My mom guessed I was transgender before I was ready to tell her.
She had noticed a couple of things, like my long fingernails and plucked eyebrows. But the thing that really convinced her was when I told her I was leaving the church of my birth — the Roman Catholic church.
I mean, I was a faithful mass-going Catholic, and she said if I was leaving, then she knew something was up. (I’m not making this up.)
My falling away from my religion went hand-in-hand with my realization that I was transgender.
Now, I’d known from age 3 or 4 that I wanted to be a girl. By the time I was 12 or 13, and entering puberty, I was becoming desperate … if really ill-informed:
If I wanted to be a girl, didn’t that mean I was gay?
If I was gay, shouldn’t I be attracted to men?
But I wasn’t attracted to men, so what was I?
Pretty soon I was seeing a child psychologist for “stress” and “anxiety” issues, and I had those (my parents were in the middle of a messy divorce), but I was afraid to admit that part of my anxiety was coming from my “weird” feelings, so I didn’t mention them. (Although I stopped seeing one so-called “family counselor” after she told me to “man up” and “stop being so sensitive.” Bless her heart, my mom backed up my decision.)
You want an argument for why kids should be told — if not in school, than by parents or guardians — about the basics of sexual orientation and gender identity? There’s your argument. Just hearing the term “transgender” would have saved me a lot of stress and heartache.
Meanwhile, I was attending a church where they told me gay people were disordered, sinful, weak and (probably) not mentally well.
Did I want to try dressing like a girl? Of course, but I was afraid if I did, I’d be going straight to hell. (Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does.” Tell me that’s not some heavy stuff to lay on a kid!)
So even if I had known what “transgender” meant — the word seems to have been coined in the 1970s, but didn’t really take on its current meaning until the early 1990s — I couldn’t dare transgress any gender lines for fear of instantly damning my soul. Once or twice I snuck an item of women’s clothing out of a thrift store donation bag and tried it on, and then I felt tremendous guilt.
But I went as far as I could, wearing my hair just a bit too long and shirts and pants in soft fabrics, pastels and floral patterns. Hey, it was the ’80s. I could use “Miami Vice” as an excuse, even if Don Johnson’s clothes were not what the well-dressed yinzer teenager was supposed to be wearing. (Girls thought I looked cute. Boys taunted me.)
I’m embarrassed now to admit I continued like this through college, and beyond. If it was fashionable by the early 2000s to come out of the closet, then I was way behind the times. For a while, I overcompensated, growing a beard and dressing purposely drab, in nothing but grays and blacks and browns. My shoes were police-issue brogans. I looked like Sgt. Joe Friday’s kid brother.
The more I “manned up,” the more I hated my appearance. Every time I looked in the mirror and saw a stereotypically male slob, I died inside. I began overeating. In one year, I gained 40 pounds, alarming my doctor. And I started drinking.
I also stopped dating. I mean, what kind of a woman would want to date a freak who wanted to get inside her pants … literally?
I might have continued this way, if I hadn’t had to do some research at the Carnegie Library’s main branch in Oakland, in the social-sciences department. I was searching for some books on motivational research when, across the aisle, my eyes locked onto a bunch of books about gender research — and about being transgender.
The two that hit me between the eyes were Helen Boyd’s “My Husband Betty: Love, Life and Sex With a Crossdresser,” and Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders.”
I said last time I wasn’t sure I believed in miracles, but it was a hell of a coincidence.
I read them furtively in the aisle, standing there until my feet hurt, afraid to just check them out. When I got home, I ordered a few of them from Amazon.com (using an assumed name, naturally).
Oh … my … God, I thought. I’m not nuts. This is what I am. It was like a weight was being lifted from my shoulders. I was at peace for the first time in years.
And then: Oh … my … God. Where do I go from here?
(Next Sunday, we pick up with me identifying more and more as female … and as a result, feeling less and less Christian, or at least not the Catholic kind.)