After I Came Out As A Transgender Man, I Was Asked If It Felt Like I Had Died
This past Christmas Eve, for the first time since I transitioned, I returned to my childhood church in Iowa and watched people across the pews try to recognize me, a little more mustached, a little less hips. I sang from the holy red hymnal and sounded like an instrument being tuned because I still don’t understand how my new voice works. What is it about singing that makes me less afraid to die? I don’t know, but I kept singing as we walked back to my dad’s truck, kept singing as the six of us buckled in, was singing still as we hit the gravel road under a sky full of snow, everything calm, everything bright.
Some days I feel I am haunting my past life; other days I feel my past life haunting me. A name, no longer spoken. Voicemails of my old voice, saved. And what is this “I” or “me” that does not include my past life, anyway? When did we separate? Where was the fork? Was it the day I started testosterone, Jan. 16, 2013? Or did it not happen right away?
When someone dies, it is considered polite to say that person has “passed away.” When a trans person is able to walk down the street without being identified as trans, it’s called “passing.” Both turns of the word imply a successful transition… of the spirit and body, breaking away from each other, and coming back together again.
I’m talking to my teacher, Lynda Barry, about my transition on a recent afternoon and she asks me, “Do you feel like you died?” I hem and haw for a minute and she says, “But see, you can’t say no.” So maybe I do feel like I died. But also that it was not so terrible. How would I describe it? I don’t know, maybe surreal and somehow peaceful. And so I am less afraid. Nothing is created or destroyed, it only changes form. So I’m here but in a different way. A friendly ghost. It’s like the new-ager who said at a party once, “I go away from myself; I come back to myself.” She had the best hand gesture for it. Used her arms so wholly.
Before starting testosterone, I repeated mantras to myself, hoping I’d remember them on the other end to guide myself through the transformation. Mostly: Stay soft, stay soft. And sometimes: Go toward the light. Am I still soft? I don’t know. Is this “the other end”? I don’t know.
What interests me most is that this same word — “pass” — signifies identity trouble and a moving through or around; it’s no wonder we use it as a euphemism for dying. Pass, to go by, to cross over, to step (from pace), to go on, move forward, make one’s way. To experience, undergo. To be thought to be something one is not. To decline, refuse. To not fail. It is impossible to talk about passing without talking about race, class, privilege; impossible to talk about the uncanny relationship between trans and dying without talking about the lived experience of trans people for whom contemplating death is not a privilege in an essay but an everyday possibility. Deoni Jones. Islan Nettles. Domonique Newburn. And, of a story published on Grantland last week, the case of Dr. V, now coming to light. At some point, and particularly for some bodies, the inability to pass in one way can be…fatal.
I keep waiting for transitioning to become boring or dull, which is to say, I keep waiting for my new self to be something I can take for granted. I certainly didn’t sign up for a spiritual awakening. All of my preparation had been so clinical: ranges of months in which certain changes would happen; recommended milligrams of doses; finally, a waiver my doctor handed me, on which I initialed next to each irreversible change, signaling that I understood its “permanence.” I never felt sure, only ready to try. Ready to go toward the light.
Maybe transitioning doesn’t become boring, but rather, earthly. Here is my earthly situation: My toes are growing hair; my ankles are growing hair; my calves, knees, thighs, are all growing hair; hell, my new body hair is growing hair. I sweat more, but cry less. Also, my favorite color has changed from blue to red. It had always been blue, in a way I never had to think about; deeply, obviously blue, huge blue like Iowa skies and blackish blue like swimming holes. And then one day it was red. Red, the color of earth, sometimes. Red, like blood hitting air; red like my parents’ barn I painted with my father; red like my girl’s shiny toolbox. Red, the only color that doesn’t disappear in a North Woods winter.
I have made my transition into a ritual. It’s like church to me, every other Sunday. It takes me about half an hour in the little bathroom. I lay everything out like a makeshift altar: bag of syringes, alcohol wipes, pickle Band-Aids, vial of testosterone. I don’t like to be bothered, but sometimes I think about certain people being there. It seems strange to invite anybody. Sometimes my mouth gets dry in the middle and I go for a glass of water. Or I feel lightheaded so I break and chew some multivitamins. Down in Iowa for Christmas, my mother asks me if my shots are “self-administered”; she means am I doing them on my own, but all I can hear is the word “minister” and I remember when, as a toddler on the brink of baptism, I asked my parents if I was going to be “pasteurized.” Like milk, boiled clean. When we say we are moved, it is always some liquid, as Anne Enright writes in “My Milk.”
Staying at my parents’ farm for Christmas, I can’t avoid a Sunday on the calendar for shot day. Just when I’ve wiped my leg clean for the fourth time and am holding the testosterone drawn up in the syringe, staring at my leg working on that mind over matter thing, I hear my mother’s voice at the top of the stairs, calling out my father’s name. I don’t answer for the reason that I am not my father. She calls out one more time and then the basement goes dark; she’d switched off the light. Now I call out: “Mom, I need the light!” The little light of mine comes back on. “I thought you were a mouse,” she yells. “Sorry!”
Lynda writes me and says, “I started thinking about the power of ‘being in one piece’ and what that would allow.” I want to cry, suddenly. Not holy, or holey, but wholly. Entirely. Merged. I think of my grandfather and the envelope of the card he gave me for my birthday this year; he’d written my old name with a heart around it, then crossed it out with an X and wrote “Oliver” inside another heart. What is actually holy? What if transitioning is more spiritual than any of us has imagined? Is this a sacred rite? Not everyone will want a hymnal for their transition, I know. But some might. I apparently do.
I keep thinking about Lynda’s question, do I feel like I have died. If you think that death is a final oblivion, a quiet eternal darkness… Well, no. I still have bills to pay and papers to grade and snow to shovel. Even now, I fear overstepping my bounds by writing about other people’s mourning. Because I know this is not only my story, not only my transformation. There is an inherent loss and I am trying to figure out how that is different from regret; how to make space for both what is lost and what is gained. But what about that other kind of death, which is also a rebirth — the beginning of another earthly life in the physical world. Someone insulted ghosts the other day and I took it personally.