You have to show your doctor proof that you’ve completed your RLE, which comes in the form of a letter from a therapist that you’ve been seeing regularly throughout. Any licensed therapist can give you your RLE completion letter, but not all are familiar with the protocol, so you usually have to seek out someone who specializes in gender issues, otherwise known as a “gender therapist.” Some gender therapists are content just discussing the experience with you; others assign you homework and require recommendation letters from employers, teachers, and/or other doctors.

I think therapy in general is a great idea for any trans* person, because being gender-nonconforming in a transphobic, homophobic society can be very isolating, and it’s great to have a safe space where you can sort out your feelings and ask questions. But having to prove the validity of my identity to a therapist was decidedly unhelpful.

Gender therapists are few and far between. There was only one in my area (I found him online), so that’s who I saw. During my first appointment, he asked the usual questions: How long have you known you are a boy? Do you feel trapped in the wrong body? Do you hate the body you have now? Have you always? All of these questions rely on the trans* person’s acceptance of traditional gender roles, and expect them to conform to the stereotypical trans narrative (knowing from childhood, experimenting with gender from childhood to present day, hating one’s body and feeling “trapped” inside it). Most of us who have done any research know the “right” answers: I’ve known since childhood; I feel trapped in the wrong body for x and y reasons; I feel uncomfortable with a, b, and c aspects of my body; I’ve felt this way for years. Your diagnosis as “really” trans* depends on your falling in line; different experiences are not accounted for. But it’s not uncommon for someone to realize they’re trans* as a young adult, having had a perfectly happy childhood in which they felt their gender matched their assigned-at-birth sex. Why are we supposed to hate our bodies or feel that they’re “wrong” in order to be allowed to transition? Am I not “really” trans* because I loved my body, but preferred one that would better reflect my identity?

As I was pretending to absorb the therapist’s lecture on what “being a man is all about” (“being the breadwinner, taking care of a woman”), he paused to point to my feet and said, “You can’t wear purple shoes anymore.” I was wearing my favorite maroon Vans. I didn’t have the guts to correct him (“They’re maroon”), nor to add that I had left my purple Vans at home, and that they matched my purple phone case and backpack. I didn’t speak up about his heterosexism or his misogyny either, because I just wanted to get through this process as quickly as possible and get the hormones that I knew would save my life. (That is not an understatement. I felt that my life was not worth living if I couldn’t be seen for who I was.) If that meant not wearing my favorite shoes for a year, fine.

During your RLE you’re supposed to learn, and conform to, the behaviors and social expectations that are attached to the gender role that you’re taking on. This didn’t sit well with me either—why would you be encouraged to conform to the gender-based expectations of a sexist society? But my three best guy friends were thrilled about it. They couldn’t wait to initiate me into the world of “manhood”: roughhousing with me, taking me out for beers and all using the same bathroom (and half-jokingly telling me to “man up” when I couldn’t finish my beer), and deeper stuff like talking to me about what it meant to them to be a man, a son, a brother. On my own, I started observing male body language and speech patterns: Men are taught to take up more space than women, while women are taught to be as small as possible. I tried to change the way I talked, but I couldn’t eliminate the speech patterns and vocal inflections I had learned from 20 years of imitating the women in my life. To this day I am still all “Hi! How are you?! So excited to see you!” when I see someone, even [especially] someone I’m not actually excited to see. When I make a phone call, my voice still goes up half an octave when I say, “Hello, can I speak to so-and-so?”

Suddenly I had to run everything I did, said, or even thought through a new filter: Was I crossing my legs in the right way? Did my walk resemble that of a runway model or of a football player? Did I really need to rant about how the best songs on Bionic were all written by Sia because Sia is an amazing genius? I felt that I had to disown anything “feminine” I had ever liked or done so that my therapist, my friends, and everyone around me would see my transition as valid. I had no idea that coming out as trans* would cause my personal identity to be eclipsed by my gender identity.

During this time I was reading blogs and watching vlogs by trans* guys who were documenting their transitions on Tumblr and YouTube, and so many of them seemed to place a lot of value on being “man enough,” which meant rejecting anything “feminine.” Many members of the community scrutinized one another’s behavior closely, and called out anything that didn’t conform to their idea of manhood. I’d see posts like “You want to dye your hair pink? OBVIOUSLY YOU ARE JUST A TRANS-TRENDER. NO REAL MAN WANTS TO DYE HIS HAIR PINK. STOP GIVING TRANS GUYS A BAD NAME.” This made me so sad. A lot of trans* guys transform their hatred of having to have lived and/or been seen as female for most of their lives (so far) into straight-up misogyny. I don’t understand how someone who knows what it’s like to be treated as female and what it’s like to be discriminated against (via sexism, heterosexism, and/or homophobia) can subject others to the same discrimination. Aren’t we, as trans* people, trying to get society to understand that gender is a spectrum, and many of us don’t fit where we have been assigned?

I finally finished gender therapy in June 2011. I got my proof-of-RLE letter, and I was prescribed testosterone. I had spent a total of eight months agonizing over every last bit of my personality, speech, body, and appearance just to get a piece of paper to drop off at the pharmacy. As soon as I got my prescription, a weight was lifted from my shoulders. I no longer had to prove myself to anyone or conform to anyone’s stereotype of what a “real man” is. I could paint my nails without fear of being scolded by peers or told by a therapist that I was “obviously confused” or “simply a girl with tomboyish tendencies”—I was just a dude who felt like wearing nail polish, and if anyone disapproved I could show them my middle finger (its nail painted a pretty sea-foam green). I felt free to define myself however felt right to me. Gender isn’t about measuring up to someone else’s expectations—it’s just another way to be the person you already are. ♦