I’ve never really liked origin stories. I know that’s partly because of superhero fatigue. Yes, yes, radioactive spider, parents shot in an alley, gamma radiation, home planet went kablooey, or in other words an average whoever gets incredible power and has to learn to wield it responsibly.
I don’t care about the learning curve. I care about what happens after that, when the unexpected and uncanny is simply life.
I’ve written about my transition the same way. Almost everything I’ve tapped out is about process, living through changes that are a part of my identity. I’ve never written an Issue 0 for myself.
Beginnings are never clean. An origin story usually marks an arbitrary starting point, focused narrow to one pivotal moment. It’s narratively expedient. “Well, it’s complicated” isn’t easy to turn into a compelling story. But I didn’t alter my gender because I was bitten by a sparkly beetle or I collapsed in a toxic waste tank with a pride flag. There was no single moment whereupon I said unto myself “Oh fuck, I should be a lady.” What I got was a slow, smoldering burn. A persistent ache that I usually told myself I shouldn’t even feel.
I was 10, I think, when I had a strange dream. I was walking around a local downtown — where a Greek diner, ice cream shop, wallpaper store, and beauty supply squared off across the intersection — and I wasn’t myself. I was a grown woman in jeans and a yellow halter top, my hair short and bouncy as I walked around on a sunny day.
I didn’t know what to make of the dream. I liked it. I felt happy for a moment before realizing that I wasn’t her. I never would be. Sweet tasted suddenly bitter. I told myself it was just a dream. I didn’t share it with anyone.
But I couldn’t quell my curiosity. I was more curious about women’s bodies than my own. I was attracted to them, but I also envied them. A few years later, when I started to look up lingerie catalogs online — too afraid to look up porn over the screeching dial-up connection — I wondered what it would be like to look like that, to feel confident instead of feeling like the world had no place for me in it.
I couldn’t tell anyone. My authoritarian father was a cop, and, like most cops, he had a raging conservative streak. Gay people were often denounced by my parents and spoken of as predators. I knew they were wrong, and I hated the acidic judgement, but this was the kind of house where telling my parents they were wrong was best avoided.
Self expression had to stay within strict lines, too.
The summer between my junior and senior years in high school, I went to a science camp where I asked my summertime crush to paint my toenails. I was curious. I thought the shiny purple came out rather pretty. A week later, my family was on its annual Orlando vacation when my mother saw and immediately made me go to the general store to get nail polish remover to wipe it off. Even in college, I was barred from dying my hair or anything else that would embarrass the family. “You’re not looking like a clown,” my father growled, and I cheated where I could with colored hair goop and fake piercings I could remove when off campus.
Who could I have told? I didn’t know anyone who felt like I did. And at the time, “transgender” wasn’t a word I knew. I saw the daytime TV ads for Jerry Springer episodes about sex changes, but the framing was always that these people had something wrong with them. That they were sick. You couldn’t change whether you were a man or a woman, everyone knew that. And dressing up in women’s clothing was a joke, the sort of thing kinky middle-aged men did behind closed doors until one day a wife came home to find him in her stockings. I had a feeling that’d be me someday. I was sick. There was something wrong with me.
There was never room to question or explore who I was. (Keep in mind I was a science major, and, to my university’s shame, science majors were not encouraged to fraternize with the humanities — heaven forfend that we might learn something about being a person.) And, in some ways, I assumed that my deviance fit with the rest of my identity. My parents chastised me for not wanting to go to football games or give much attention to life’s great popularity contest. My father would admonish me with “I’m talking to you like a man” when he’d scream and rage at me, usually after he slapped me or pinned me against the wall. Despite the ubiquitous presence of the Parkway and Turnpike, there was no off ramp I could take. I personally believed that queer people were people like anyone else, just trying to live their lives, but I didn’t know a single person who was out within the borders of the “I’ve got mine, stay off my lawn” New Jersey town I grew up in. I was a weird little nerd who was too emotional, too soft, and I daydreamed about swimming with sharks, digging dinosaurs, or some other adventurous scientific pursuit that would get me the hell out of there.
Getting married didn’t help. I was young, just 23, but it seemed to make logical sense at the time. Despite pledging my life to someone else, though, I never felt safe being myself. If I told her about how I felt, what would she even say? It was a decade before I had to have a whole “coming out” conversation about the fact that I think the furry fandom is pretty rad, as if that were anything at all to be ashamed of. I was used to hiding. I was used to bending myself to whatever shape was required, even if it was killing me.
I thought I could live with how I felt — the envy I felt every time I saw a confident woman walk down the street or a tattoo-covered model strike a gorgeous pose. I wanted that. But there was no route there. I had simply decided that there wasn’t. I supported trans people, but, no, I couldn’t be one. How would I even do that? Dress differently? It felt like I wanted a redo button on the universe, something too fantastic to ask for.
It was more expedient to keep lying to myself. The feeling never went away. I didn’t engage with my gender outside of taking the excuse to wear eyeliner for costumes. “Ha, wouldn’t it be funny if I dressed up as a lady for Halloween? hah.” The fact that I felt good putting on a little makeup and painting my nails only made me feel more ill at ease. It wasn’t just fun. This was something I wanted. My partner didn’t seem to care. “So, are painted nails a thing for you now?” was about as direct a conversation as we ever had on the topic.
Then I listened to Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I was bound to eventually. Moody white suburban kid that I was, I was practically assigned Green Day’s Dookie when it came out. Finding the scene made me hungry for new music, especially anything you might lump under melodic punk rock. I hadn’t heard of Against Me! by the time I tuned in a few years ago, but, heck, writing a whole album about gender dysphoria intrigued me. I downloaded the album just before a week-long trip to Yellowstone and would frequently shuffle through the songs, feeling awkward whenever the title track came on. I was still convinced I couldn’t be a different gender, not starting in my 30s, yet when Laura Jane Grace yelled about all the “tells” of being trans on that first song I felt a mix of embarrassment and excitement. I didn’t have those experiences, but I felt like they could be mine. That if I gave these feelings an inch, that I’d immediately come to empathize with her words, which really told me all I needed to know.
Around that time, I started seeing another partner in a poly relationship. She was someone I felt more comfortable with. That’s a bit of an understatement. We shared everything. Memories, feelings, daydreams. I felt seen. And she loved my femme affectations. When I’d visit, I’d pick up some makeup to try before I left. She was the first person I wore lingerie for. We talked about gender expression and transitioning. But I still wasn’t ready. I was genderfluid, surely, but I could just change my expression and be happy, right? Hormones and surgery were expensive, complicated, and might not ever give me the body I wanted. Better to come to terms with how I was and go out in a dress now and then. We never did, but we often talked about going out with her in a suit and I in a dress so that she could act chivalrously for an evening. I wanted that.
Through it all, Transgender Dysphoria Blues was the only thing I hung on to. Someone else felt like I did. When I learned that Laura Jane Grace had written a memoir, I added it to a tall pile of books for another long Yellowstone journey. I saved it for a few days in — I wanted to savor it — and read it as elk nibbled on the saplings in the Mammoth campground.
“How was it?”, my wife asked when I closed the cover.
“I… I think this is me,” I said. “When she talks about wanting to be her, to have this other identity, I feel that. I think it makes sense of a few things.”
By that time, I was commissioning art of my furry characters and even writing stories. I had a fursona — a black and blue male jaguar, basically a projection of myself — but I never felt very compelled to get art of him. I was fascinated with my femme characters, hyena ladies that acted as fragments of what I was trying to cordon off in a safe little space that wouldn’t bother anything else.
My partner pontificated a bit “Well, trans people experience that, yeah,” and so on. But I didn’t feel seen. Nor did I feel confident enough to say “I’m trans!”
Was I? How would I know? Could I be if I hadn’t really done anything yet? I didn’t have the right words, and there were never any questions about what I’d shared. Just statements of “Hah, I’m surprised you’re not bi!” when I’d do something as minor as roll up the bottoms of my jeans a couple inches. I was honorarily queer, my wife and gay friends had decided, but that was all. I kept listening to the album.
Then everything went to shit. Or, rather, that shittiness of everything became apparent.
My wife abruptly left to be with someone else. There was no desire for me, because I was not a woman. “I feel like you’re telling me that my body is wrong,” I said that night, hoping for a response. What I was trying to say was “See me! You don’t have to stay but the least you can do is see me.” My statement fizzled like a sparkler in mid-air, no reply.
The next morning I took an early flight to my girlfriend’s home. It was just before Thanksgiving, and friends from all over were convening for a massive farm feast. I tried to keep busy. Making a massive pot of mashed potatoes on the holiday itself gave me something to focus on. But everyone knew to give me space, even before they would ask “How’ve you been?”
I knew there was no going back. I felt totally unmoored. Home wasn’t home anymore. I couldn’t stay where I was. Every constant that I leaned on crumpled. I didn’t know where I was going to live. I didn’t know whether I was going to be able to make a living. I didn’t know if I even wanted to live as Brian anymore. Everything was in question. I could either answer or just wander outside in the Minnesota winter and freeze to death.
I didn’t expect Thanksgiving to be the day I’d finally say the words out loud.
Everyone was stuffed and groggy. I busied myself with the dishes and hung out in the kitchen. But I felt this pressure building up inside me. It just had to come out.
I had avoided the label for a long time. How could I be trans if I didn’t know whether I wanted to transition? How could I be trans if I didn’t know exactly who I wanted to be? How could I be trans when I knew so little about transitioning, the history of people like me, and the community? (It only dawned on me later that my marriage collapsed on Trans Day of Remembrance.) Despite everything I went through, I felt like I hadn’t earned it. I had no idea what came after the statement. I just had to say something.
Trying to talk to the people closest to me only made me feel more isolated. Like there was both push and pull for me to stay as I was. One partner wanted me to stay as I was so she could change the narrative of her life, and the other wanted me to stay the same because she feared the difficulty of change. Everyone in my world understood me as a cis man and that’s who I would remain. I hated it. It was easier to talk to someone I barely knew, an acquaintance I wouldn’t see again. Leaning against the kitchen counter, trying to stay out of the way of all the post-dinner activity, I took a deep breath. Just two words. I said them to this stranger. “I’m trans.”
The words gave me direction. That simple statement gave me a series of steps to undertake, even if I had no idea where they’d take me. “I’m trans” meant that I’d have to actively think about what transitioning would look like in my life. It meant that I wouldn’t just be playing with expression, but trying to put together a list of items — wig, breast forms, bra, dress, makeup — to see if I could even approximate how I might want to look someday. How I might want to live someday. It meant doing research on trans health clinics in my city and winding my way through the phone trees until I found someone who could help me. It meant telling my therapists how I felt, even though I was afraid they’d say it was just paraphilia or a reaction to my wife’s departure. It meant asking that some people start using “she/her” pronouns to see if they’d feel better.
Suddenly, I had a whole list of things to do.
I didn’t have a plan for coming out. I didn’t draw up a list of people to tell. I didn’t reach out to my parents, who weren’t my biggest fans even before that point. Explaining my feelings to my ex was pointless. I didn’t plan any “This is who I was, this is what I’ll do, this is who I’ll be” conversations, especially for fear of the timing. I’d been struggling with my identity for years, and it took the dissolution of my marriage for me to find my own voice. But I knew to outside observers, there would always be suspicion — that my decision was protest behavior in a last ditch effort to bend myself to someone else’s will. I knew different. This was for me. For a me that never got a chance to fully exist before.
I decided to live the transition. Some people already knew me as Riley, the name I’d picked for my fursona years before. Turns out that was my real name and Brian was the pseudonym. I asked friends to start calling me by that name. When I sat down for drinks with a new friend a few days after I said “I’m trans,” I told her everything — and she ended up becoming my girlfriend just as I started the tangible aspects of my transition. I talked casually about starting hormone replacement therapy and having lasers snap against my torso and face. I started to go out dressed a little more femme.
At the time, I was frightened. Despite the success of my early trial runs — hard to go wrong with a black cocktail dress — I didn’t know if I’d be allowed to start hormone replacement therapy. If I did, I was concerned that I’d have some unforseen medical issue that would block that path. And if it worked, I feared that the in-between stages would be the equivalent of those awkward tranformational moments in An American Werewolf in London. What if my dysphoria got worse as I caught between who I was and who I might be? No one could have given me answers, even if I’d asked. I focused on motion, moving the narrative forward. Even if I was unclear on my destination, I could keep moving. I kept taking my pills. I kept living as Riley, hoping that people would see her through all the layers.
I still don’t much care for origin stories. The story was always there. I just had to give it space to become more than just a story. For it to have a life.