It’s early March, so it shouldn’t be as hot out as it is. You root around in your drawers. All of your pants are long, so you hop into a loose gingham dress and sneakers before heading to class. You feel great until you pass a boy skateboarding on the sidewalk. His eyes follow you. You are thrown into a panic.
No one is looking at you with the discrediting looks you anticipated, but you reach your own conclusions in their casual glances. You confide in your friend Morgan that you feel so dejected. You were going to wear pants but it was so hot out, and do you look enough like a boy to make people leave you alone? And do they think your gender is complicated because of the dress you’re wearing? And—
“Sunny!” She stops you and meets your eyes. “You can wear whatever you want. Clothing literally has no gender. Let yourself do what makes you feel good.”
You begin to breathe easy. You wear the dress for the rest of the day.
From a young age I was told (by people defaced by my memory, with blurred features and unplaceable voices) that, with my shorn hair and sunburned shoulders, I was an “exceptional girl.”
“You aren’t like other girls your age,” people would chuckle as I did somersaults on the lawn or rescued bloated frogs from chlorinated swimming pools. Other girls, as I was told, were an indoor breed, like weak-eyed guinea pigs or certain houseplants. But I never encountered any of these types of girls. At the time, girls seemed so genderless to me, and I thought that I might be one of them. The girls I played with were as sunny as the boys, straight lines and toothy grins, always willing to dig up worms or eat messy ice pops.
The first time I put on makeup—a thick layer of mascara in the school locker room—was to impress my social circle and look more like my friends. No one said it out loud, but as the girls I knew began to embrace femininity with makeup and clothing, I knew that in order to keep up I would have to do the same. I wanted to be loved so badly that I would have stepped into any suit, any body, just to be told I was somebody’s first choice. I wasn’t coming into myself, into my “womanhood,” which never existed in the first place—I was letting love lead me on a leash.
It makes me shudder to think about how my friends at the time cared about me in comparison to how I cared about them. I essentially tried to become a mirror, or a still pond, in which the people I loved could see whatever they wanted to see. I was bitter and sad. I lashed out at people close to me, and when those people stepped out of my life, I took it out on myself. I became brutally mean to the kids who seemed to be their true selves: my old elementary school friends who hadn’t changed like I had; kids who were into art and drew on their friends’ arms; the kids who gave me secondhand embarrassment with their goofy antics and loud, unselfconscious laughs. I remember when a classmate of mine came out as transgender; I feel sick at how much I distanced myself from him. I was so intimidated by his sense of self, which I could not have pictured ever aligning with my own.
The duality of my person, which put my presented femininity at odds with the boy I wasn’t ready to introduce, was something I had no words for. Now that I can put those feelings into words, I have more friends than ever, but I still have all these memories. After everything that’s happened to me, I’m still stuck in a mindset where I’m afraid that these friends will inevitably leave me if I’m not perfect, if I don’t put on a good front while they’re around. I’m trying to break those thoughts, but I’m still deeply affected by the opinions and feelings of others. And so, I seek out love often without worrying whether the people I love deserve my time. I put a value on their reciprocation that no part of my gender or identity is safe from.
While I am mostly happy about my gender transition (I now identify as male and use he/him pronouns), thinking about my time as a girl gives me intense depersonalization. I can’t stand to compare the “before” and the “after,” and when I do, it feels like I’m cheating. Or worse, that people are cheating me, being supportive where they have no support to give. The way I’ve always seen myself, or lived within my body, hasn’t changed. But only now am I seeing my body catch up and become something I recognize.
I’m not done working, though. I still see love as a reward, something I earn when I am most attractive or most appealing. It’s something I starve myself of, or slap out of my hand whenever I mess up. I am still so naïve about love. I fall in love all the time, with all different types of people, which in itself is a beautiful and enriching thing. I just have difficulty retaining my sense of self the more friends or romantic interests I have because I feel compelled to perform.