(I am taking this week off from the newsletter’s Monday edition. The Wednesday and Friday editions — available to paying subscribers — will still run as usual. Please enjoy this repeat from March 2019! This piece ran in Stealth, the newsletter about my transition that I wrote under the pseudonym Emily Sandalwood. )
When I was 4, I loved to play dress-up. My mom had a bunch of weird old clothes she had saved from her and my father's '60s and '70s wardrobes, and I would wrap myself in them and pretend I was somebody else. My mom had a ratty old wig, too, and I would pull that on. It was, in every way, pretty typical little kid stuff — playing around and imagining stuff, taking test runs at adulthood in the safety of your living room.
I played dress-up once, and then I begged my mom several more times to play it again and again, but she hesitated. I remember clearly that I didn't understand why we weren't doing this all the time. My favorite thing to do was to play out imaginary scenarios, and the clothes made the man, so to speak.
We played dress-up again, finally, and toward the end, my father came in from doing chores. He laughed to see me in some big floppy hat and an oversized blouse, but after that day, we never played dress-up again.
When I was older, I spent most summers at the pool, like most other kids my age. Inevitably, during pool breaks, conversation would turn toward the subjects of what other kids we knew were doing with their summers — gossip, in other words.
One day, some of the others told me, in a hushed whisper, about a boy a few years younger than us, who had walked to the pool from his house in a dress, heels, and makeup, all his mother's. His mother, frantic, drove to the pool and corralled him, talking to him in a hushed whisper and pulling him into the back of the car. She was raising the boy alone, and this had quickly become the talk of the town — without a strong man in the boy's life, he had lost his moral and gender compass.
The boy didn't appear in a dress at the swimming pool again. I don't know what became of him. I don't even know if he was a boy.
It's the fifth grade, and my voice hasn't changed yet. I have a crush on a girl named Rachel, and she's one of the purest-voiced sopranos in our local choir. Since I, with my unchanged voice, can sing almost as high as she can, I finagle my way into the soprano section as well, in hopes of being close to her. (I have, my whole life, taken the old dating advice "share her interests" too seriously.) We're a small school, so there are plenty of boys my age singing in the alto section, just to fill out the ranks. But I'm the first boy soprano the school has had in decades.
About halfway through the year, something inside of me begins to snap, and I slowly realize that what I thought was a cool way to get close to a girl I liked is not considered cool at all. People are making fun of me, they think it's weird what I've done, and there's no way for me to stuff the genie back inside the bottle.
One week, to my baffled father, I burst into tears, and no matter how much he tries to tell me about how boy sopranos are considered hugely impressive throughout the world, no matter how often he brings up the Vienna Boy's Choir, no matter what he says, I feel like I've let him down, because I've come to realize that I violated a social contract I didn't even know I had bought into. Just by being alive. Just by trying to be myself.
Somewhere in middle school, I began working on a Steve Urkel impression. I liked to do silly voices, and it was one of the few ways I could manage to get girls to pay attention to me. (Never mind the fact that I had no idea of what I would do with a girl if I managed to get one interested in me. My flirtation with Rachel ended when I convinced her to be my girlfriend, then didn't speak to her for three months because I was petrified.) I was the kind of kid who would have become obsessed with Saturday Night Live, except I wasn't allowed to watch Saturday Night Live. Instead, I become obsessed with Mork and Mindy reruns and hope to emulate Robin Williams someday.
Something about the Urkel impression, though, is too much for my father, who takes me aside and tells me that he doesn't think it's a very good idea to do the impression around other people. It might make me sound a little gay, he offers matter-of-factly, and it's only a couple of decades later that I realize the weird bottomless cavern that existed beneath a white father telling his white kid not to imitate a black actor because it might make her seem gay.
The thing is: had I been gay, I hope my parents would have found their way to okay with it. Like so many parents who went from skeptical to allies, I hope they would have navigated the maze. But the place we lived set boundaries for people drawn in by fear of differences, and my father wanted to minimize that discomfort as much as possible, perhaps for his sake more than mine.
I'm in high school, and my favorite show is My So-Called Life, which I'm catching up with in reruns, a few years after it first ran. In particular, I identify strongly with the main character, Angela, played by Claire Danes.
Somewhere, in the back of my brain, I decide that I want to have hair like hers, so I start to grow it out, longer and longer, until one day, at track practice, one of my female teammates laughs about how I brush my hair out of my face more often than she does. I didn't realize how far I'd taken my Angela impression.
The next day, I go to get it all cut off.
I wrote all of the above in February of 2017, in response to some Trump administration decision designed to limit the freedoms of trans people that neither you nor I remember any more, because it's gotten so much worse. When I wrote it, I sincerely believed I was a man. (I just deleted an entire section that said, "I know, having written all of this, you expect me to come out as trans, well, haha, joke's on you!") I really tried. I did.
One of my favorite characters in one of my favorite TV shows is Julia from The Magicians because the show has consciously positioned her as a woman who never does what is easy when she can do what is hard, if what is hard is what is right. In a recent episode, Julia confronted a magical barrier that kept killing her when she tried to break through it, but she would simply resurrect and try again. (There are story reasons why she was able to do this, but I'm not going to summarize The Magicians, okay?) Watching it, I started crying. That's me, I thought. That is me.
Except maybe not really. The barrier I kept throwing myself at, knowing it would kill me, was manhood. I genuinely thought if I could find the right combination of elements, the right magic spell, the right secret word, I could escape from myself and become the kind of easy, laidback dude I tried to present as. Inside, I knew who I was. I knew. But I also didn't. There was a thing out of the corner of my eye I didn't dare look at, because I knew looking at it would change everything. In this reading, then, the fact that I came out, began moving toward living my life as a woman, would be Julia finally just giving up. And Julia doesn't give up.
I still struggle with this, with the thought that I didn't try hard enough to be a man. That is the legacy of where I grew up, a place where queerness is a thing that happens in the shadows, the better to insist it doesn't exist. A friend of mine came out as gay in his mid-20s, and he was slowly but surely cut out of the social circles he had always relied on. He moved to New York, trying to escape, and then he became addicted to drugs and lost his job and all of his money and turned into a cautionary tale in my hometown. But the cautionary tale is always about him and not the place that would lead him to ruin.
I love rural America. I especially love where I grew up, the people I grew up with. I am going to lose them. Maybe not in total, but in bits and pieces. My coming out will ruin friendships and professional relationships my parents have if they stick beside me. It will ruin their relationship with me if they don't. There is a very real chance I will never go back to the town I grew up in. Unlike my friend, most of my support structures are in other cities now. I will be fine without the world I knew. But also, I'll miss it.
And yet, even if everyone I knew back home hates me for who I am, I count it as a victory that they will have to admit, on some level, that I exist. That they knew me all along, and also, maybe, they didn't. That will move the world one degree closer to equality. And if they see me as I am, if they find a way to acceptance, it will move them several degrees more in that direction.
These are the people who support The Wall as the ultimate expression of what Donald Trump means to them, of what they want. And the more I talk to them about it, the more convinced I become that it is not solely rooted in racism (though it is, deeply and terribly) but also in an extreme psychological need to re-erect barriers that have been torn down by the ever-increasing speed of technology and modernization. We lived our lives by a strict set of rigid boundaries that kept things in place and allowed you to never look at who you were. You constructed the self out of who you weren't. The Wall told you who you were and who you weren't. The Wall was your self, the boundary that kept you from spilling over in unpredictable ways.
And that makes the most radical thing you can do to be who you are, not who the Wall says you are.
Around 80 pounds ago, I started becoming convinced that when I went to sleep, I died, and when I woke up, I was surprised to still be alive. This was because I was in very poor health, but it also was, my therapist suggested, something psychological, a kind of spiritual death that ended in my resurrection every morning. I was not dealing with something, he said. Boy, wasn't I.
The barrier wasn't my manhood, then. It was everything erected by the place I grew up in to keep me from the truth. And every morning, when I woke up in the body I was born in, I threw myself at the barrier again, and every night, when I went to sleep, I died. And then I resurrected myself, and I threw myself at the wall again, and then I died again, and then I resurrected myself, and then I died again, and with every attempt, I broke apart a little more of the dogma that trapped me all those years, a dogma erected out of love and fear intertwined, which is to say a poison.
I did this 13,629 times before I broke through the barrier, and now I'm here. I'm here, I'm here, I'm here.
Present day Emily here to say that past Emily underestimated the ability of the people she grew up with to embrace her true self and overestimated the ability of her parents to do the same, but hey, that’s dramatic irony for you. I’ll see you next week.
Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.
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