If there is one major part of being trans that most folks do not understand it is what gender dysphoria feels like and how it impacts the lives of those who suffer from it. Yes I mean suffer, and no I am not exaggerating. The pain from dysphoria is very real, it tore apart my life as soon as I began to feel it. Much like a snow ball being rolled along a snowy field, it only gathers in size and strength until you smash it apart and even then some big chunks remain. Those who suffer sometimes do not know why they hurt but they always know that they don’t feel right. It is what drives transition. I know for me eventually, the fear of what would become of me if I transitioned was finally less scary than the prospect of having to shoulder the burden of living in a way I was not meant to live. I was exhausted from decades of struggle and just could not cary on.
When I was a kid on Massachusetts’ North Shore it wasn’t so bad. Up through the first grade everything was mostly ok. I didn’t have a clear notion of gender or sexual differences. Most of my friends were girls but some boys and my girlfriends were tomboys like me. I remember being told about getting caught playing “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” with one of my girlfriends back in kindergarten or nursery school. I don’t know why we were playing it but I can guess that there was some confusion about parts. I have been confused by the presence of my male genitalia for as long as I can remember. As a little kid I just accepted it but I was shocked every time I saw it, it still looks alien and bums me out every time I am reminded of it.
My earliest dysphoric response happened around this time in my life, say five or six. A couple of my friends were taking ballet at the local Y. I wanted to join in, my excitement flourished when I learned what we would wear. Everyone got a tutu! When my Mom brought me in to sign up I was all excited. But very quickly the woman there crushed my little dreams. She told me I would be the only boy and then she told me about the black tights and white T shirt I would have to wear. I instantly pouted and refused to participate any further. When she suggested a sport instead I got downright sullen. That was the first wall put between me and where I belonged.
By the next year we were moving a town or two over. I said goodbye to my friends and looked forward to the second grade. At school though, all the kids were dividing along gender lines. It was now becoming clearer who was what. And I saw the two camps. I knew where I belonged but I had already learned about the mockery I would endure if I joined the girls. Not that they wanted me around anymore either. I couldn’t understand the boys at all. Their games were too mean. So I wandered out onto the playground alone, to skirt the fringes until the less frightening structure of class time returned to smooth out my day. I had at least made friends with a boy on my street, so I wasn’t completely lost and there were kids who would talk to me on the bus.
We moved to New Jersey after a year or so. I stopped taking a bus but I did make a couple guy friends, it seemed I might be a normal boy after all. I joined the Cub Scouts and after a couple years where I had miserable experiences and breakdowns trying, I started playing soccer. I had done so in Massachusetts too but there I mostly chased butterflies. I did a lot of walking and spent hours alone in the woods. In the silence of nature and the rhythmic momentum of a walk I could be in tune with my body and be in a free and genderless state. This became more and more valuable to me as I got older, this time to just be me. As puberty encroached on my sense of self I began to truly hate my genitalia and what it was apparently doing to my body. It began to grow and change everyday. By the third grade I had begun making forays to my Mom’s dressing room when no one was around. There to play in her shoes, makeup and jewelry. I remember an antique shop where I saw a pair of evening gloves. They were slender ivory colored silk with tiny buttons running up the inside of the wrist, I slipped them on and felt so gorgeous, I marveled at the way they transformed my body. I imagined being a beautiful woman wearing them with an amazing gown. The dressing never stopped from that point forward. It helped me feel right, that’s all, I just felt right. Every other moment I just felt wrong.
I was never able to keep friends for very long. I would get a new one every year or so but then I would back away. They were becoming young men, horny and aggressive, and I was having a hard time relating to them. It was trying and painful working to follow their lead, I needed time to decompress. Scouting and soccer were getting harder to manage as well. I was a decent halfback, skilled at the “accidental” tackle but I was never a part of the team. Likewise in Scouts, I had rank but I was never really one of the guys. The boys always let me know too, there was constant mockery. So I learned how to use my body, how to take abuse and before I knew it I was as tall and as tough as my bullies so I never got beaten up, I have a brother just a few years younger than me, I often followed his lead on how to be male and for a while I could rely on him for company. As he got older though he made his own friendships and I was alone more again.
I quit soccer when I moved on to high school and quit Scouts immediately following a two week backpacking trip to New Mexico and the Grand Canyon in the summer before sophomore year. I tried doing track and field in my freshman year because I thought it wasn’t a team sport. Sadly it was and I was finding I did not like being on show as an athletic male, it was embarrassing. I hated having to take my shirt off in the locker room too, I would hide in the corner. I never went without a shirt and I was starting to not bathe as frequently as one should. I couldn’t stand seeing myself develop in the wrong way, it was humiliating, but nobody knew. I relieved my stress at night. I had found a nightgown or full length slip, I was not sure which, that my Mom no longer wore. I would wait for my family to go to bed, put it on and be female for an hour or two. Then I would sleep until just before everyone was going to get up and I would awake, disrobe and hide my nightgown under my mattress and put on boy clothes again. I made up for the lost sleep by sleeping through school. My future felt hopeless anyway, I didn’t belong anywhere, I was openly mocked and chided why should I study and work for a future that wasn’t mine? So I taught myself and figured I could be an artist, that was all I ever wanted to be.
I had heard of drag queens, cross dressing, transvestites and female impersonators by the end of freshman year too. But it didn’t seem I was one of those. Male clothing felt like crossdressing to me and I wasn’t impersonating a teenage girl, I felt like one. I am not proud of this but I had begun stealing clothing from other sources. I found stuff at school, in the prop storage under the theater and at church. My church gathered clothing for the homeless and one Sunday I discovered that they stored it in a hidden U shaped room on the second floor. I began stuffing items into my pockets, slipping them home unnoticed to a duffel bag I kept in a couch in our basement. My folks had given me a corner of the basement to use as my own private space. My late night stints of feeling right were getting longer. By sophomore year I had no friends outside of school. I was effectively alone most of the day. I also learned that one could actually become a woman. That there were pills and surgeries. But I saw from television and movies just what the world thought of people like me. I thought my only way forward was to run away from home to New York City and become a drug addled show girl/prostitute. Society told me I was a bad person for being who I was and that a life of degradation and humiliation was all I had ahead. I decided to test if I really was trans so I dressed entirely for a day of school. I wore a blue thermal, my Mom’s hip hugger bellbottom jeans and a pair of panties. I didn’t think anyone would know and I don’t think they did although I saw a couple girls pointing and whispering. But I felt so good that day too. Men’s clothing feels so foreign on me and looks so alien, it was amazing to feel right for one day!
When my brother found my duffel and the journal confessing my feelings he asked me what it was. Judgement free, but it had confused him. My dysphoric response was a huge surge of fear. I responded like an abject coward. I promised him it was nothing that I was throwing it away. And I did, I put it in the trash just before the truck arrived because I didn’t want anyone to find it and force me to answer more questions. Seeing it go was like seeing my favorite part of myself, my happiness thrown away, I died a little. That wasn’t the first nor the last time I was caught. My Father had caught me in elementary school and mistook it for hetero male sexual thrill dressing. Unbeknownst to me at the time he had also found my nightgown and told my Mom, they thought I might be gay.
I thought I might be too, I had crushes on men and found them beautiful, fun to watch. But I couldn’t imagine being with a man. My body was all wrong. In my pubescent bodily self exploration, eh hem, I always played the female role, I didn’t know how to do anything else. I had never really felt sexually attracted to anyone and frankly didn’t care for romance so I never felt like I was missing anything. But I did have a libido and it was torture. It was so demanding and it made me so intensely aware of that most male part of me. It is always doing something shifting, changing dimensions, itching, responding to positive emotions and generally causing a disturbance. I hated it and I would punch it in fits of rage, falling over sobbing. From the onset of puberty I would pray for it to be corrected, and I appealed to both god and the devil but neither one came to my aide. I felt like my female parts were hidden just out of sight. I hoped that I would just wake up one morning and my penis would be there in the bed next to me, rotting, and my vagina would be free at last.
As,I got older too I began to have to deal with the attention of girls and women and in time gay men too. The truly unwanted attention. I wanted friendship and would love it when some girl in a class would start hanging around. But then she would get very cold and turn her back on me. Sometimes I would see them with a boyfriend soon after and realize that they had just wanted to date me. All they saw was a boy a man. It sickened me, and stirred up the self loathing. It was after one such event in the same year my brother found the duffel that I tried to end my life. I felt so wrong and worthless. I knew I couldn’t go to New York. I had tried to tell my Father and chickened out. It wasn’t ending it wasn’t going away and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I used plastic bags and at the last minute I chickened out again and ripped the skin tight plastic from my face. I wept in shame.
I had saved my thermals from the duffel. I needed them so that a few times a week, or the whole week if I didn’t change my clothes, I could feel a little bit ok. I was just a really masculine girl right? My hair had been long at the time, around junior year, and I let it get ratty. So ratty in fact that my folks got some super conditioner and combed out the dreads. My hair looked lovely, too lovely and after not very long I went to the barber to get my first buzz cut. I was going to be a man damn it!
That’s how I moved forward from then on. Just after high school I changed my name to Kellam as a way to become the male artist I thought I should be and begin hiding the female inside. I began lying for no reason. Compulsively. It made me feel so lousy I quickly learned to control it more to only lie about my gender identity. In the first year out of school I lost my virginity to a woman, turned eighteen, had my first solo art show, my first solo poetry gig and I had a major breakdown at work because a coworker (a young man) thought there were regularly a lot of women in my line (I was a cashier). He kept holding up a sign that said “STUD”. When I went on break I collapsed in tears as soon as I was out of sight. I ran to my car to sob and confess to yet another journal how false I felt. I was an actor playing a role that I was not meant to play and playing it badly. That was the last time I would confess that for a good long time. I threw that journal away. I threw it all away. After a while I moved to Boston to learn how to be a man. The newness of the experience hid my feelings for a while but once I got settled the feelings returned. They always do.
Eventually I turned twenty one and found so much help in dealing with my feelings. I had abused alcohol here and there as a kid. As an adult I began a path toward serious abuse. But it helped me get social. Then my brother moved up with me and we were sharing a room again. It was time to be “the Scott brothers” . But my brother is way more social and he got me to so many parties and shows. I felt like I had a normal life. We even got a rehearsal space and an art live/work space. We began starting bands. My social life kept me distracted enough but every time I was alone the feelings would resurface. It was becoming torture. So I drank. I was finding it harder too to accept compliments of any kind. Pursuing my dreams started to seem futile too because if I was to live them as a man it would ruin them. Every bit of my dreams that I did fulfill was always spoiled so quickly. I gave up film, poetry, painting, drawing, performance, noise and eventually music too. But that was by my thirties. Back in my mid twenties I had gotten a regular girlfriend and we were living together. It was becoming more and more difficult to function. I had no idea how to be a man so I let her tell me what to do. She was one of my best friends and I just didn’t want to loose her. But when she wasn’t instructing me I would fall into a female role. During sex too. I didn’t do it on purpose it just happened. She caught me more than a few times too but just read it as some sexual kink.
I had always hoped that that was all it was too for a very long time and I explored, theoretically, every possible perversion. But alas no, it is my gender and not a kink. I also explored every possible mental illness in a vain hope that it might be something like that, that I could treat with therapy. I am actually generally uninterested in sex and always have been. When I came out as asexual I told my mother that my sexual experiences had felt like a sort of self rape. I felt odd saying it at first but it rang true and does still. There is such a grave disconnect between me and the genitalia I was born with and what they have done to the rest of my body has made my sense of self feel very much like a prison, but I am the warden too. My dreams when I was in my twenties were all about being imprisoned in some manner and often being forced to hurt myself by hurting others. In my late teens I was on the run in my dreams. By my mid thirties I was escaping in my slumbers. A male me would sacrifice himself so that a true, female me could break through to freedom.
I was forever lost in a world of strangers and the older I got the more alienated and hermetic I became. When my relationship finally collapsed I found myself an alcoholic and suicidal mess of self loathing and hate, losing the ability to function. So I moved into a punk/hippy house with six roomies and bands practicing in the basement. I was gonna be the punk guy I never could bring myself to actually be. But I saw more and more every day how unlike the boys I still was. I finally realized that I had to change paths and admitted to being an alcoholic. I was distracted by that process for a while and I realized I was on a quest to discover my true self. After a year or so circumstances aligned and I was able to finally come to terms with being asexual and a huge relief was gifted to me and the weight of all the sexual deviancy the world suggested to me lifted from my shoulders. But even in the ace community I found myself identifying with the women and I could see that I was still not one of the guys. The constant haunting of misalignment never left. But the more I cared for myself the more I was able to face my truth little by little. I cut myself free from obligations and normal life, breaking what I had down to bare essentials.
I was still caught up in “trying to be a man” though, it was an endless series of escalations. Testosterone felt like unexplained anger to me, a tremendous ferocious energy that I had to find ways to burn off and the things that helped were the stuff of masculinity so that helped. I rode my bicycle with suicidal abandon. I bellowed angry punk music everywhere I went. When I went on a late night stomp, a brisk march, people would cross streets and arm themselves in anticipation of me. I just wanted to tell them I was harmless but I knew what they saw and I hated him too. Anytime people used male pronouns with me or said I did something all guys do it felt like a direct attack on my soul. The worst was when a male friend or my brother would call me “bro” it always stung and made me a bit queasy. I never knew how to respond. I responded in kind a couple times and felt so awkward and strange. I was always this exaggerated embodiment of manhood, swinging my fists so no one would notice that I walk like a girl. And so it was with everything in my life. And it was never enough, never made me feel male. No scar, binge, act of daring do, manly skill or enormous beard ever could. I always had to do more and it would ruin everything I loved. All that time I would be envying women of every kind and sometimes it turned into quite spiteful resentful anger, expressed passively of course, usually turned inward as a barb against me. I felt guilty for existing in the end and at the same time felt that I did deserve to try to be me before my time here was up.
After one last year and a struggle that nearly did me in thanks to a stress reactive intestinal disorder I was nearly ready. I was starting to be able to admit to myself how tired I was and I knew the mask was there. I was just biding my time. And working up the courage. Then in a deepening winter a teenage transgirl from the midwest couldn’t take the bullying from her parents, society and her peers any longer and took her own life. Just as I had nearly done. In her social media posted suicide note she bared her tired and aching soul for us all to read. She concluded it with a simple plea that we fix society. But what could I do? The only thing I saw was that I had to be open with the world about who I am.
So I did after a couple months come out. It was one of the most intense, tearful, soul wrenching, beautiful and magical moments in my life. I will never forget it and I am thankful to have gotten to live it. As I begin to live as myself, with the help of the proper hormones doing their thing to my mind and body, the dysphoria lessens. I can connect and identify with my body. I am gaining a fuller sense of self. My interactions with the world have ceased to be panicky and pained. The actual physical ache that testosterone filled my body with is a thing of the past. My soul no longer feels crushed and my hopes and ability to see a future for myself have sprung back in place of all those killing weights. No longer must I check that everything I am doing is coming across male. No longer must I hide nor live in fear. I can just be me and move and react and be.
I am still on the road to fitting in to the world the way I feel I should, to being totally comfortable with my body and my sense of self but I am at long last on the right road. The snowball sits smashed to bits in an empty field and spring is upon it. The longer brighter days work their warming secrets and are melting all that pain away…