Reflections and Revelations

Notes from my first year in transition

Theresa Jean Tanenbaum

Last year, on American Independence Day, I made my own declaration to seek freedom from my gender dysphoria. At the time I had no idea where this journey was going to take me, I just knew that I needed to take this leap of faith. I hadn’t even started hormones yet when I made the announcement; that would come a few weeks later (expect more writing and reflection on the medical aspects of transitioning on that anniversary). When I came out last July, I still considered myself nonbinary, I didn’t yet know my whole name, and I felt presumptuous and self-conscious about asking for my pronouns. Venturing out of the house was very very scary: those early days are so awkward and frightening. My brain had been anticipating the transition for decades, and as soon as my egg was well and truly cracked, it ran ahead recklessly skipping and dancing and singing

“I’m a girl! I’m a girl! I’m a girl! See! I told you! I’m a GIIIIIRRRRRRLL”

My body….and my wardrobe…are taking much (much) longer to catch up! Over the last year I’ve become more confident in myself. I freely own that I am a trans woman (and an unexpectedly binary one), and increasingly I move through the world without the fear and awkwardness of those early days. In a year of living “full time” I’ve learned things about myself that I never imagined were possible and I’ve changed in ways that I didn’t expect.

In the first weeks and months of transitioning, the overwhelming gender euphoria of insisting on my pronouns, of being called my name, and of finally starting hormones all kept me going, even as my previous defences against my dysphoria (so many layers of denial) were stripped away, leaving me unprepared for how I would feel when I caught sight of myself in a mirror or a photograph, still awkward and clumsy and graceless and masculine in ways that the dysphoria only magnified. Starting hormones complicated this further by upending any emotional stability I had (stability I now recognize as detachment and dissociation). I cried every day for months. Mostly about little things…sometimes about bigger things. It felt like my body was trying to wash away all of the tiny pains that I’d lived with for so long that they’d become invisible.

Me, on the July 4th, 2019…ready to face the world.

Transitioning, I naïvely expected, would leave me unchanged in my essential self. And I suppose in some ways it has. But all of the performances of self that I’d come to rely on — all of my social habitus, my body language, my emotional regulation, my defense mechanisms, my coping strategies — they all fell away. I discovered how much energy I’d been spending trying to keep up the facade of being a man, and how much that boy suit had shielded me from pain. It wasn’t just that I was feeling my own emotions more deeply and profoundly than I’d ever experienced them before; I was also feeling other people’s emotions in a more intense way. I don’t know that being empathetic was ever a quality that I sought to embody or value before transitioning, but that part of me is cranked up to 11 now, and it’s an increasingly important part of how I navigate the world. It comes with consequences: these last 4+ months of crisis, piled on crisis, piled on crisis, have hit me much harder than I could have imagined, and I’m not great at detachment anymore.

I don’t think I’d fully grappled with how much time and energy this would take.

Mylife was already too much to manage. Trying to get tenure at a top-tier research university. Trying to raise a “highly spirited” child. Trying to be a good spouse and supportive partner while my wife searched for her next career steps. Trying to manage multiple chronic health conditions and feeling increasingly trapped in a body that didn’t work right in any way. Feeling like my recovery from my brush with death in 2016 was still incomplete. Dealing with the emotional fallout of my father’s cancer and death a year previously. Trying to do right by my students and my colleagues, to whom I had made commitments. My burnout cycles bled together into one unending maelstrom of overwhelming expectations and regularly predictable panic attacks. I frequently wished I could split myself into three or even four people: the workload was unsustainable but I felt trapped by my choices. Scaling back at work meant risking my tenure case, meant losing my home, and my health care, and my life. Maintaining the pace I’d been working at meant less time to care for my family and myself, and an inevitable second trip to the hospital in the next few years.

It was against this backdrop that I realized that I couldn’t delay my transition any longer.

I’ve been very open about the joy that transitioning brings me. About how it feels like magic. I’ve been very vocal about the anxieties that come with being trans in a culture that systemically erases or pathologizes trans lives and trans experiences. What I haven’t shared as much this year is how much energy transitioning has taken away from the other things going on in my life. About the opportunity costs of being in transition. Managing my gender dysphoria became a fulltime job. Without the defense mechanisms I’d grown accustomed to, and feeling my emotions in ways that I’d never experienced before, I felt my gender dysphoria fully for the first time. It had teeth. After years of struggling with myself, the feeling of things being wrong now had a name. It was angry. How dare I transition now…decades too late…with everything else going on in my life? Who did I think I was?


Me, on July 2nd 2020

There were days when I had to white knuckle through my meetings and teaching, terrified that the emotional turmoil I was feeling would leak through. I found that the often invoked “self-care” was something that I couldn’t neglect if I wanted to be functional. My morning routine needed to include a few hours of cleansing, shaving, dressing, and makeup in order for me to be able to get through my days without falling apart. On days when I skipped or minimized the time I spent on self-care I’d feel myself losing the fight against dysphoria by the early evening. Dysphoria lies to you: it tells you that you’ll never be seen — truly seen — by another human. It tells you that you’re a fraud. It speaks in the voice of everyone who ever said “what a…strange…little boy” to you growing up. You can hear it in the voice of all of the TERFs warning about “men in dresses”. Dysphoria is like having your own personal internal internet comments section, dedicated to calling your attention to everything about your body that feels alien, wrong, unwanted. It sees things that are invisible to other people. It whispers “you’ll never be anything more than what they said you were” and laughs.

When you’re spending so much energy trying to fight down that voice in your head, seemingly little things can be exhausting. Making a phone call or ordering food at a drive through inevitably lead to being called “sir”. Talking about your childhood with anyone who knew you from back then is a minefield of “he’s” and “him’s”. The winter holidays drove me into hiding, after multiple deadnamings and misgenderings. I literally broke out in hives at one point from the anxiety.

Then there is the extra labor — epistemic and emotional — that comes from being trans. The countless hours of explaining yourself to well intentioned (and hostile) colleagues and strangers. The hours spent trying futilely to change your digital footprint so that you can continue to claim credit for your accomplishments, without having to carry around the anchor of your previous self. I had this expectation, when starting my transition, that I’d gradually lose the (unwanted) male privilege that I’d experienced before. That perhaps slowly, over a few months, people would start to accept me as a woman, and that I’d begin to perhaps experience some sexism. That isn’t what happened at all. Instead the change was instantaneous. On Monday I walked into work with a beard and jeans on. I was listened to, respected, and able to access certain forms of institutional power. On Tuesday I walked into work with my face shaved, in a skirt, and suddenly that power was gone. I had to quickly adjust to my new position in the hierarchy, which now included being interrupted in meetings, being mansplained to, and watching less qualified men being praised for presenting the exact same ideas that I’d introduced into the conversation. As a trans woman you don’t just lose male privilege, you lose cis privilege, and straight privilege. As someone who likes to talk, I’d spent years trying to combat my impulse to take up too much space in any given conversation. But after transitioning I had to relearn all of those social and professional habits. I had to learn to fight for my place at the table in conversations.

Isought out other trans people online: a community of siblings, many of whom had struggles that made mine feel frivolous in comparison. Together we read about death after death after death of other trans people on the news, bracing ourselves against the next cruel law, or transphobic rant from a celebrity. My new community shared stories about living in transition that that flayed me open and revealed secrets I’d kept for years. They showed me that the things that I’d long thought made me different were things that I shared with this new, beautiful, family. They gave me mirrors for seeing who I was becoming, when the actual mirror still lied to me. But we are a deeply wounded community in so many ways, and I struggled to balance my own emotional precarity against the desperate needs I found in trans spaces.

This is the community labor of being trans. It’s inevitable hours spent hunting for resources to help trans fam who are more vulnerable…reaching out to friends in far off cities to locate a shelter, a community center, an informed consent clinic — any safety net you can find, because a girl you know is getting kicked out of the house by her parents. Because a girl you know can’t stand it anymore. Because she might hurt herself, and you’re too far away to do anything other than fire messages into the void and hope that she’ll be there to write back in the morning. It’s the fear and anguish that comes on the day when she doesn’t. New friends appear, disappear, and sometimes never resurface.

It’s also the hours you spend educating the ignorant cis people who control every infrastructure that can endanger you and your new siblings. Name changes, medical care, access to bathrooms, basic human dignity: I joined the chorus of trans people calling out for relief, only to discover that the people with the keys to power didn’t even realize that we were out there, demanding to be seen.

I thought I knew burnout before but being trans has taught me how naïve my understanding of burnout was.

In my first year of transitioning I learned that I needed to prioritize my health in new ways. Sure my plate was full when I started this journey, but it was filled with commitments that didn’t belong to me anymore. This is something I struggle to fully explain to people — especially people who love me — about what has happened this year. The person I was before I transitioned was really only a shadow…a shell…a chrysalis in which I slumbered. When a monarch caterpillar forms a chrysalis, its outer skin peels upwards revealing a new form that was beneath the surface — green and squishy and writhing with convulsive determination until at last the skin falls away. A chrysalis seems like a new kind of caterpillar when you watch it form, capable of motion, feeling, but without mouth, or eyes, or limbs. A limited kind of thing, but radiating life and possibility. When the butterfly finally ecloses from inside something beautiful happens. What had seemed to be skin from the last form of the caterpillar becomes translucent, before splitting open to reveal that it wasn’t skin at all, but instead a womb for this new awkwardly beautiful creature. The leftover chrysalis is just a wisp; a final reminder of where the butterfly came from. When I look back on the person who got me to the point where I could finally choose to transition I don’t see myself. I see the caterpillar who spent a lifetime growing strong enough to finally produce me: an awkward new butterfly.

Being disassociated from the person who overloaded their life with responsibilities is a powerful motivation to reexamine what I’m doing with myself, and why. Being slammed with a whole world of new worries and awarenesses and dreams has also prompted me to rethink my priorities. In many ways, our current social isolation couldn’t have come at a better time. I don’t really want to do the work of a caterpillar anymore…it’s not work I’m suited to do, and it’s not work that will make me happy now. So I’m taking this time to catch my breath, to practice being a butterfly, to slowly dry my wings and test the air. To prepare for the new work that lies ahead.