This is the story of the biggest revelation of my adult life. 2020 brought enormous change, growth, hardship, and tragedy to so many people. For me, it was a year of new beginnings that completely rewrote my marriage and my identity.
Books were everywhere - in neat rows on a long table, in boxes, and lining the shelves of the next room. Shelves filled with glasses, china, odds-and-ends made of plastic, and DVDs lined the wall. Racks of miscellaneous clothing filled the large room where I stood with my brother and my mom. A small town thrift store. And I, to all appearances a middle aged man, was picking through female tops. "Hey, what about this one?", my brother said, holding up a promising specimen.
I held it up across my chest. "Too narrow in the shoulders. Too bad; I really like the pattern."
A few minutes later I was hopelessly tangled up in a slightly-too-small dress with lacy edges, trying to get it back off over my shoulders and glasses without tearing anything. Then I saw it--a stretchy long red dress, amorphous enough to fit over my broad shoulders. The dressing rooms were all closed for Covid, so with another nervous glance around I pulled it on over my clothes. Slightly lumpy outlines of clothes underneath notwithstanding, it really worked. I had to have it. The store owner came in then and said something like, "I don't wanna know, but glad you're having a good time."
I sighed inwardly. I was surprised I wasn't more embarrassed or annoyed with him but somehow I really didn't care. I knew what I wanted, which was rare in my sometimes dissolute life, and I was suddenly realizing that what I wanted most of all right now was red women's clothing. I finally emerged with two red coats, a tan pebbled leather cross-body purse, four pairs of shoes ranging from flats to murderously high heels, several lacy or brightly colored tops, the stretchy red dress, and a huge smile.
My epiphany had been slowly building for years, like a pressure cooker with the valve stuck shut. In the end it was mushrooms that blew my valve wide open and released a new self. It was fall, and my wife Hannelore (pronounced hahn uh LORE uh, like Honolulu) and I decided to use one of the last warm days that remained to go kayaking and camping. We brought along a little bag of shriveled dry caps and stems. I had been wanting to try them, not just for the bucket list experience but because I had read that they had more potential to cause permanent and positive changes to the brain with less potential for negative consequences than just about any substance or treatment known. I thought a lot about the risk and the sentiment that "if it ain't broke don't fix it", and I realized that something in me felt broken enough that I welcomed more than feared a change to my brain.
I had been in long-overdue therapy for anxiety earlier in the year. It had done a lot of good, but I still had this nagging feeling that had been there for all of my adult life, that something was wrong. Just around the corner, I felt like there would be some massive discovery of past trauma or something and I would be able to heal and move past it. But decades of alcohol, marijuana, yoga, meditation, introspection, journaling, and even some experiments with salvia, acid, and DMT had done nothing to uncover anything wrong except that I felt anxious all the time to the point where I couldn't even see it, like red tinted glasses you just get used to because you've been wearing them for so long that you've forgotten that green exists. The anxiety was much better since therapy, but the thing was still there, a deeper shadow in the dark part of my mind. Something I had forgotten or missed that was huge and important; something wrong.
So we sat on a dock and ate the unappetizing dry fungal matter with soft cheese and then went and heated soup over a campfire, and by the time we were done eating I started to feel woozy and had to go and lie down. As I lay there on the blow up mattress in the tent, listening to Hannelore walking around putting things away and whatnot, I started to laugh. This wasn't a casual chuckle. It started from my groin and rippled up through my whole body. I was laughing at nothing. At life. At awareness. Hannelore laughed at me laughing, and I laughed at that. I laughed at the fact I was laughing. You get the idea.
I started to get imagery. The way it happens in movies is kind of different. It's not like what you are already seeing changes into a spray of colors to the sound of Beatles music. It's more like your internal imagery becomes more and more active and vivid until it is impossible to ignore. If I opened my eyes, I saw a tent. If I closed them, or sometimes simultaneously to what I could still see, there were these other things, imagined images that faded in and out of awareness with a strong emotional charge to them, like waking dreams. The images were of death. A character from the suit cards, the Jack or the King perhaps, held a dagger, the diamonds behind him a curtain of blood. A scorpion, perhaps Scorpio himself, made of light in the sky, his stinger emitting a cloud of green glowing death.
There was real fear in this imagery, but what was strange is that the laughter continued. And it wasn't a terrified laughter or something twisted like that. It was real and genuine hilarity. Laughing at death. At mortality. Throughout my childhood a shadowed man had haunted my dreams, and now I was laughing at that primal fear. I asked myself why that was so funny. I thought that the scorpion stings us the moment we are born, dooming our years to a certain number, like the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden story. But then I thought that perhaps the idea of starting with immortality as a given was all wrong, that it was rather that life itself was gratuitous, that we had no reason to expect there to be anything but a black void and yet here we were. I was laughing because the scorpion only doomed us to death because he stung us into life. I was laughing because life was only special because it was limited, and because it didn't have to exist. Because any existence at all was a gift beyond comprehension, and to squander that gift by thinking of its inevitable end was completely ludicrous to the point of hilarity. I got the joke, and it was me.
There were other things that happened in there. Finally Hannelore started to feel the effects as well and came to the tent, music playing, having a groovy time. At one point she persuaded me to briefly lay on the dock with her under an explosion of stars that made my head swim with so much beauty that I couldn't keep my eyes open. But as I lay in the tent once more, coming down from the intensity of the primary trip, something much bigger and quieter settled into my mind. I realized that there was a door I had been pretending didn't exist in the house in my head. I had been pretending it didn't exist because I was afraid if I noticed it I would have to open it, and afraid that if I did that then I would have to tell the person I loved who was lying next to me what I saw, and I might lose her forever.
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That summer I had started gaming again and wasn't sure how I felt about it. It was MMOs--the big, addictive other worlds that exist online to suck up the unwary or unhappy and give them a second life. One is even called that--Second Life--but I was playing EverQuest and World of Warcraft. In coming back to these games I had been more intentional than in the past, because I already knew what it was for a game to suck up all of your free time for six years at a time, leaving you with a strange hole in your life, replaced by a dream of bright technicolor fantasy. This time I kept my gaming hours lighter and asked myself what I was really trying to get out of the experience. Was it the social aspect? I repeatedly sought solitude, trying out characters who were strong solo. It wasn't that.
I realized that I had always gravitated towards female characters. I had started to philosophize about this early on and was uncomfortably aware of the distinction between playing female characters to objectify them, because you might as well look at something pretty if you're going to spend years of your life staring at a fantasy character from behind, and playing female characters to identify with them. This time around I realized that in the past I had spent most of my time playing a female cow-person with a name that meant Earth Mother in Italian. This wasn't objectification nearly so much as it was identification. Part of me was like that cow druid--soft and sleepy and nurturing--and I didn't know what that meant. I started to pick female names for characters that were like my own, that started with "Al". I told myself I was getting in touch with my feminine side, but didn't think past it being a side, just a small facet of my obviously male self.
I had always told myself that my feminine side was just part of me being a good feminist. I was aware of the trick played by the patriarchy when they could no longer keep women out of their club by forbidding them traditionally masculine activities and accessories. They instead forbade men traditionally feminine activities and accessories, either explicitly or, to prevent a wholesale rebellion and liberation, by creating a culture of bigotry against feminine men. Instead of undermining women, they would undermine femininity itself by ensuring that it was not viewed as equal to masculinity. Women won the right to act like men, but men could ensure that only by doing so would they be seen as equals. If I defied these unwritten rules of the masculine code, I was simply fighting the good fight for women everywhere. I was a knight, not a princess.
The subtle difference here is why it took me so long to figure out what was really going on. Gender presentation is a social construct, and any particular symbol of masculinity or femininity is pretty arbitrary. Pink was a masculine color because it was a variant of red, until one company selling "his" and "hers" baby products chose pink for little girls and the old boy's club soundly rejected it. Men in the '70s liked purses because they could conceal drugs in the disco scene. When I try to list things that indicate how I knew eventually that I was a woman, all I end up with is a laundry list of female stereotypes. These things are not inherently feminine and I'm not trying to prescribe a particular set of values for women. These are simply things that were feminine to me. But gender identity is not a social construct, able to be unlearned. The arbitrary symbols of femininity had a non-arbitrary draw to me that eventually would become impossible to deny.
There was a running jacket. I found it in the ladies section at Target. It was blue, stretchy, lightweight enough to comfortably tie around your waist. There was nothing specifically feminine about it and I liked it. Why not? But for some reason I kept on telling people that it was from the ladies section, as if that was somehow important or interesting, instead of just liking it for what it was.
I loved musicals and often particularly loved the female songs. It was like the question I had with gaming--I often wondered if other people tended to prefer to listen to singers they found attractive or singers they identified with. I thought it strange that males would want to listen to male singers primarily, because to me it didn't make sense. I loved Idina Menzel in Rent, Wicked, and Frozen. Angela Lansbury in Sweeney Todd. The song On the Steps of the Palace from Into the Woods. That last one really drives it home--it's not a particularly attractive song; it's a song about uncertainty, about a young woman not knowing who she is or what she wants and realizing that the two things are connected.
I always liked to grow my hair out long, despite no one else liking that look on me. But for some reason during times of intense distress I would occasionally shave my head. Looking back on it I feel that it was perhaps a mild act of self harm. The other really strange thing was that I could never keep my hand away from my face. I would constantly twiddle with my beard or run my fingers over my stubble, no matter how hard I tried to stop this tic. It drove me crazy to the point where I started to research trichotillomania in case I had it.
During college I first heard about laser hair removal and the idea that hair could be permanently removed fascinated me. I always hated shaving and my beard was thin and unkempt and people called it "face pubes". When I just had stubble my girlfriends tended to call me cactus face and ask me to shave more. I was prepared, then and there, if it weren't for the cost, to permanently remove my facial hair and just never worry about it again. I fantasized about this and told my girlfriend about it. Fifteen years later I am actually doing it and it is a huge source of joy to me, though it will take months and is fairly painful.
Soon after college I got a job selling purses at a Coach store and found myself enjoying the task of chatting up the customers. I showed real passion for the purses I discussed with them and a few years later I started to carry a bag myself. At first I called it a murse and felt self-conscious. But over time I decided that men needed to reclaim the term "purse" and the right to carry one. We didn't need to apologize for it. But I really enjoyed telling people I carried a purse and that it didn't need to be called by a different name.
There was the time my first wife and I went to the Gay '90s bar in Minneapolis and in the spirit of the occasion I decided to wear a pink shirt. My hair was wonderfully long and wavy and I had recently shaved off all my facial hair. We went to a drag show and as we sat in the back the M.C. made her way over to us and said, "oh, look at these cute little lesbians!" As she got closer she realized her mistake and was hugely embarrassed and apologetic, but I was amused. Not just amused. Tickled. And I kept retelling that story as well. This one is a common tell, listed on this excellent site.
Before puberty I once said I wished I was a girl so I could marry my male friend. At the time, all I knew was that marriage meant you got to be with someone all the time, and apparently I hadn't yet learned that two men or two women could do that. But it's funny that that was the counterfactual I chose, rather than simply wishing that two boys could get married, which, years later, Iowa would be the first state to sign into law. There were also times I would imagine what it would be like to be a girl. Not all the time, like you sometimes hear people say who came out as trans early in life. Just once in a while. Not all trans people know from an early age or have extreme body dysphoria.
There were times when reality started to feel detached. Like I would stare at my legs in the tub and they would seem huge and I couldn't imagine where all this body had come from. Or I would stare at myself in the mirror, holding my gaze so still that the photoreceptors would tire and everything would fade to white and my face would disappear. I never could explain to myself what I was looking for. This sense of detachment often followed me into everyday life and I would feel oblivious, my attention out of focus, not able to be present around people or feel comfortable in my own body. It turns out depersonalization and derealization sometimes come with the territory of gender dysphoria.
I was never happy with my appearance and justified a lack of grooming by saying it was superficial to care about such things. I retreated into the world of the mind and scorned sports, fashion, exercise, eating well, all things physical. If I was honest with myself I really did care about appearance; I just never felt very good about it and so I stopped trying.
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Fast forward to the cot in the tent again. Not all of the above flashed through my mind in there, but there was an accumulated feeling of all of that as my attitudes melted and re-formed. As I lay there I realized that I was adrift, always too willing to compromise my own identity and desires for the sake of relationship to the point where I didn't always even know who I was or what I wanted at all. I realized that I had to open that door and face whatever consequences it would bring. So I asked myself, if I were a woman, what name I would choose. A couple of names I had been trying floated around. Alex was too similar to my mother's name, Alexandra. Alexis too, and it was too much like the Amazon Alexa. But I wanted to keep the starting Al from my name. I had decided that already. Alyssa or Alison. What was very strange was that my first wife had two cousins I had met with those two names. But I just liked the names for the similarity to my own. I chose one and it clicked into place. I was Alison.
I lay there just letting the name Alison wash over me along with an image of my hair being longer and lighter, a glowing dirty blond. And I realized that I wanted this. I felt feminine energy flow through me and I wanted it. I knew this was me. I decided I needed to be sure and intended to do some research first and think for a few days, but when Hannelore saw me reading on my phone and asked what I was reading about I couldn't hold it in any more. I put my phone down and stammered out, "Sometimes I wish I wasn't a man." I cried and she told me she was happy I was able to figure that out. She said she would need to figure out what that meant for her but that she thought she would be able to still be attracted to me. I went to the store the next night and bought a nightie, some shoes, eyeliner, lipstick, a bra, earrings, and fake pearl necklaces. Just enough stuff to try this whole thing out. I stepped shyly out of the bathroom and Hannelore hugged me and told me I was beautiful. I was flooded with gratitude and confidence. The worst had happened--the shadow I had been running from had caught me at last, and when it stepped out of the shadows I saw that it was actually she, and she was me, and I was in fact the shadow, running away ahead of my true pursuing self.
Pearls and wedges became a kind of superpower to me, a way to feel a euphoria I had never felt before about my appearance. When I put them on I feel something click into place. I finally understand what people had been saying all these years about how they dress up because they like how it makes them feel. I hadn't ever really gotten that very much, even when I rocked a tuxedo for my music gigs. I started to care about my hair again.
One question still nagged me though. I have always been impressionable. My empathy has caused me to be whatever people want me to be, and I am adept at unconsciously imitating those around me, blending in to the point where I lose my sense of self. A year or so before, someone I knew well had come out as trans, and the timing bothered me. What are the odds that two people who were close would discover this about themselves at around the same time? I read that trans people make up only about one percent of the population. That makes it a one in ten thousand chance that two specific people are both trans. Was I just trying to connect in some way, and so lying to myself? A closer look at the odds tells a different story:
A trans person isn't wired to suddenly realize this about themselves at a specific time. Unless they feel it strongly enough at a specific phase of development, such as puberty, and are educated enough to interpret these feelings correctly, it is possible to go through life in denial. I made it to age 38, and this is actually a common occurrence. My denial wasn't going to let go without an external influence--having someone come out who was close enough to me for me to care and learn more about what that meant.
The question then becomes, what are the odds that someone close to you is going to turn out to be trans at some point in your life? I made a list of people who had been close to me at any point; family, partners, extended family, family of partners, close friends, roommates, etc., anyone who was in my life enough at some point for me to really get to know them well and care about their identity. I'm a fairly introverted person and was only able to list about a hundred people. What are the odds that at least one out of a hundred people is trans? The formula came back to me from stats class: calculating AND is much easier to do than OR is, so you invert it. What are the odds that none of them are trans? This is 99/100 per person, and you just multiply them to calculate the odds that all of them occur, so you get 99/100 to the power of 100. This comes to .37, or a 37% chance that none of those hundred people are trans. This means conversely that there's a 63% chance that someone close to me would have ended up being trans, and at whatever time that occurred, odds are I would have started to notice the signs in myself and wrestled with this same impostor syndrome. Statistics are only as good as the assumptions behind them, and statistical events rarely exist in a vacuum. So I simply feel grateful that I was able to have someone in my life brave and self-reflective enough to have figured this out first and paved the way for my own realization.
The path forward has many difficult choices and some hard work. Beyond clothing and laser hair removal, there is the voice. The voice of a person who has ever been exposed to testosterone drops and this is irreversible except by somewhat risky surgery. But it is possible with practice to feminize ones voice through control of not just the pitch but more importantly the tone and style, raising the larynx, opening the throat, and altering mannerisms. This may seem contrived to one who is happy with their own voice, but as a musician who is very sound-focused all the time my voice is the thing that gives me the most dysphoria after my beard. Trans people often receive hormone replacement therapy, which in my case would mean they would block my testosterone and add estrogen. Finally, there are the various surgeries. I will not likely be discussing any of this medical stuff on my blog beyond noting that these are options in my future and I am undecided about them at this time. The question comes up distressingly often for some people, even from relative strangers, and it is important to note that asking about the personal medical details of anyone is considered impolite. This is no exception. Simply know that some people elect to have these changes and others do not, and either way their internal identity as a particular gender is valid and unchangeable. One can no more just "get over being trans" than the other cringe phrase, "pray the gay away". If you doubt either of these assertions, please know that there is plenty of scientific research out there showing that these aspects of the human mind are not subject to change.
What I am happy to share and discuss is my psychological experience. The human experience is what matters more than the messy medical details of our meat vehicles and the color and texture of the scraps of fabric we choose to cover ourselves with. I have discovered (and again, it is not a choice) that I experience life as a female. It took a long time to discover it, but it is a fascinating thing to me. So much unnamed pain and darkness is falling away. I used to describe how I sometimes felt like the spiritual equivalent of having been gutted, my energeic entrails spilling out of me, dissipating my energy in random harsh bursts. My core now feels tighter, a prim Mary Poppins energy replacing something that felt at times like I was Donny from the Big Lebowski, clueless and spineless and dissolute, and at times more like Otto from a Fish Called Wanda, tense and foolish and angry. I have found that I can be doing something mundane and ungendered, with no thought to my appearance, such as eating a bowl of cereal, and I can be doing that act while feeling I am a man or while feeling I am a woman. The headspace I am in is a choice. Which option feels right to me is not. When I remember, in my core, that I am a woman, I feel an inner calm and peace that I have never known before. I have come home.