release me from my body, but that was a gamble, of course, since there might not be an afterlife. I would often imagine slicing my neck open so that my spirit could escape. And I thought this was normal. I figured all humans didn’t like being in bodies and that everyone wanted out. I never sought professional help all those years because I strongly felt that the problem wasn’t in my brain, that it was my whole body, and drugs or talk therapy wouldn’t help.
Last May things intensified and I experienced an episode of what’s called depersonalization. It’s a little hard to describe, but mine was like watching myself in a nightmare that I couldn’t control. Part of my brain become an outside observer so I actually got to watch myself curled up on the futon in agony. Let me tell you, being outside of my body is perhaps the one thing that’s scarier than being in it, so I’m not looking to repeat that any time soon.
I was in deep denial for so long in part because I learned early on the perils of gender transgression. When I was very young I angrily (and nudely) showed my older brother that I had a penis now too (I’d partially inserted something down there). He screamed bloody murder for our mom with really an urgency and panic that I’ve not heard since. The object that I’d inserted remained on my dresser for years, reminding me every time I saw it of the “shameful” thing I’d done. Girls aren’t supposed to want penises let alone have them.
I know you are thinking, well, that explains it, clearly you were jealous of your brother and that is why you want to be a man. If only that were true! Believe, me I wish I could go to therapy, hash it out with my parents, and solve my problems by realizing it’s OK to be a woman. But I can’t since I’m not. Just like it is now widely recognized that you can’t make someone not be gay through “therapy,” transsexuals cannot be “cured” through therapy either. We just come that way. The only recognized treatment for people like me is to live in the preferred gender, with most folks seeking medical transition of some sort through hormones and/or surgery.
I tried for 27 years to live as a woman. I didn’t know I even had a choice, so I certainly tried to make the best of it. I knew I liked women since I was at least 14 but didn’t get around to officially dating one until my first year of law school. I’d had a very nebulous relationship with a female friend of mine, but it always made me feel like a man, which freaked me out, so it never went anywhere. So I dated men. Why not? I liked being around them, they were my friends and I was a woman, therefore it made sense to date them. Only not. My one relationship became long distance and I went to visit him. He wanted to make out. I really couldn’t fathom this and I just wanted to play cards with him and his roommate. Then there was my last boyfriend, a real sensitive new age type who played that to the hilt in the bedroom. Nonetheless, I’d invariably end up quietly sobbing after sex and wondering what was wrong with me.
I figured I must be a lesbian. I met a woman and we fell in love. We even got engaged. Yes, I was a little desperate to prove that I was, in fact, a woman who loved women. The cracks started appearing a few months in, however. She definitely knew before I did, but she let me figure things out own my own. Eventually I decided to get honest and actually face the question of whether or not I was transgender. It was, in part, my own irrational hostility toward trans people that inspired me to examine where that stemmed from. Turns out I was jealous that they were bold enough to be who they really were while I was consciously making sure I stayed with in the bounds of the female box.
During this time I also met a man who, after I’d known him for a while, mentioned he had transitioned from female to male. I had had no clue that he was once female so that was the first time I knew that a person born in a female body could actually come to have a male body.
Since I’ve slowly been coming to accept the fact that I am trans, things are falling into place pretty quickly. I now have a new language to explain the myriad of anomalies that were building up under the old “I’m bi, I must be a lesbian, I have no idea what’s wrong with me” theory. For example, it explains why when I was 8 at my guinea pigs’ funeral I had a huge lump in my throat but I just kept telling myself that “boys don’t cry.” It’s why that one day that I played with my brother’s trucks in the garden I was so afraid my mother would look out the window and see how happy I was and know that I was really a boy. It’s why for over a year after starting my period I would hide all of my used pads in my closet because I couldn’t stand the thought of my family knowing. (It’s not as gross as it sounds, honest.) It’s why my sex life was rotten, rotten, rotten until I allowed myself to experience my body the way it is in my head and not allow partners to do things that are inconsistent with that.
Where do I go from here? I’m slowly realizing that it probably won’t be possible for me to concentrate on studying for the bar this summer because although psychologists say people like me are “preoccupied” with gender issues, “obsessed” is more like it. What I really hope to do is more research on medical transition, specifically chest surgery, which I hope to have done this summer, and testosterone, which I hope to start taking soon as well. Then, like everyone else who is graduating, I can finally get on with the business of starting my life.
I asked my parents if they were planning on sending out graduation announcements. Imagining what they might read, I got them to laugh: I graduated from Harvard Law School, and oh, by the way, I’m a man.
John Smith thanks The Record for allowing him to share his story without forever compromising his future privacy to anyone with an internet connection.