Now that you’ve made it past the pretentious title, a bit of the obvious. Not only can I only speak of what it’s like to be a trans girl/woman, I can’t even speak to the experience of each one. At best I can speak to the experience of an athletic, extroverted, gay trans girl with certain tastes and preferences. Namely, me (and this is mostly about childhood and my teen years in the interest of length). If you want something about thoughts of having boyfriends and such, I’m not going to be any help there. On the other hand, if you want to read up on the experience of being trans while still in a fair number of ways fitting what people expect of someone’s assumed gender? You’re in the right place.
In thinking about this whole issue, I hit a big barrier. I only know what it’s like to experience childhood and teen years as a trans girl. So how do I describe what it’s like to be something I can’t compare to anything else? I know my experiences weren’t the norm, but I don’t know what normal experiences are actually like to experience. I never did. I mean I know descriptively how they differ but not in terms of lived experience. So how do I really get at what it’s like to be trans?
It dawned on me that getting at what it isn’tor that certain things aren’t necessarily how they come across, would be a good start. Like no not every trans girl is hyper feminine and wants to wear nothing but dresses and have a ton of dolls or whatever. Oh sure I wanted some Barbies and would’ve killed to wear a dress, but when I was 6 I wanted to play ice hockey and baseball and to speed skate. As the years went on I wanted to play pretty much every sport I saw (more on sports later). I may have liked Barbie, Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears, but I also liked Transformers. I wanted to get a motorcycle when I was older. Yeah I wanted long hair (more on that later also), but frilly stuff and all that wasn’t my thing. Which isn’t to say that never changed. But then that sort of stuff changes for a lot of girls as they get older. And that thing about Barbies? Barbie has a Corvette and a girl with a sports car? That is awesome.
Then there are two other things, which aren’t what they sound like. Ask me how I knew how it felt like to be a girl or feels like to be a woman, and I have no answer. I’ve only ever felt like myself. Sure I could push certain things off to the side (bad idea for long term emotional and mental well being), but I was only ever me. It wasn’t ever anything I felt, just my own sense of self. After all, who would find it frustrating to be called a boy over and over and find being told to behave along some sort of boy ideal rather upsetting? Yeah, a girl. Also the whole “want to be a girl/woman” thing is just shorthand for the outer part of it. What it’s saying is having an outside to match the inside and not get taken for someone I’m not. It’s a way of saying “I want people to interact with me as who I actually am”.
Now beyond stuff like that that, there are experiences that are if not universal then common enough to work as showing some difference. Like one of the most ubiquitous assignments in school, especially the earlier years. Write about yourself. For most people not a problem. Sure there may be some anxiety about not thinking you’re not interesting or stemming from socio-economic issues or other things, but you know what to write. And more to the point, how.
For someone like me? Well not so much. For one, a fair bit of myself wasn’t an option. Certain interests, likes, reasons for those likes were not things I would really be writing up in a school assignment. I did luck out a bit on account of my aforementioned love of sports and such. So I could weave some threads together and have something. Of course there was the other issue, tone. Boys don’t think of things like girls do. They don’t write about things like girls do. And here I am trying to write something that comes across as written by a boy. When I don’t think like they do. Which means I wouldn’t write like they do. But I had to fake it. So I had to basically reverse engineer what I could of boys’ intellectual and emotional states. And then hope I got it close to right.
If you’re thinking “that sounds like an awful lot of work for a kid to go through”, it was. But what choice did I have? Just write away and I risked hearing teacher say “I need to see you after class/school”. Because, there’d be questions. Questions I wouldn’t want to deal with. To say nothing of the worry of the potential of being called out in class. “You write like a girl” wouldn’t be doing my social status any favors. Plus the risk of having to re-write it. So I just had to try to fake it. And well. Being good at writing was basically an essential life skill. It wasn’t just that it kept me from sticking out, it in a way kept me safe. Though being good at it would leave me conflicted. Here’s my good grade and praise for how I wrote about myself, but I hadn’t really. And for some versions of the assignment I had to lie by omission or tell a white lie or two. It’s hard to feel good about your work when on top of the feeling of “I wish I could really write about myself”, you have the pangs of discomfort coming from not being honest. Even when you know you can’t be.
Not that it was all weighty stuff like that. There was listening to every woman on the radio that I could. The Go-Gos, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Stevie Nicks, Heart, The Bangles, Janet Jackson so on and so on. Not just because I loved the songs but, they’re women. I was going to crank up Madonna just like most girls did. It was something of an experience that I actually did share with the girls I went to school with. And oh sure I had to hide some of my fandoms a bit, but that wasn’t so bad. Plus I still remember the lyrics to all those songs.
Then there was the perhaps the most complicated thing, sports. I wanted to play pretty much every sport I saw, and anything I got a chance to play I did. One byproduct was that it meant I could blend in. But that was never why I did it. It was always a case of I’m just going to play and oh hey this keeps people thinking I’m a boy, that’s cool. Granted I didn’t always totally blend in. Like there were numerous times when I’d be playing baseball with some friends and say how I wish there were some girls playing with us. After all girls play Little League baseball so girls who play baseball are a thing. One time I did get asked why I keep bringing up wishing there were girls. To which I just said that I thought it would be cool, it would be fun.
And while it might sound like at least that was fairly simple, it wasn’t really. As much as I didn’t have an issue playing with boys, I was always wishing I was playing with girls. Plus given boys volleyball wasn’t much of a thing where and when I grew up, I missed out on something I really wanted to play. Then there was tennis. Which I could, and did, play for hours. And yet, I’d look at girls playing and feel these pangs of wanting to be with them. That they played in skirts was I’ll admit a decent part of it. A sport you play in a skirt? Oh yes please. Though, at least in my head, there was a sort of work around. Mixed doubles. Something I desperately wanted to play, after all I’d have a girl for partner, perfect. But no one much thinks of kids or even teens playing it. In high school the girls’ and boys’ tennis seasons aren’t at the same time, so not happening there.
Which gets to track, which of all the sports I could’ve done in high school, was emotionally the hardest. The only sport where the girls’ and boys’ teams practice in the same place at the same time. I could look across the track and see the girls’ team. Then have them run by and a couple minutes later run by them. All the while a part of me was just constantly going “I should be over there with them”, “I should be in that group that just ran by”. Also one of the events I did, triple jump, was an event that back then in Illinois wasn’t a girls’ event yet. So I was getting to do something I’d wanted to do going way back and yet, I’d be lying if I said I never felt a touch conflicted. I’m getting to do something just because of who everyone thinks I am.
And that brings up one of the hardest parts of everything. It was mostly a thing with sports but it applied to other things at well. I knew that girls could catch all sorts of flak for being athletic, even then, and that athletic girls still weren’t regarded the same as athletic boys. Yet I’d never have someone see me shooting hoops for three hours straight and go “Shouldn’t you be at home helping your mom?” or some such nonsense. And it’s not just that I felt it was super unfair girls had the risk of dealing with that. It’s that it felt really unfair I never had any risk of dealing with that. I was catching a break I didn’t earn, simply because of who everyone thought I was. And I didn’t like that. If girls are going to be treated a certain way or have the potential of being treated a certain way, then that’s what I wanted. Why should I catch a break because something I have no control of?
Speaking of control, there’s one thing I never had control of that really hurt. My hair. Every few months there I was in a barber’s chair getting my hair cut short. And it’s not just that I didn’t want it, it’s that I had no control of it. Which if you think about it, it’s my hair on my head, is an issue of bodily autonomy. And consent. I’m being told it’s not ok for someone to do something to me I don’t consent to, yet here I am being forced to get hair cuts. Everything I get told about my body and consent all of a sudden disappears when it’s my hair, because of societal expectations and things like school rules (fun of going to Catholic school).
It didn’t help that when I brought up hey it’s my hair on my head, I was treated like I was just being a pain. Like I was just trying to be difficult and find a way around the rules. And my sense of not liking having my hair cut because it’s part of me was just there. I can’t even remember when I first wanted long hair. I wanted it and my sense of bodily autonomy and consent that made me deeply dislike having my hair cut were just innate. But it was never respected. No one ever heard me say I don’t want a hair cut and went “Ok, if you don’t want to get your hair cut, then that’s fine”. Which did a bit of a number on me. After all, if the absence of actual consent could be so easily excused away, what do I do if something actually bad happens? Trust the adults? But they’re the ones telling me about consent and then ignoring it when I don’t. And there was no way to plead around it. When I was younger and got asked “don’t you want to be a pretty boy” saying I didn’t because I don’t want my hair cut, didn’t change anything. Later on telling me I’d look like a girl if I didn’t get my hair cut, well so what? Just don’t touch me.
There were also other things that would set me off in ways. Like when I’d be playing with friends and someone held my hands behind me back and didn’t let go fairly quickly. Or I got pinned to the ground. Even though it would be done by a friend who I knew was just playing around, after a little bit my mind would just go “this isn’t good”. And I’d start reacting. In my mind I’m thinking no good can come of a couple boys pinning me down or one holding my arms behind my back while another one or two stand out in front of me. What I could think went right out the window. Same went for certain social settings or encounters. My guy friends would think everything is just fine while I’m feeling very different. I could tell myself nothing would happen, because nothing would happen, while deep inside I was noticing everything and feeling “I’d rather not be here. Rather not be around some guys who might violate me”.
And that would sometimes fly in the face of how extroverted I am. I can be around people all day no problem and then all of a sudden I get a bit quiet and start wanting to check out. Just because of wherever I’ve ended up something is making me feel a bit off. And since it wasn’t like I could exactly easily explain myself, things could be a bit awkward. And not wanting to look like unsocial didn’t help either.
But even absent things like that, being trans and an extrovert can be a bit taxing. Part of it is that I knew the way I reacted to certain things as is wouldn’t fit what people would expect. It’s not that I didn’t recognize social cues, I just didn’t, because I couldn’t, react to them the way you’d expect a guy to. I mean I could try to fake it, but so often the response happened before I could think about it. Then there’s thinking over what I’ve been saying, looking for anything that I might have said that wasn’t right. Which together with replaying every reaction and interaction makes for a fair bit of anxiety. And there’s no way around it. No way to keep myself from feeling it. Once I got to where I started drinking alcohol, there were plenty of times I drank and drank just because it calmed my nerves a bit. And then I’d feel bad for getting totally wasted. Because I was trying to keep up appearances. Which would make me feel worse about myself. Which would just increase the anxiety I felt. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Which gets into what was the worst part, going back to early childhood about being in the closet for me. That thing that would be the answer to “So what about your gender identity causes you distress?”. For me it was social stuff. Which went as it did, because of who everyone thought I was, because of how they saw me. So even if the actual issue was social interactions, it still tied in to my body. Deal with that and other stuff fixes itself. At least that’s the hope (and is actually the solution). And it wasn’t just general social interactions. It was that I was in effect locked out of certain things or that they could be a bit problematic. Which as things build up over the years, makes for a bit of a hopeless feeling and some depression. And the social interactions I could have, could be a bit tiring. Having to try to be super duper on point, just wore me out after a while. Plus, given I relate to things differently than guys do, in some cases I don’t even get why something is such a deal, and it gets even harder to deal with.
It’s also in social interactions where I could sometimes be a bit obvious. Like in high school I’d be talking to a group of guy friends, when a group of girls would come around and I’d just peel off and go talk to the girls. Granted no one ever said anything of it back then, even if it turns out they did notice. Also how I’d hang out after school just to talk to a group of girls. Just because it was just me and them and no guys around to complicate things. Complicate things by assuming I’m trying to move my way into hitting on one of the girls. Though I will admit in the after school group of friends, there was one girl I had a crush on. Which was another reason for hanging around. I’d get to talk to her.
Beyond just the day to day issues the worst event to deal with was puberty. And I know it’s just about a cliche for trans people to talk about how horrible puberty was. And I’m no different. It was horrible. Stuff I didn’t want was happening. Stuff I desperately wished for wasn’t. Plus there’s the sort of physical finality about it all, that this is it. With all that, isn’t easy to keep together emotionally. It wasn’t just crying myself to sleep night after night, wishing that when I woke up it would all be over and everything would be how it should be. There’s also things like the added isolation that can happen, and things like having my motives questioned just because of who everyone thought I was like if I wanted to be alone with a girl.
There was another thing to it, which I know isn’t often brought up and as far as I know isn’t even super common. That is that that for me as I went off the cliff of puberty among the things that were hardest to take was what I’d never get to experience. And even if I knew since years before puberty I wouldn’t experience them, puberty just made it more real and final. It wasn’t just a matter of “oh well….” any more but something that actually hurt. For me what hurt the most was when I’d see a woman with a baby and just get hit with that I’ll never experience that. Even if before I’d never given it any thought, now physical reality hurt. If things were different, maybe I wouldn’t even want to have my own, but at least I’d have that choice. But not having that choice, hurt. And I know, I could still have kids, but thinking of it that way would always just seem depersonalized, like I was thinking of someone else. Trying to get into someone else’s head.
But among all that stuff, there was one thing that wasn’t horrible, didn’t hurt and actually made life a bit easier. Along with puberty comes sexuality and I only ever felt anything for girls. So as far as anyone would see, I’d just be another straight boy. I did for a hot minute one day have a flash of “but girls are supposed to like boys” but just chucked that aside. I was aware that lesbians exist, so being a girl into girls wasn’t something I didn’t know existed. I would also end up on a few occasions falling for a girl that would somewhere down the line come out as gay. Actually most of the girls I fell for ended being that way. I chalk it up to coincidence, though not all my friends have been willing to chalk it up to luck.
And what I said before about being a bit obvious? How I’d peel off to talk to girls, wasn’t all there was. When I was 13 one day I noticed that oh hey I’m getting hair on my legs and my next thought was I need to start shaving my legs. That was it. No hesitation, nothing. It was just a thing I needed to start doing. In high school, I did have a few people ask if I shave my legs and I said I did but it was on account of all the cycling I did (road rash with hair getting caught in it is a bad thing). And I figured those few friends were all there was. Find out years later, nope, everyone knew I shave my legs. But no one ever made an issue out of it.
There’s also how it turns out that for all my efforts, not everyone had been buying what I was selling. As in, I wasn’t really that close to managing to fit in with or rather emulate the guys. But no one ever made a deal of it. Even when at times I’d say something that was off the mark. Like when I was asked what I liked about a particular girl, and I said I loved her voice and how she laughs. The guys didn’t quite get that. But that was that, no one made an issue of it. Which means I was lucky as hell that I was somewhere I could blow it badly and no one made a big deal out of it. I could totally screw up trying to act like a boy and no one really cared. Oh sure there were some laughs, but they weren’t directed at me as a person ever.
And that thing about trying to act like a boy was when you take everything together the hardest thing. It’s where all of everything that was hard, that sucked, came from and came together in. I had to try to be someone else, basically living an act, playing a character I made up as I went along hoping it worked. Or if you want to be more blunt, I had to live a lie. It wasn’t that I had to lie on some school assignments, it was that who I was, was in effect a lie. Oh sure me being an extrovert is real. My sense of humor is real. But the person they were woven into, wasn’t. I was someone that only existed because they had to. Because there was at least then, no other option. It was a matter of self-preservation. Life was a never ending improv, no script, me just making it up as I went along hoping everyone went with it.
I know this is all a bit of a patchwork, but that’s sort of the nature of the beast. In a way that’s what life used to be like. And to be honest, part of it is trying to figure out what to write about. There are always things where I just take them as nothing much and either realize or have someone tell me it’s a bit of thing. And there are things I’ve left out, like how I was emotionally abused growing up. For while it did tie in to being trans, a fair bit of it was due to how I didn’t have the emotions of a boy, it’s a thing unto itself as well. No real way to bring it up without getting into all of it. Which I have no problem with doing, just that it would make this even longer.
So there you have it, a definitely not thorough or exhaustive, let alone complete and final, look at how life was as a closeted trans girl. And if at some point you’ve thought that save for the complications and such I sound like a pretty average girl, well I was. That’s the thing, underneath the act, the anxiety and everything else was just another girl. That wall in between her and how things were and had to be, is really what it was to be a closeted trans girl.