The joke when I first started telling people I was queer was that it took a broken leg for me to do it. Truth be told, I started admitting I was pretty darn gay a couple of weeks before my fateful trip around Goldstein Auditorium on roller skates, but it made for a nice chuckle, and who am I to deny anyone a moment of fun? Besides, hobbling around on crutches with plaster caked up to my keister could potentially, I thought at the time, help me get a date. I was one of only a few people I knew (even still) who came out without a relationship as the main motivation.
This was May of 1991. I was about to turn 21, which, as it turned out, was much less a big deal for my life than I presumed it would be at the time. But I felt like freedom was close—I’d finished my junior year of college, and the humongous Real World pressed upon me—and I needed to fully explore it. Which okay, was a little challenging in my then-current condition.
Coming out entailed checking out Syracuse’s gay bar scene, and when that got old, driving down to Ithaca, where there seemed to be more people, and more grounded people for me to meet. I went to a queer student conference down in Delaware (Dela-where?) and commiserated with my peers at other universities. I tried group sex (totally not worth it), learned the butch skill sets of pool playing, lighting other people’s cigarettes without charring their eyebrows, and playing center in a rough-and-tumble women’s football league. As our coach used to tell us—a former NFL linebacker with two patched-up knees—”You better mean it! We came to PLAY!”
I’ve certainly received at least my share of homophobia and bigoted responses from people I knew, but also from total strangers. Women hid their toddlers’ eyes at the sight of me and a girlfriend walking while holding hands. One man spit on me outside of my workplace in the liberal bastion of Bethesda, Maryland, and told me to stop walking like a man. I was banned from promotion by a senior executive of a university, after he railed at me and called me a “he-she,” all because I wouldn’t back down when he said the university bookstore didn’t have enough players to form its own summer softball team. I kid not. It was part of a regular stream of bigotry spitting in my general direction.
At those times, I got to see that much of people’s anger and garbage came out on display when they were frustrated with something, and if they were unprincipled enough to play the anti-gay card against me, they would, although I also often bore the brunt of people’s bad attitudes about size. In their eyes, both of these aspects of my personality were viewed as choices. If only I’d put down the Chik-Fil-A, and try to appeal to men more. I spent a lot of time berating myself and feeling like a constant failure.
And then I got into therapy. It was not an overnight process—nothing that really matters ever is, it seems—and I had a lot of forward momentum only to come crashing back to earth soon afterward. Fits and starts marked my progress for years, and then I finally had a breakthrough.
Holy crap, I wasn’t a lesbian. I was a guy. On the one hand, I was ecstatic because I’d finally figured it out. Fifteen years after announcing my gaiety I was re-coming out as trans. On the other hand, I was totally embarrassed. I’d even failed as a fat lesbian!
Yes, I needed more therapy. I told no one but my therapist, for more than a year, because I wanted to be sure, and I was afraid (of so many things) that the world would think I was the Butch Who Cried Wolf. You can come out once, but can you come out again, a decade and a half later?
You sure can.
Being trans is not a thing, I’ve learned, that one can put off indefinitely. It has its way of forcing people to talk, to shift, to think endlessly about the life they’re not living. It’s a giant storm that won’t be chased away. It’s insistent, always whispering in one’s ear and coloring every facet of life. How would my job be different if I were the other gender, or openly genderqueer? What about my relationships? My shopping trips? My parenting style? Given our culture’s own obsession with gender expectations, nearly everything we do is read via our masculinity or femininity. It can be maddening to consider all of the permeations of our gendered selves. And that is exactly where I found myself in 2004 and 05.
I know National Coming Out Day was originally about gay men and lesbians. Historically, I suppose that makes a modicum of sense—people weren’t talking about bisexuals all that much in 1988, and trans-anything was just not on the radar. Even though we fight about how weak our LGBT coalition is now, there’s still been a lot of progress made since the era of AIDS crisis. I write often about how we need to come together as a community, lose the separatism and distrust, and argue for much broader political rights than we currently have. I’d love to see a national conversation among LGBT activists for fixing the gaps in our health care access and services, because across the LGBT continuum, we are done a great disservice, filled to the brim with disease disparities, worse-than-average health outcomes and morbidity rates, higher mortality, and faced with long-standing, known issue areas, not the least of which is our suicide rate.
I’m happy to talk about coming out, and my own coming out process, which obviously happens on more than one day each year. But I’d really rather be part of a conversation where we identify and address our own political needs as non-straight, non-cisgendered people who deserve our own human rights. And if NCOD is a vehicle for that, let me be the first to stand up and applaud.
By the way, though it may go without saying, taking hold of my sex change was the best thing I ever did. And I have the most adoring, lovable family to prove it.