In August of 2005, Facebook had a measly 1 million users and people still used MySpace as their social networking and cat-meme related needs. Hurricane Katrina was brewing up in the Atlantic, waiting to make landfall and redefine the term “natural disaster”. As for me, I’d recently graduated from film school, was sharing an apartment with two friends, both of whom I’d recently come out to as trans.
For a year, I’d been in therapy and on hormones, occasionally venturing out “en femme” and scared shitless doing it. I made my friends force me to go out as the girl I knew I was but was still too afraid to embrace. I was terrified of being made fun of, harassed by strangers or worse. After countless months of this, I finally made the decision to quit living half a life and instead, to try being happy with my gender for once. It was 2 days before my 26th birthday when I went full-time as Ashley.
That summer day is crystallized in memory for me. That morning I went to my bank to close the accounts in my old name, dressed for the last time in boy clothes. Carefully, I changed into my girl clothes in the front seat of my car and then drove to 20 minutes to the salon where I was getting laser hair removal. In addition to my laser treatment, I had a stylist cut my hair into a more feminine shape and wax my eyebrows for the first time. When I got back into my car, I checked my new look out in my rear view mirror. When I saw the face looking back at me, I cried tears of joy. I finally felt I looked like a girl!
I drove to my girlfriend Maria’s apartment to show off my new look. She was heading to work. Before she left, she took a picture of me that does not begin to convey the extent of my happiness. I drove to a nearby park and sat in the sun and marveled at how I gotten to this point. I was finally me. It was thrilling and liberating and terrifying all at once.
This August marks the 10th anniversary (my “tranniversary” if you will) of going full-time female. In the style of “Letters to my Sisters”, I thought I’d write back to my earlier self and impart a little wisdom, and reflect back on what I’ve learned in the past decade as a trans woman.
Congratulations on reaching this next step in your gender journey! I am so proud of you! I wanted to give you a little heads up on what’s coming your way over the next decade. You never quite made it to Eagle Scout, but you know, ”Always be prepared.”
You are going to love and hurt and laugh and cry more than you ever imagined you were capable of. For the first few weeks, maybe even months you’ll feel sort of like an imposter, like everyday is Halloween and you’re the only one dressed up. It’s sort of exciting getting to be a whole new person but eventually that feeling will fade and you’ll just be you again, only the real you this time.
Lady friends will give you a ton of clothing and make-up advice early on. In fact, most of your friends will take your transition amazingly well, except for one from high school, who after hanging out with you twice as Ashley, will stop talking to you completely, and you’ll never really know why. That other friend, the one who told you that you’d be a social outcast and that people would throw bricks through your windows…he’ll come out as gay six years later.
Your family is very supportive. Even your 78 year-old Grandma tells you she loves you no matter what. True, your father has some difficulties with your new gender at first. He’ll be nervous about you meeting his side of the family, which in turn makes you nervous. When you finally do, it’s fine. Your cousin will tell you she cried for the boy you used to be. You will tell her you envied her girlhood growing up.
You will talk to you ex-girlfriend, the one you first came out to. She tells you, that after she told her mother about your transition, her mother said it was almost like the boy you used to be died. You will feel that way too, like you sort of killed yourself, to live. You will grieve for the guy you were at times.
A few months later it actually will be Halloween. You’ll be a friend’s party. Some drunken dudes will debate your gender right in front of you, questioning whether you’re a “woman or a man”. (They will not be the last people to do this, btw). You’ll be about to tell them they can just ask you when one of them will grab your breasts, laugh and say, “Oh my God, I can’t tell!” You will know what it feels like to be objectified.
You’ll go to a club for 80’s night. While dancing you’ll see a girl you used to have a crush on. She asks you why you’re dressed like that. You tell her you are transgender. She’ll say, “Thank God I never went out with you!” Another night at the same club you will be very drunk and a guy will pull you by the arm down on a couch next to him and his friend. You’re surprised by the force he uses. He’ll ask you if you do this all the time, or if tonight was just “something for fun”. You tell him you do this all the time. He’ll say, “You’re pretty cute!” as he slides his arm around you. Your friends will pull you away and tell you it’s time to go.
Both gentlemen and assholes will hit you on. You will face harassment and mockery from random strangers on the street, honking car horns, and indecipherable words yelled at you from speeding cars. In one particularly frightening instance, a middle aged asshole on a motorcycle will pull up to you as you’re waiting for a bus, tell you he’s, “seen you around the neighborhood,” and ask you if you’ve been “fixed”. He will proposition you for anal sex. You will actually fear for your safety.
At the time, you’re still working at the bank and bookstore. The bank will transfer you to a different branch, one with a single user bathroom just so no one has to share the restroom with you. Human resources will also create a policy where no one is allowed to talk about “personal business” on the job, out of fear that someone will say something offensive, and you’ll sue the company. They will forget to mention this to you, so you’ll assume that everyone at your new branch hates you. Who knows? Maybe they do.
At the bookstore the difference is like night and day. Your bosses and co-workers are very welcoming to your new gender identity. For the most part they politely ask questions, and tell you how great you look. You use the women’s restroom everyday and no one cares. Eventually, your transition is a non-issue. You’ll quit the bank 3 months later ‘cause who needs that stress?
A few years later you end up working for a nationally renowned feminist, progressive sex toy store. Your job is fun and you get to help people have better, healthier sex lives. You also help a ton of trans & genderqueer customers get the products they need to be and feel better about themselves. You convince your bosses to start carrying more products for trans ladies and even teach some classes on transitioning.
You’ll wait in longer lines for the bathroom. You’ll never know what to do with your hair or reliably find shoes in your size. You never stop biting your nails no matter how many times you try and give up and try again. You’ll learn to try on every item of clothing when you go shopping, because a size 14 in one brand does not mean a size 14 in another. You will know the torture of high heels and stabbing pain of broken underwire bras. You will try to learn to follow while slow dancing and suck at it.
You will eventually play onstage and have band again. When you see a picture of yourself from the show you’ll be struck by how similar you look to the female rocker you revered in high school and college.
You will be excited for your first Pride event only to have an older butch lesbian tell you, upon trying to enter a “lesbian-only” space that you don’t, “really count as a woman” and will refuse to let you in. This notion of “womyn-born-womyn” only spaces and the belief that trans women are somehow “fake women” will be archaic notions long before you began to transition, but are still sadly a thing 10 years later.
You’ll witness a rapid revolution of trans rights and activism, seeing trans folks gracing the covers of magazines, starring in TV shows, being granted benefits, and opportunities that you thought would be impossible just a few years before. At the same time, trans women (especially those of color) will continue to be killed at a rate much higher than the national average. Politicians will keep introducing discriminatory bills, and blocking legal protections for jobs, housing, healthcare and more. You’ll wonder why your friends and family aren’t more appalled and motivated to help, but you’ll come to realize they are dealing with their own struggles and causes, and this one is yours.
You end up making some short films about gender and your transition and they will play at LGBT film festivals all over the Europe, Australia, and the U.S. Your films will be picked up for distribution. You even start a film company, Tall Lady Pictures. You’ll share phone calls, emails and even Christmas cards with a wonderful trans woman from North Carolina you’ve never met, but sincerely hope to one day.
Actually, you meet a lot of trans women after transitioning, and find even though they are nice people; you find you have little in common with them besides your gender identities. You feel a connection to a few, but they tend to move away or go stealth and stop talking to you. A lot of times you’ll feel alone. Other trans ladies tell you that you inspired them and that they look up to you. You’re grateful to have helped them while wishing more folks had been there for you.
You will question you femininity a lot. Like a TON. You will doubt your looks and your ability to be female more than you care to admit. You know part of this is the impossible standards society sets for women, but that doesn’t help. Every time someone misgenders you it makes it that much worse, especially when those people have known you as Ashley for years. Struggling with body image and feeling like you aren’t feminine enough to be considered female, is probably be the hardest, most frustrating part of your transition and the part nobody really prepared you for.
Your girlfriend, however, will be your blessing through all of this. She is always there for you, supportive and incredible. She is your best friend, who makes you laugh like nobody else. She comforts you when you are sad. She takes care of you when you are sick. Sometimes she gets jealous of the attention your transition receives. You are able to understand her needs better than when you were a guy, because you know the irrationality of hormone-based mood swings and feeling upset for no real reason. You two will travel the U.S. and Europe together. In Paris you’ll want to propose to her, but you’ll wait another year.
You’ll finally get married after 7 years of dating. Your father will walk you down the aisle. Your brother will make you cry with his best man speech. Marriage equality is another 4 years in the making, so you marry as man and wife; though essentially you have a legal “gay marriage”.
In 2013, over 15 years after you first came out as transgender, you will finally have your gender confirmation surgery. You are eternally grateful to all the friends, family, therapists, doctors and organizations that helped you reach this milestone.
In preparing for surgery, you will undergo more awkward/embarrassing situations than you could’ve ever imagined. You’ll spend hours on hold and fighting with insurance companies. When the day of your surgery arrives, you’re so nervous you can’t stop shaking as they prepare to wheel you into the ER.
Your surgery is a complete success. You at last have the lady parts you always wanted. You will in no way regret your decision to have surgery, and bonus: the female rock star you idolized will email to congratulate you! You know this isn’t the end of your transition. In reality, it feels like the beginning of the rest of your life.
Love you lady,