This is part one of my interview with Jessica.
Name: Jess (name has been changed)
From: All over (military brat), lived in California since 1999
Job: Tech Engineer
*Note: Photo is not Jess, to protect her identity. It is another trans woman who posted her photo on Pinterest and shared it on a trans resource website.
Vocab for this interview:
cis-gendered: Someone who is cool with the gender they were assigned/born with.
I’m not gonna lie here readers. Jessica stole my freakin’ heart. Male privilege? She gave it up. The vagina that most of us take for granted? She had to fight for it. Here’s her story.
For most of her life, Jessica walked through the world with the nagging feeling that something was wrong. There was this sense of discomfort in her own skin, ever present and unshakable. Inside, Jessica was a woman. But from the outside, everything about Jessica seemed like a man.
Jessica could have delved into her feelings earlier in life. But so many voices around her — from the radio talkshows her family listened to, to the preachers at the church pulpit — talked about transgendered people as off-kilter wackjobs.
Jessica absorbed these three ideas, but she simply couldn’t fit them together. Or maybe she was afraid to, because of the way she knew it would disrupt her life forever.
From Jessica: Jessica had a man’s body but felt like a woman.
From society: A man who wants to be a woman is trans.
From her conservative upbringing: Trans people are troubled and repulsive. There’s something off about them.
One day, the need to fully be the woman inside became so strong that Jessica accepted the first two ideas, and decided to continue on in spite of the third.
Jessica likes to say she was “assigned” a male gender at birth. It’s a way of de-barbing the tangled, sometimes painful story of gender for her. It’s a way of saying that she didn’t choose to be born with a penis, or grow up into man. Those things were chosen for her. Then, she chose something else.
Jessica had a good childhood in a stable home with two parents. It was what she called, “a regular, run of the mill, vanilla American family.”
But she knew at a young age that she was different from the other boys.
“I felt more comfortable around girls than I did with boys and I felt more comfortable around adult women than around adult men — for no particular reason, it just was. I frequently wanted to join the girls in their little clubhouses playing tea and house… along with playing with other things like my Transformers and my G.I. Joes. I liked both. I didn’t feel like I should have to choose.”
It wasn’t until Jessica was 35 that she came to terms with her deep feelings about her gender. Up until that point, it had been easier to push them down than to face them and confront all of the things she would have to change in order to feel right in her body.
But one day at work, while she was browsing YouTube videos, the truth all but hit her in the face.
“I like to think of it as the moment when the wool was pulled from over my eyes,” she told me.
The video slideshow showed the gradual change of a woman who was born male and transitioned into a woman over the course of two and a half years.
Before that point, Jessica had this idea that in order for a man to become a woman and pull it off, he had to start off looking feminine. The problem was, she thought she looked like a man. It just seemed impossible that she could become a woman and pull it off.
“In my mind I looked too boyish for me to pull it off. I thought there was no way I could change my appearance. Until I saw the slideshow. It showed someone who started off looking pretty masculine, then over time with hormones and surgical intervention, came out looking really feminine. And my mind was blown. My world was turned on its head.
My first reaction was: this has to be a trick. This can’t be real. There is no way someone can start looking like this and end up looking like that.”
I think that’s when I realized there was a name for how I felt. That there was an actual term and that this was not as uncommon as I thought. I believed that I was the only one. Before that, I did not believe that there were a lot of other people out there like me.”
When Jessica said this, I was thinking, really, Jessica? You lived in San Francisco. How could you not know that there were lots of other trans people around?
But she explained why.
“I think a lot of that had to do with the sheltered upbringing that I had. My parents were very conservative. I come from a fairly strict christian protestant upbringing. Some of the churches we went to were extremely conservative. And I faked it to make it, so to speak.”
“My dad used to listen to conservative talk radio in the car all the time. I was basically inundated with these neocon(servative) figures on the radio, people like Rush Limbaugh. So in my mind I had this thought, ‘Well, I’m fairly normal. And all these other (trans people), they’re not OK, there’s definitely something wrong with them. And I feel compassionate for feeling like that. But at the same time, how could I possibly have that, because I feel completely normal?’ And it just didnt make sense to me, because I didn’t feel like I was the type of person who would want to fit into the media’s portrayal — particularly the conservative media’s portrayal — of transgendered people.”
And I don’t blame Jessica. Because that portrayal is pretty damn painful.
“The internalized portrayal was that transpeople are basically dudes in a dress. They’re crossdressers and the ones that do it out in public — there’s definitely something off-kilter about them. Just not quite completely healthy. That was what I internalized from the bullshit conservative talk radio.”
After she saw the YouTube video, Jessica got curious and started researching the steps that can help a person with a male body turn it into a female body.
She learned that by suppressing testosterone and taking estrogen, your body can go through a second puberty.
“I guess that’s when my eyes were really opened to the diversity of gender and human sexual identity and presentation — all kinds of incredible things existed out there that I had never come into contact with.
That was a hell of a moment. That afternoon I was at the office in downtown San Francisco and when I saw that I broke down and started balling at my desk. It was a complicated mixture of relief, because I finally had a word or phrase to describe how I felt all this time, combined with the excitement of the fact that I had seen someone else do this.
And there was this thought: well, if they can do this, maybe I can do this.
The future of possibility was brimming in front of me, also combined with dread. What do I tell my spouse? What do I tell my family? Can I even do this and stay married? Will she stay with me? Will I lose everything? Will I get beat up for appearing “femme” even though on the outside I’m apparently masculine. There were so many different complex emotional layers.
I was completely incapacitated and was balling my eyes out. I just felt like I wanted to go home and go to bed.”
What boggles my mind is this: Jessica lived in San Francisco, a mecca of sex positivity and gender fluidity for years before she had this breakthrough moment. But it was still so challenging to reconcile what she knew — that she was, at her center, good and fine and right and in a body that wasn’t the way she needed it to be — with the bigoted messages screaming in her ears that someone like her, in her truest form, was somehow innately flawed and wrong.
But for those messages, Jessica might have gotten in touch with her true nature, and drastic measures it called for, way earlier in life. She might have felt comfortable in her skin so many years earlier.
It never ceases to amaze me how we internalize messages that negate truths we absolutely know about ourselves.
After seeing that video, Jessica couldn’t go back to the way things were. She started planning for the future. But first, she needed to tell her loved ones what was going on.
Jessica started with her wife, who believed she had married a straight, cis-gendered man and had no idea that Jessica had always felt discomfort being a man.
Jessica said that her wife didn’t know just how much she disliked playing that traditional role of a man and husband.
“I think a large amount of (my frustration) had to do with me being fed up with having to perform heterosexuality and cis-normitivity. I had just gotten sick of it and so I stopped performing the ‘go getter’- type-male who pursues the female and woos her and goes on dates. Not that I don’t like doing these things, but to me it felt forced. It felt like a performance. It wasn’t something that I could do naturally, because it wasn’t in my personality. But I felt like I had to because that’s what society and my church at the time told me that was expected of me as a man.
So I had this conversation with her, prefacing it with the idea that maybe I should go talk to a therapist. I told her that I wanted to go to therapy, but not just for dealing with my emotional baggage of being married once before. I said I wanted to talk to a therapist about my gender. And I believed that I was experiencing what is called gender dysphoria.
Her initial reaction, she told me later, was revulsion. She said she felt repulsed and revolted by what she felt and terrified about what that meant for our future.
That was the beginning of a difficult few months of figuring out how I was going to break the news to people.
Jessica began telling family members about her decision to transition to a woman with a hand-written letter. She tried to communicate just how much she had thought the decision through. And how sure she was.
Most of her family members reacted with support. She wasn’t so lucky with her dad and her best friend.
My friend and I were really close. He was like my brother, but as soon as I told him, his demeanor towards me changed. It was not supportive at all.
The worst part about this was the way it dredged up the fear of loss and the feelings of judgement for Jessica. Changing her gender was already such a hard thing to do. When people she loved reacted with criticism or disgust or judgement, it made it that much harder.
“Every time someone reacted negatively, I second-guessed my decision. It just added to the emotional turmoil I was going through. A lot of people came from a place of concern, because they cared. But there were also a lot of people who thought that I wasn’t thinking this through, which to me, it’s like, I get where you’re coming from, but I’m an intelligent human being … this is something that I’ve really thought through.
Everything that was about my presentation to the world was about to change. And everyone knew that. And a lot of people were frightened for me. But also a lot of people were repulsed, because of religion, because of societal implications, because of the image and the portrayal of trans people out there.”
In those early months, everything was in a state of upheaval in Jessica’s personal life.
“There was a lot of crying and a lot of fear and a lot of hope. It was this dichotomy of positivity and negativity hand in hand. It was a really difficult time.”
It was really tough. But there were moments when the people who had loved Jessica as a man got to show her that they would also support her as a woman.
“My ex wife, God bless her heart. She tried to support me despite the fact that she is a very straight woman.
One of the first things she did was to take out clothing and see if there was clothing that I could try on to make me feel better. She let me try on one of her bras.
And I remember trying on a bra, putting on a dress and then getting in front of a mirror. And I saw myself with something that looked like a feminine figure for the first time in my life. And it was one of those moments where I just felt so overwhelmed that I just sat down on the bed and started crying.
I was just so happy to see a glimpse of what could be and what could definitely be even better once I started going further down the path. And it felt glorious. And it was terrifying and exciting and relieving at the same time.
So yeah, seeing what it felt like for me to have breasts for the first time was a really tender moment that my ex and I shared. And I’m super grateful for how hard she worked to support me. And she sat down and put her arm around my shoulder and held me close at that moment and it was really sweet.”
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