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The Catastrophist, one year later

Or: How I came out as trans, and people seemed okay with it.


Emily VanDerWerff

Jun 08 2020

11 min read


One Monday morning, a little over a year ago, I woke up bleary-eyed and set about destroying my professional life. I had the help of several trusted colleagues. A couple of hours later, I would be out to the world as a trans woman, a feat I accomplished in a review of The Handmaid’s Tale, no less.

In the year since that essay published, I have been asked to talk about “The Catastrophist” (as it came to be called) many times in many different contexts. I haven’t taken all of these invitations — I really want to be known for something other than being trans — but I am generally happy to discuss it. It’s the piece I’m the most proud of across my career, and I hope it’s the piece people most remember from my work.

So in the interest of just constantly making everything about me and my life, I thought I would dedicate this edition of the newsletter to talking about the things I’ve learned in the year since the piece published. If you’re weighing whether to come out, hopefully I can help you realize that there’s so much light at the end of the tunnel.

Want to come out as a trans person? You get a cool flag out of the deal! (Creative Commons License)

Most people just kind of accepted me at face value. A friend and I talk, often, of the fact that we always thought someone had to give us permission to be women, but the only people who needed to give us permission were ourselves. Granted, this will not be true for everyone, but I found more often than not, people were happy to roll with me telling them this truth. It is mind blowing to me how the only thing I had to do to be a woman was tell people I was a woman. Nine times out of 10, they were willing to go with it.

I have a lot of issues with the online trans girl meme “If you want to be a girl, you can just be a girl,” but I do think that it gets at a way that we have some control over our own reality. The trickiest thing to do is convince yourself that, yes, you can do this, and no, you are not suddenly going to give up.

God, there were so many times I almost gave up. In retrospect, I wish I had published “The Catastrophist” during Pride 2018. I had an incredibly careful and meticulously planned coming out process, stretching out across 14 months, and while I’m glad I took my time, those 14 months — particularly when I would have a weekend here or a few days away there to be myself, then had to go back to being a guy for career reasons immediately after — tested me in every way. By the time I was done, I really knew who I was. But that was an arduous process, a trial and error of confronting the possibility of giving up entirely, especially before I started on hormones.

It is impossible to prepare for the many things you’ve been holding back as you move toward coming out. Granted, the vast majority of trans people aren’t going to have the protracted coming out process I did, culminating in writing a giant essay. But the anxiety and stress I felt heading in to publication were holding back a bunch of other emotions I wasn’t allowing myself to process. Indeed, I felt most of my anxiety about the essay after it had been published and people had mostly been okay with me.

Coming out as trans is a great way to meet some amazing trans people. One of the neatest things that I’ve found since coming out is the number of people who just… wanted to see somebody transitioning to think it was possible for them too, for whatever reason. I have a larger platform than a lot of people, granted, but just the existence of a trans person can make closeted trans people feel like they have the strength to move forward. I have met so many of my dearest friends because of the way that we reached out to each other.

Before I came out, I talked with a trans guy who had come out a little before I had, and he said something to me that has stuck with me. “I like being around other trans people. You don’t have to work as hard.” And that is true. I feel a comfort around other trans folks that I can’t replicate anywhere else. We’ve all been on the journey together, and we know the way to go.

Baby trans people just want to know someone is listening. Shortly after coming out to myself, I reached out to a trans woman friend, only to realize she probably was sick of baby trans people suddenly wanting to ask her things. In the last year, I have quickly realized just how overwhelming it can feel to have every trans person who was secretly admiring you from afar reach out the second they crack that egg.

But you know what? I love this too. Again, this is how I’ve met so many of my best friends, and if nothing else, it’s nice to know that there are more of us out there. Also, selfishly, I love knowing that my words have had an impact.

The main thing I’ve realized is that what baby trans people want most of all is to know someone is listening, that they are not out there in a void. I spent so long pretending to be someone else, and I can recognize in many of the people who reach out to me a similar sense of suddenly finding oneself thrust into the wilderness. But they haven’t been, and it’s up to the rest of us to help them find their way.

Friendships with women rule. For most of my life, I felt this deep-seated frustration at never getting quite what I wanted in emotional terms from the women I befriended. I wanted them to see me not warily but… well, that was the part I didn’t get. There was this gulf between me and them, and I didn’t know how to cross it. It was endlessly frustrating.

But often after just telling one of the women in my life that I was also a woman, there was an instant and warm recognition on her part, and suddenly, that gulf was gone. I had rocketed across it, and I could suddenly speak the language. I was home in a way I had never felt before. (I could never understand it or describe it to you, but most of the trans guys I know describe something similar when beginning to hang out with other guys. Suddenly, all of those emotions make sense.)

I was a social butterfly in high school, before I started to figure out who I was. After I unlocked the thought in my brain that I might be trans, I started shutting down the systems in my brain that might cause me to trip up, including my extroversion. What amazed me was how ready that part of myself was to come back to the forefront when I needed it again. And now, the friendships I’m in finally make sense to me.

But not as much as coming to see yourself. I won’t lie: A lot of what has happened in the last year has been difficult. My pre-existing relationships have needed to shift and change, sometimes in ways that show the growing pains necessary in any major dynamic shift. And finally getting dysphoria down to a manageable size uncorked a whole bunch of other things that were stored away in my brain, some of which I had stored for a reason.

But it’s worth it, every day, to see myself not just in the mirror but in myself.

I remember a few weeks after publishing “The Catastrophist,” I realized something had changed: I was dreaming in first-person. When I asked some of my cis friends how they dreamed, generally, they said it was usually in first person. I didn’t realize this was possible. For most of my life, I had had third-person dreams, which were presented like a TV show or a movie, right down to camera movement and other cinematic elements. To suddenly realize one could dream in first person felt like a huge revelation.

I’ve come to realize this was because I could finally feel the weight of myself. Before I came out, everything about me felt like it was too small. My brain couldn’t seem to make the rest of my body work the way it wanted to. And then, suddenly, it could, and it could do all these other things I never realized it could do.

Coming out has not been smooth and seamless. There have been many trying periods. But the longer I’m out, the more it feels as if I always have been, as if I have, at long last, found myself in the place I had been hiding all along.

What I’ve been up to: Somewhat accidentally, I published a piece on the exact one-year anniversary of “The Catastrophist” that seems, in some ways, to be in conversation with that piece.

Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, perhaps better known to Americans by the condescending nickname of “Baghdad Bob,” spent early 2003 trying to convince his fellow Iraqi citizens to stop believing their own eyes in favor of what they dearly wanted to feel in their hearts. Right up until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime when Baghdad fell in April 2003, al-Sahhaf insisted, in his role as Information Minister, that American forces were about to be destroyed. It didn’t happen. Propaganda is a pernicious force, but it tends to crumple when faced with unavoidable reality.

I thought about al-Sahhaf during Donald Trump’s Monday-night march to St. John’s Lafayette, the Episcopalian church right by the White House that briefly caught fire on Sunday. (Disclaimer, I guess: I am an Episcopalian, and Trump’s use of one of our churches as a prop infuriates me.) He stood in front of the church and held up a Bible, seemingly to communicate to his evangelical base that he was on their side.

But he only did so after police had cleared peaceful protesters from in front of the White House using tear gas, and once he was standing in front of the church, he held the Bible in the sky like a bag full of dog poop, like he couldn’t wait to be rid of it.

Read me: I love reading Kathryn VanArendonk on everything, and I particularly love reading her on the long legacy of TV cop shows.

At 8 p.m. on Saturday, at the same time CNN, MSNBC, and FOX News were airing live coverage of the nationwide protests against police violence, cable audiences also had other options for what to watch. On PopTV, there was a marathon of NCIS: New Orleans. On WE, Criminal Minds. On WGN, Blue Bloods. On Ion, Law & Order: SVU. And on USA, a marathon of Chicago PD that began 11 hours earlier and continued until Sunday morning, followed by an episode of CSI.

These aren’t identical shows, exactly. Criminal Minds is about FBI profilers who try to anticipate crime before it happens. The NCIS franchise is about a team who investigate crimes involving Navy and Marine personnel. Blue Bloods and SVU are about New York cops; Chicago PD is about Chicago police. But they and dozens of other popular, profitable TV shows share a fundamental ideology: The cops are the protagonists.

TV has long had a police’s-eye perspective that helps shape the way viewers see the world, prioritizing the victories and struggles of police over communities being policed. Order, a police imposed status quo, is good; disruption is bad. There are many, many reasons why a cop’s point of view has become the default way to frame national unrest, including institutional and systemic racism, the capitalist urge to prioritize property over human life, and a political system that benefits those already in power. But TV plays a role, too. The overwhelming mountain of cop shows amounts to a decades-long cultural education in who deserves attention, and whose perspective counts most. In stories of American crime, TV teaches us that cops are the characters we should care about.

Watch me: A lot of people have been asking me what comedies I’d recommend right now, and I think I’d offer a shoutout to the second season of What We Do in the Shadows. The goofy vampire comedy has done what all comedies should in year two — deepened both its characters and its sense of humor. And the show is on Hulu, which often means my friends seem to have an easier time keeping up with it.

And another thing… If you’ve got the money, donate it to the Emergency Release Fund to help trans people who really need the help in getting out of jail and back on with their lives.

This week’s reading music: “The Heart Is a Muscle,” Gang of Youths (aka the song that was playing when we got everything ready to publish the essay)

Episodes is published at least once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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