Content Warning: gender stuff
This is a story about me, starting from when I was a young child. This story talks about how I felt unable to live up to gendered expectations, tried to fix that, got very confused, and finally came to peace with myself.
I was sitting on an exam table – shirtless, overweight, and insecure – going through a physical for some middle-school activity. The doctor put his hands on my chest and squeezed. “You’re probably wondering if you’re part girl,” squeeze, “since it almost looks like you’re developing breasts. But don’t worry. You’re just fat.” I don’t like visiting the doctor.
Another time, around the same age, I was at my dad’s hunting club. My left ear was pierced. The first time I showed up there with an earring they told me it was good that I hadn’t gotten my right ear pierced because that would make me a faggot. This was after that. I loved music back then, and I had a cute little gold treble clef stud. I was playing penny-ante poker with my dad and a few of the other members of the club. One of them – Tony – had his kid with him. Tony’s kid whispered something in his ear. Tony smirked. “No,” he laughed, eyes flicking over to my dad, “that’s not a girl. Were you confused by the earring?” My dad didn’t say anything. I knew he was ashamed and I felt bad.
There were dozens and dozens of things like that through my childhood and early adulthood: little pinpricks to my sense of manhood; or put another way, a constant reminder that I wasn’t “man enough” by anyone’s standard. When I was younger this never made me question my gender, because I didn’t know that was a thing you could do. I lived in rural Georgia. We were considered progressives because we talked openly about our gay relatives. The idea that sexuality could exist on a spectrum was already wild enough. I had no inkling that gender could be thought of in the same way. In fact, I don’t know that I was even aware of gender as a concept distinct from biological sex at the time.
When I got to college, I collapsed into a pile of semi-functional mental illnesses. Rapidly growing body dysmorphia drove me to spend hours in the gym every day, with frustratingly little result. I slowly grew stronger, but actually adding muscle mass seemed impossible. My chest was especially difficult to build. I hated that most of all.
Later I would find out that my difficulty putting on muscle had a biological explanation: low testosterone. “Normal” free testosterone ranges from 300 to 1,000 ng/dL; if I remember correctly, mine tested at about 180. All of a sudden everything made sense. This is why I never felt man enough. This is the source of all the unsettling confusion, bad muscle development, depression, everything! And best of all, it could be fixed. All I’d have to do would be to smear some gel on my shoulders and watch the numbers go up. So I did, and they did, and I fell apart.
At first the testosterone was a blessing. I had more energy, a higher sex drive, and I could finally put on muscle at the gym. Even though I was out of college, older, and spending far less time working out, I was easily blasting past my old lifting records. The juice was loose, baby.
The juice was loose everywhere. There are an endless number of scholarly articles that describe how testosterone impacts fetal development. My testosterone was always low, so I never got that hormonal brain bath in the womb. But I was sure getting it now, for the first time, in my mid-20s. And it was waking up part of my brain that had never spoken before.
At first this manifested itself in relatively positive ways, like increased confidence. I was selling insurance & financial products at the time; my sales numbers were going up. I got into movies like Boiler Room. I took up MMA lessons. I started playing poker pretty regularly. I bought a sports car. I was living life, and living it good.
Over time, that once-quiet thing that I had come to think of as my “lizard brain” grew louder. Increased confidence turned into increased aggression. A quick wit became a quicker temper. I grew afraid of myself. I no longer felt like I had agency over my own life, or even my own body. I was not “me” – I was a hidden, trapped referee between this frightful mind growing inside me and an onslaught of stimulus it didn’t know how to comprehend. I was erratic, impossible, terrified and terrible to be around – inside and out.
Eventually it all became too much. Testosterone was supposed to fix me, to make me a man. And I couldn’t handle it. Maybe I was never meant to be a man at all, I thought. But if that’s so, then what does that make me?
It was in the middle of this private mental breakdown that my wife and I had a fight, and I blurted out “not every Bruce gets to be a Caitlyn” (apologies to literally the entire world for that btw). When she asked what that meant (valid question), I said “I don’t think I’m a man. I think I’m transgender.”
It’s been a while since those words escaped my mouth. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I was trying to say, and a lot of chances to wish I’d said it better.
When people talk about being transgendered, a phrase that comes up a lot is “trapped in the wrong body.” It took me a long time to understand what that meant to me. I’m going to try to put some of that into words here.
When I was a kid, I never felt as though I was trapped in the wrong body. There were a lot of ways in which I felt I was an “inadequate man,” but I never correlated that with wanting to be a woman or live in a different body. A different state, sure, but not a different body.
My time in the gym was a healthy thing at first. Soon, though, I was hitting plateaus and growing increasingly frustrated with my body. I developed a sense of dysmorphia. I punished myself: more time in the gym, more deadlifts and squats, more protein powder and stricter diets, all for frustratingly, impossibly tiny gains. Again I felt inadequate. I wasn’t happy with my body, but I wasn’t trapped in it.
When I was taking testosterone, I was transgendered. The feeling of being a helpless thing trapped behind a mind in a meat sack – what is that if not being trapped in the wrong body? Or, perhaps, being trapped in a body with the wrong mind? With every dose of HRT I watered the vines that would come to strangle me.
I have come to realize that, beard and balls aside, I am non-binary and always was. I was born this way. I lived a huge part of my life feeling like an inadequate man; a fish may as well waste their life worrying that a lack of wings makes them an inadequate bird. I’m an excellent enby.
I’m writing this halfway through my 36th year. It’s taken a long time for me to come to peace with who I am. It’s taken a long time for me to love myself to any meaningful degree. That’s made me a bad friend, a bad partner, and a frankly difficult person at many points. If you’re still reading – if you’re still sticking with me – thank you.