Rather than repeat the same arguments that you can find all over the internet about Prop 8, the SOTU, or DADT, I’m going to write about what I was thinking about on my way back from Subway at lunch. I thought about the times I walked up the same road, dressed like a guy, convinced in my own mind that I was one. This time, as I walked up the same road, my bra was bugging me, my boobs were bouncing a little bit (not nearly as comfortable *or* as cool as guys seem to think it is), and I noticed something about the other pedestrians I saw—the women would usually make eye contact with me, we’d exchange a wordless smile and continue on our ways. Men might look at me, but avoided eye contact and smiles as we got closer. I remembered what it was like to be in that isolated little world, an island unto myself. I started thinking about the ways that things were different back then and how I had changed.

A few minutes previously, while I was still in the Subway, I got called ma’am twice. It still surprises me even though everyone I know tells me that I pass. I have realized that one of the hardest adjustments has been internalizing my gender of identity: I’m so used to being called sir that I can’t quite deal with being called ma’am.

I can’t help but wonder why that is. There are people with persistent and lifelong feelings of being the other sex. The adjustment I describe is a really affirming experience for some—they’re finally being identified by others the way they’ve always seen themselves. Then there’s me, looking around for the woman that the sales clerk has just addressed as ma’am. It’s five more seconds before I realize who he’s talking to.

The way I see myself leads me into remembering feelings from further back. I’m not sure that I could say I felt like a girl when I knew was a boy. I understood that I was male bodied no matter how much I didn’t want to be. But something was still wrong with me. Many transsexuals have an “A-ha!” moment when they’re young, realizing that they’re supposed to be the sex opposite what they were born. It seems to frequently be some kind of disassociation or disidentification with men. Why would I wear shirts like my father’s? Jenny Boylan wrote in She’s Not There. I don’t know if I ever had that kind of epiphany.

What I did have was a copy of Penthouse that my older brother had gotten hold of. The first time I ever saw a picture of people having sex, I understood, identified with the woman in a way that I did not identify with the man. I didn’t want her, I wanted to be her. While that sounds like it was my defining moment, I didn’t understand those feelings. There was no one to help me sort through them. Working through on my own, it never occurred to me that I was a girl, and wouldn’t for many years. I would frequently pretend to be a girl, and I would pray for God to turn me into a girl, but at some point I gave that up, at least on the latter point.

What I never did give up on was the crossdressing. If I experienced any kind of dysphoria when I was younger, it was over the fact that I wasn’t free to express myself or my gender, as I chose. As a boy, any expression of femininity was treated with contempt. If I was in the house baking with Mum, I got teased by my brother. After I got caught crossdressing, the subject never came up again until I was starting transition.

I think the issue of choosing how to express myself is really important to understanding my trans identity. To what extent do we choose to be the way we are? In one way, I almost feel like I chose this route (I did choose to transition, after all) but that’s not entirely correct.

Or at least, it doesn’t tell the whole story. I feel like other trans women have a well of experiences, and when examined through a certain lens the trans identity is easy to see: crossdressing, insistence on being a girl in spite of the male body. I feel like I never let myself have some of those experiences, or at least that I didn’t make proper sense of them when I did. What I mean is that I would shame myself over my gender variant behavior, and I think that prevented me from understanding the meaning of the experiences I had. With the shame clouding my judgment, I was more concerned about whether God would save me from my sins, whether my parents would catch me again, whether I would be forced to have counseling (or an exorcism!) through the church. Making sense of my identity and realizing that I was transgender wasn’t something I gave myself room to do.

I would meditate on St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians about being a child versus being a man and realizing the time to put away childish things. What I failed to realize is that crossdressing wasn’t childish, it was just feminine. That distinction didn’t matter– I tried to quash every ounce of me that wanted to be a woman, and by the time Christine asked me “Do you want to be a woman?” there wasn’t enough of a woman left in me to scream the affirmative. I threw away her clothes, her makeup. I cursed her; I disowned her in front of God. I cut her.

After my 30th birthday, when I started crossdressing freely again, I made a promise to myself that I had never made before. I promised that I wasn’t going to throw away any more clothes. I made room in my life for this part of myself. This is where I feel like I am separated from my sisters by choice, but in reality it’s a choice that we all make: I was determined to figure out why crossdressing was such an important issue for me and to make some kind of peace with it.

I think most trans people make a similar choice at some point in their lives, whether it’s coming to terms with crossdressing or being transgender: it isn’t so much the imperative of our internal identities as much as an exploration and letting our identity lead us to its own appropriate expression. I think that’s part of the reason why the transgender community is so diverse (among just trans women there’s a whole spectrum from ultra-feminine to ultra-butch). As my identity led me on to understand that there was something wrong with me that “Rayon couldn’t cure,” I started understanding more and more that I might be transgender, but was also too afraid to really come out to myself.

Within a few weeks of that birthday, I had started what would eventually be a two month course of black cohosh extract—I was too nervous, too afraid to see doctors and start the process towards getting on proper HRT, and so I tried an herbal treatment on my own. Taking the pills wasn’t much different than taking a multi-vitamin except I didn’t even get an energy boost. They did nothing for me, but I swore that my breasts looked bigger (which they didn’t). Even though they did nothing for me physically, the pills had the effect of making me feel more confident and better about myself overall. I don’t think that had anything to do with black cohosh as much as a placebo effect. I felt like I was doing something rather than waiting for something to happen. The act was like a way of testing myself—if I was willing to choke down these herbal pills for two months, to hide the purchase from my wife, then it must be serious. I wanted to do something real, something to really start the process rolling, and so I started seeing a gender therapist.

It took me several months of therapy to be sure that I wanted to start transitioning, to really be sure that it was about more than clothes. I started with clothes, as so many women do, and went on from there. I thought I might partially transition, go on low doses of hormones, dress more androgynously, and see how I felt after that. I had originally started a lot of these processes with the intent of trying them out and seeing how they made me feel. I remember making a list of the things I wanted to try: clothes, hair removal, hormones. Taken separately, none of those things would have been very bad. Together, and by the time I realized what I was doing, I was transitioning. I was being gendered as female even in places where I wasn’t presenting as a woman.

I know that sounds ridiculous, like my transition got away from me, but it felt like that sometimes. I would do things I was comfortable with, pushing the envelope just enough but never uncomfortably so. There were plenty of times I didn’t pass, but there were also plenty of people that still treated me like a human being at those times. While I’ve been fortunate to have only a few negative experiences, I find that I can’t count the number of people that have been decent to me, and it was all those decent individuals that gave me the confidence to keep on. There were times where I felt so fragile and shell-shocked that if someone had said so much as “boo” to me, I’d have run straight home and not gone out for a week. There were, in fact, a few times that did happen. But there have also been times where I’ve been accepted as a woman by other women, and it makes me feel like I found a place where I belong.

But this is really about more than how I look or how other people treat me. There’s something about my female identity that feels more authentic to me, like I’m not hiding something from people anymore. Everyone hides something—but I’m not talking about little things like admitting that you didn’t clean up before you had guests come over or what your natural hair color is. I’m talking about something fundamental to your understanding of yourself. I used to present myself as a man when I was only marginally confident in the belief that I was. There were always things I felt like I couldn’t share with others–I always stressed out over days like Halloween if I was going out crossdressed because I didn’t want the pointed questions to which I only had awkward answers.

And that sort of brings me to where I am now—I feel distinctly female now, but my past memories feel more decidedly male. Or maybe I just used to protest too much, coloring those experiences with a brush that society falsely claimed to be appropriate. A lot of the time, it felt to me that I would have to make a point of thinking “this is what men do” or “I should do this because I’m a man” or “men don’t do (or say) that”. I was much more aware of my gender then than I am now. I know that sounds weird, but it’s one more thing that makes me certain that transition is really the right decision—gender is supposed to be something that we take for granted and aside from the adjustment of realizing that I’m being addressed by that store clerk as ma’am, I really do give it less and less thought.

There is one other exception: sex. My penis used to bother me because it got in the way of being able to wear certain clothes, but that was mostly superficial, and I never really had a lot of negative feelings about it. My distaste has grown by leaps and bounds as the rest of my appearance has become increasingly feminine. It’s the most discordant part of my anatomy, and as such I now hate it more than anything else.

The development of that very targeted dysphoria brings me back to the point of this post: I never went through life thinking I should have had a vulva—the paradigm of being trapped and “should have been” didn’t resonate with me in my earliest experiences. What I did understand was that I liked being touched a particular way—all about pressure, not stroking. I never even equated the way that I liked to be touched with the way other girls liked it. I’m sure I would have preferred a vulva, and while that would have been a much more syntonic experience, this also has never been about what I prefer or want. It’s about something equally ineffable and simple as this is how I like to be touched. It’s a place I’ve been led by some internal compass, not a declaration of destination.