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Emily VanDerWerff

Aug 09 2018

5 min read


The idea I see shared a lot in trans discussion spaces is that wanting determines destiny in some way. Because I want badly to be a woman, I am a woman, by this line of thinking, even as I write this while cloaked in the guise of a seemingly typical man in his 30s. This line of thinking, taken to its extreme, would hold that even if I never took steps toward transitioning, I would be a woman, because my desire dictates my self.

I can see this argument, honestly. The big leap for me came in the determination that my core being was a woman's core being, that being drawn to stereotypically feminine things was sort of an overcorrection for the way I'd starved myself all those years. And already, I can find myself, say, more readily identifying with female characters in movies and TV shows in a way that is kind of intoxicating, like strapping on an oxygen mask when the pressure drops.

I've seen this manifest, too, in my relationships with other women whom I've come out to. They're automatically warmer with me, and more open, in a way that feels truer to me than most of the male friendships I've had. I was out for dinner with some trans women a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself never tempted to check my phone or anything similar. I was content to just exist, in that space, with them, eating terrible diner food.

And what's more, I've started to feel like the sorts of rituals of male bonding I used to be able to perform as a matter of course feel more hollow to me than they once did. It's not like I've stopped liking my dude friends, but it is like the basis of our relationship is built on something that was never there. To use a biblical metaphor, I was always a house built on sand, and now that I'm trying to build my house on rock, I find myself across the river from them. It's not an uncrossable distance, but you have to bring a boat.

But I'm also applying a lot of this retroactively, in ways that make me wonder how well I've ever known myself. Well, I think, of course I always WANTED to be a girl, even as a very little kid. Girls were so much cooler, after all! And of course being part and parcel of masculine rituals always made me feel a little outside of myself, like an observer watching myself do things.

I suspect that a lot of this was thanks to most of the world perceiving me as a straight white man, from a relatively comfortable family economically. I keep asking myself how I didn't know when I was young and read the end of The Marvelous Land of Oz, where the little boy Tip, is transformed into the Princess Ozma, and then thought, "Oh, is that a thing that can happen?!" Or how I didn't know for most of my adulthood, when having to play the role of myself grew steadily harder with every passing day.

But here's the big clue: I have, for all of my life, nurtured this fantasy of myself as a television character, believed, on some level, that my life was meant for the entertainment of others. For a long time, I thought this was just my tendency to turn everything into a story, but the further I dig into myself, the more I realize that what I really wanted was to make my old self a fictional character, for reasons I barely understood. Even when I had the language, even when I knew the word "transgender," I didn't have the language to say, "I am transgender." Until I did.

For a while, at the start of this, I had a tendency to think of myself as a man, still, and to think of Emily as some other, better self, who was trying to pull me out of the quicksand. The part where I could think of myself, comfortably, as a woman, and not just somebody who wanted to be a woman came slowly, and it still only arrives in fits and starts. But the surest evidence I have that wanting to be something other than the gender everybody thought you were at birth is real is that the more I tuned in to that wanting, the stronger her grip on me became, and the more I read that sentence and think, "Not her grip. My grip."

There are people for whom wanting is not enough, either because they can't transition, or they won't transition, or they never find the words to tell themselves what is happening to them until it's too late. I will help as many out of the quicksand as I can, but the rope I caught is my own, and the life it leads toward is mine, too. I am, for the first time ever, I now realize, a little greedy about all of the possibilities.


I am a transwoman in her 30s. I live in Los Angeles, and you might have heard of my other self. This is mostly a journal to myself, but you can read it if you want, because I feel like radical honesty is sometimes the best policy, and if I ever come out more widely, I can just, like, point my family to these mad ramblings. 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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