Well, How Did I Get Here?

It all just kind of happened. In a way, it’s been happening my whole life, long before I was even aware it was happening. Then once I was finally aware it was happening, it continued to happen very slowly. Lately it’s been happening much more quickly, and though it will continue happening indefinitely, most of it has already happened.

Left: One of my last moments with short hair and a beard, Summer 2015; Right: On my way to work at the public library, October 2020

I’m referring to my transition from someone you’d typically call a boy or a guy or a man toward someone a lot more feminine. I may not necessarily be someone you’d call a girl or a lady or a woman either, but I’m certainly closer to that end of the spectrum. You could call me trans because I don’t feel like I belong to the gender that typically goes with my biological sex. (You can still call me dude because I still feel like one, and because I’m all for the Broad City-style expansion of dude into a gender-neutral term of endearment.)

And of course, you can still call me Joe, which I have always preferred 1000% over Joseph. All my official documents still call me Joseph and I can live with that, mainly because I don’t need the hassle of all that paperwork. It’s hard enough for me to deal with filling out “Change of Address” forms.

The pronouns that fit me best are they, them, their, etc. Please don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while for you to get used to that. I still forget from time to time, on the rare occasion that I need to refer to myself in the third person. All I ask is that you try to remember and respect that. If you do, however, actively refuse to respect that, then please, by all means, beat yourself up.

* * *

I first became aware that this all might be happening just about 17 years ago, in the Fall of 2003. I was 22 going on 23, newly graduated from NYU with a degree in Film & Television, currently employed as a $100/week intern for a hip hop record label in lower Manhattan. The shaky start to my career in The Real World was just one reason I so often felt anxious and depressed to a soul-crippling degree.

Which is not to say I didn’t also have plenty of love and joy in my life. I had incredibly loving, supportive parents. As my East Village roommate I was lucky to have my cousin, who’s three months older and has always been like a brother to me. My sister and future brother-in-law lived nearby, and would let me hang out when I needed it. My college friends were all still in town, most of them also struggling to adapt to The Real World by day, yet making the most of early-twentysomething life; by night, most of us played in multiple bands riding the exhilarating rock n’ roll wave of post 9/11 NYC, thanks to the likes of The Strokes and Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I didn’t have a steady romantic partner then, but for one of the few times in my post-pubescent life I felt OK with that, and reveled in my singlehood.

One chilly Friday night that Fall, I decided to go the K Mart on Astor Place to buy some women’s clothes and underwear. I can’t quite remember how long I’d been considering doing this, but I’m pretty sure it happened rather suddenly. Looking back now, of course, this decision was very much an eruption of nearly twenty years of repressed desires. Kind of like what trans people today call cracking your egg. On that evening in 2003, though, it seemed as if one moment I wondered to myself What would I look like as a woman?, and the next moment I was in the women’s department of that Astor Place K Mart.

I didn’t put much thought into the clothes I was buying. Externally, I was trying to give off the vibe of “guy picking up a few things his girlfriend asked him to get for her,” or something. (Not that any of my girlfriends before or since then ever asked me to pick up a few bras and underpants and shorts and t-shirts from K Mart for them…but maybe that’s a kind of thing that happens with other people?) I also walked down St. Mark’s Place on my way home to buy a long, dark feminine wig and knee-high socks.

I knew my cousin wasn’t going to be in the apartment that night, which certainly had something to do with my decision to dress up. Not that I’ve ever thought of my cousin as the type of person who’d hate on the kind of people who cross gender boundaries. But obviously, the world was a much different place 17 years ago, even in places as queer as the East Village. To be honest, I wasn’t so sure whether I’d want to hate on myself for dressing up like that. My mind knew very little about transness. Virtually my entire experience with transness was through movies and TV, where people who were born with male bodies but embraced more feminine identities were usually depicted at the time as jokes or criminals or psychos or fetishists or losers, if not some hot-mess combination of all those. (My dear old friend Andre wrote an excellent, extremely scholarly book about this very topic, if you’d like more information about it.)

As far as I know, I’d only actually met one trans person my whole life til that point, a friend of a friend of a friend whom I spoke to for maybe five minutes my sophomore year of college. I can’t even remember if the person had been introduced to me as transgender or transsexual, but I’m pretty sure whatever the label was hadn’t yet been abbreviated to trans by then. I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable or resentful toward the person, but I do remember having some less-than-enlightened thoughts like, “I don’t get why someone would have so much trouble accepting the way they were born.” Of course, on that Friday night in the Fall of 2003, I started to get it.

Before putting my new clothes and wig on that night, I also shaved all my body hair. It’s a lot to shave. It can take over a half hour. But every time I do it, from that first night all the way through to a couple days ago, I always feel more like myself, and it’s worth it. This is not to suggest that I equate femininity with minimizing body hair, or vice versa; I just tend to equate smooth skin with my personal happiness and well-being.

After shaving and putting my new clothes on, I looked in the mirror. I was disappointed. I felt nice, but I looked awkward. But because I felt nice, I continued to lounge around the apartment that Friday night “dressed up.” I can’t remember exactly what I did that night, but being the Fall of 2003, I probably spent some time listening to OutKast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below on vinyl, and spent some other time watching Mr. Show episodes with DVD commentary. I most definitely spent some time drinking alcohol and smoking pot.

At one point as I walked through the apartment, I caught a glimpse of myself in the reflection of a window that faced a brick wall outside. It was dark both outside and in, as I had dimmed nearly all the electric lights in the apartment. I may have also lit a candle or two. And in that dark window I took on a faded, semi-transparent image; the harsh bathroom lighting revealed far more of what I saw as physical flaws, but in the window I saw a less judgmental vision of myself. I saw a pretty lady-like figure with the potential to be even more so one day. My ghost of transness future, you might say. I looked as nice as I felt. I didn’t feel awkward in that reflection. I felt really good.

Over the next few months, I decided I should meet more trans people, specifically trans women. Again, this was 2003, and even in the East Village it could be hard to find gatherings of trans people if you didn’t know where to look. I ended up finding a few club parties through ads in the Village Voice, most of which were attended by trans sex workers and older cisgendered men. I was in no way ready to be ladylike in public by then, so I went to these parties dressed as your typical East Village musician dude. I met some kind and lovely trans women at these parties, struck up many interesting conversations, had some fun evenings. But I almost never talked about my own possible transness. I was still too nervous. Besides, I was never quite able to meet any trans people who weren’t also adult film actors, or escorts, or otherwise involved in sex work. Now, I didn’t judge anyone in that line of work then or now. I just knew it wasn’t a field I’d ever be employed in. And the fact that all the trans people I knew then were sex workers reinforced my misguided misconceptions that transness couldn’t possibly be suitable for someone like me.

About a year after my egg first started cracking, a band I played drums for had a Halloween party gig, and all three members decided we’d play in individual costumes. My favorite drummer at the time was Meg White of the White Stripes. Most of my musician friends made fun of her and thought she couldn’t play, but I still loved her drumming the most. Yes, her drumming wasn’t polished or virtuosic, but shit like that didn’t matter to me. Actually, the fact that she kicked so much ass despite not being polished or virtuosic is what gave me the courage to play drums for a band in the first place. And when I played those drums in that rock-roll band, in more ways than one I wanted to be very much like Meg.

photo of Meg White by John Griffiths – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3273978

I decided I’d dress up as Meg White for that Halloween show. I basically had everything I needed already– red T-shirt, white pants, a padded bra, and that long dark wig. I knew I wouldn’t fool nobody into thinking I was a lady, so to deflect any potential snark I didn’t try very hard to appear feminine aside from the wig and bra; no make-up, jewelry, voice modulation, etc. Most friends who saw me that night laughed at my gender-bending, and I laughed back, to prove I was in on the “joke.”

Ashley, the woman who’d eventually become my wife, was at that party, though we were still just friends at that point. She won the evening’s costume contest for an impeccably designed “Homestar Runner” ensemble.

By the time she and I started dating, about a year and a half later, I hadn’t been dressing up as much. I still enjoyed it, but I couldn’t shake the fear about what would happen if people found out. I was afraid women wouldn’t want to date me, family and friends would desert me, companies wouldn’t want to hire me.

A few months into our romantic relationship, I tried coming out to Ashley, but I was too nervous to be bold about it. I forget how the topic came up, but it did, enough for me to ask her, “Hey remember that party a couple Halloweens ago, when you won the contest for your Homestar Runner costume? And I dressed as Meg White to play drums? Well, I didn’t really have to buy anything for that costume. It was all just stuff I happened to have in my closet.”

I remember her reaction being fairly neutral. Kind of like, “Oh that’s cool I guess.” I remember being glad to know she didn’t spazz out or anything, and a little sad that she didn’t seem more curious about it. So, relieved by what I saw as essentially “breaking even” with this confession, I let the conversation die, and didn’t really bring it up again for another 9 years. During those 9 years, I basically let my transness die too, indulging in it maybe once or twice a year, and then only if I was certain I’d be home alone for at least a few hours.

I’m not trying in any way to blame Ashley for those years of my own repression. I don’t blame myself, either, and I don’t blame my family or friends. If I have to blame anything, it’s a world that, until very recently, had a devil of a time accepting any kind of deviation from the restrictive male/female binary.

* * *

Like I said, this all started happening to me well before I was aware of it.

In second grade, I remember sitting on the floor with my class for storytime. The girls in class would often bond by braiding each others’ hair, and that looked like so much fun. I wanted to feel like I could be one of the girls too. I asked a girl I was friends with if I could braid her hair during storytime, and she happily agreed, so I sat behind her and braided her hair while the teacher read. But then the teacher stopped reading a few minutes later to ask me, in front of the whole class, to stop braiding my friend’s hair. When I asked why it was OK for girls to braid other girls’ hair, my teacher just said some bullshit like, “That’s not something boys are supposed to do.” So I stopped and never braided a classmate’s hair again, either inside or outside of school.

Another time, when I was a little bit older I think, my sister and I were playing in her room with two of our cousins: a boy a couple years older than me, and a girl closer to my sister’s age. I forget how, but at one point we got the idea that my male cousin & I should dress up in my sister’s clothes, and then show all our parents downstairs. We did, and I remember having a lot of fun and feeling very happy, even if the whole thing felt like a big joke to everybody.

In middle school, I grew my hair long, and spent over a half hour every morning before school blow-drying the frizzies out as I watched SportsCenter with Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann. My parents often nagged me about cutting my hair, to the point where I finally agreed to cut it short my freshman year of high school because I was so sick of hearing about it. After that I didn’t have long hair for any extended period of time until about five years ago.

Like I said before, my parents were incredibly loving and supportive, and they continue to be today. I think they wanted what was best for me in a world where long-haired and/or feminine boys usually got far less than the best treatment from the world around them. If our family had started in the late 2000s instead of the late 70s, I think my parents wouldn’t have given me such a hard time about my girlish hair. Maybe they’d even let me pierce my ears.

There’s a lot more about my childhood and adolescence I could go into in this regard– like how as a teenager I had so many queer friends, and always had a hunch I was queer too in some way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on even though I was a “boy” who was generally more attracted to femininity than masculinity… but I think I’ve gone on long enough. Let’s just jump back to five years ago (2015), when circumstances allowed me to feel way more comfortable about discussing and embracing my transness.

In 2015, Ashley said she didn’t realize I was “coming out” to her about my transness when I mentioned it abstrusely back in 2006. That’s understandable; I’ve had a hard time communicating about a lot of things in my life, most notably my transness. It’s why I’m writing this thing in the first place.

Admittedly, once Ashley & I finally began having in-depth conversations about my transness, things could get difficult. Not unreasonably, she sometimes had a tough time adjusting as I gradually became more comfortable and open about my transness. Selfishly, I often became frustrated that she wasn’t always 100% cool & supportive about it. At a few points in recent years, it looked like our marriage might not survive (although several factors aside from my transness had much to do with that as well.)

I’m ecstatic to say that our marriage has not only survived, it’s stronger than ever. Ashley remains my biggest supporter, and if not for her, I might still be living a miserable lie. The key is that we talked through it. (Numerous years of therapy with various professionals, including those specially trained in trans issues, helped too.)

And not only is our marriage the strongest it’s been. By living truthfully and openly about my transness, I’m more calm and confident and successful than I’ve ever been. I’ve gone from nearly a decade and a half of fruitless, dead-end career paths to a very rewarding job as a public librarian on track to get my Master’s Degree in Library & Information Science by 2023.

Some readers may have heard most of all this from me before. Some of you, including a few of my dearest friends and loved ones, may have heard almost zero of this before. If that’s the case, it’s not because I don’t love or trust you. It’s my fault for still having trouble starting this conversation. Most of the time, it’s been way easier for me to just be me without having to explain it in a way other people can understand. I’m sorry about that, and I hope this has filled in any blanks you might be curious about. If you ever have any further questions about my transness, please know I’d rather you ask than not ask, as long as your questions are in good faith, which I’m going to assume they would be.

So far, all the reactions I’ve heard from friends and family and co-workers about my transness have been warm and supportive, and I am profoundly grateful for that. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if some folks in my sphere harbor negative feelings about my identity, and simply haven’t said so to me directly. I don’t want to be cynical, but I also don’t want to be naive. If you do have anything negative to say about my transness right now, I don’t know what I’d want to say in response other than I hope one day soon your heart will find the strength to open a bit wider.

On that note, if you claim to support me but continue to vote for politicians, patronize businesses, or otherwise support causes which actively oppress and discriminate against people like me (or against any group of people for that matter), I also hope that reading this might make you reconsider that contradiction.

But– I really want to go out on a note of love. So to everyone who’s been good to me, I again offer my profound gratitude, and I love you eternally. And also, my endless thanks to the musician Ezra Furman, whom I saw play a song called “Lousy Connection” on the Jools Holland show back in that magical year of 2015, and made me think I could pull off wearing dresses and makeup in public after all.

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