There are many stories on the Internet about transgendered people knowing they were transgender as toddlers. They waited for their anatomy to change; they wanted to play with toys that were for their identified gender; they dressed in clothes that other boys or girls would wear.
But being transgender doesn't follow one specific path from start to finish. We're all individuals on different journeys, and sometimes, that moment of realization (and acceptance) comes much later.
I, for example, hid from myself into adulthood. I want to share my journey, from being a scared kid that wanted to die, to an adult that could finally love himself.
When I was little, I had an imaginary friend, like most other children my age. Only, instead of being a unicorn, or a monster, or a cartoon character, my imaginary friend was a little boy named Michael. I would pretend that we were twins, separated at birth, and communicating through our shared, psychic bond. I loved Michael; he was like me in every single way. We had the same interests, the same opinions, the same fears.
But unlike with most other kids, my imaginary friend never disappeared. Once my mother snapped at me that I was too old to be acting that way, I tucked him away into the back of my mind. I never forgot him.
After the incident with my mother, I railed against being anything other than completely 'normal'. I was raised in the deep (and deeply religious) South. There was a lot of suspicion, a lot of sneering at people that weren't 'quite right'. My youth pastor loved to tell horror stories of what those 'nasty queers' would do to little boys and girls.
Needless to say, I grew up in a household were being LGB was... frowned upon. Barely discussed and the prospect that I might be lesbian or bisexual was handled with a wrinkled nose and heavy sigh. Not that my family believed that LGB people truly existed—they were just lost souls that had strayed from the light of God. Or teenagers, hoping to 'get back at' their loving parents.
The 'T' in LGBT was discussed with far more frequency. It was a joke, you see, because my father was married before he met my mother, and that ended in divorce. Divorce, and his 'wife' transitioning two years later.
Being transgender, just one endless joke. Men in dresses and women trying to grow beards. Those poor, confused people.
Perhaps you understand why I crushed any bubble of discomfort. Any itch that I wasn't who I thought I should be, brushed away. I'd seen what happened to kids who tried coming out as LGBT, and got packed away to those awful summer conversion camps. Out of sight, out of mind. I heard of the suicides, and the pain, the desperation to pretend to be 'normal' to get free. I had seen with my own eyes as a boy I knew, about 12 years old, went away after his father discovered him trying on his cousin's dresses and came back... different. Those ecstatic smiles wiped off his face; the bubbling laughter, silenced. He killed himself five years later.
Moreover, I'd seen the fire in my pastor's eyes, like Hell itself burned in him when he talked about LGBT people.
So I kept my chin up, my mouth shut, and tried to be a good girl.
But there was always something there, something nudging me that I was doing everything wrong. I ignored it. I ignored it while I was dating, I ignored it during my wedding, I ignored it when my husband made love to me.
Then, when things fell apart and we divorced, I blamed it on the part of me that always felt so wrong. Of course my husband would get harsh with me; I wasn't normal.
I wanted to die.
My experience isn't an uncommon one. According to a clinic psychology study reported by the NCBI, transgendered people are far more likely to have depressive symptoms or anxiety compared to their cisgender counterparts. Of transgender youth, nearly 30% report having attempted suicide at least once.
Years of strange, muddled confusion later, I ended up meeting someone, Clyde*, who is transgender, and eventually became a good friend of mine. Almost unable to resist, I poked my nose into very personal, sensitive subjects with all the grace of a bull in a china shop. Fortunately for me, my curiosity was tolerated with good humor instead of rebuke.
“Did you always know?” I asked him one day. I excepted to hear about how he had suffered since childhood, but instead, he laughed. Suffer, because that's all I knew. I thought that was all there was to being transgender.
“No,” he replied. “It didn't really click for me until last year. I mean, I always knew I was different, but I thought that was normal, you know? Everyone says that all teenagers feel like they're the only ones who have ever felt odd or out of place. But then that feeling never went away, so I... explored it.”
I remember sitting there, so uncomfortable. Not by his words, but at the implication of them. “And?”
“And I found out who I am.”
Who am I? I wondered. I thought of all the... 'unnatural' things I experienced – I thought of Michael, my old imaginary friend from childhood. I thought of how he had never really left me, but stayed, in the corner of my eye, in the back of my mind. I thought of how, if I wasn't careful, I would slip into a habit of projecting him as a mental image of myself.
I thought of how much I had wished over the course of my life that I could be him.
But what if... I already was?
At first, the very notion made me sick with fear. But I couldn't hide from the possibility – like smoke, it filled my mind, and the more I considered it, the more solid it became.
I wasn't a girl.
I was the ultimate shame; I was sick in the head, I was mentally ill, I was an embarrassment. There was a dark day where I thought suicide was my only option. Die young, leave a pretty, feminine corpse, and let everyone remember me as the person they wished I could be.
I was saved when a dear friend named Anna texted me the words, 'I just want you to be happy.'
Happy. Didn't I... deserve happiness? Was this not my own life to live? Why should I give so much of myself, my heart, my soul to please people that would never be pleased with me anyway?
I talked to Clyde about my revelation, hesitant. Again, I waited for him to scold me and tell me that being transgender wasn't something you just 'tried on'. Instead, he was enthusiastic, having had always been an ardent supporter of people exploring their gender and sexual identity. He switched my pronouns effortlessly, and asked, almost as an afterthought, “Do you have a name you want to be called?”
“Michael,” I said, without even pausing to consider. I didn't need to.
“Michael,” he said, rolling the name in his mouth. I found myself falling in love with how those syllables sounded.
I expected the change of name and pronouns to sit oddly on me, but no, I wore them as effortlessly as a comfortable pair of jeans. I wanted to cheer when I heard them – it was as though, for the first time in my life, I knew who I was.
It was the sun, finally breaking through the clouds that hanged over me, and warmth that washed me clean.
I was, and still am, fortunate – after a few months of settling into this new me, or rather, this old me that I had finally accepted, I came out to my close group of friends. I was met with cheering, love, and good-natured ribbing, which is far more and far better than I can say happens to some poor people.
My family, on the other hand, was not so accepting. But that was a blow I expected, and weathered. I moved states entirely, eager to start a new life in a new place. Finally ready to meet people that had never known me 'before' and only be seen as my 'after'.
There are still some nights that I'm haunted by the old memories of childhood. The world is not kind to transgendered people, and that's a knowledge I have to face daily. There's also the possibility that I might never be able to medically transition due to unrelated health problems, which hurts to consider, but I can't change my lot.
I refuse to be afraid. I don't know where my journey will take me – I don't know where my life is going, but I am who I am, and I will not force myself to be someone I'm not any longer.
*Names have been changed.