Adding stories, not replacing

So I see a lot of trans people harp against the “wrong body” narrative. And in a way I get it, especially when that is the only narrative that cis people seem to be able to hear.

But the thing is, it is true for some of us. Particularly after puberty I frequently thought that I had been given the wrong body even before I knew what trans people were. An analogy I used yesterday was that it feels like I had the wrong hardware installed for my operating system. I’ve finally gotten the wiring right (estrogen) but I’m still working on replacing the casing.

We shouldn’t have to replace the “old” narratives of transition in order to expand them. What we need is more diversity of trans stories being elevated. Those stories are already being told but allies aren’t always listening and boosting those stories in the same way as the nice, neat, clear-cut narratives. As long time followers of my blog can probably tell, the real journey is messy. It doesn’t always involve absolute certainty about the steps and questioning your decisions is a normal part of any medical intervention or major life shift. Not following the cookie-cutter story should absolutely NOT be a reason to deny a trans person care.

So I invite you to listen to stories that challenge you. Narratives that don’t follow the path that you would expect. Parts of them may still fit the story we are used to but that isn’t the complete story either. We just need to expand our view of trans diversity. Because trans people are at least as diverse as cisgender people. We can be queer or straight or asexual. We can be binary or nonbinary or not even have a clear sense of gender. We can have dysphoria or we can simply find our path through gender euphoria. We can be neurotypical or neurodivergent. We can be fat or skinny or somewhere in between. We can fit a modern western story or follow in the footsteps of our transcestors who come from hundreds of cultures spanning thousands of years. Those things don’t need to be pitted against each other like some sort of competition for being the purest trans.

Your job isn’t to gate-keep and ensure we are absolutely 500% positive before we can receive the gender affirming care we need. Your job is to listen to us and let us guide our care. So listen to ALL of us, not just some of us.

Why you need to reject the idea of “passing” as cis

As I’m reading through some of the older articles by one of my favorite authors, Kai Cheng Thom, I came across this beauty:

How to Love Being a Non-Passing Trans Woman in 9 Affirming Steps

And I’m reminded how crucial accepting that fact was to my coming out journey.

There is so much pressure, both in the cisnormative world around us and from other trans people, to achieve some level of “passing” where people on the street or sometimes even people in the sheets can’t tell you are trans. For so many trans people, their ultimate goal is to get to a point where people think they are cisgender. And while there is a lot of power and safety in that and I absolutely do not blame people for wanting that, it is also a dangerous trap that can hold us back from truly being happy.

For so much of my life I thought that I couldn’t be trans because my body had grown in ways that I knew I could never reverse. With my broad shoulders, my strong chin, my large hands, my massive feet, and my deep bass singing voice, I knew that no matter how much surgery I had, I could never achieve my ideal of how I thought a woman should look. And I thought that meant that womanhood itself was hopelessly out of reach and at best I could just be a feminine man who was too attracted to women to be gay but too abnormal to be loveable. And it was largely because of that false belief that I allowed myself to settle for an abusive marriage.

For me at least, the path to self acceptance lay in embracing my femme identity with the full knowledge that I will never pass. I had to grieve the body I would never have and love the body I did have. I started out looking for the people who looked like I could when I started. Nonbinary icons who have never done medical transition and proudly display their beards and stubble like Alok Vaid Menon, Jacob Tobia, and Jeffrey Marsh. I surrounded myself with trans women so gorgeous that they take my breath away and I’ve slowly come to realize that I am that person for other people too. I leaned into the aspects of myself that I could make feminine for myself even if other people gendered them differently. I found joy in finding clothing that emphasized my tall frame and those rare gems that were size 13 heels.

I had to reject consciously and daily the idea that had to look traditionally feminine to be femme. Because femme at its core is a queer identity based in simultaneously embracing and queering feminine traits while rejecting many of the oppressive gender norms. My partners who are fiercely fat and femme helped me learn through this process how to hold yourself boldly even when you get glares in public for doing so. Of course I am not confident every day or even most of the time, but putting on that armor of femme identity helps push through those moments. I am femme despite society, not because of it. And finding my corner of weirdos and unconventional beauty helps me see the beauty in myself.

Once I had laid the groundwork in embracing my body and finding the parts of it that I love, only then could I truly identify what areas of my body needed change to fit MY dysphorias rather than what other people were projecting onto me. In many ways I truly loved my beard and how dramatic it made my face when paired with makeup and a dress. But I also could see how much happier I could be if I stopped avoiding my chin and made the necessary changes to bring it in line with who I want to be. And sometimes that means that things will get worse before they get better. But it is a lot easier to bear when I am doing these things for myself and not because I think I have to.

Another thing that has helped tremendously is realizing the incredible variety that exists within gender. For me, I like to look up to the cisgender women in my life like my mom who is 6 foot and my aunt who is 6’2″ and wears the same size shoes as me. And yes, sometimes they get accosted in restrooms about whether they belong but because they clearly do, it helps me know that I can too (not that I’ve actually worked up the courage for that yet). Women literally come in all shapes and sizes so don’t let someone tell you that you aren’t fully a woman because you look a certain way. They can shove off with their internalized misogyny.

Do I walk through the world confidently every day? Absolutely not. Do I love every aspect of my body? Hell no. Do I question the path I’ve taken? Sometimes. But I have earned my femininity just as much as someone who fits whatever this decade’s ideal of female beauty is. I am a nonbinary woman and I don’t need to pass.

What is dysphoria?

So I’ve talked quite a bit here about my experiences with dysphoria but I’m not sure I’ve ever attempted to define it, partly because it is a tricky concept to convey to someone who has never experienced it. But I’ll take a stab at it with the disclaimer that trans people don’t all experience dysphoria in the same way and some trans people never experience it because contrary to what psychologists think, being trans doesn’t require dysphoria. Some people are lucky enough to discover their true self through the experience of gender euphoria which is when you have extreme joy in finding something about your body, presentation, or the way people perceive you that affirms your gender.

On most days, I have a low level of background dysphoria going on. Some of it has always been there and I was kinda successfully ignoring it and some of it may not have been and has developed or been revealed as I’ve gotten closer to bring other parts in alignment with my gender. It’s hard to look back and accurately know what I was thinking in the past because one of my experiences of gender dysphoria is that my brain blocks out a lot of memories that don’t align with who I really am. A lot of my past is fuzzy or completely blocked from my consciousness due to trauma as well.

What I do know is that there were times that do clearly stick in my head where I experienced bursts of gender euphoria as a kid such as when I would play dress up and walk around in heels, or when I would play imaginary fairies or mermaids with my sister, or when I felt accepted as “one of the girls” in my friend groups. A lot of that went away as I reached an age where gender roles were more strictly enforced and in particular, a lot of my puberty is blocked from my memory both due to how I was treated by society and because more of my dysphoria started becoming apparent as the wrong hormone was taking front seat. I am so jealous of kids who have affirming parents and figure it out early enough to use hormone blockers or transition early on before the wrong puberty goes too far. It makes a lot of things easier.

One of the things I do know is that early on, stubble gave me dysphoria similar to how it does now. That, and my dysphoria around my prominent chin, are the biggest reasons I grew a beard at 18. I was getting to the point that I would have to shave my chin twice a day to look clean shaven. At first it was just a goatee but by 21 I think I was able to grow a full beard. A positive for combating dysphoria at the time but unfortunately now I have to get rid of all that thick, dense hair very painfully.

On a daily basis, dysphoria is like having little pin pricks constantly poking your skin. Or like wearing shoes that are too tight. It’s annoying and eventually it brings you to a breaking point. Everyone’s tolerance of that breaking point is why some people don’t come out until later while others figure it out early on. That can also be helped along by someone effectively helping you find the right size shoe and suddenly you realize how they didn’t fit all along. And trying to push past that background pain every day is exhausting and means that you can’t bring your full self to what you are doing until it is dealt with. I sometimes wonder where I would be in life if I had been born cis and been able to just move along happily through life without having to stop and deal with the dysphoria or the self worth issues that go along with it.

On days when my dysphoria is more acute, that pain is brought more to the forefront of my mind. Sometimes it is bad enough that I will look into a mirror and I can see enough to style my hair or assess my outfit but my face will be completely blurred out – as in I physically cannot get my brain to see my facial features. Dysphoria, as far as I can tell, is the brain not being able to handle the cognitive dissonance between the reality of your brain’s self image of you and what is physically in front of you. It also means that even on less bad days, parts of my body are often distorted so that what other people see isn’t the same as what I see. For me that most often revolves around my chin, or shoulders, or body hair. I will look at myself and all I can see is what feels to me like a giant, cartoonishly distorted chin with a cleft so big that I feel like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast.

Another way that dysphoria plays out for me, especially lately, is that an area of my body may feel completely absent. Most days now my genital area essentially feels like a black hole. It doesn’t exactly feel like there’s nothing there but almost the opposite of nothing like antimatter or something. That’s probably the biggest reason I’ve been much more asexual lately, at least with my own body. It is hard to think about sex when your mind is actively avoiding thinking about what body parts you might use. I’ve had to be much more creative and luckily when you have queer partners, using your own genitals isn’t as essential.

I’ve found that what helps the most when I’m feeling actively dysphoric is to focus on the parts of my body that I do like. Often it doesn’t help to have people compliment the areas you are feeling dysphoria around because it just brings more attention to them. But focusing on things like how great my legs are or how soft my skin is gets my mind to see the positives and less of the negatives. Sometimes affirmations can be helpful though, even if in the moment you can’t hear them. Lately I’ve been feeling more dysphoric around my speaking voice but when I’ve told people that, many have told me that it isn’t particularly deep and is actually rather feminine. Those are the things that I come back to later and think about when I’m struggling.

The reason that it is so essential to have insurance that covers gender affirming treatments and low barriers to accessing them is because dysphoria is such an insidious beast. It often feels like you can’t be a whole human until these parts of yourself are aligned with who you really are. And ultimately, all most of us really want is to be fully seen as ourselves. So please, don’t put up barriers to keep trans folks from getting there.

PS – I just remembered another trick I found to help combat dysphoria. Find things that you can do with your body to make it feel like your own that you can focus on when the rest of it feels wrong. For me it really helped me to be able to see myself to get my ears pierced, get fun glasses, get visible tattoos, and dye my hair. These things remind me that I can make changes because it is my body and my rules.

Thoughts on surgery

My brain has been rather obsessed lately with thinking about if and what next steps I should take in my transition. So I’ve been trying to figure out what my options are around gender affirming treatments and beginning the very overwhelming task of delving into the surprisingly difficult question of what do I actually want.

Unfortunately I’ve found, with the help of therapy, that that question is very deeply tied to the related question of what do I actually believe I deserve. I didn’t realize I had so much around self worth entangled with my transition. While I 100% support my friends who pursue gender affirming surgeries, I have a hard time convincing myself that I am worth spending that much money on. I had the same issue with my upcoming jaw surgery to correct a crooked internal angle that prevents me from biting on one side. A lot of emotions came up as I went through the steps to book it and talked with my spouse about the money involved. I don’t know the full costs yet but so far we have shelled out $5,500 out of pocket for the braces and I have some significant guilt around needing her help to do that and taking away from money we could use on other things, especially in this political climate.

I firmly believe that while surgeries and treatments are definitely not required to be a valid trans person, they are medically necessary in various forms for many of us as important treatments for gender dysphoria. And I certainly have been having a lot of increased dysphoria lately. But when it comes to the next logical step of then believing that I deserve these treatments, I fall into the trap of hearing all the naysayers whispering in my ear about how trans people are too expensive and a burden and, and, and…

So I’m trying to work past that part of it. But there are also other fears to conquer. I realized I have a very deep fear that I will go through all these steps to try to get closer to the person I know I should be seeing in the mirror and still not feel like I can achieve it. I worry that being so close will just make the last little bits that I can’t change, things like not being able to be pregnant or have the kinds of sex I want, even more frustrating. That’s certainly the biggest thing holding me back from thinking about vaginoplasty.

I realized recently that vaginoplasty is covered by my insurance. Of course there are no surgeons in Western Washington and wait lists are a mile long but theoretically, this is one of the easier things to accomplish financially on my list of options. But that is also the one I was most unsure about. Mostly because I was afraid that I would have complications or worse, that I wouldn’t be able to orgasm afterwards. I don’t particularly like the equipment I have now but at least I know how it works and have figured out how to get it to do what I want, at least some of the time (though that is getting harder while my brain is undergoing estrogen rewiring projects). And is it worth the risk for the potential reward? And am I just caving to transmedicalists (aka truscum, people who think you need surgery to be trans) and societal pressure if I take a more linear transition path?

Arguably, the things that would make a much bigger impact on my dysphoria and certainly on my ability to function in the world are facial feminization surgery (FFS) and hair removal. Unfortunately those are the things that my insurance has classified as “cosmetic” and doesn’t cover. Hair removal is top of my priority list and as I discovered last time, is very expensive. So I am trying to call around and see if I can find a clinic that would work with me to fight insurance and advocate with my doctor for its medical necessity.

Facial feminization is a greater challenge. I’ve realized only recently that the main reason I keep my beard is because it hides my chin, which I can’t stand looking at in the mirror. I’ve obviously grown to love it as evidenced by the name of my blog and how much it has shaped my identity. But it’s also just a tool to reduce dysphoria which has the unfortunate side effect of making me hypervisible. And even in a city like Seattle, it’s no fun being able to be spotted as trans from 3 blocks away. Increasingly I’ve been realizing how much my beard shapes how exhausting daily life in public is for me. But I don’t think I can shave it off unless I at least have a plan for what to do about my chin.

My chin is rather prominent and cleft. In my head and when I look at photos of the few times I’ve shaved (only twice in 12 years), it looks like Gaston from the animated Beauty and the Beast – comically large and masculine. There is a possibility that with estrogen softening my facial features, I will end up liking my face without surgery. Or that after my jaw surgery I will like my look better. But I am honestly scared of having to shave next winter to do that.

Facial feminization is a very expensive proposition. I’ve heard estimates anywhere from $7k for just the chin to $30k. And the odds of me getting insurance to cover it seem pretty slim. I did take the step of emailing my jaw surgeon to see if there is any chance he can leave off the portion of my chin he was planning on rearranging in the surgery or if he would be willing to partner with a specialist to do the work while I am already in surgery. No word back yet though.

I have talked a lot with several trans women in my life over the past couple weeks as these thoughts have been distracting me which was very helpful. And the more I talk about it, the more I realize just how much I’ve been trying to ignore my dysphoria out of fear and shame. I desperately want to be the self confident, visible, bearded trans icon that people seem to think I am. But the reality is that I am having an increasingly hard time looking at and thinking about my face and genitals. When I shave my chest, stomach and legs, I can almost start to see something that looks attractive. And sometimes a good photo can make me feel ok about my face. But my crotch often feels like a black hole on my body, something that doesn’t exist. Or sometimes my genitals feels like a fake nose someone glued on my body when I look in the mirror. And it makes relationships a lot harder when you are moving farther along the asexuality spectrum.

I need more time to think about it but I wanted to get some of these thoughts down while they were still fresh. I don’t know what the answers are yet but I’m increasingly starting to think that the fact that I can’t stop thinking about these questions means that these are inevitable steps I have to figure out how to take.

On a lighter note, if I eventually get rid of my beard, what should I call my blog? The Artist Formerly Known as Genderbeard?

Increasing Dysphoria

Isn’t being on hormones supposed to help dysphoria? I mean it’s helping my confidence in my chest and overall shape but it’s definitely bringing up more feelings about my face in particular among other things. The biggest effect that estrogen has had so far other than breast growth is that it is making it harder to ignore things I’ve been burying and ignoring.

I often have days where I look in the mirror and literally see a blank where my face should be. My brain can’t handle the cognitive dissonance between my real appearance and my identity. And even more often I find myself avoiding mirrors or hyperfocusing on my hair to avoid looking at my facial features. And I can’t decide whether growing out my hair would help that or make it worse.

I’ve kept my beard thus far because it hides parts of my face that I can’t handle, especially my chin. But more and more I wonder if it is doing more harm than good. I get stares everywhere I go because people don’t know what to do with a bearded person in a dress. And it makes it so that I can be spotted blocks away as trans. I mean it’s not like I can hide easily with my height and tendency to wear bright colors, but maybe I don’t need to make myself that easy to spot. It also gives me a lot of “not queer enough” feels and makes me avoid spaces that are supposedly for femmes because I don’t think I would be accepted with my features.

But the thought of removing my beard and having to come to terms with the face underneath terrifies me even more. I am dreading what is going to happen when I’m forced to shave next winter for a long planned jaw surgery to correct my bite. But I also find myself wondering if there’s a way to capitalize on that to change my face. From what I remember of the consult, they are already going to need to make adjustments to my chin to make my face symmetrical and I wonder if I can talk the oral surgeon into taking some of it off permanently. Or if I could work with him to do a combo jaw surgery and facial feminization technique. The thought of cutting open my face twice doesn’t sound pleasant.

Then there’s the matter of my genitals. I’m feeling more disconnected from them recently which goes along with my feelings of asexuality. Most days I’d rather forget they are there and sometimes my brain does that for me. The other day I was on a date and I was trying to get myself in the mindset but everytime I thought about what was between my legs all I could picture was a black hole. I ended up not being able to do anything with my own body because I couldn’t reintegrate. Luckily queer sex doesn’t revolve around a penis or any specific kind of sex. But when I think about bottom surgery I’m still not sure whether having different genitals would help at all.

I’ve also realized that I only feel confident at all when my chest, stomach, and legs are shaved. Which even with the estrogen means trimming twice a week. I need to go back for more hair removal but I can’t decide between laser which requires $1,400 up front for 3 sessions (probably twice) or electrolysis which has more guarantee of permanency and I can break into smaller chunks but means more sessions.

Basically I’m feeling dysphoric most of the time now but I don’t know what to do about it and what interventions would help and how I would pay for those. So my brain gets overloaded with that background anxiety and I end up being less productive or mildly dissociating. I know I should try to do things that connect me with my body more instead of just escaping into video games. But I have a hard time figuring out how to do that in ways that a) don’t involve gendered locker rooms, b) don’t trigger my asthma (running is out of the question), and c) don’t make my back and neck pain worse.

There’s a little peek into what’s in the back of my brain most of the time these days. So when you ask how I’m doing and I say I’m fine, please know that there is a giant asterisk there.

Realization of the day

I think I’m a transwoman in a nonbinary body.

I’ve talked about this before but when I think about the steps required to bring my body into alignment with my internal gender I get extremely overwhelmed, not only by the amount of work but the realization that I wouldn’t be doing it as much for myself as I would to change how people see me. I have no problem with my beard or 80%+ of my body. I don’t want to spend years trying to learn how to change my voice so that I can pass. And I don’t want to give up a perfectly functional penis to gain a vagina that I don’t even know if I would like as much.

What I do want are breasts (working on it), less body hair (need to get back on that), and a more feminine distribution of fat (hopefully that will start soon). I also want access to motherhood which seems like the far more challenging thing to achieve since I can’t/won’t do that alone. I want to be treated like the woman I am without needing to jump through the unattainable hoops of passing.

But the more I think about it, the less I think my internal gender is actually nonbinary. As in I don’t know of any masculine traits that I identify with. I have the gender of a lesbian woman and the gender blurriness that comes packaged with perceptions queer femmeness. I am just as much a woman internally as any lesbian and probably more feminine than most. I just happened to not be born with a cis woman’s body and I can never attain that no matter how hard I try.

In other news, I am toying with the idea of trying out she/her pronouns but I’m not sure I’m quite ready to make that switch yet. So many complex feelings where I’m torn between what I feel I deserve and what I feel I can reasonably fight for.