2016 was the most adventure-filled, excruciating, tragic, and eye-opening year I’ve ever lived through. I crossed off a lot of my bucket list as far as places to visit, including the week of my birthday spent in perhaps the most important city in terms of queer and trans history. Three of music’s (and my) biggest idols, who showed that there’s no one way to be a man, passed away. The nation, and the world, saw just how disposable queer and trans lives are to some people. And like so many other aspects of my life, such as work, illness, or heartbreak, 2016 was something with a distinct beginning and an end. I realize now that there are some parts of life are an ongoing journey rather than a simple chapter or footnote.
In a parallel universe, these past few years, especially the time spent in France, would have unquestionably been the happiest time of my life. My teenage self would have been so happy had “she”’d been able to glimpse into the future, seeing what I saw and doing the things that I did. I would see myself similarly to how friends, family, and casual acquaintances see (or at least saw) me—as a young woman privileged enough to travel the world and go on amazing adventures. The person on my resumé certainly seems like someone who has made it. But had the old me been able to take even a small glimpse into my mind, it would have been a completely different story. The constant swirl of anxiety. The descent into emotional volatility and toxicity. The distinct feeling of wrongness and guilt with every “elle,” “américaiNE,” or “belle” used to describe me. I’d innocently hoped that being in a different environment would change things, but the truth is your mind and your body follow you no matter where you go.
On the other hand, the time that I’ve spent away from home and in a foreign country has been what has helped shaped my identity and my sense of adulthood the most. My first experience with transgender advocacy was at the internship I completed during my semester in Paris. Some of the most important friends in my life, including the first genuinely close male friends I’ve ever had, I met in France. During my time in Clermont-Ferrand, I even became a sort of self-appointed ringleader and organizer of a group of fellow LGBTQ language assistants who became quickly known as “the Queermos.” France is also where I experienced paying my own rent, phone, and Internet bills for the first time. I learned that I can accomplish so much by being resourceful and persistent. Of course, it took me a while to fully accept that there are some battles you have to lose.
One of the biggest complaints I’ve heard from people living in France, and rightly so, is that it’s a bureaucratic mess. Everything from taxes to immigration to housing can be enough to make anyone’s hair turn gray. Thankfully, I lived in a young people’s residence that was very helpful and reliable with necessary paperwork and I didn’t experience too many snafus during my stay. I almost see my time in France as a learning experience as the French administration pales in comparison to the bureaucratic mess that my life could very well become over the next couple of years.
It is strange looking back on the first few months of 2016, when I still told myself that maybe, just maybe, all the difficulty I was going through would somehow just go away. I tried so desperately to grab hold onto an image, an image that objectively was nice, just as objectively my time in France seems as if it the happiest, most fulfilling, time of my life, and just as I can objectively see the young woman that looks back at me in the mirror or in photographs, is attractive, even beautiful. But the reality is that you can’t only look at things from the outside– in order to truly understand something, you need to start from the inside and work your way out. When I suddenly and unexpectedly began questioning my gender identity in July 2012, sparked after reading an article about gender fluidity, mental health professionals, my parents, and even myself to some extent initially expected that I was dealing with a symptom of insecurity, anxiety and internalized misogyny and not the cause. Now I see it as the opposite. Of course, this brings up a plethora of questions. Why did I go through something like this later in life? How did I go from the kid who carried around a sign that read “No Boys Allowed” (because boys were dumb and smelly of course) to being a guy? How did girl who was all tutus and belly-dancing who was not only fascinated by but excited by the development of their body who dressed themselves in clothes to reveal their shape suddenly get bombarded by images of binding their breasts and presenting more masculine? How did the person who got miffed if people asked if they were a boy or a girl or looked like a man, turn out to actually be one? How did the person who felt that their girlhood and femininity was an unshakable part of them even if the world around them was chaos? Did my brain go through some biological change? Did my hormones rearrange themselves? Did I need to first focus on the other aspects of my identity –being biracial/Black, being on the autism spectrum, being an INFJ/empath etc.—before moving onto something bigger? Did I ignore the signs of being drawn to seahorses, androgynous clothing, drag queens or other examples of so-called gender nonconformity? Or is it that, as I believe more and more to be the case, my brain simply wasn’t ready for that information? Sometimes our minds do things to protect us. My overall “girlness,” love for all things feminine, along with my wild imagination, kept me safe from myself and the harsh realities of the world around me. Between my height, race, and, especially social difficulties due to PDD-NOS, my girlhood and femininity was my last scrap of normalcy to hold onto. I saw the world through rose-tinted glasses. It also happens that I’ve experienced many milestones, with the exception, almost ironically, of puberty, more or less as epiphanies. From finally learning to tie my shoes as a second grader, to learning to ride a bike as a third grader, to accepting that spoiler alert Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy weren’t real as a fifth grader, to realizing my gender as a nineteen-year-old, something just clicked after a lifetime of not getting it. As I continue to say good-bye to all that I once thought I knew about myself and the world, I gain a much deeper understanding.—I’m in a constant process of unlearning and relearning. Some would call it enlightenment, others would call it growing up (with a twist).
*Content warning: OCD/intrusive thoughts mention, addiction mention dysphoria, suicide mention*
I also now realize that life really isn’t easy. The world may not be my oyster as I had hoped it would be while I was growing up, but I am still privileged enough that I do have choices. I’ve been extremely lucky to have so many things more or less lined up for me. Just being able to go to an expensive liberal arts college and go abroad is a tremendous privilege that many people never get to experience. But, again, no matter how “right” something may seem on the outside, doesn’t mean there aren’t struggles. One of the biggest things that confirms my gender identity for me is that I did do “everything right.” I finished my Bachelor’s degree, I became involved with different organizations, I never experienced any significant weight gain or loss, I never abused drugs or alcohol, and I never self-harmed. I did what you’re supposed to do when dealing with intrusive thoughts—act as if they weren’t there and do the things you would do if they weren’t there. And so I went to class every day, even if I could barely concentrate on any of my work. And so I played the part of the ideal Solo Female Traveler with her flowing scarves, skirts, and lipstick, her camera at the ready, her fingers ready to type beautiful musings about her adventures. She would continue to travel the world, explore people, places, and things, and grow to be an elegant old woman with eyes shaded by the brim of her sunhat and a string of pearls or coral adorning her neck. She was a lovely image of a person, but it was clear that she was not me.
It became very apparent, especially moving further into winter and into spring that I needed serious help. Returning from France this past spring, I made a vow to do whatever it took to make myself happy, even if it meant sacrificing connections with friends, family members, and even if it limits the sorts of opportunities I may have.
I was still clinging on to a diagnosis of OCD from four years back. And that’s what I told people the problem was. And that’s what I kept on telling myself the problem was. And, yes, it is a common theme of OCD for a person to obsessively worry that they are of a sexual orientation or gender identity other than the one that they intuitively know that they are. In a lot of ways, the diagnosis was a very reasonable explanation as to why my mind was constantly occupied with the same thoughts over and over again as if my head was inside of a wasp’s nest or a Moby song was playing on an infinite loop. It was a very rational explanation as to why to every “à quoi tu penses?” there was only really ever one answer. But OCD couldn’t account for all the internal wincing, feelings of wrongness, only really feeling comfortable when I was part of a mixed-gender group. It couldn’t account for the rush I felt when I stuffed socks in my panties for my Dr. Frank-n-Furter costume or for feeling like the George Caputo-lookalike douche bag on the tram was looking into my soul when he asked one of the other English assistants if I was a man. Nor could it account for me half-expecting to find chest surgery scars if I drew a finger across my chest. Nor could it account for the feeling of awkwardness and, frankly, pity I felt when straight men came onto me. Nor could it could count for the relief I had in having a gender-neutral first name. Nor could it account for why felt like I was forcing myself to fill out documents with my full legal name and circling the letter F, or forcing myself to going to the women’s restroom. Furthermore, I never had any other real “manifestations” or “themes” of intrusive thoughts. I never obsessively worried if I had cancer, or if I was a pedophile, or if I was going to cause a natural disaster. The write-up from the psychological evaluation was thought out, but between the fact that I’d left out some important details and that the write-up contained more grammatical and syntactical errors than even this essay probably does, I took the diagnosis with a grain of salt. Giving myself the benefit of the doubt and because the reality of being trans was much scarier then simply being a poor girl who has a bully in her brain telling her she’s a boy 24/7 I decided to go ahead and reach out to different professionals and people with personal experience with, as it’s appropriately nicknamed in French, la folie du doute. I’d been accepted to a position as a pre-K literacy tutor in Baltimore for the 2016-2017 school year, so I had a few months to get myself together before moving onto the next step. Once back in the states, I went to a few sessions of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), but at that point, I’d accepted that “she” was never coming back and I’d even warned the therapists that I actually had accepted my transness (at the time as genderqueer/nonbinary especially as I didn’t feel too much in the way of body dysphoria and would it really make sense that I’d be a guy?!) and that I’d mostly use the techniques they would be teaching me to help deal with gender dysphoria. I greatly appreciate the work that people in the field do and it is work that can genuinely be lifesaving, but I had a strong gut feeling that they didn’t represent the exact help that I needed. A gut feeling that no amount of rational thinking could combat. About a month in, I told my therapist that I felt it would be better to take a more therapeutic approach with someone with a lot of experience with transgender issues. She supported my decision, which both relieved me and scared me. No! Shouldn’t you tell me that I should continue working with you until I’m not obsessing all the time? I thought. But I knew I made the right decision, one that was confirmed when, not too long later, I began to see a trans-affirming therapist and the idea of being a man came back screaming.
Changes rolled from there pretty quickly. I went through a pretty intense “grieving” period, I cut off the majority of my hair (for passing and liberation’s sake as well as the fact that my hair was nearly completely dreaded due to compulsive hair-tugging and lack of upkeep) got rid of some old clothes, got some new ones, ordered a couple of chest binders, mastered the ankle-on-the-knee sitting position and came out to some close friends. Looking in the mirror, with my hair being the shortest it’d been since I was about two, and my chest the flattest it’d been since I was about seven, I saw an outline of the person I needed to be. Finally, it felt like I was moving forward. Four years ago, imagining myself as a man gave me far more distress then the mere idea of how family, friends and others would react. I saw myself as a sad, strange wormlike thing drifting through life, the complete opposite of the spontaneous, imaginative kid in awe of the world that I’d once been. Now I could imagine myself as being happy, and complete after social and physical changes took place. Like I was starting to loosely weave myself together into a new person. Of course, this now meant I had another pretty big decision to make, one that remains one of the, if not the, hardest but most important decision that I’ve ever made in my life, so far. Was I going to be “Miss” and “she” at work and risk a complete downward spiral, while simultaneously staying “safe” or did I take a huge leap of faith, risk my safety, and be “Mr.” and “he?”
I chose the latter and informed the program staff by e-mail.
And it has made all the difference in the world.
The four-and-five year olds I work with, as well as the majority of staff and parents, have accepted the tall, ethnically ambiguous, hairy, deeper voiced, awkward person who’s in their classroom all day as Mr. Max. Every day, I go to work feeling like I’m in a safe haven and that I can truly be myself. In a way the school as a safe haven makes a lot of sense the majority of students are from lower-income Latinx immigrant households and nearly all families live within walking distance of the school. Families and staff are, generally, very progressive and would do whatever it takes to make the support and nurture their fellow community-members, no matter what may be going on in the outside world.
On that note, I couldn’t write this without at least mentioning the results of the U.S. election and what it means for the future. My already powerful anxiety increased nearly ten-fold in the days following the results. As immigrants, women, LGBTQ people and others are highly encouraged to get things in order over the next few weeks, it does ad extra pressure to take care of any complicated, expensive, life changing processes as soon as possible. But, these are huge changes we’re talking about and ones that I may not know the consequences of further down the line. I know that, especially in a liberal area like I live in, I’ll still have at least some access to whatever process(es) are most appropriate to my needs, but it’s also a matter of how long I can stay in the loop that I feel that I’m in. I have a hard time fully diving into work. While my fellow tutors may worry about issues more closely related to work, I feel that the fall-out I’m preparing myself for doesn’t hold a candle to the more day-to-day worries. As a tall, ethnically ambiguous/biracial/Black, autistic, queer transgender man who looks like a girl, I am scared for my life. Over the past few months, I’ve experienced fairly normal periods of dissociation and intense moments of suicidal ideation (with no intent to carry through, thankfully).
When people are surprised that I’m back in the states, or ask me when I’m going to go back to France, I have to pause and remind myself that they don’t see what I see– they can’t hear the force inside my head that is screaming inside of me, no matter how loud and obvious it is to me. There’s at least some point of every day that I wish that it would all just go away. That my mind was playing tricks on me all along. That I’ll become a stronger, more enlightened version of my former self and that I will be the prodigal young woman/daughter/granddaughter/niece/sister that people have expected me to be. That I’ll magically no longer feel like I’m being misgendered more than Tweety Bird. That it won’t feel natural or right every time I’m referred to addressed as Mr. Max or he or as a boy. That I’ll get to the appointment to begin taking hormones and realize that no, this isn’t what I want! This wasn’t the problem! But I need to have faith in myself, even if the truth is hard to swallow.
It’s often the most unexpected journeys that life takes us on that define us the most. I may not have turned out to be the person I wanted to be or even expected to be growing up, but, at the end of the day, I am still me. This year has affirmed that I am passionate about languages, travel, justice, learning about new cultures, education, the arts, working with children, and being a guide to those who need it. I may feel like in a way I’ve become thirteen years old (the age when I’d initially expected that my base identity, body, and style had more or less settled itself) again, rather than twenty-three, but I suppose that makes sense when you need to re-examine your life and begin to build a new base for yourself. As I go forward in life, getting closer to stability and feeling like a full person again, I am scared and I do experience a lot of doubt, but I know that, regardless of where or who I am in the world, there are people who will love and support me no matter what.
In a letter I wrote to my future self when I was an innocent wide-eyed freshman in college, some of the biggest goals I listed were to travel the world, to be an active member of the Baltimore community, and to go through some sort of positive change. I managed to accomplish the first two goals and, while it certainly didn’t seem that way at first, I think I’m finally going through the third. Sometimes, in order to make a necessary, sustainable change, things have to get worse before they get better. Sometimes, parts of you need to die before you become alive again, and the things that once made you feel the most alive may are the things that would kill you now. My main goal now is not only to stay alive, but to live, at all costs. Will I return to France some day? I certainly hope so! But, for the time being, heading into a scary future full of uncertainties and changes that could very well threaten the existence of millions of Americans, I need to stay and fight for others’ lives as well as my own, in the country that, as flawed as it is, will always be home.