I could go on and on about how gender is a social construct, gender identity can be fluid, that gender is a spectrum, and that societal expectations of gender are toxic, but that has all already been written about by far more intelligent and eloquent people than myself. Instead, I’m going to tell my story, and hope that doing so sheds some light on what lead to my not coming out as transgender until I was 32, and why it took me so long to come to the realization of, as well as to terms with, being transgender.
To anyone who paid attention, I was very much a boy growing up in the 80s and 90s. My toys of choice were hot wheels, dinosaurs, LEGO sets, and video games. I wasn’t into stereotypically girly things. I can’t tell you that I always knew I was a girl, because I didn’t. I was a boy, because that’s what everyone told me I was. I didn’t show interest in dolls or dress up or playing house, because boys didn’t do that. I don’t really know what drove me to my interests in the toys that I played with. I’m not going to claim that I only played with them because of expectations of me, because I don’t know that to be true.
There have been countless studies and articles written about how gendered toys affect childhood development. In the 80s and 90s being transgender wasn’t a thing, or if it was my sheltered Catholic upbringing hid that from me. Everything was extremely gendered. You were a boy or a girl. Boys liked boy toys and girls liked girl toys. That’s all there was to it.
I did play with my younger sister though, and I remember doing that a lot. We’d play Barbies together. She had a custom made wooden Barbie house that my grandpa made for her, full of furniture that my grandma made. I was jealous of that house. At the time, I think I saw it more that I was jealous that my grandpa and grandma spent so much time making toys for the girls in the family, but looking back I loved playing with it. I even remember getting mad when my sister didn’t play Barbies how I wanted to and getting into fights because of it. Of course I could never admit that I actually liked playing Barbies. I was a boy. Boys don’t like Barbies. I only did it because my sister wanted to play, and she was my sister.
Of all the things I spent my childhood time on, my biggest passion was video games, and even those were marketed almost exclusively towards boys. However, I didn’t play with video games because they were a boy toy. Video games were my escape.
For as long as I can remember, I’d been picked on and bullied. One of my earliest memories is going into preschool and being told by the other kids that I couldn’t join in and play with the big fake bricks that they were using to build a castle. Even from an early age I was an outsider.
I might have been a boy, but I didn’t feel like one. I never fit in with the other boys. I hated sports. I hated how rough and rowdy boys were on the playground. When I forced myself to try and fit in, the other boys would target me with any excuse to be rougher with me than necessary. “Smear the queer” was a favorite game amongst them. You can probably guess who the queer usually was. Sometimes I’d try and join the girls in their playing, but I was usually rejected. “No boys allowed.”
My parents forced me to join sports teams, soccer and tee ball, to start. I hated playing them, and they bored me. I remember getting more enjoyment out of playing with one of my teammates’ puppy on the sidelines, than actually playing the game itself. I’m pretty sure my teammates hated me too, because I put next to no effort into playing. In grade school I played basketball, because my class of 10 boys all were on the team. I couldn’t be the only boy not on the basketball team. I got bullied and teased enough as it was, and I saw joining the basketball team as the lesser of two evils.
The bullying continued through grade school and high school. High school was different though. The first friend I made was a young girl in one of my classes. When lunchtime came, the only table with anyone that I knew was with her and her friends. I asked if I could sit down, and they obliged. I fit in easily for the first time in what felt like a lifetime. Of course I still had friends that were boys, but I never saw it as being friends with boys. It was always just having friends. My friends group at the time became equally male and female, but I always felt like I fit in better with the girls.
Looking back, being transgender is so obvious to me. It was the little things at first: playing with my sister, fitting in more with the girls in my class than the boys, and not wanting to do typical boy extracurricular activities. But I was still a boy, and I thought nothing could change that.
While the bullying in high school wasn’t nearly as bad as what I suffered in grade school, it still persisted. Depression started to rear its ugly head, and I retreated further into my obsession with video games. Things were better in college, but the depression grew worse regardless. Once again, my friends group was as equally male as it was female, but I fit in with the young women the best. It always felt more natural to me, like I could be myself without having to fit into some other expectations. Not that I could ever put a finger on that at the time. I was just me, and despite unmedicated depression, I managed to convince myself that I was happy who I was.
A major turning point in my life was when World of Warcraft first came out. I was never into roleplaying games so much as a kid, but WoW was different. It was a game you could literally be anything. I immediately gravitated towards the undead race. You see, their leader was a badass female undead elf. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.
I started creating my character, and hovered over the female option, but chickened out. I selected the male.
A few years later, Burning Crusade released. I fell in love with the Blood Elf race. They spoke to me. I don’t know what exactly it was about them them, but they quickly became my favorite. I bought a race change, and recreated the character I’d been playing for the previous two years as a Blood Elf. Once again I hovered over the female option. I switched back and forth between male and female, pondering the decision like it was the most important choice I’d ever make.
I selected the female. She was gorgeous, and not in some creepy “I’m sexually attracted to a video game character” but in a “I want to be this person” sort of way, and in WoW I could do exactly that. It was awkward at first, because people treated you differently in game with a female avatar. Just like in real life, gender mattered. Especially with the Blood Elves. Only girls played female Blood Elves, or so seemed to be the stereotype. I didn’t care though.
WoW became the first place I started exploring my gender, without even realizing that I was doing it. It was so natural to be a woman within the game. Even using the emotes in the game, which caused my character to use female pronouns, felt right to me. Within the game, I felt like I could be myself, in a way that I could never be in the real world.
I don’t think that I’ve played a male character in a video game that’s given me the choice since. The first cracks in my egg started to appear. Still, I didn’t understand what that meant, and didn’t have the self-awareness or self-confidence to reflect what that meant about who I was, or what I was.
In a way, I lead two lives at the time. One online, where I often roleplayed as women, and one offline in the real world. Back in the real world, I was still very much a boy. I hated shopping. I hated clothes. I hated shoes. Here’s another pair of pants, identical to the last. Here’s another shirt, the only difference between it and another is its color. Every pair of shoes identical. How can someone take pleasure in shopping when there’s no choice to be made. My parents did most the shopping for me. I couldn’t care less what I wore. Work and school clothes I especially hated. I don’t think I could ever have told you what I thought was so uncomfortable about them. They were stiff and rigid. They made me feel claustrophobic. I’d later learn that the feelings I was having were signs of dysphoria.
I even wore a suit to my wedding, and for the first time in my life I was excited about shopping. There was something different about picking out a suit that I couldn’t put my finger on. Maybe it’s because I never shopped for something for fun before. Maybe it’s because I was now shopping for something with options to choose from. My suit could reflect who I was, in a way. Still, it wasn’t comfortable, and since the wedding it has been sitting in a lump on top of my drier.
As I said before, I grew up in a Catholic family, but by the end of high school I had started drifting away from the church. As I did so, my political leanings also began drifting further to the left. In college I started learning about social justice. I spent a lot of time on left-wing web forums, such as Something Awful. I read a lot of The Onion, and other parody news sources that tended to lean to the left.
While my friends group in the real world was very diverse, my online friends were almost entirely women. From them, I learned about feminism, and related topics. I started reading about social justice issues, and following related blogs and news sites.
Another turning point in my life is when one of my favorite directors, the famous Lana Wachowski of the Matrix fame, came out as transgender. It was all over the news. I didn’t even know being transgender was a thing at the time. The egg cracked a bit more.
They say that visibility is important, and the next ten years were revolutionary. More and more stories about being transgender started showing up in the news. The more I read, the less I was able to ignore my own confusion with my gender and who I was, and the more the comfort I felt roleplaying as a woman on the internet started to make sense.
By this time my career was just starting to get off the ground. I finally graduated with an associates degree after struggling and failing at college for 6 years. I had my first real job. My life was just starting to take off. So I couldn’t be transgender. I had a family. I had a career. I liked girls. I lived in the middle of the midwest, which was far from a liberal paradise despite living in a blue state. I couldn’t possibly transition even if I wanted to.
Maybe if I had made the realization ten years earlier, or born ten years later, it would have been different. I could have transitioned during college. I could have begun my young adult life as a woman. I didn’t though. I had no idea. I was in complete denial of my issues. But the thoughts stuck with me, and I kept them quiet. I didn’t tell another soul. Not even my best friends, the very ones who introduced me to feminism and I knew would be supportive. I just couldn’t do anything about it.
Then I started dating. I signed up for an account on OKCupid. I’ve never explored myself as much as when I was filling out questions on that site. Self discovery is a strange process, and the more questions I answered, the more I came to a realization of who I was and what I wanted in life. I started seeing transgender women in my matches. I found myself jealous of them. It surprised me that someone could transition and do so as successfully as they had in such a conservative area. I almost messaged some of them, but never had the courage.
I couldn’t admit my thoughts, fears, and concerns to anyone but myself. Speaking them outloud made them real. As long as I never told anyone, those thoughts would hide inside me and never surface. I could ignore them, I thought. It was easier that way.
I was wrong.