Identity, Memoir, Sex, Women

For 30 Years, I’ve Tried to Become a Woman. Here’s What I Learned Along the Way

I turned 45 this month. I can’t deny that I’m in my middle years. Although I’ve been blessed so far to avoid noticeable gray hairs, there are unmistakable creases around my eyes and forehead. My hands are even picking up the signature wrinkles and definition that I’ve always associated with “old hands.” Beyond the outward signs of age, I feel it inside. My peak energy levels are lower than they used to be, and the idea of dashing around makes me tired just thinking about it. The aphorism that you’re only as old as you feel may have some truth to it, but one can’t just wish away one’s age.

When I appraise myself in a mirror, looking for signs of aging, I can’t help but look for the signs that betray the sex I was born. Male. A bouncing baby boy, and more or less on that trajectory until my early teen years, when I became convinced that I was actually a girl. It was only a short time later that I started taking little purple Premarin pills, and not much later, sex reassignment surgery.

The mirror doesn’t lie. When I pull my hair back, reducing its feminizing effect, it’s easy to notice my masculine features, especially my brow ridge. You could even say I have a masculine jaw, but I promise it’s a carbon copy of my mother’s. Twenty-seven years of estrogen have changed the façade, but the structure is still as nature made it. I could pay a surgeon to grind away bone to smooth the bumps and ridges, but it wouldn’t change who I am. Believing otherwise is just wishful thinking.

Am I a woman? I used to believe I was. I used to have stars in my eyes. My role model was the Bond girl (and self-described “Transsexual Supermodel”) Caroline Cossey. She was gorgeous and glamorous. If she could do it, couldn’t I? Me, a socially awkward boy who struggled to find brotherhood in the company of boys, who more easily made friends with girls. Why not?

Early in my elementary schooling, I’d been made to see a psychologist to discover why I couldn’t fit in; why I was constantly a target for bullies. I didn’t know that the question was answered, and that it was an issue larger than myself. I continued to wonder what was wrong with me. Maybe I was not supposed to be a boy. It seemed to solve so much.

In the very early days of the modern Internet, there was a non-commercial predecessor to Facebook and Twitter called IRC, or Internet Relay Channel. Using login credentials borrowed from a teacher, I used this chat network to seek out help. And I found it. For a misfit like me, finding a group of people who were accepting and validating was amazing. Maybe even intoxicating. These people understood me—or, even if they didn’t quite understand me, they would at least listen to me. Crossdressers, transvestites, and transsexuals—people who were gender non-conforming—a community where I belonged. Finally.

At the time, I didn’t think to wonder what type of group I’d fallen in with, or how or why I fit in. Nowadays, when you think about teenagers meeting strangers on the Internet, it makes you think of perverts praying on helpless children. While I can say that nobody tried to arrange a meeting for a sexual encounter, I did have a set of admirers. I was told that I was attractive, that I had the potential to blossom into a beautiful woman. It was attention I wasn’t used to. As a high school student, I was still the butt of abuse and the target of bullies. So through my teen years, I lived in two worlds. By day, I was a sulking creep, a mostly-friendless loser just trying to make it through a day without being threatened or smacked by the bastards who found it funny. At night, I was celebrated and complimented. I learned how to return compliments and build other people up. I learned how to receive and give validation.

Is that what made me a woman? To be recognized as one by an Internet chat group? I was starting to accept that I really was a woman. Specifically, a transsexual woman. Scientifically, a person with a woman’s brain who was born into a man’s body.

Yes, I realize that’s not scientific, but this is what we were telling each other, and telling others. Even Caitlyn Jenner has trotted out this trope. “Born in a man’s body” became the accepted device for explaining our existence as transsexuals. To “cure” this condition, we were expected to take feminizing hormones and whatever other treatments were necessary to achieve femininity, commonly including hair removal (through the process of electrolysis, predating laser depilation), facial feminizing surgery, tracheal shaving to reduce the prominence of the Adam’s apple, surgery to change vocal pitch, rib reduction surgery, a list of implants including breast, hip, buttock, and cheek, and then finally sex-reassignment surgery.

Authenticity can be expensive. Transsexuals would trade recommendations on surgeons, endocrinologists, and psychologists who could be easily persuaded to write letters of recommendation. The transvestites and crossdressers would mostly ignore us, although some of them would wistfully express how they wished they could just go partway. They wanted to retain their male anatomy, an idea the transsexuals couldn’t (or pretended they couldn’t) understand. Over time, different sub-groups formed. And those who wanted to transition partway started to band together under the label “transgender.”

You might be wondering about the women who wanted to transition to become men. They were hardly around. And truth be told, they weren’t particularly welcome in a space populated by gender-bending men. Antipathy toward the female sex is the norm in these trans spaces. It’s hard to make believe in the presence of the real deal.

In my senior year of high school, I lined up a psychologist to help me with transition. Through my online contacts, I also had an endocrinologist to prescribe me estrogen, and I was taking close notes on which surgeons earned the highest scores for vaginoplasty. There were plenty of options, and I started to figure out what types of complications were most common with which surgeries, depending on who performed them. Complications were frequent occurrences, but could easily be rationalized as rare, freak accidents.

Did these procedures make anyone happier? I can’t answer for anyone else, but there were some people who were never satisfied with the changes to their bodies. I imagine that, like me, they could still see the truth reflected in a mirror.

“After transition” was the ultimate goal. After all the hormones and surgeries, I would disappear into society. A woman with a mysterious past. I’d “go stealth” and pretend that I’d never been a boy. Evade all questions about my family. Move to another part of the country. Start a new life. Not even a trans woman—a woman in fact.

That was the plan, anyway. It almost worked. At the age of 19, shortly after my sex-reassignment surgery, I disappeared from my support forum. I started dating a young man. We had sex, and it was my first time ever. It hurt. My body wasn’t made to be penetrated, and the modification to allow this did not result in my ability to experience pleasure. My ability to experience intimacy, and consequently, to form intimate relationships, was dramatically harmed by sex-reassignment surgery. Yet, I told myself that the sacrifice was worth it. I was now 20. I was a woman.

Before long, I was 21. Twenty-two. Twenty-three. I threw myself into my work. This was the early 1990s. And thanks to my early introduction to the Internet, I was positioned to join the very first cohort of web developers. I made friendships, but I always held people at an arm’s distance to protect my secret. A wry sense of humor and dry sarcasm became my coping tools. This was supposed to be “after transition,” but I constantly suffered from the cognitive dissonance attendant with trying to completely bury one’s history.

Wasn’t I a woman? Why was I having breakdowns, overcome by self-loathing and intense loneliness? During these periods, my gender dysphoria was the central aspect of my depression. I was supposed to have been past this. My transition was supposed to be over. I achieved everything I thought I needed. What was holding me back?

There was a transgender support group in town. I went a couple of times. I was the youngest, by a long shot. It was mostly middle-age, married men who were somewhere along the process of transitioning to be women. Like me. Much older, much earlier in the process, but like me. I did not feel any affinity. I was embarrassed by men old enough to be my father dressing like they were trying to be picked up on a street corner.

These men admired me. To them, I was lucky. “You have a family, and children, and a career,” I thought. “I will never have children, and my career is an uphill battle.” Yet one told me he’d trade everything to switch places with me. To become an authentic, real woman, like me.

Twenty-nine. I moved to another city and met a transsexual my age who had similar experiences. We being the only two people in our world who could relate to one another, we dated for a while. She is still a dear friend. In a recent conversation, we agreed that our experiences as teenagers in the trans community was akin to grooming. We see the parallels. She and I are both in our 40s, and we’re still trying to arrange the pieces to try to make sense of our decision to become women.

Are we women, though? “Trans women are women,” they say. Twenty-nine. Thirty. I went to college (finally), then law school. Thirty-three. I played a part in a mock trial, a witness with no scripted gender, but a name similar to the one given to me by my parents. One student lawyer slipped from calling me “she” and “her” to “he” and “him.” I don’t think it was intentional; I think she just prepared intensely for the mock trial and didn’t anticipate that this witness would be played by me. After the trial, I numbly staggered to my car and wept deeply for an hour. I joined another support group, desperate to find someone else who could understand my experience. I’d started transition 15 years earlier, but I was yet to feel like I’d finished.

I started to realize there is no finish. We are always in a state of transition. And because I am a transsexual, that will always inform my experiences, even new ones.

“We’re going to Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival,” a friend told me. Mich-fest. I knew this was a woman-only space; female only, unwelcoming to transsexual women like me. I was different. Not just different, male. The invitation made me feel miserable. I didn’t want to impose on a space where I wasn’t welcome. But this invitation made me curious about those “radical feminists” who seemed so opposed to inviting trans women into their spaces. I wanted to understand what divided us, so I started a blog. Maybe I could create a dialog with someone who had different ideas. I had no idea what I was getting into.

While I wasn’t paying attention, a new thing called the “Transgender Community” arose to take the place of the thing I’d previously known as simply community. Whereas the community I’d transitioned with was mostly middle-aged white men of all different political views, this new community was mostly middle-aged white men of radically leftist ideology. Before, we had been a group of individuals brought together by an unusual commonality. Now, it’s a whole identity movement. What’s more, the previous antipathy toward women has become more intense. The word “transsexual” was judged problematic, though for conflicting reasons. It at once connotes privilege (because it implied a sex change) and debasement (because of its associations with pornographic marketing). Instead, everyone in any stage of transition should use “transgender,” we were told. And today, that word is open to anyone, regardless of any intention or act of transition. There’s no word left to describe my experience.

My ignorance of the transgender cuckoo’s egg was corrected when I started that blog, which I used to explore the intersection of transgenderism and feminism. While there was heat on both sides of the divide, it was immediately obvious that only one side used threats of violence, violent (often sexual) imagery, and harassment as part of its strategy to confront its counterpart. I was shocked by the misogyny coming from “my side,” and spoke out against it. Without setting out to do so, I’d ended up making friends with some radical feminists and making enemies from transgender activists. Although I didn’t see eye-to-eye with, well, anyone, one of my new friends asked me some provocative questions about my “womanhood,” which I’d been defending as legitimate and authentic. “Why are you ashamed of being a transsexual?” she asked.

She was right. I was deeply ashamed. “Trans women are women!” I wanted to retort. But I knew from everything I’d experienced from the time I started, regardless of how I might appear to the people around me, that any part of me that’s “woman” is only skin deep. “Your experiences are valid,” she said. It was an epiphany.

I didn’t have to hate myself, letting go of my loathing meant also giving up what had been an impossible dream. As a teenager, I made a decision that moved me into a parallel reality separate from everyone around me. Living in denial of that made me continually miserable, and sometimes deeply depressed.

Thirty-nine. Forty. As I came to accept myself, and accept my choices, the depression lifted. I wrote more, trying to work out and understand my life through a different lens. Events and encounters that had previously left me confused and anxious started to make more sense when I realized I’d experienced them as a transsexual and not as a woman. In fact, my spiral of misery was practically an assured outcome given my effort to assert a womanhood that never existed and never can or will.

Since then, I’ve learned I’m not the only transsexual to have this revelation. The transgender community (such as it is) talks about authenticity, about true selves, about becoming ourselves. Why did I need to become a lifelong medical patient and have a dangerous surgery to reveal my “authentic” self? Was it necessary after all? If transition brought on depression and self-loathing, was it really therapeutic? These are fair questions, but the transgender community is not ready to explore them. Yes, there are canned, facile responses at the ready, but they don’t reach the heart of the questions. And I’m told, “you don’t speak for the trans community,” which is a polite variation of “shut up.”

Now I’m 45. Almost certainly more than half-way to wherever I stop. If I keep taking estrogen, I risk a stroke and deep vein blood clots. If I stop, I risk skeletal deterioration. Teenage me had no way of appreciating the choices middle-age me would have to make. Do I regret my choices? As a child growing up during the AIDS crisis, and watching some of my friends damaged by drug addiction, there’s a chance that my choices left me better off than I might otherwise have been. If I regret anything, it’s that so few people helped me to understand the weight of my decisions, and that I was discouraged from believing in my own agency.

As I watch one glassy-eyed celebrity after another line up to endorse the purity and authenticity of trans identities, I realize that there will be more following after me along the primrose path toward “womanhood” and “manhood.” If you are one of them, don’t be ashamed of who you are, but own the choices that have taken you to where you are now.

 

 

Corinna Cohn is a transsexual living in the mid-west United States. Corinna started the process of male-to-female sex reassignment as a teenager and has been writing and speaking about trans-related issues since 2013.

Featured image: A fragment of Pygmalion Adoring His Statue, by Jean Raoux, 1717.

Comments

  1. A truly tragic case. But this doesn’t make him a woman any more than wanting to be Napoleon for 30 years would have made him so. Facts are stubborn things, even if humanity tends to ignore them whenever possible.

  2. I hope what’s in this article filters down to the troubled youth of today and tomorrow to help them to avoid the Quixotic dream that’s left you in such a dire strait. I hope you can get through to the deluded legislators who would give children permission to transition without their parents’ support. There’s even talk of penalties against parents who oppose outward sexual transitions. This has been a sad read and I wish you well on your quest. Thank God for Quillette and Claire Lehmann for providing this forum.

  3. Life has some tough roads.

    I think the author came to a very important realization: trans are not exactly men and not exactly women. They’re their own category, with some shared characteristics.

    All the best to her!

    Another important realization: “If I regret anything, it’s that so few people helped me to understand the weight of my decisions”
    Some health professionals, especially doctors, that provide instant agreement and major medical procedures, in particular to children making solo choices, belong in prison.

  4. True, it seems like that was the same realization the author arrived at.

    I found myself feeling a good deal more sympathetic to authors’ situation reading this as a biography, opposed a chat group or whatever. While most of us never experience the authors’ gender dysphoria, we can surely relate to the struggle of finding a comfortable place for ourselves in this world.

    Are we one of the smart kids, or a jock, maybe an artisan type, there’s always the theater group, they’ll pretty much accept anybody even if you can’t act they are always looking for someone to build the sets!

    At some point we realize we don’t really fit into any group, not perfectly anyway, and that we can probably relate to all of them to one degree or another. We are who we are, and we grow and change over time to meet the requirements that life presents.

    That acceptance of living life on life’s terms instead of our own preconceived ideas of what life ought to be, seems to be a pretty high hurdle for people like the author. I get it.

    I don’t think she is actually a biological woman but as long as it not presented as some demand backed up by the state I’ll would try to be accepting and use whatever pronoun seems to make them more at ease in my company. Seems like the polite thing to do.

  5. It’s a more difficult equation than that I’m afraid- in many countries mental health professionals risk becoming social pariahs and losing their livelihoods when they come across teenagers who are simply autistic, or suffering from rapid onset gender dysphoria, and their oh so certain parents. It’s why 58 professionals, and counting, have resigned from the Tavistock in London.

    It’s not that they are acting as ‘gatekeepers’ as the baying mob of the activist community would have you believe- an ideological cross prepared for the crucifixion of those will later be called transphobes, and accused of being closet Christians- it’s simply that they want to preserve the possibility, within the diagnostic framework, of being able to tell someone that they may not be transgender, if that’s where their clinical diagnosis leads.

    These must surely be individuals of the highest integrity to risk all for a matter of principle and in the earnest interests of their patients. They deserve more support in this age of fearful acquiesence to the mob.

    A great article- brave in its honesty.

  6. Ben Shapiro makes a distinction between discussing these matters politically and handling them privately that I happen to agree with. He notes that it would be rude to meet someone at a party and obstinately insist on using the pronoun that matches the person’s biological sex, and that person, as a singular individual, deserves respect just as we all do. The situation becomes different in a political discussion, however, as compromising on pronouns in that situation practically amounts to ceding the argument a priori.

    I do draw the line at using pronouns other than “he/him” or “she/her,” my commitment to politeness notwithstanding. I will not call someone “zie,” and I refuse to subject myself to the grammatical fallout of referring to an individual with a plural pronoun.

  7. A well-written and interesting story.

    It deepens my sincere belief that transgender is a delusion compounded by a glamour. A “glamour” is a spell or state of confusion. In the case of transgender, it is self-induced, and perpetuated by internet-based networks of mutual glamour-state people.

    In addition to the meaning of “spell”, “glamour” is also particularly appropriate to transgenders who want to be a seductive woman. This is the delusion of “autogynophilia”, which refers to the love that a male can have for his essence decked out like a hot woman. It’s a narcissistic state, where you are in love with yourself.

    The end is sad. He will never be a woman. He has eliminated his ability to father children, which is a completion of the person. He will never bear a child as a mother. So that path is out, and I doubt that he can be a foster parent. His hormonal situation is completely screwed up. I believe that the use of the wrong hormone cocktail does more than compromise the body - it is actively harmful. For the male body (that of the author’s), testosterone is important in maintaining tendon health and strength.

    His body will fail in the next 10 years or so, and his aging face will revert more toward male. Females go through the menopause, and become more masculine in their face. He will become quite a damaged body.

    You cannot find yourself by changing sex. You only deepen the inability to become authentic.

  8. This is a false statement, but is common.

    There are two types of “plural they”.

    “Someone left the ice cream on the countertop. They have ruined it.” This is what I call the “ambigious case” or the “uncertain case”. I consciously force myself to use the correct “neutral he” - “He has ruined it”.

    “John left the ice cream on the countertop. They have ruined it.” This is the “specific plural they”. This use of “they” is completely inarticulate and confused. It’s wrong. How many left the ice cream out? What is they doing there?

    “Jack and Jill went up the hill. They came down later. The search party found Jill’s body the next day.” This is an example of the complete confusion that the “singular they” can and will lead to. In particular, in novels, the use of “singular they” would lead to an unreadable pile of shit. And I do not have ANY idea how this pronoun can be taught to foreign speakers.

    I can guarantee you that if you say this to the police dispatcher, he is going to be COMPLETELY unsympathetic to the Jack’s “need” to have the “singular they” used. When you attempt to communicate, using a private language is not helpful. It is confusion.

    “They” and “their” are plural pronouns, and their use as the “singular they” is a complete destruction of the language.

    One of the main reasons that I oppose the fascist control of my language by others is that when someone requests the use of a special pronoun, they attempt to force me to modify my language. It’s my language, not theirs, and they are asking me to lie with my utterances. I will not do that. In addition, if I am asked to use a special pronoun, it is always when the “requester” is not there. He requests that I use a construction, and he will never hear it. You don’t use a pronoun in the presence of another unless it is “you”.

    If you do not use the “requested pronoun” and the other person learns of it, what is the violation? If they do not learn of it, have you still violated them? What is the linguistic offense here?

    Finally, language is a communication that depends on a shared agreement. If every single person requires a “private language” with their modifications, there is no language. There is “Jim-English” and “Fergy-English”.

  9. And somehow a progressive’s mind simultaneously contains these two conflicting ideas:

    1. A man who expresses himself as a female based on gender stereotypes is no different than a biological woman
    2. There are no differences between men and women, biological or otherwise, as gender is nothing more than a social construct

    Huh? Heads should be exploding.

  10. Corinna Cohn: "She is still a dear friend. In a recent conversation, we agreed that our experiences as teenagers in the trans community was akin to grooming. We see the parallels. "

    I’ve had this same thought from time to time, but come to see it differently over the years.

    In the earlier chat-support groups and especially now in the twitterverse and mass media circles, there’s not just acceptance, but celebration and expressions of admiration and praise-praise-praise for how very brave, good, right, salutary and righteous is the person who comes out with a gender other than that natally assigned.

    I’ve come to see this as being more akin to the “love bombing” tactic of cultists. Or maybe it’s love bombing as a type of grooming, sans the eventual predatory intent of grooming.

    Just my 2 cents. But I think the author also touches on this with: “As I watch one glassy-eyed celebrity after another line up to endorse the purity and authenticity of trans identities”.

  11. My wife worked as a therapist in such a facility. There were several Federally enforced lawsuits that made the place nearly unmanageable. For example, they were not allowed to restrain patients, even ones with a history of violence, so they started locking them in their room. A follow on lawsuit made the facility remove the doors from their rooms to prevent this “solitary” confinement. The result was that they would routinely have violent inmates go on a rampage. Then they would send in the nurses to subdue the patient. However, due to various diversity requirements, half the nurses were female and were incapable of subduing large violent men. (This was a male corrections facility). So, the staff was routinely in the hospital or on medical leave for breaks and sprains, etc.

  12. This is the most bizarre aspect of the current transgender activists. I suffered from gender dysphoria until I was 22 and, even though I felt like a man I knew I was actually, objectively, female. If I hadn’t gotten therapy that cured me this poor mans story might have been my own.

  13. I’m not sure I can explain it, honestly. That’s why it’s a mental illness, it makes no sense!

    I known that I could not have actually experienced what males feel, but my mind was under this delusion that I was male. It’s a terrible psychological disparity between how you feel internally and your body which constantly feels wrong. The closest thing I can liken it to is wearing clothes that are too small, you are always aware of it and how uncomfortable it is.I can understand why people are driven to drastic measure like hormones and surgery, anything to stop the feeling that your body it not how it ought to be. I am so glad I was spared that fate or else I would never have got to where I am now, happily married and expecting my first child.

  14. I probably would too, but I imagine I’d also probably try to find an excuse to leave that party sooner rather than later.

  15. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments on my essay and thank everyone for taking the time. As for you, SKV1001, I hope you take the time to re-read my article. Having masculine features in my face is not a “trans-specific problem”. It is not even a problem. It is my face. As I said, I could pay someone to grind away evidence, but I am not ashamed of my face.

    Regards.

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