March Mayhem

I am, at the core, a homebody. Given the choice, I could spend days on end in my house, curled up with books, movies, and knitting (although if I’m forced to stay in my house due to illness, injury, or inclement weather, I do go a little stir crazy). There are a number of other personality traits at play here – I am an introvert, and have a tendency toward laziness. But mostly, I just really love being in my own space.

This aspect of who I am is often at war with another part of me – the one that wants to do ALL THE THINGS. This month, this latter part appears to be winning.

As of this week, aside from my usual 37.5 hours of work, I will have, on a weekly basis:

  • Guitar classes Monday evenings, and an approximate 10:45pm return home,
  • Songwriting classes Tuesday evenings, arriving home around 11pm,
  • My volunteer gig at the Old Town School of Folk Music‘s Resource Center Wednesday evenings, arriving home around 10:30pm, and
  • Knit Night at Windy Knitty Thursday evenings, arriving home anywhere between 9:15 and 10pm.

On top of all of this, I decided this week to start getting up at 5:30am each morning and attempt to do some sort of home workout – Pilates, weights, stretches, that sort of thing. I fully believe that “health” is a pretty nebulous concept, and it’s absolutely not my goal to hit some arbitrary numeric value that a doctor will deem “healthy”. However, I am increasingly frustrated with how quickly I tire out, how hard it is for me to keep up with people, and how frequently my back goes out due to a lack of core strength. I also know from past experience that being more physically active is better for my mental health. So, I’m easing into increased activity.

I also need to work practicing guitar and writing a song into each week. Plus the things that need to get done around the house.

I will be honest: last week I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, in light of the battle I was having with DepressedBrain. I ended up needing to leave the office early on Friday to avoid having a total meltdown at work. Thankfully, Friday evening brought with it the arrival of a new binder, which helped to mitigate some of the dysphoria that was making a significant contribution to DepressedBrain. (The binder, by the way, was ordered from these guys and is amazing – equivalent binding power to an Underworks 997, but replacing the fear of permanent ribcage damage (which was the reason I had to switch to the much less effective 982 a while back) with something so comfortable I almost forget I’m wearing it – and may warrant an extra blog post for a review at some point in the near future.)

I was feeling rather better Monday morning, but I have to admit, I still didn’t really believe I was going to be able to handle this schedule until shortly before I started writing this post yesterday afternoon. I was absolutely exhausted by the time I got home Monday and Tuesday, and yesterday I had a hell of a time getting myself out of bed. As the day wore on, I was pretty sleepy, but I think I hit the point where I started to remember how to work through the fatigue. I am convinced that, eventually, being more active will mean that I will have more energy. I just need to stick with it long enough.

Part of me continues to wonder what on earth I’ve gotten myself into. But mostly, I’m feeling optimistic. And that’s a nice change from the past few weeks.

Never Saw It Coming

I’ve known that I was Bipolar for close to six years now. In those six years, my cycles have typically followed a fairly predictable pattern. I’ve rarely jumped with no warning from one end of emotion to the other: usually, there’s a ramping up or a sliding down that happens and warns me of what’s coming.

I don’t know if it’s because there were sad things that happened while I was manic, which made things weird, or if it really was just very sudden, but that wasn’t how this most recent turn to DepressedBrain went. There was no easing my way down into darkness. I didn’t see it coming. It hid just out of sight and jumped out at me from behind a corner and suddenly, out of what felt like nowhere, I’ve found myself at one of the lowest points I’ve hit in the past year or more.

I wrote last week about the fact that I’ve recently started battling with body-related dysphoria for the first time. I’ve spent the past week trying to deconstruct what that means for me, what it feels like, why it’s so hard for me to figure out how to work around it. I don’t have any easy answers, but these are the best words I’ve found for it so far: after I started on testosterone and my body started changing, I experienced a period of time where I felt more comfortable than I ever had before in my skin – like I fit in my body for the first time that I could remember. There was this sense of wholeness, and rightness, to it. But now dysphoria has swooped in, and I’m back to feeling fractured: it’s not so much that I hate my body, but that it doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. It doesn’t fit me anymore. And that’s maddening and heart-wrenching, particularly after having experienced something better for a while. I don’t really know what to do with it.

I wonder if, maybe, the best thing I can do is take my focus off myself and onto other people. My sister was in town last weekend. (We don’t share any genetic material, but many years of shared experiences. Her family of origin treats her in ways no person should ever be treated, and I’ve had my own frustrations with my family of origin, so we’ve pieced together families of our own, and they include each other.) Neither she nor I nor my partner felt particularly up to venturing out of the apartment and into the cold (or for a host of other reasons), so the weekend consisted of a lot of me cooking a lot of good food and all of us sitting in the same space reading books and reminiscing. I was reminded how fulfilling it is for me when I am able to create a safe space for someone I love. Being a host stresses me out to some extent, because I always worry that I’m not being entertaining enough. But knowing that I am creating a space where we can all be ourselves mitigates that stress to some extent, particularly when I’m taking care of someone who I know has too few safe spaces in their life elsewhere.

I may not know how to take good care of myself in this moment, but at least I can still take care of other people. It’s not a long-term solution (or, really, even a solution at all), but it feels like it’s helping.

My Brain is Unpredictable

My brain is unpredictable. This is nothing new. I am Bipolar, and have been aware of that fact for almost six years. I have navigating my way through unexpected brainspace down to a fine science.

In the past week, though, my brain threw me for a loop: this week, I was unexpectedly visited by the dysphoria monster.

I should have known it was coming. I mean, I’m a trans guy. It had to happen eventually.

It’s not the first time I’ve dealt with dysphoria. Not entirely. But my whole previous experience with dysphoria was centered around my voice, and how uncomfortable that made me, and with the introduction of testosterone into my system, that faded into the background.

No, this is a new experience. I knew I was incredibly lucky, up to this point, to not have experienced a great deal of body-related dysphoria. I’ve seen many people near and dear to me go through it, and was grateful to have dodged that bullet. It seems, though, that my relationship with my body is changing.

On the one hand, I’ve reached a point where, for the first time in my life, I actually like myself. I’ve gone from loathing to tolerating to feeling benevolently indifferent to actually liking who I am as a person the majority of the time.

On the other hand, I’m finding myself increasingly anxious about how I’m perceived by the rest of the world, particularly because of certain realities about my anatomy.

I bind my chest pretty much every day (unless I’m not leaving the house, and even then, I might). But I can’t wear binders that are especially tight, because I have an enormous ribcage, and the tighter the binder, the more my ribs hurt, and the more I’m at risk for causing myself some serious medical problems. Lately, I’ve felt like the binder I have that I was satisfied with a couple of months ago just isn’t cutting it anymore: every day I’m more conscious of the fact that I often look like a butch lesbian with sideburns. (Which is not to say anything against butch lesbians – I think they’re delightful – I’m just not one of them. I’m not a lesbian at all. I’m a [very] queer man.)

Before I started pursuing HRT, I went over the course of about a month from being reasonably okay with the fact that the world was insisting on seeing me as a woman to having daily panic attacks because I was terrified that no one would ever see me as anything else. I haven’t gotten back to the point of panic attacks, but I’m worried that it could be lurking right around the corner.

My brain hasn’t been too bad a place to live in for a while now. I don’t love that I’m going to have to relearn some coping mechanisms that I’ve let slide since the last time I had to wrestle regularly with myself. But I guess that’s all part of life in transition.

Confessions of a Storyteller

I’ve always loved books.

There is a video, somewhere, of me at age two, sitting on the floor, surrounded by what was probably the majority of the books that usually lived on my bookshelf, holding one upside down in my chubby little hands as I looked at the camera and declared (in the present tense), “I read!” several times before launching into a story that I’m certain made sense in my head but was entirely incomprehensible out of it.

I still remember the moment when I actually did read for the first time. I was three years old, in my parents’ bathroom, studying the pages of Green Eggs and Ham, and as I looked at the book, suddenly the sound of the word in my head (I had the book memorized) connected with the letters on the page, and I realized I was reading. It was magic, and I was hooked.

I was the child who broke the heart of more than one teacher who was forced to tell me to stop reading, because I was also the child who would inexpertly try to hide whatever book I was currently reading behind the textbook I was supposed to be studying in an effort to get through a few more pages during class. I never had a huge number of friends at school, but that rarely bothered me. I had a huge, active imagination, and books were the catalyst through which I could visit exciting new worlds.

Really, I’ve just always loved stories.

I knew, even as a child, that stories had the power to make otherwise inscrutable concepts accessible, to create a shift in perspective, to bring laughter into dark and dismal places. As an adult, I am even more impressed by the power that stories have to effect change. Particularly as a queer, transgender adult whose life doesn’t fit nicely into the generally accepted queer, transgender narratives (“I knew I was gay in kindergarten!” or “I knew I was trans when I was three years old!” – not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with these narratives)…I am increasingly convinced that it is imperative that those of us whose stories differ from the “mainstream” of queer culture tell those stories, because as more of us claim our own narratives, fewer of us feel alone.

I’ve been telling my story in bits and pieces for years – I took my first fumbling steps out of the closet almost six years ago, and have used storytelling as a means to process my personal evolution. However, last week I received a request from a family member for a narrative of my journey from straight, cisgender woman to queer, transgender man, and I realized for the first time that I have never actually written it all down in one place. (Granted, the story is ever-changing, and there will never be one complete account. But it had never crossed my mind that I’ve been working exclusively in vignettes, capturing a moment here and there, and never a longer story arc.)

So over the weekend and into the beginning of this week I’ve been writing it all down. As I am writing this Wednesday morning, I have more than 3,200 words…and while I have the bulk of the major events of the past six years down, it is still far from complete. It doesn’t include many of the vignettes I’m sure I’ve written down before – like coming out to my best friend from college when I had the world’s biggest crush on her, or how I started identifying as a gentleman years before I ever identified as transgender or genderqueer, or what it felt like the first time a stranger called me “sir” (which also happened well before I identified as anything other than cisgender).

I’m an inveterate storyteller with a story so full of plot twists that I’m having trouble telling it in a way that is both coherent and complete. I suppose, if I have to pick one over the other, I’ll go with coherence. (Choosing coherence over completeness will also increase my chances of getting this sent out within the week, like I promised.) Still, now I feel like, at some point in the near future, I need to at least try to get a (mostly) complete narrative down as well, even if it’s only for me. Particularly as I move into the strange new world of male privilege, I don’t ever want to forget where I’ve come from.

Adventures in Self-Advocacy

It’s been an interesting week.

On Tuesday, as I was waiting outside my office for the bus, one of my coworkers called a goodbye to me as she crossed the street: “See you later, Alexis!”*

There was a pause, then: “Alyx! Alyx.”

Thankfully, at that point traffic picked up, and I didn’t feel like I needed to respond with more than a casual wave. But as her words slowly sunk in, I found myself more and more upset. This was not the first time I’d been misgendered by this coworker. She routinely refers to me as “she,” and while she usually corrects herself, it’s still immensely frustrating. Had I seen another trans person in the same situation, I would have spoken up a long time ago. But self-advocacy is hard, and I have, historically, been extraordinarily bad at it.

Being called the wrong name, though, crossed a line. Something in my head snapped, and I realized that I had to do something. My inner drive to avoid drama was finally overtaken by my desire to be treated with respect.

So I emailed my manager and direct supervisor, and told them what had happened, and asked them what they thought I should do. They were both extremely supportive and handled the whole situation better than I could have hoped for: they encouraged me to contact the individual in question directly about the problem behavior, offered their support in any way, and pointed out that HR needed to be alerted to the issue, even if I was able to resolve it with direct communication.

I asked if they thought it would be okay to address the issue in an email to this coworker, since I express myself best in writing. My manager responded that he thought she would be least intimidated by a face-to-face conversation, slightly more by an email, and more still by a moderated conversation, but that my comfort was the primary concern. Her comfort was secondary, and he thought I should proceed in whatever way made the most sense to me.

So before I left work yesterday, I sent an email to my coworker, gently but firmly explaining that her behavior was hurtful and inappropriate and requesting that she henceforth put a concerted effort into using the correct name and pronouns.

And then I went and had coffee and debriefed with a former coworker, and chose to ignore my phone every time it buzzed to tell me I had a new text or email.

When I got home, I found a response waiting for me.

It wasn’t a great apology – it contained a lot of excuses. But it was still an apology, and I am going to try to take it in good faith as sincere. It’s a start, at least, and now I have a written record I can bring back to HR if the behavior continues.

Self-advocacy is hard. But my supervisor pointed out a very important aspect of it that I tend to forget: if I am being mistreated, it’s entirely possible someone else is being mistreated as well. I tend to have this twisted perspective that advocating for myself is a sign of selfishness on my part (though I wouldn’t say that about anyone else’s self-advocacy). But it’s not. By speaking up, I’m not just speaking up for myself; I’m speaking up for anyone else who might find themselves in the same situation in at present or in the future but who might not have a voice. I have an incredible support network and a host of resources at my disposal. If someone has to be the sacrificial lamb for the sake of transgender sensitivity education at my workplace, it might as well be me.

I don’t know what, if anything will come of all of this. I hope that my coworker will truly make an effort to change her behavior. I hope that HR will be open to the possibility of providing some sort of transgender sensitivity training (we’re a big Jewish organization, and while the vast majority of people have taken having a more-or-less-openly trans person on staff, I think it wouldn’t hurt). I hope that if my coworker’s behavior doesn’t change, HR will have my back as firmly as my manager and supervisor do. If I am placing myself in a position where I will find myself needing to educate people along the way, then I hope I can serve as a catalyst for positive change. I hope that, whatever happens, things are easier for the next trans person that comes along in the agency after me.

I may not feel brave, but I am choosing to be bold.


 

* This was problematic for multiple reasons: chiefly that I have only gone by Alyx at this job, and any names I may or may not have had prior to this job are irrelevant to my relationships with my coworkers, but also because I have never, at any time in my life, been an “Alexis.” This was a major assumption on her part, that she could deduce from my current name what name I may have gone by prior to transition.

Some Things Change; Some Stay the Same

It’s the first Thursday of November.

The first Thursday of November last year, I learned how to self-administer testosterone injections, and gave myself my first shot.

It’s been a year.

A year ago, I wasn’t entirely convinced that I was making the right choice. I was convinced, however, that I had to do something, and since starting HRT was suddenly an option that was open to me, I went for it.

And after a year, I have to say…I haven’t regretted it for an instant.

It’s not that I hated being a woman. I just…wasn’t particularly good at it. This body that I recreated with the help of hormones fits my soul in ways it never did before.

I am infinitely more comfortable and confident now. This doesn’t mean that I am comfortable and confident 100% of the time, but I waste much less energy on self-loathing than I used to.

The sound of my own voice rarely causes me to cringe anymore. On the best days, I love it. On the worst, I just realize that old speech patterns, just like any other habits, sometimes die hard.

I have an ever-increasing volume and distribution of facial hair. I realized this week that I have actually reached the point where I can shave in the morning and have stubble by the end of the work day. I’m sure there are men who find this annoying. I think it’s wonderful. And I’m learning to feel a sort of benevolence toward the hair sprouting pretty much everywhere else on my body. The hair on the top of my head may not be growing as quickly as it was…and it’s possible that I’m losing it more quickly than I used to. But I’m not any more afraid of balding than I ever was of going grey (which is to say, I’m pretty sure I can rock it however it plays out).

I’m still soft, and I have curves, but they’re distributed in some different places. My lower body is much more compact, where my upper body feels more solidly built. And for the first time since, well, the onset of my first round of puberty, really, my weight hasn’t fluctuated more than five pounds in the past year.

My Bipolar cycles have evened out to some extent. They’re still there, and still noticeable, certainly…but I have fewer days lost to feelings of madness, and it’s much rarer for me to feel like I’m out of control.

In a couple of weeks, I have a court hearing scheduled to legally change my name. I still have a few loose ends to figure out, but everything feels like it’s clicking into place.

I’ve been unspeakably lucky. I have a supportive partner, supportive friends and chosen family, and even a largely supportive work environment. I have dear friends on their own similar journeys who have not always been so fortunate, and I hope I never lose sight of how much of a privileged life I lead.

It’s been quite the ride, but I wouldn’t give it up for the world. Here’s to a year of adventure ahead!

Happy Anyway

I’m sick. I tried for a while to convince myself it was just fall allergies, and maybe it started that way. But it’s become evident in the last few days that I do, in fact, have a cold (which may turn into something even less fun today, since I got my flu shot yesterday).

On top of that, it’s been pretty overcast the past few days. Yesterday’s dreariness in particular made me acutely aware of how much my mood and general ability to be an adult are influenced by the weather. When it’s cloudy for more than about 24 hours, all I want to do is hide in a giant blanket nest and not come out again until it’s sunny.

But you know what?

I’m still pretty happy.

Because, really, life is pretty good. I might be feeling under the weather, but there are still reasons to smile:

Tomorrow is Halloween. It also marks three years since I first tried on the name Alyx and found that it fit. It fit so well that it was briefly terrifying, because I knew exactly what sort of precipice I was stepping over. But the terror quickly gave way, because it felt so…easy. Comfortable. Right. Pronouns may still be a weird thing for me to navigate, and I’m not always sure exactly what is going on with my relationship to my body, but my name? That’s mine. There are no questions there.

In a few weeks, I will legally become Alyxander. I will have an ID card that matches my actual identity. And HR now knows and has told me what they need from me to change things over in their systems. I have all of the prerequisite paperwork together; it’s just a matter of waiting, now. I’m nervous, but mostly, I’m excited.

And, though it’s an exceedingly silly thing, I bought aftershave for the first time this week. It smells kind of like it belongs to a curmudgeonly old man, and I love it. This may be the thing that pushes me into shaving more than once a week. (Not that I don’t like shaving, because I actually do: I have a wonderful double-edged safety razor that I bought myself as a “yay, I started testosterone” present, and a brush and some great soap that I got from my partner as a Christmas gift last year, and I find the whole ritual kind of soothing. I’m just lazy. Not so lazy that I won’t link to all of my shaving gear in a blog post, apparently, but lazy enough that I only end up shaving when I look really scruffy, which takes about a week these days.)

Forward Motion

‘Tis the season for Jewish holidays, which means I get a bunch of paid days off in the next month, including today and tomorrow (for Rosh Hashanah). Since I am not Jewish, this gives me some free time to attend to various personal business matters I haven’t gotten around to taking time off for, but that really need to happen.

Today, I’m going to the doctor to get labs done and check in on my hormone levels.

Tomorrow, I’m heading downtown to file the paperwork for my name change.

It doesn’t feel real yet. It probably won’t feel real until a couple of months from now, after my court date, when I’m holding my new driver’s license with my name on it.

My name. The one I chose for myself. The one that fit so effortlessly the first time I tried it on that I thought it couldn’t possibly be real.

I’m not yet Alyx in legal terms, but I’m Alyx in my dreams. And in my social life. And at work.

I have been Alyx for nearly three years now.

I am not looking forward to the fiddly bits of legally changing my name – changing over bank accounts and credit cards and utilities and dealing with social security. But I am looking forward to the day when I can hand a bartender or TSA agent or car rental agency employee my ID and not need to spend all of my energy praying they don’t look too closely at the feminine name on the card in contrast with the sideburn-sporting dude in front of them.

Tomorrow, I take the next official step in being recognized for who I am. And while the part of me that resists going outside of my comfortable bubble of routine is terrified, mostly, I am excited.

It’s time for forward motion.

Gratitude

A friend of mine nominated me on Saturday via Facebook to come up with three moments of gratitude a day for five days. Well, that was about five days ago, and I haven’t done it yet, but that seemed like a good direction for the blog this week. So Amanda, here’s my list; thanks for the inspiration.

  1. A partner who will join me on silly, spontaneous adventures. Last Thursday, I had the wild idea that we should rent a car over the weekend and drive to Cedar Falls, IA to catch Joe Stevens in concert. The conversation went something like this:

    A: We should go on a road trip and see Joe Stevens!
    E: But it’s Iowa.
    A: But concert!
    E: But IOWA.

    I acknowledged it was a pretty ridiculous idea, but I was a little sad…until I got off work and was greeted by a text to the effect of, “So, about that concert…”

  2. Friends with whom I can escape reality for a while. Saturday was Dungeons & Dragons & Knitting, which is the monthly Pathfinder game with some folks in our knitting circle (the original idea was to play D&D, but Pathfinder ended up happening instead…we just never changed the name). Four of us have an adventure in group storytelling while our partners hang out in the other room and knit and make fun of us. It’s consistently one of the highlights of every month.
  3. Open spaces. We did end up renting a car this weekend and going on a road trip into Iowa, taking a detour on our way to Cedar Falls so that I could show Ethan some of the northeast corner of the state, which is not entirely flat and very, very pretty. The farther we got from Chicago, the more I relaxed. Don’t get me wrong: I love living in Chicago. But wide open spaces do wonders for my soul.
  4. People who choose to love me because of who I am, not in spite of it. The reason I know that there is a pretty part of Iowa (the aforementioned northeast corner) is that my grandparents live there, on a farm in a valley surrounded by trees and bluffs and wildlife and gardens. I remain convinced at age 26 that their farm is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. We were close enough on Sunday that, had I so chosen, we could have stopped by for a surprise visit. But I didn’t. I love my grandparents very much. They love their grandchildren very much. But when I came out to them as Alyx in a letter two years ago, their response (also in a letter) was that they would never call me Alyx, because Alyx was “an imaginary person.” I am almost entirely certain that they don’t know that I started any sort of physical transition. I haven’t seen them in over two years, and I haven’t been on their farm in at least three, and I don’t know when (or if) either of those things will happen again, which is heart-wrenching whenever I think of it. But it also reminds me that I have a whole bunch of people in my life who not only accept that I am Alyx but actually celebrate my life with me, and that is a great comfort.
  5. Those moments of recognition by others in our communities. Visibility is such a huge thing, both for those of us who are still frequently misgendered, and those in our community who pass so well that no one believes they’re trans. There were a handful of those moments this weekend.
  6. Approachable heroes. Meeting Joe Stevens was great: he’s one of our songwriting idols, and is just a fantastic person. But even better than meeting Joe was the fact that we got to actually talk with him. By the end of the night, we were giving each other hugs goodbye. We’re now friends on Facebook. This is still blowing my mind.
  7. Adventures that lead to more adventures. When we got to Cedar Falls and started talking with Joe (and River Glen, who’s touring the Midwest with him), we mentioned we’d road tripped it from Chicago, at which point they told us they were actually going to be playing a house concert in Chicago on Monday night. Throughout the night they told us several times that we should come. We got in touch on Facebook and got the details, and despite the fact that my partner had only slept about 45 minutes and had worked a full day, and the fact that we’d returned the rental car and weren’t entire sure how we were going to get home after transit stopped running, Monday night we found ourselves in the very humid basement of a hippie couple we’d never met, sweating with strangers (and new friends, and someone we met at a karaoke bar three-and-a-half years ago), enjoying more music.
  8. Music that inspires me to create more music. I felt two things in regard to the music at both shows: first, that my songwriting is totally inadequate, and second, that I want to write more songs. There are times when I get the first feeling but not the second one; this was one of the beautiful moments where my feelings of inadequacy were outweighed by inspiration.
  9. New friends. We met some awesome people on Sunday and Monday.
  10. Thinking about the future. My partner and I have been doing a lot of talking about our future together, and it’s really wonderful not only to have a partner I want to have a future with, but to be able to think about the future at all. There was a long time when I could barely see past tomorrow. I’m learning to dream again.
  11. Air conditioning. This is a silly one, but it’s been ridiculously humid in Chicago this week. We don’t have AC at home, but I have it at the office, and I’m grateful for the times I can spend in places where everything does not feel soggy.
  12. Comfort in my skin. This isn’t a constant, but I’ve been feeling fairly centered and okay within myself this week. I was able to go to both concerts without feeling more than momentary social anxiety, and a lot of that had to do with being comfortable being myself. I spent a lot of years stuck in self-loathing, and while I’m not my biggest fan, I’ve at least reached the point where I feel a sort of benevolent indifference toward myself, which is unbelievably better for my mental health.
  13. Fresh perspective. I’m not sure exactly how to explain this one, because it’s been a largely internal thing. Mostly, there have been tiny things happening in the past few weeks that have helped me to look at the world in new (or old but forgotten) ways, and it’s been refreshing.
  14. A (mostly) calm brain. There have been a lot of storms here in the past week. My brain tends to get really uncomfortable when the weather is shifting back and forth rapidly. I’ve felt surprisingly stable in the midst of all of it.
  15. Concrete future plans. I alluded to this in last week’s post, and now that I’ve told my family, I can announce it to all of you: at the end of September I will be filing the requisite paperwork for a court date to legally change my name. By the end of the year I will legally be Alyxander James! There aren’t enough exclamation points in the world to express how excited I am.

On the Validity of Self-Definition

A well-meaning coworker asked me several months ago if she could give my contact information to a young person she knew who had recently come out as transmasculine. I handed over my email, but I never heard anything from the kid. Yesterday, after coming into my office for a brief reprieve in the middle of her day, my coworker asked if I’d ever heard from them, and then proceeded to tell me,

She’s just confused. You know what she did for gay pride? She wore boxer shorts, and a…a…well, you know, a thing. But then she had no shirt, and suspenders and pasties. I mean, people who want to be boys, they’re not going to show their breasts! That’s the last thing they’d want to do. Right? She just doesn’t know what she wants.

She then emphasized her point by explaining that they all still called this kid by their given name, and they never said anything (though I can clearly recall her saying that they were really upset by the use of their given name over their taken name several months ago), so clearly, they’re not trans. They’re just confused.

And because it was in my workplace (which is not especially unsafe, but is still not a place I feel I can be particularly vocal about identity politics), I smiled a tight smile, and shrugged noncommittally, and muttered something about that being a hard age for everyone, and she finally left, with one last, “She’s just confused.”

Once it was over, my office, which I have worked so hard to turn into a place of calm and safety (for myself and for my coworkers), felt toxic. I felt physically sick. And I felt like a traitor, both to this kid that I don’t know, and to the trans community at large. Because implied in my coworker’s statement was the idea that I behave the way she thinks a trans person is supposed to act. And I hate that, because I feel like I’ve been assimilated into this toxic culture of gender essentialism that I don’t want to join, but to dismantle.

It’s probably true that the majority of transmasculine people aren’t super into showing their breasts off (in public or elsewhere). But though that may be the prevalent narrative of what transmasculinity looks like, it’s not the whole story (or even any of the story) for all transmasculine people. Who knows? For this kid, who probably can’t afford surgery and who maybe doesn’t have the strongest support system, walking around shirtless at pride might have been a way for them to feel empowered, to reclaim their body as their own. Or maybe they’re genderqueer or otherwise nonbinary, and wanted to express their own gender fluidity by contrasting boxers and a packer with pasties. The fact is that I don’t know what this kid’s motivations were, and neither does my coworker. But whatever the motivation, when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter. Their body is their own, and no one else gets to decide for them what is or is not the “right” way to exist in that body.

There is not one right way to be a trans person, no matter what the media tells us, no matter what cis- and heteronormative culture tells us…no matter what we tell each other. Each one of us is the sole expert on our own lives, on our own hearts and minds and motivations. Anyone else who tries to define those things for us is doing a disservice both to trans people in general and to themselves, because those of us who have learned to define our own lives have a lot to teach the rest of the world, if only they’d stop trying to categorize us into nonexistence long enough to listen.