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Is that all there is?


Emily VanDerWerff

Jun 12 2019

6 min read


Mad Men, one of my favorite TV shows ever made, begins its final stretch of episodes with a melancholy reflection on impermanence. Don Draper, who has just learned of the death of a woman who might have been the love of his life, but for all of the ways his life was never his life, sits alone in a diner. His latest would-be conquest has left him here, in one of the lovely, Edward Hopper-esque images that Mad Men made its specialty. As his lonesomeness somehow leaves Jon Hamm's body behind and spreads out to take over the screen, we key in ever more to the song playing. It's Peggy Lee, and she's wondering, "Is that all there is?"

It's a question I've been asking myself a lot lately -- is that all there is? The process of coming out publicly for anyone is one filled with fits and starts, with moments when all seems lost and moments when everything seems like it might be great forever. But it's also a process that culminates in massive, emotional catharsis. You reach the apex of your old self and discard it like a shell. You won't be needing this any more, and you can descend the mountain, a little more yourself and a little more whole.

Except you're still you. That's the trick of it.

In the days leading up to my coming out essay, I was prepared for all eventualities -- everybody loved it, everybody hated it, nobody cared. What I didn't expect was that the event would not be as seismic for everybody else as it was for me. People nodded and smiled and started calling me Emily. People started using she and her pronouns. It felt a little like I had unlocked a cheat code for reality, that I had always had it within my power to be a woman. I just had to ask. I was a little gobsmacked about it.

And yet the further we get from the day I published the essay, the more I ask: Is that all there is? My life kept moving on, but everybody just politely treated me the way I wanted to be treated.

But do they understand me the way I want to be understood? This feels like splitting hairs, I'm aware, but there is a huge, huge gap between "Trans women are women" and "This particular trans woman I know is a woman, and I see her as such." Or between "Trans women are women" and "Emily seems nice, and I love her, so I'm going to do what she asks, but lol, what is this dude thinking?"

Before I was out to myself, I used to peruse the subreddit transtimelines (probably a sign I should have been out to myself much sooner), and a common refrain from trans women there is, "Everybody says I've changed so much, but all I see is a man in the mirror." The trick of all of this is that the one person who constantly has to deal with your changes is you, so you become a little like the hour hand on the clock. Intellectually, I know I'm changing, but even if I stood and watched myself in a mirror all day, every day, I would not see those changes. It's the same inside my head. I know things are different, but I still feel like me. Is that all there is?

It's hard to talk about this, because to talk about this is to invite people who really do think, "Lol, what is this dude thinking?" about this thing that feels so precious and beautiful to me still. I keep expecting somebody to show up at my front door and say, "Okay, you've had your fun, but can you get back to being a man now?"

My therapist says that something that happens to trans women often is we realize that we have a face. This might sound silly, I know, but it rings true for me. For a long time, I regarded my appearance as this perfunctory thing that existed outside of me. I never quite expected to see myself when I looked in the mirror. Instead, I expected to see the person I understood myself to be. Now, when I look in the mirror, I do see myself, but that is scary. When you have been haunting yourself your whole life, it's hard to figure out where the ghost ends and you begin.

Here, here, here, let me try this another way. From the moment I came out (and I've written about this here), I thought of myself as two people. The old me was still nominally in charge, but Emily was making her way up toward the steering wheel, crawling out of the trunk and into the back seat and into the passenger seat, where she eventually took hold of the steering wheel. But because I had to, in essence, be the old me almost all of the time pretty much right up until I came out publicly, I couldn't ever stop the car so we could get out and switch seats.

Now I am in control. I am me. I'm Emily. Everybody knows it, and if I try to stop being Emily, it's going to feel ridiculous. Already, after just one session with a voice therapist, I can feel the way my brain resents having to send my voice lower, even as I know that this weird in-between voice I'm cultivating sounds ridiculous. I want so badly for you to understand me, for you to make no mistake when you see me. But I also spent my entire life in a body and a persona that didn't dare explore the feminine because that might lead to the place we're in right now. So I suddenly have this vast new frontier to explore and no idea where to start. (If you want to go shopping, please let me know. Bonus points if you live in the Los Angeles area.)

I feel like Emily, and everybody says I'm Emily, and yet when I made a radio appearance on a local station the other day, the engineer transferring me to talk to the host, when he clearly thought he was muted, said, "That guy doesn't sound like an Emily." It undid me for a day, because I realized that to him we were, on some level, playing at a fiction, and that no matter how hard I work to make that fiction real, there will always be people who look at me and only see my old byline. I am Emily now, but that is also all there is. I long for lightning and thunder; I settle for a slow re-acceleration, back into a life at once familiar and utterly alien.

I am a trans woman in her 30s. I live in Los Angeles, and this is my other self. Anyway, you can respond to this, and I will look at your reply and nod sagely and maybe write back, or you can follow me on Twitter, where I am extremely funny.

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