I didn’t transition gracefully — executing all the steps from boy-life to girl-life with a flourish. If anything, I stumbled around wildly, bumping into walls and other people and the sharp edges of furniture, until I found a path. And I think I’m not in the minority, at all. I think a lot of us figure out our true selves through trial and error, with a lot of error in the mix.
This was always going to be true for me, personally, because I had a lot of soul-searching to do when I started figuring out my gender. But a few things made this process harder than I had to be: the medical establishment was overly focused on gatekeeping, forcing me to jump through their hoops while I was navigating my own labyrinth. Other trans people tried to impose their own rules or boundary-policing on me (like “You can’t be trans unless X, Y or Z is true.”) The labels that were available at the time felt very one-size-fits-all, and I couldn’t easily find the one that made sense for me.
But most of all, there’s just the basic fact that any kind of gender change — let’s call it “gender renovation,” because that sounds very stylish — requires you to figure out aspects of yourself that are squishy and hard-to-define and constantly shifting. And thanks to our horrid society, you have to do this tricky, vulnerable, challenging work while constantly being on the receiving end of micro-aggressions, harassment and overt discrimination.
As I’ve mentioned before, I started out thinking of myself as gender-fluid, and that’s still kind of true. For a while, I was telling people that I would accept any pronoun, though I was mostly dressing femme, and this was around the time I experimented with using the name Julia. I got frustrated, though, when people would always default to using the male pronoun for me. And I took part in a queer group reading in another city, and the host said the reading order should be “boy-girl-boy-girl” — and I realized I was being designated as one of the boys. Later on, I thought I could keep the name I was given at birth, but still identify as a girl. I still have a bunch of sent emails in an old folder, which I sent as, “A girl named [Deadname].” I believed that if every one of my email headers specified that I was a girl despite having a traditionally male name, people would get it. (Reader, they did not get it.)
I told everyone, including my therapist, that most days I felt like I was 80 percent a woman—so I should just change my name and my legal gender, and start hormones. In retrospect, I’m glad I did those things. After all these years, I feel comfortable and seen, identifying as a woman, and I no longer worry so much that if I do slightly the wrong thing, I’ll invalidate my womanhood in the eyes of society. I have gotten a lot of practice at being a trans woman whose gender expression shifts and rearranges from time to time. When I started hormones, my therapist wrote a lovely letter to my doctor saying that I met the spirit, if not the letter, of the Harry Benjamin guidelines.
And here’s where the part about microaggressions, harassment and discrimination come in. I haven’t had it nearly as bad as a lot of people, especially QTPOC folks. But I used to get yelled at on the street pretty much every time I left the house, and I experienced blatant job discrimination. Some guy stalked me and tried to break into my house. People used to shout at me that I was a man, or just homophobic slurs. Cars would drive past and people would shout insults that mostly got swallowed up by their wind-shear. The misgendering was pretty much a daily occurrence, for a long time.
I think we need to acknowledge more openly how messed up it is that trans and non-binary and gender-nonconforming people are expected to figure out our gender identities, at the same time that the world is telling us that we’re garbage. It would be like trying to make a really delicate soufflé at the same time that a talentless grunge-rock band is mangling a cover version of Nirvana’s “All Apologies” in the next room. It’s not just that we’re in a vulnerable place, it’s that we’re trying to do a delicate, complicated, confusing operation with no right answers, and y’all are making a lot of noise and trying to throw us off our game. This is why I have nothing but awe and respect for other trans/nb/gnc folks.
Back in the day, I was lucky enough to have have an essay accepted in an anthology of trans and genderqueer writing called Pinned Down by Pronouns, and I wanted to quote part of it here because it really captures what I’m talking about.
Can you live in a borrowed gender without believing your own hype? I wonder about this all the time, because sometimes it feels like it's all hype — every story I tell about myself.
If you believe your own myths, you'll go nuts. But just try going through the world with a homemade gender without making up stories. They're a lifeline….
Hype: I'm the girl without fear. I can go anywhere without a flinch. I'm a genderfucking beauty queen, stare all you want. I've always been this way. I'm brand spanking new.
I'm a riddle trapped in an answer's body.
The truth, the untouched truth, is kinked up, wouldn't fit on a blurb. The truth is, the mirror is a roulette wheel to me. My gender is a radio station that I pick up on clear nights if I hold my antenna the right way. I'm out to everyone, yeah — but some people only know as much as they can stand to know.
I'm confused a lot of the time. And I try to make confusion a virtue, because if you're not confused, there's something wrong with you.
But I don't admit my lack of clarity too often. The boy/girl system turns us all into opposable digits and if you don't choose, you get crushed in its fist. …
So I repeat my self-made mythology: I'm an impossible doll. Too lovely for a boy, too mean for a girl, I became my own animal. You can't touch me. Touch me if you want. You must touch me. I'm not for sale. Buy me now. I'm perfect.
A lot of people probably just know Julia Serano as a brilliant trans activist who pours her energy and brilliance into challenging the latest nonsense from fauxminists and right-wing dingbats. But Julia’s also a wonderful poet and songwriter — I’ve been lucky enough to see her perform many times over the years, and to share a stage with her on a few occasions. She has a wonderfully offbeat, goofy sense of humor, which you can hear in some of her songs with Bitesize and * soft vowel sounds *. And now Julia’s written a novel in stories, called 99 Erics, which is just a pure dose of her silly, irreverent, dorktastic jokes and observations about the world. 99 Erics is about a girl named Kat Cataclysm who decides to date 99 men named Eric (though Kat is already in a long-term open relationship). Kat and the Erics have conversations about art, culture, duct tape, and anarchism versus socialism. This book is an absolute delight and a great escape from the scariness of the world, and I highly recommend it.
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t have a personal Patreon or a GoFundMe, and I’m not planning to do a Kickstarter anytime soon. But you can pre-order my upcoming YA novel Victories Greater than Death, and it would be like you’re helping to crowdfund my career. And you would get free stuff! Your support means everything to me, seriously—it’s a tough time to be launching a new book, what with the pandemic still messing up bookstores.
Meanwhile, Tor Teen came up with this lovely graphic showing where Victories Greater than Death fits in a venn diagram: