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Threshold of revelation (with apologies to Tony Kushner)


Emily VanDerWerff

May 14 2019

6 min read


When people ask me, "When did you know you were a woman?" my answer tends to come in three parts, which are sort of a nesting doll.

The easiest answer is "In March of 2018." That was when I was forced out of the mental closet I lived in by the triple whammy of seeing the movie Blockers (yes, the movie Blockers) and heavily identifying with the teenage lesbian character in that movie, a ContraPoints video debunking the theory of autogynephilia that describe almost my exact relationship to my own body, and a Daniel Ortberg interview that spoke so precisely to my own mental experiences that I finally just gave up and said, "Yeah, okay, right, I'm trans."

But there are two other answers. In May of 2003 (a few months before my wedding!), I stumbled upon a site full of stories about men transforming into women and felt something inside of my brain click into place in a way that created a sinking feeling in my stomach. And also, I've always known, but I've also always known how to hide the evidence of myself from myself. I have the spaces in my brain where the memories of indulging in girl things would go, but they've been scrupulously scrubbed clean, so I can't ever prove they were there.

But increasingly none of these answers really work, because the actual experience of coming out took an entire lifetime -- something my therapist calls the "coming in" process. And what this means for me is that before I finally left my closet, I had to be ready to get blindsided by the movie Blockers (yes, the movie Blockers) in a way that broke the door off its hinges. And the getting ready was part of this, too.

So I've come to think of the period from June 2016 to March 2018 as the threshold of revelation, a term I have baldly ripped off from Tony Kushner's Angels in America, then completely changed to mean something else. (In Angels, the threshold is a kind of dream space where a few of the characters can meet.) It begins with my wife and me writing a pilot whose protagonist was a teenage girl, and it ends with me coming out. And the more I look at this period -- at the pop culture I was into, at the things I was doing, at the people I was spending time with -- boy, was I readying myself to come out.

But if you had asked me at this time, "Emily, are you readying yourself to come out as trans?" I wouldn't have thought so. Truth be told, the part of my brain that was furiously churning away about my gender had quieted significantly, thanks to working on the pilot. (Weirdly, steeping my brain in the thought patterns of a teenage girl was something it responded well to??) I genuinely thought that I had figured out the secret, which was that I wasn't trans -- I just liked to write female protagonists.

Now, this sounds ridiculous to me, but at the time, I felt delivered from a demon that had possessed me since I was young. I could breathe a little bit, and I was able to get my health under control. Having the script to write, having a new draft due every few weeks, it all managed to keep my gender identity issues at bay. Of course, once the script was done, they swamped me all over again, and this time, the flood waters were higher. But somewhere in there, I thought I'd finally found the male identity I'd been chasing all that time. He was just super sensitive! That was the ticket!

Of course, in the manner of all shadowy creatures, my gender identity issues could be kept under control when I was looking at them. When I wasn't -- when I was distracted by the script -- they quietly went ahead and started building me a life as a woman, from figuring out my name to all manner of other things.

And the big thing they did was they started making friends with other women. They would just randomly identify a woman who seemed cool or like she had roughly the same interests as me, then reach out and establish some sort of connection. At the time, I just thought, "Hey, look at you! Making friends!" And then after I came out to myself, many of these women were the people I came out to fairly early on. Somehow, my true self had built a ready-made support group out of people I thought seemed cool on Twitter.

The deeper I slide into Emily life, the more I realize these relationships are the things I absolutely could never give up. Being in social situations with other women who treat me like a woman is hands down the best thing that's ever happened to me, and the immediate way the gauzy curtain between me and other women just instantly falls down when I say, "By the way, I, too, am a lady person," is really remarkable. (In the case of some women in my life, who were I think a little weirded out by the intensity of my friendship as a guy, it's been clarifying in a way that lets them say, "Okay, I get it now, yes, she's good.")

But I wouldn't have gotten there if some tiny part of my brain hadn't been diligently chipping away at the wall I had built around myself for those 20-plus months, if I hadn't stupidly thought I'd beaten back my transness for good. We never find ourselves in one thunderous revelation. It feels that way sometimes, but it's always the result of diligent preparation, a kind of quiet progress toward being yourself that you make one email, one phone call, one Twitter DM at a time.

I am a trans woman in her 30s. I live in Los Angeles, and you might have heard of my other self. I'm obviously not named Emily Sandalwood, because lol, whose last name is Sandalwood? Anyway, you can respond to this, and I will look at your reply and nod sagely and probably never write back, or you can follow me on Twitter, where I am extremely funny.

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