(Parental Advisory: This post discusses penises and sex. Please dismiss all children and small animals from the room and fill out your form letter to Focus on the Family in advance to save yourself some time; cheers!)
This might just be one cliché all too many trans women of a certain age can relate to.
When I first saw the anime character Ranma my first thoughts were: “damn you to hell, you lucky bastard.” That was back in seventh grade. This is the part of the story where I tell you things you might have been expecting, where I tell you how I snuck into my mother’s closet every time my parents were out and tried on her clothes.
It’s also the part where I tell you that I had a strange sense of envy every time I saw a character on TV that somehow managed to change sex, and how even as I didn’t acknowledge myself I thought that was really cool. It’s the part where I tell you about the high school classmate who made me extremely jealous of him by coming to school dressed as a princess for Halloween.
A lot of that stuff is what fits into the more traditional narratives that cis people are likely to be familiar with.
Despite remembering little else about either the movie or the year in which I first saw it, the part of Ace Venutra: Pet Detective I most recall was the ending where the police lieutenant was shown to have a penis. The ‘jokes’ that followed, and indeed the gag that the revelation of Ms. Einhorn’s identity represented were quintessential transphobia. Yet I was fascinated by it. The same was true of the movies in which crossdressers and drag queens appeared, which were often bedevilled by bigotry and mockery.
If you’re a young trans woman growing up, do you think that’s going to fuck with your head? Just a little? Remember too that this is specifically on top of the broader female-oriented socialisation you’re already receiving which screws with how you perceive women and femininity in general.
Despite the fact that the characters in question were not designed to be sympathetic, however, I still liked them. I was fascinated by them and the fact that what they were doing was even possible, despite the fact that I was being taught each and every time that it made one an object of ridicule and derision. It isn’t fun to contemplate, especially when one feels so drawn to it. That was the only avenue presented to me, as it were. The only way I could do what I wanted and live the way I wanted was to put on a huge blonde wig and a tonne of makeup, it seemed, which was part of how I was denied my true self. Society seemed to say this was my only option. I was made to feel ashamed of any possibility of being trans, as well as made to feel ashamed of my womanhood.
It’s a curious feeling, envying Bugs Bunny for crossdressing. Even stranger to look at a young Eric Idle and envy him for looking pretty in women’s clothing.
The relationship of trans people to clothes is an intriguing one because it’s often the locus of a great deal of hatred against us. Trans women are endlessly vilified as “men in dresses” or “men who want to wear high heels and bras” and so forth. Our clothing is a symbol of a great many things, and oppression is one of them. But clothes also became the symbol of liberation to me. The very things I could not wear, could not do, couldn’t express myself with. If you’re a cis woman think about why you wear what you do. That’s the same reason I wanted to wear certain things. To express myself the way I wanted to.
I was under no misapprehension that clothing would make me a woman.
I also had no ‘fetish’ for them.
My awareness of my dysphoria didn’t light up until I was in my early teens, really. Why? Because honestly I was too busy when I was younger, escaping, building spaceships and cars and cities and Super Mario World and teaching earth sciences and conducting Beethoven’s Fifth and reconstructing the International Space Station from what were then artists conceptions. That’s why. I spent a decade escaping, already, and it wasn’t until I was around 12 or so that I came to realise what I was escaping from.
It began with raiding my mother’s closet and underwear drawer when my folks finally began to leave me at home alone. I’ll never forget my first proper outfit, a black button down blouse with a grey pencil skirt. I walked around the house thinking about how funny it felt to walk around in stockings. Despite being a tomboy a skirt had a certain allure because it was what was restricted from me, I was raised to think it was taboo to touch, much less wear, and as such these types of clothes were completely mysterious to me.
I marvelled at how they fit and liked how I looked in it. I looked at myself in the mirror for many days, weeks, and even years after imagining myself as a cis woman.
What most stands out in my mind was when I confessed this to my mother, out of guilt. The shame and intense self-loathing I felt was too pressing to ignore. I definitely knew by then I couldn’t ever, ever tell my father. I remember distinctly telling myself I’d take this secret to my grave in regards to dad. But mom? Perhaps she’d understand, perhaps she’d not be mad at me for doing this terrible thing. The bedroom was dark because she was watching television in it and I came in, crawled onto the bed and told her quietly, taking advantage of my father being out of the house.
I’ll never forget how she just stared forward, unblinking and unthinking and eventually just brushed it off, not saying much else. I wanted so bad for her to tell me that it was not only okay but normal. I wanted so bad for her to tell me that what I was feeling, what made me want to try on that blouse, was just part of growing up and nothing to feel ashamed about, whatever the TV might say. But the non answer she gave just lead me to mumble that I wouldn’t do it again and she sent me on my way. My mother, these days, feels a lot of guilt about that moment. She regrets sending me away like that, silencing that one oblique cry for help.
I don’t hate her for it, not at all. Today she’s one of my biggest supporters in all of this and she’s damned as hell proud of her daughter; I’m proud to call her my mother.
But back then, neither of us knew what was going on, and I was looking desperately, I realised, for someone in authority to tell me why the hell I was feeling like this. Most of all to tell me it was okay. Why I’d envy some anime character who turned into a woman if he stepped into cold water. Why I utterly despised getting my hair cut with a fiery and virulent passion.
High school, as I discussed last time, provided me with some clues to this rather intricate puzzle of identity.
But I still graduated without a whit of serious understanding concerning my situation.
The year 2004 proved to be a watershed in a variety of ways because it was a year of firsts and a year that represented my first tentative steps into real adulthood- and into an awareness that would prohibit me from ignoring the urgency of my womanhood any longer. 2004 was the year I met my first real girlfriend, the year I went abroad for the first time and visited Toronto, Canada, and the first time I had anything approximating sex.
I say approximating not because of my usual fetish for qualification but because I actually wouldn’t have coital intercourse until some time later. I had no desire to penetrate my then-girlfriend, something that saved us a mint on condoms, in retrospect. She was largely fine with this too. But the fact was that I felt no desire whatsoever to stick my cock into anything or anyone. I didn’t think that meant anything though something in the back of my mind dimly alerted me to the possibility that this wasn’t exactly a frequent occurrence among the male-bodied.
I didn’t feel like I missed anything, though. I still don’t. I have almost no desire in that direction, something that I learned the hard way years later after actually attempting coital sex.
What my ex-girlfriend taught me about myself as a person was much more profound, however. I came to realise both my own emotional immaturity and the fact that I was uncomfortable with the expectations placed on males in heterosexual relationships. It is no lie to say that when I was with her I felt the best when I was naked. Not because it meant we were having sex, but because I didn’t feel disguised by or hidden in my clothing. Through it all, she was a sweetheart; she didn’t burden me with anything and was very accommodating to my many flaws at the time. But I knew she was looking for something in me she wouldn’t find.
When she broke up with me I was left a gibbering mess owing to my aforementioned emotional immaturity and my lack of understanding of how romance was supposed to work. I was still labouring under the assumption that there was a rulebook somewhere and I’m not proud of the things I said or the asinine thoughts I indulged at the time. It was late 2004 and I was in the midst of completing my first semester at the University of Connecticut, wondering how I was going to carry on.
It felt that dire, I thought, because I needed some sort of romance in my life to live.
Extremely so. Again I’m not proud and some of this hurts to write and commit to the Internet but I’m trying to paint a very particular picture here with more brushstrokes to come. I was 17 at the time, about to turn eighteen and I felt life was over because of a silly puppy love break up (dutifully splashed all over Livejournal. Bet you didn’t see that coming!)
I ought to have been past that, certainly, or at least understood that life went on and that I was still very young with all the time in the world. But there was a lot I had been sheltered from, both by my parents and by my own fears and anxieties. I was so sheltered that I didn’t realise my ex-girlfriend’s perfectly reasonable decision to break up with me was not the true cause of my problems. Being with her allowed me to put a sort of spackle over them that enabled me to make emotional ends meet at a vulnerable point in my life, but that was gone when she broke up with me.
She may well have saved my life in doing so, dare I say. It caused me to examine the serious emotional problems I was keeping under wraps, the problems that made me nearly fail my best classes, had me sleeping in until four or five in the afternoon and entertaining very dark fantasies involving my head and a shotgun.
Did she see any of this in me? Maybe. We broke up because of distance, chiefly. But it did shake me out of the reverie of denial I had luxuriated in for the prior six months.
Despite the fact that I was in college and living on my own, technically, there was a lot I hadn’t done. I had never arranged a doctor’s appointment on my own, never mailed something from the post office before, never shopped for clothes on my own before, never realised I was wearing my shoes a size too large, never realised I wasn’t in fact a medium in letter-sized clothes, didn’t take care of my own financial business with the school and with the federal government, had never went to a pharmacy to fill out my own prescription, didn’t know how to drive… The list went on.
That I had come as far as I had despite both a crushing vortex of naiveté and self loathing, as well as my own sheltered inexperience was remarkable in its own way. I graduated with honours from one of New York City’s best high schools, I won a scholarship to go to U Conn, and I was- from all outward appearances- on track to a successful life.
Yet all of the preceding was a sign that something was amiss in my life. I didn’t want to get up in the morning. Or the afternoon. I looked into my future and saw only either a void or me reflexively and perfunctorily discharging the duties of a life I didn’t want to lead.
How did I tie all of this into womanhood?
The connection isn’t always easy to draw. A lot of this is based on feeling and the fact that I simply grew more passionate about life the more I accepted my womanhood. I am quite confident that any raging transphobe or “sceptic” out there would read my words and walk away unconvinced that any of this has anything to do with a desire to transition.
Well, to hell with them. They’re not who this is for.
I can’t convince people I’m a woman anymore than my mother could convince someone she is by telling her life story vis a vis gender as best as she can phrase it. There is a point where her story is what it is and must be taken as such.
I do not believe womanhood is any one thing. I do not believe womanhood is something made by clothing or other accoutrements. I do not believe there is any right way to be a woman per se. There’s an element of self knowing that went into it and this story is about the dawning of that consciousness and that understanding.
It is about how I launched myself out of my chair when a preacher bragged to an audience I was a part about how he kicked his own daughter to the curb because she had been raped while wearing revealing clothing, even as she would learn she carried the rapist’s child. Even as a youth audience cheered for him I stood, darting out of my seat, for the shocked young women around me and voiced my anger at such hatred being passed off as a matter of pride. I did so yet again not only because it was the right thing to do but because it tugged at my very dignity. I felt a sense of empathy and kinship with a young woman who I’d never met and whose face I’d never see.
In many ways my journeys to both feminism and womanhood are intertwined, each wrapped around the other like a double helix.
When I first stood up to my father as he verbally abused my mother and treated her more like a child than a partner, I felt the same sense of dignity. The same was true when I lectured him about teaching my little brother to catcall at women from the car. As I got older my father realised that I was slipping out of his control and influence. Our arguments about women’s rights became more frequent and more personal as I reminded him of his abuses of my mother. As I went on another withering speech against him on some forgotten day a few years ago he interrupted me as he so often did and asked me:
“Are you a woman?”
He would often ask me this angrily, as he thought men had no right to advocate for women.
Yet every time, since that first day he asked me that, I always wanted to scream “YES!” Without fail, that crying affirmation sang through my thoughts each time that question was asked of me. It was personal for me, not just because I was fighting for my mother, but because it was just plain personal.
Even during high school I had these fights with my father and even then he began to question my sexuality. He thought I was gay. He caught me shaving my armpits once and lamented the fact that I never, ever stood up to pee. I still don’t know if it was a ‘sign’ or not, that. It just felt more comfortable and less messy. You have to admit, sitting on the toilet can be pretty relaxing.
But all of this set the stage for 2005.
I would quit UConn and return to New York City in the hopes of rebuilding my life at a local college. Why? Well because I thought I had found the reason for my depression: the campus. I thought going to school in rural Connecticut was a major downer for someone who was a city girl at heart and that going home would fix everything. I ignored the fact that my depression, among other things, could trace their roots back to my years in middle and high school.
2005 was the year that I discovered Neverwinter Nights and with it, Dungeons and Dragons.
On August 30th of that year I joined a player run roleplaying server and stepped for the first time into the messy and cacophonous world of online roleplaying games. I had been brought there by a pair of friends who, knowing that I loved to play female characters, asked me to roll one so I could RP as the daughter of one of their characters; I felt flattered and eager to try my hand at this world.
So it was I stepped into a rabbit hole that I haven’t quite found my way out of yet.
This only reinforced my sense of contentment in playing female characters. Not only did I get to simply play as one, I got to truly roleplay as one and act in society as a female, both in character and out of character. I was introduced to a myriad of new sensations in this. One was the fact that many people were surprised to discover I was “male” (as at the time, the ongoing guilt I felt made me feel compelled to tell anyone I got to know moderately well) and two was the fact that I was very flattered by that fact. I came to call it one of the highest compliments another player could give me, despite the endless apologies of players who thought that such statements would offend my manhood.
Oh, if only they knew.
Within months I started life at a public university in New York City and in a single semester I made the dean’s list and achieved a perfect average. It seemed I was correct in thinking that returning to a major city would help me feel at peace with myself. But by mid-2006 I began to crash again. Suddenly my motivation was sapped and my drive became a distant memory. Depression returned, arguments with even my mother of all people became frequent and I found myself possessed of a distaste for life once more. Again I chalked it up to hormonal emoness but the difference was that I was 20 years old. That excuse might’ve flown at 16, but at this point it was getting worrying.
What happened next was the beginning of a two year love affair with World of Warcraft; I’ve often wondered if I delved into WoW because of my malaise or if it was WoW that made me lazy and lethargic, in addition to deepening that malaise. In the end I believe that it was both, with more emphasis on the former. I escaped into video games for the same reason I escaped into paper mache and single player RPG fantasy as a child and a teen. Now I had found the world of online roleplaying where I could get a reasonable substitute for a social life and where no one knew me by a male name I hated or by a past I wanted to hide.
The name. Oh, my name, yes…
Many narratives focus on trans women who want their penises somehow excised from their bodies and I don’t deny that this sensation has gripped me many a time. Especially when I’m trying to buy pants. In my particular case though what I wanted more than anything was to get rid of my name. I was named after my father, a man I loathed, and that made me a Jr. which simply layered on the indignities. I fantasised ever since I was young about having different names. First I went through male identities like Michael, Scott, or my favourite: Selmester Quayle. Yes, when I was 8, I preferred that mish mosh to my given name.
But as I played through online games and adopted female names I discovered I just really adored those. It was in World of Warcraft that name Quinnae was born.
At this time I was also getting to know someone who would become my mentor, or my ‘familiar’ as she’d often describe herself. She was the one who brought me to WoW and who sensed something in me that needed nurturing when we first bumped into each other in NWN. If I had to bestow the title of lifesaver to one person it would be her. For the sake of her privacy which she guards jealously I’ll not say much more about her, other than to point out that whatever wisdom I would gain over the next four years could always find its origins in things she taught me. She gave me the strength and confidence needed to confront my innermost hidden and deep-rooted problems, as well as the knowledge to do something about them. She also helped me come up with the name and character of Quinnae.
But all other names I’d come to be called by… Qeraeth, Qera, Qerawen, Lorrainess, Zoe, and more… all resonated with me better than my given name. When people in chat referred to me by the gender of my characters I felt my heart sing for some reason. What’s in a name? For me, everything. To be freed from my old name is a joy I cannot relate with the poor power of words.
But in World of Warcraft something else changed too. Rather dramatically.
Despite still being unmotivated and depressed in the real world when I played these games I felt a sense of overweening confidence and even arrogance for the first time in my life. I stood up to people, I spoke forcefully and powerfully, and I actually made people respect me. To be certain, something must be said for the power of the Internet’s anonymity and the fact that I wasn’t in the same room as any of these people, but I knew it also went beyond that. Being known as Quinnae, rather than by my old name, and being understood as a female, rather than the male persona I’d been socialised into, suddenly and somehow gave me confidence for reasons I didn’t fully understand.
People looked up to me, I debated many a fool on the games forums about issues great and small. I became known as an intelligent and even wise woman that people were proud to call ‘friend’ or ‘guildmate.’ Even when I revealed my then-male identity (something I hated doing with a passion) people still looked up to me because they had seen the Quinnae side of me, the part that was unleashed upon entering the game’s society as a woman. I cannot rationally explain why I felt this way or what this means for any generalised concept of manhood or womanhood. I can only relate how it made me feel.
How it felt was, again, like pure liberation.
I would learn a lot, and do a lot of growing up between 2006 and 2008 but my life would also come to a veritable standstill. Those two years were necessarily lost. In that time I played WoW, Lord of the Rings Online, and Warhammer Online, all getting the same general feeling. I loved being my true self online.
It was not a desire to wear pink, or any frilly things, or to don glitter, or play with Babrie, or whatever else it is the media says about us that motivated transition. It was being myself that did so. The characters I played were oftentimes how I envisioned myself as an adult. A confident, intelligent, and mature woman who could command the respect of others and hold her own. It’s hard to put into words how and why that felt so right.
I did not transition to be a parody of womanhood; I transitioned to be an empowered woman.
It was in World of Warcraft that I met the first out trans woman I would come to know, and it was through her that I came to one of the links over on the right: TSRoadmap.com. The saga her and I shared is a long, winding, somewhat sad, somewhat romantic tale defined by us both coming to terms with ourselves and discovering who we really were and what we really wanted. While I never told her during much of our relationship I was poking around that TSRoadmap site more frequently than I felt I had any right to, and even as early as December of 2007 was discussing it with a female friend of mine tentatively. She told me once a few years ago that between the two of us she had the boobs but I was a bigger woman than she was.
Ah, I love ‘er.
That floodgate thus opened, it was only a matter of time before I would at last work up the strength to take the plunge and transition.
With that, I end this phase of the story and will let this sit for a while. The final chapter, which will summarise the events leading up to me coming out, will be placed under a new and even wittier title whenever I feel like it. But I hope this elucidated some of the things I felt and experienced. There’s a lot of detail left out despite the fact that this post came up to 8 pages in MS Word. The essence of it all is that this felt right and I never identified with the male identity that had been foisted upon me. Why not carve out my own male identity then? It’s hard to explain other than answering with a question: Why not carve out my own female identity?
When I thought of presenting as female I felt at ease with myself. But when I was younger and my parents, noting my detachment and my troubles at school with both making friends and dealing with bullies, did their best to give me new identities to try on- new disguises, as it were- I resisted furiously. I wore shirts and ties chiefly because of their bland neutrality. I didn’t want to wear modern menswear, even the brighter, leaner formal stuff. I just wore the same bland khakis and white striped shirt every day with a different bland tie. I wanted no other masculine identity. I wanted to be me.
So it was that she was born.
Thanks so much for sharing this stuff.
A lot of the parts resonated with me. I didn’t fall into video games, but I did fall into IRC and it had a pretty similar effect on me to the effect on-line games had on you.
You’re welcome, and I’m so glad you found it enjoyable. An upcoming post is based on one of your recent blog posts, so your influence is certainly being felt!
I’m normally not a very personal writer. I gave that up with a phase of my Livejournal that was characterised by emo self pitying whining. After the 2004 election I tried, and succeeded, to stick to politics and social issues. Then I closed the LJ altogether when I came out and moved here. I generally don’t like to get too personal with blog posts but I’m coming to realise that the old feminist aphorism- that the personal is political- is all too true.
I keep saying ‘my experience is thus and so’ and so I felt I ought to, when I was ready, articulate a sketch of that experience.
As to IRC et al. I plan to do some writing about how virtual worlds have been a massive liberating force for many younger trans people, providing social sandboxes wherein one can discover one’s identity and experiment in relative safety. So many young trans people I talk to have had this experience and perhaps I ought to expand more on just what my experiences were in online games. 🙂