this is how i figured it out
i was young, and i felt odd about some things. my clothes. my voice. my hair. the conversations i had with other girls my age and the women in my life. i didn't know what this meant.
i saw people who fascinated me. people who may have been men or may have been women, but they were going about gender and masculinity in a way that ached in my chest, and i was drawn to them.
i started to search. "girls that look like boys." "cross-dressing." "women who dressed as men to join the military." and i found stories that continued to draw me in and continued to ache. i still didn't know what this meant.
i looked for people who looked like me, and i felt pretty lost when my search came up short. i'd been alone in my high school, and my hometown, and i still felt alone at my university.
i found people doing something that felt similar to my own thing. learned language. searched deeper with the new words i learned. "butch." "genderqueer." "FTM." some of it resonated, some of it didn't. i still didn't know what was up.
i tried things out. i slowly traded all of my girls' clothes for boys' clothes, went as far as swapping the underwear, the socks. i still bought women's shoes, thought there was something inherently different.
i had a dozen different horrible haircuts. i didn't know what to do with men's hair. i tried shaving it myself, found the most fun in that.
i bound my chest, and that ache turned to bubbling joy at the sight. a piece of the mystery was solved, but i wasn't sure what to think about it.
people assumed i was male, and that bubbled too. i was fooling them, and that was adventurous like the characters in those books i searched for when i was a kid. it was a game, and i was winning.
but when people guessed wrong-- or, right?-- and assumed i was female, the ache was back. where did that come from? that wasn't there before??
a friend made a comment about a group of us, but the way it sounded, he could have just been talking about me. i don't remember the comment, something mundane like "they're over there." but the THEY hit differently. i knew people were doing this thing with the pronouns, but it never made sense to me before. and then i heard it, and another piece of the mystery fell. i changed my pronouns, and the bubbling kept up, but the ache was growing.
some of the original ache had never gone away. my clothes didn't quite fit right, and when they did fit my body well, i didn't like the look of it. my voice-- who even was that? why did i sound like that??
i'd made changes, made huge leaps and bounds in the right direction, but just medicine and mental health and everything else-- when you heal the big things, you can start to feel the little things. you don't know you're nauseous when your leg is broken, but once the pain is dealt with you can feel your stomach rolling.
i looked for more stories, and found a lot of duds along the way. women who dove deep into masculinity but still felt deeply married to their womanhood. i wanted to throw my womanhood out the window and pretend it had never been given to me. i found stories about men who transitioned entirely, whose journeys resulted in masculinity shaped differently than mine, who called themselves straight because of the way they loved women and who would never be found out, ever, unless they went telling people. i squinted at the idea of heterosexuality the way one might squint at a wasp buzzing in the distant corner of a decent-sized room. don't get too close to me, and we'll be fine. i found women who loved being masculine and also loved dolling it up on occasion, found people who switched freely between very masculine and very feminine. i kept looking, knowing i couldn't be entirely alone.
but while i was looking, i aligned with the narratives that fit the closest. born as one thing, trying to turn into something else, might as well lean full masculine. being in the middle wasn't something anyone would take seriously, or so i thought.
so many of my online role models had "switched sides," the way i saw it. youtubers, illustrators, comics. their version of womanhood-- which was womanhood that totally rejected itself and morphed like a raccoon trying to claw its way out of a cardboard box-- had fit me so well, and they'd tossed it aside. i wasn't like that, was i?
worth a try.
what did people like me do?
they started testosterone.
fine, let's see.
i started T, i changed my name, i started binding my chest 90% of the time. this was the closest i'd ever felt to myself, and i bought full in.
but i was still searching, still reading, still hoping for a story that matched. i found ivan coyote and the mystery started to unravel.
it was three steps forwards, one step back. the more my body changed and my mind matured, the less scary this entire thing seemed to be. i could exist how i was, whatever that was, and i would be okay whether people respected it or not.
maybe it was the voice change that really built the confidence, or the way my eyebrows darkened, my profile carved out a bit firmer, my shoulders broadened, my body grew more hair in the places it was supposed to.
maybe it was that the more i started to recognize myself in the mirror, the less it mattered if other people recognized it too. maybe it was that fewer people were guessing wrong.
i had the room to be in the middle, now that i'd crossed sides.
so, how did i figure it out?
i read, and read, and read. i tried things over and over. i failed, a lot. i felt wildly uncomfortable. i forced myself into dresses and liked how the skirt twirled around me but hated being captured in photos. i thought i was ugly for years and years and years, because there was always something off. i found the guts to say, "you might as well try it, if you hate it we can figure that out later." and then i didn't hate it, and i kept changing, and i'm so impossibly grateful.
grateful for that eleven year old kid who shoved her hair into a baseball hat and smeared dirt on her face and pretended to be her own twin brother. grateful for the fifteen year old who didn't know how to ask for the haircut they wanted, didn't know they were allowed to. grateful for the seventeen year old who bought cargo shorts at goodwill and started wearing heavy boots and kissing girls and driving a truck. grateful for the eighteen year old who wore bowties, the nineteen year old who bought a binder, the twenty-one year old who threw away their last pair of panties, the twenty-three year old who threw caution to the wind and made some giant changes. grateful for the twenty-four year old who stubbornly and painfully clung to a relationship with his parents, and the twenty-five year old who wears words like daughter and grandson and brother and pretty boy and boyfriend and dyke, all at the same time and without contradicting anything.
i'm grateful for every version of myself that kept us alive, and for all the times i chose connection over my own well-being, because it turned out well in the end, and i'm not sure the others ever would have bended if i had refused to.