my story

okay, so this isn't suppose to be some kind of comprehensive autobiography or anything. this is just a quick take on my life and experiences related to me being transsexual, to kind of give people an idea of how i got from there to here...

first off, i have been dealing with my gender situation for as long as i can remember. most experts believe that gender identity is determined before birth. from my personal experiences, i would have to agree. i had a very happy and relatively normal childhood. growing up, i was only ever encouraged to see myself as male and to act masculine. yet, no matter how hard i tried, i was never able to shake the feeling that there was something very wrong with me being male. as time went on, i had to learn how to manage my existence as a male in the "real" world, with the fact that i saw myself as female in my subconscious thoughts and dreams. the way that i viewed my transgenderism changed over time as i came up with new ways of coping with my gender dysphoria and as i became more comfortable with exactly who and what i was.

when i was very young, my transgenderism took the form of a vague feeling that something was not quite right about me being male. i spent a lot of my elementary school years half-expecting somebody to tap me on the shoulder and say "what are you doing here, you're not a boy!" i also had dreams in which adults would tell me that i was really a girl and not a boy. i also remember drawing pictures of a naked boy, then a needle going into his penis, and knowing that the medicine in the needle would make his penis disappear. i don't know where i got this idea from, or why i started drawing these pictures in the first place, but i remember doing it on multiple occasions, so it was clearly more than just a passing thought.

while all of this was going on, i'm pretty sure that i was not consciously aware of wanting to be female (if i was aware of it, i must have suppressed those memories). in fact, i tried really hard to fit in as a boy. you know how when someone goes out of their way to make a lot of homophobic comments, you start to suspect that they are actually a repressed homosexual themselves? well, that's how i was with gender as a young boy. i probably had the biggest "girls are yucky" phase of any kid i have ever known. i always consciously divided everything up into girl stuff and boy stuff, and i would avoid girl stuff like the plague. while most boys tend to naturally gravitate towards boyish things, i remember trying to consciously like the things that other boys liked. i tried to follow society's gender rules to the letter, so that i wouldn't accidentally slip up and do the wrong thing. i think i was really paranoid about people figuring out what i already knew inside: there was something wrong with me being a boy.

nevertheless, i'd have to say that i was kind of a tomboy during my early childhood (sorry about the pun). i enjoyed sports (although i was never really good at them), and while i was generally the least aggressive or competitive boy in any group, the other boys pretty much accepted me. i think this was simply because i was an easy-going, good natured kid. at the same time that i tried to be accepted by the other boys, in some ways i didn't like to be seen as a boy per se. i hated getting my hair cut or having really short hair, i hated wearing boy-specific clothes, and i sort of had a very androgynous or gender-neutral personality. i was drawn towards interests like science or making up stories and my favorite toys tended to be things like super hero dolls and legos.

i consciously became aware of my gender issues when i was about 11-12. i had really bad insomnia as a kid (many nights it would take me up to 2 hours to fall asleep). i remember lying sleepless in bed one night and i got this sudden, unexplainable urge to take my bedroom curtains off the wall and put them on, almost like a dress. when i looked in the mirror, i was blown away - i looked like a girl. i just stared at myself in the mirror for about an hour. i can't really tell you what i was thinking at the time. i suppose i was making some kind of connection with my subconscious thoughts. i just remember that it felt like the most amazing thing ever.

also around this time, i used to make up stories in my bedroom that i would act out by myself. while the story lines were always different, they had the same reoccurring plot twist: the bad guy turned the protagonist (i.e., me) into a girl. the first couple times this happened, i remember trying to capture the bad guy so that i could be turned back into a boy. but after a few times, i abandoned the "being turned back into a boy" part of the story, and instead i would just continue on with the rest of the adventure as a girl. eventually i realized that what i was doing was more than just a plot twist or pretending – i was doing it because i really wanted to be a girl.

this devastated me. growing up as a boy, it was made very clear to me that the worst thing a boy could be is girlish or effeminate in any way. and i was way beyond girlish, i wanted to BE a girl. so i tried hard to put the thoughts of being a girl out of my head. i would pray every night and ask god to either turn me into a girl or to make the thoughts stop. but nothing changed. eventually, i just sort of accepted that this was how i was.

i guess the weirdest part about it was that i didn't really know "what" i was. i had never heard of someone who felt like me before. the only people i had heard of who wanted to change from male to female were renee richards (and people seemed to think she became female simply to gain an unfair advantage in women's tennis) and TV characters (like the one billy crystal played on "soap") who were inevitably gay men that wanted to become female in order to attract other men. so, based on this limited information, i came to the obvious conclusion that i must be gay.

i think me being gay lasted about a week. in retrospect, it was kind of comical. i remember looking at boys and trying really hard to be attracted to them. but it just didn't work - i was definitely attracted to girls and not boys. and the way that i was attracted to girls was pretty odd as well. when i first began to have crushes on girls, i had these pre-teen fantasies that would always begin with me being turned into a girl. then, only after i had been turned female, the girl that i liked would suddenly fall in love with me and we'd run off together. all of this happened in my head way before i had ever even heard the word "lesbian".

so there i was, a teenage boy who was simultaneously attracted to girls and wanted more than anything to be one of them too. needless to say, i thought i was a complete freak. i didn't dare tell a soul about how i felt. there was no useful information out there for me, i had nowhere to turn for advice and not a clue of what i should do about all of this. at one point, when i was 15, while watching my little league all-star game, i decided to get a sex change. it was the only thing that seemed to make sense. but, what exactly was a sex change? and how does one go about getting one? and wouldn't that involve telling my family, friends, classmates, etc., about all of this? needless to say, under those circumstances, the whole sex change idea fizzled out pretty quickly.

i also had another issue to deal with. by the time i was about 15-16, it was becoming obvious that i was developing male secondary sex characteristics (face and body hair, deeper voice, etc.). i really didn't like how my body was changing, but there was nothing i could do about it. on top of the external physical changes, my sex drive was also starting to kick in. like all teenagers, i was really interested in exploring my sexuality. as much as i hated being a boy, i knew that the majority of girls were attracted to boys. so, for all of these reasons, i resigned myself to going on with my life in what seemed at the time like the easiest, safest and most sensible way: i would play the part of a boy on the outside and do all of the things society expected of me as a male. but i would allow myself to be female in my mind and when no one was around.

my choosing to identify as male rather than female was further encouraged by things that i read in several psychology books i found in my college library when i was about 18. this was the first time in my life i was able to find anything written about my situation. the few books i found were written in the 60s and 70s (kind of like the stone ages of gender studies) and they all pretty much divided men who wanted to be women into two rigid categories: transsexuals and transvestites (note, the fact that there was nothing on FTMs in these books shows just how outdated and biased they were). a transsexual was defined as being a "homosexual" (the author's way of saying attracted to men) who hated their penis so much that they didn't even like to touch it. they were seen as being "women trapped in men's bodies" and they were accordingly treated via sex reassignment. a transvestite, on the other hand, was described as being a "heterosexual" (read: attracted to women) who was capable of feeling pleasure from his penis. a transvestite's desire to be female or to dress as a woman was basically viewed as a perversion or fetish. (needless to say, these definitions are considered to be extremely naive these days). anyway, after reading all of this material, i figured that i was most likely a transvestite, primarily based on the fact that i was attracted to women. plus, i was capable of enjoying pleasure with my penis (even though i tended to imagine that i had female genitals during my sexual experiences). after diagnosing myself as a transvestite, i started to think of my desire to be female as a weird quirk or kink that wouldn't hurt anybody so long as i kept it hidden from the world.

i would say that between then and about the time i turned 26, i tried really hard to be a guy. i wasn't super-macho or anything, it's just that i really tried hard to convince myself i was really male and only "wanted" to be female in a fantasy sort of way. i was really paranoid that people would pick up on my secret, so i went out of my way to make sure that i didn't leave behind any clues to give me away. i would crossdress on rare occasions, almost always in private in my bedroom when no one was around. i had built up a little stash of clothes (purchased through mail order catalogs) that mostly stayed buried in my closet. at the time, i didn't find much enjoyment in crossdressing, because when i got dressed i looked like a man wearing women's clothing. that was definitely not what i wanted to see in the mirror. i use to think a lot about going out in public dressed, but i was scared to death of even the remote possibility of bumping into someone i knew - i was still very concerned with maintaining other people's image of me as a male. i also knew that in order for me to pass, it would be necessary for me to get rid of a lot of my body hair, especially on the arms and legs. i was reluctant to do this for the longest time, because i was worried that others would notice it and say something. i always thought "well what if i meet a really cool girl and we hit it off and we get naked and she sees that i shave my legs and she figures out i'm a crossdresser". i know it seems kind of paranoid now, but at the time it was a big deal to me.

by 1993-94, my ability to suppress and deny my femaleness had started to take its toll. i found myself extremely depressed and it was pretty obvious to me what the depression was all about: i had spent years suppressing a very important part of myself. i realized that i wasn't going to be able to get by much longer if i didn't start allowing myself to express what I had been keeping secret for so many years. so, i sought out a transgendered support group based in kansas city (i was living in lawrence, kansas at the time). for the first time in my life, i got the chance to meet and talk to other people who felt (on some level) like i did. this went a long way towards helping me accept who and what i was. i also threw caution to the wind and began going out in public dressed as a woman on occasion. i learned that i passed pretty easily. it was really amazing! the idea that i could go out in the world and have people see me and interact with me as a female was really mind blowing. at the time, i couldn't get enough of it!

when i first moved to the bay area, i began to tell some friends and people i was dating about my crossdressing. these were generally people who i knew would be non-judgmental and in every case (except one) they were really cool with it. the way that i explained it at the time was that a crossdresser was a heterosexual male who enjoyed crossdressing occasionally (pretty much the same as the "transvestite" definition i read in college). this was how i wanted to see myself and it seemed to make sense at the time. during the three year period of 1995-97, i kind of went through a little gender renaissance! i tried to explore and express every aspect of my gender, personality and sexuality as much as possible within the context of having a male body. i probably went out in public dressed about 100 different times and i shared this side of myself with people who i was dating or having relationships with for the first time. i also began expressing my transgenderism outside of the realm of crossdressing. i began writing songs about my trans experiences and working on stories that included transgendered characters. i also unwittingly began cultivating an even more androgynous personality than ever before. in fact, many of the new friends i made in the bay area assumed that i was probably gay until i started going out with dani.

dani and i met in 1998. she is far and away the most amazing person i have ever known (although i'm afraid that this goes beyond the scope of this article). like almost every woman i went out with in the bay area, dani identified as bisexual. when we first started dating, she thought it was odd that i described myself as a "heterosexual male who enjoyed occasional crossdressing". i started to question whether i was using that phrase as an excuse to consider myself as straight. the more i thought about it, the more obvious it was to me that i was indeed queer (after all, most people would consider a boy who dreams about being female and who dresses up as a girl to be a queer). dani also bought me the book "Gender Outlaw", which i found to be a very thought provoking book. around this time, i began to consider myself transgendered (an umbrella term for all people (crossdressers, transsexuals, etc.) whose gender identity does not conform to their biological sex). i began seeing myself somewhere in the middle of the gender continuum. for a while i even considered myself to be bi-gendered (i.e., having roughly equal amounts of maleness and femaleness in my personality).

i guess the way i am describing all this may make it seem like my change of views were primarily intellectually driven. while there was definitely a lot of that going on, i'd have to say that the change was even more emotionally or psychologically driven than anything else. during 1999, i found myself getting depressed quite a bit because i was losing my interest in crossdressing. the mere thrill of passing as female seemed to subside, and i just kind of felt like a nameless female wanna-be walking around like a zombie when i went out dressed. it felt sad and pathetic. and it wasn't that i was losing interest in the idea of being female - if anything, i thought about it more than ever. i found myself saying things like "i have to figure out where i want to take my crossdressing next", as if i could simply find something new to do while being dressed as a girl and i would magically feel better about myself. i also blamed a lot of my gender discontent on my not having enough time to crossdress. looking back at it, that seems kind of silly. i was no longer enjoying mere crossdressing, and that was why i wasn't making it a priority in my life. during 1999-2000, there had to have been at least 25 different days where i had made plans to dress for the day, but then canceled them at the last minute because i was supposedly too "busy" with other things in my life.

it took me a long time to finally admit to myself that i had stopped crossdressing because i
no longer enjoyed it. part of the reason it took me so long to admit this is because i had identified as a crossdresser for most of my life. i guess it's like being a musician for most of your life and then one day having to admit to yourself that you no longer enjoy playing or listening to music. but the worst part about admitting that i did not enjoy crossdressing was the next logical conclusion that followed: if i constantly think or imagine myself being female, but i am not a crossdresser, then i must be a transsexual. it was at the very end of 2000 that i began to seriously consider this possibility. by this point, i had read a ton of stuff on the subject, and i had to admit that my life story seemed pretty typical for a transsexual. and i knew from what i read that the gender sadness i felt at this point was only going to continue to get worse.

i doubt i could adequately describe what "gender sadness" feels like to someone who is not transgendered. i suppose that in some ways it is similar to other kinds of sadness. for instance, you know that feeling you get when someone you love more than anything breaks up with you? and it's about a month or two after the big break-up and you are trying to get on with your life. but no matter how busy you keep yourself, thoughts about that person just keep popping into your head about 100 times a day, and everytime they do you feel a bit of sadness. well that's kind of what gender sadness felt like for me during most of my life. while i was always struggling with it, i could still go out and have a few laughs or go about my business and be relatively productive and happy for the most part. but unlike most types of sadness or grief, which tend to get a little less intense with every day that passes, gender sadness just keeps getting more and more intense. and by the year 2000, i had reached the point where the sadness felt more like what one feels on the actual day of the big break-up, when you can't concentrate at all and you are totally consumed with thoughts of the person you loved. that's how i felt almost every day: consumed with gender sadness. literally every other thought i had was about gender, about my pain. i could not get around it. it sucked all of the life out of me. i stopped calling friends, stopped writing songs and listening to music, i would go into work and just stare at the computer screen without really doing anything. it hurt as much as any other pain (physical or emotional) that i had ever felt before. and i knew there was only one way to ease that pain: transitioning.

the idea of transitioning always used to scare the hell out of me. first, it involves telling everyone in your life that you're a transsexual. then, you spend lots of time and money and you endure a lot of pain changing your body to the opposite sex, while everybody is watching you do it. and then afterwards, no matter how passable you are, the people who know you best will always know what you started out as. it reminds me of the greek mythological character cassandra - she had the ability to tell the future, but she was cursed so that no one would believe a word she said. to me, transitioning was like that: i would get my dream come true in that i would become female, but i also knew that many people would never truly accept me as such. so even though i desperately wanted to be female, transitioning always seemed like too high a price to have to pay for something that may or may not make me happier. that is, until late in 2000. once i reached the point where i found myself consumed with gender sadness, the idea of transitioning started to seem way less scary than the idea of living out the rest of my life as male.

there was one other piece of the puzzle that made the idea of transitioning finally feel like the right choice for me. around mid-1999, i began to notice that strangers would occasionally mistake me for female when i wasn't crossdressed, when i was just out and about as tom. at first when this started to happen, i just thought "cool, if i can pass as female when i'm not even trying, that means that i will be that much more convincing when i'm crossdressed". but after a while, i began to wonder why this was starting to happen now. i mean, i had the same appearance (longish hair, tomboyish manner of dress) as i did 10 years before, but nobody ever thought i was female back then. it occurred to me that people must be picking up on other cues, like my mannerisms, the way i spoke, my personality in general. perhaps the last few years of being around people who accepted my gender "ambiguity" resulted in me expressing my femaleness at times when i used to be more guarded in boy-mode. maybe, after several years of nurturing it, my femaleness was just leaking out all over the place for everyone to see.

then it struck me that i was thinking about this the wrong way. after all, the phrase "i was passing as female when i wasn't even trying to pass" is pretty convoluted. i mean, when the average woman is walking down the street, she is not trying to "pass" as a woman. she's just being herself and people "read" her as female. i realized that one could describe what was happening like this: tom was trying to pass as a male, but was occasionally read as female. since i was considering the possibility that i was a transsexual at the time, this new perspective made a lot of sense to me. i mean, i had spent my whole life trying to pass as male and being paranoid that people would read through my disguise. and to be honest, i got much more enjoyment from being ma'amed when i was dressed like a boy than i did from putting on a dress and make-up and such. what i really wanted was to be myself and simultaneously have people see me as female. i figured that if some people are capable of reading me as female even when i have testosterone running through my veins and stubble growing out of my face, then i would most likely make a very convincing female after a few years of hormones and electrolysis. i realized i could really be female without having to change my personality at all, i could just be me!

so these were all of the things in my mind when it all kind of came together. but it didn't really come together in a point by point, linear sort of fashion, with me adding up all of the pros and cons of transitioning. it all pretty much happened in one evening after a three to four week period of hardcore thinking. i felt almost like a mathematician who had been trying to solve the same problem for years. and there are all of these equations written on the blackboard and they keep staring at them and trying to think about them in different ways. and then all of the sudden, one day they look at all of those same old equations in just the right way and it just all makes sense and the problem practically solves itself.

i can't tell you how many times in my life i dreamed of becoming female. but, they always use to be fantasies - like dreaming about moving off to a new city where no one knows me to begin a new life as a woman. but suddenly, for the first time in my life, i truly imagined myself transitioning, right here in oakland, with everybody in my life watching me as i do it. i could imagine some awkward moments, but they weren't too embarrassing. i knew there would be some really hard moments, that some people who would be less accepting than others. but i knew that even the worst case scenario couldn't be any harder to deal with than the stress and sadness of pretending to male. for the first time in my life, transitioning didn't feel scary to me, it just felt right...

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julia serano ©2001-2002