Living Life ‘as a Woman’ was like a career. Now I’m Retiring.
September 7, 2016
The Following is a GUEST POST authored by MIKE.
On the Dissolution of a Dream
Guest Post by MikefromOhio
In response to Gallus Mag’s gracious invitation to share more of my experience, I offer the following account. Let me say first that although I think my experience may be of some value, it is still only one perspective. Please feel free to ask or challenge me about anything I’ve said and I will try to respond. I may have some questions for you as well. Lastly, my thanks to Gallus and all the contributors here for maintaining such an important forum. To my story then.
Like most boys who dream of being girls, I was much closer to my mother than my father. I felt strongly that I understood her sadness, especially as the wife of a man like my dad. I loved her, deeply, while perceiving him as cold, domineering, someone extremely capable in practical matters but having little time for, or interest in, the emotional undercurrents of life. I was sure, as a child, that I was nothing like him. I knew I was a boy and that boys become men, but if my sentence was to end up like him, I wanted no part of it. I wanted to be like my mom, someone open to her emotions, generous and loving to those around her–in every way beautiful to me. In short, I wanted to grow up to be her. But only girls become women. So, though I kept it to myself, I began daydreaming I’d been born a girl. At least in imagination I could find some solace.
I was the first of four children, born in 1963, a few months before the JFK assassination. I don’t know to what degree my parents may have unwittingly transmitted the turbulence of that decade into my child’s mind, but on the surface, our white, middle-class household wasn’t much affected by urban riots or the Vietnam War, far less by any sexual revolution or feminism. If my mother was unhappy as a homemaker she never showed it, though she had been valedictorian of her high school and had won a scholarship to a technical college, where she planned to study chemical engineering. During her freshman year there she met my father, soon after which she left school to marry him.
As a young child, their relationship seemed to me a source of constant tension. When my father was at work, my mother and I were at ease. We were best friends and confidants, able to speak freely, often discussing him as we pondered his apparent coldness. When he got home the tension came through the door with him. He never hit my mom, but there was a lot of yelling, a lot of anger. I see him now as having been deeply unsatisfied with his working life, so that without meaning to, he allowed his role as a loving, affectionate father to take a back seat to his driving ambition to start his own business. When I was still small he took me to see where he worked, a large printing plant in Cleveland. I was fascinated by the enormous machinery, the size of the building itself, the army of workers engaged in what was then, before the Internet, a much more robust industry. Little did I know this wasn’t enough for him, that he wanted to own such a place himself. He did eventually start a business, and as it grew, our family’s financial worries evaporated. But success has its price.
For three years I was an only child before a brother came along, followed by a second brother when I was six and finally a sister when I was eleven. From the first brother’s arrival I felt a sharp diversion of my mother’s attention away from me and toward him, although I remember her letting me help change or feed him. The second brother seemed to further diminish her affections for me. It’s perfectly understandable to an adult that when second and third children come along, the firstborn simply can’t be the center of attention anymore. But as a child, I didn’t like losing that blissful time when it was just my mom and me at home. I would “help” her bake cookies or do housework, or we would just sit together and read a book.
Eventually she began working as a secretary at my father’s newly started printing company. When I got home from school the babysitter would leave and I would be in charge until my parents got home. My mother would inevitably have a list taped to the refrigerator: vacuum the living room, put the roast in the oven at four o’clock, don’t let your brother’s fight, make sure your sister is changed. To anyone who wonders what my parents could’ve been thinking by putting me, at the age of twelve, in charge of two younger brothers and a baby sister, even if for only a few hours a day, I can only say that it was a different time. I don’t think there was the widespread attention to and discussion of child psychology one sees today. Also, kids were actually expected back then to do chores (younger readers can google this word :-)), and generally obey their parents. I was the oldest, and my parents were under huge stress, and debt, as they struggled to grow a small business. I honestly don’t blame them for anything. Untold numbers of people have had horrible childhoods and still become functional, well-adjusted adults. Objectively, my childhood doesn’t look too bad. Subjectively, though, things weren’t so simple. Here I was, harboring a secret daydream of being a girl, and by extension of growing up to be a woman, assigned a daily list of chores which I saw as practice in the domestic arts. I was seeing what what life would be like as a stay-at-home mom.
I wasn’t sexually attracted to men, but strangely enough this didn’t interfere with my fantasy of someday being married to one, of greeting him when he came home from work with a martini and a kiss. It was more of a romantic image than a sexual one, though later it would become sexual. Part of this probably came from thinking my father would love me more if I were female. He certainly showed my sister more affection than he did me. I also enjoyed the praise I got from my mother when she and my dad got home; I wanted to please her as a good little housekeeper. The only thing I disliked was changing my sister’s diapers, a task I grimly endured. I looked nothing like she did down there, a reminder that I was definitely not a girl. I had no idea at this point that there was something called “sex change” surgery, was not yet aware of people like Christine Jorgensen or Renee Richards. I despaired, seeing my sister, of ever having my daydreams come true. Yet they persisted.
During this time I began cross dressing, a habit which from the start I was desperate to keep secret, even from my mother, with whom I would’ve shared anything else. There was simply too much risk that she would tell my father, though for some reason I thought she would have been ok with it herself, that she’d also secretly wished I’d been born a girl. But the reality is that I was the oldest son of a father who might well have beaten me if he ever found out about my secret. What a horror for him to discover that not only did I daydream of being a woman, but I was dressing like one in private. Once I discovered this outlet, though, I couldn’t stop. Whenever I was alone in the house I had to dress up. It was nothing less than a revelation for me to see myself in the mirror, wearing my mother’s clothes, her shoes, her makeup, a dressy hat to cover my short hair. My dream of being a woman now had a tangible expression; the reflection in the mirror _was_ in fact a vision of that future self.
My sexual awakening was tied from the start to my cross dressing. I don’t honestly remember my first intentional orgasm (i.e., not a wet dream), but it may well have been while wearing something of my mother’s. What had been an emotional longing to be female now had a sexual, admittedly fetishistic dimension. This convergence of forces, emotional and now erotic, and seeing in the mirror what I might look like as a woman, were all too strong to resist. My dream took on a life of its own.
At around 11 or 12 I saw an article somewhere, I believe in _Newsweek_, about transsexuals. I was stunned. People actually did this, changed their sex. Of course I know now that they don’t, because it’s impossible, but that was the official line being put out there, and I devoured it. I began, almost from that very moment, to prepare. I started jogging and watching my diet, determined to stay thin, all because I wanted to look good in dresses someday. I bought into this, too, along with my inflexible notions about gender, that women are supposed to be thin. Besides, my mother was thin, so that became a part of my vision. My parents began to worry that I might be anorexic but eventually decided that I just enjoyed running, which I did, but for a huge reason they didn’t know.
I had a plan now, a solid, crystallized dream of becoming a woman. I already looked a lot like my mother, a resemblance people frequently mentioned. And I was short, barely five foot five, which I still am. This is going to work, I thought. I’m going to do this and I’m going to be “good” at it. I was so convinced that because I identified with women, and could some day successfully pass as one, I would _earn_ the right to call myself one. Some kind of grace would come into play, a reward for the sincerity of my efforts, and the missing parts of a normal female life would be filled in or glossed over. No female history? No female genes? No vagina? No problem. I would get hormones, find a surgeon, change my name, and get out there into the world as the best woman I could be. I see now that identifying with the opposite sex presumes the impossible: that one can actually know how the opposite sex feels. I also see now that all I ever accomplished was an elaborate impersonation. I never felt that I was a woman trapped in a man’s body, but I was unstoppably fascinated by the idea of becoming a woman. Once I did this, I believed several things would fall into place: I would be able to show as much emotion as I pleased (something I never felt allowed to do as a boy); I would be attractive to men and possibly find one who loved me (as my dad loved my sister); I would be socially outgoing and not so damned shy; I would be honoring my beloved, long suffering mother by living as a woman myself; and, of course, I would be able to wear whatever I wanted. This last reason may seem the most trivial, but this ignores how powerful a symbol women’s clothes are to MtTs, at least in Western culture.
In high school I found girls incredibly attractive but never dated them. Their beauty made them seem untouchable to me. Other boys my age were dating but I just never found the nerve to ask anyone out. I would see an attractive girl and instead of wanting to date her, I would fantasize about looking that good myself. I never considered myself gay but I think it’s quite possible that in a way I was, only I was mentally blocked from exploring it. During my private cross dressing, I often thought about sex with a man–an intense, wonderful fantasy–but I never indulged in these daydreams while in my public role as a male. Oddly enough, my raging cross dressing habit seemed less taboo to me than sneaking off somewhere to have sex with other boys. Possibly this prohibition was instilled by my hyper-masculine, homophobic father, or it could be that I was just old-fashioned, finding it too strange for men to be with men, or women with women. When I got my driver’s license I didn’t see it as bolstering my dating prospects, I saw it as enabling me to start buying my own feminine items. Now I could drive myself to department stores, usually in neighboring towns, and buy lingerie, makeup, anything small enough to keep hidden at home. It would have been nice to come back from my “drives” (actually shopping trips) with whatever costuming I wanted for my secret dress rehearsals, but I could neither afford nor hide bigger things. I didn’t have the nerve either, at that point, to ask a sales clerk if I might try on a dress or a pair of heels, though I wanted to. So for the time being I would have to borrow from my mother’s wardrobe whenever I had enough time alone in the house.
I got good grades in high school and was accepted by Case Western Reserve, where I strongly considered studying literature but ended up majoring in electrical engineering and applied physics. I was a nerdy kid interested in math and science, but I enjoyed writing, too, something I attribute to the closeness I felt to my mom when we used to read together. Thinking in practical terms, though (and pleasing my tuition-paying father), I opted for engineering. At this point I had decided to try to bury my female ambitions until after college, when, as an engineer, I would easily build a nest egg to pay for surgery. For a couple of years I was able to suppress my dream. I threw myself into my studies, hiding in the decidedly unemotional, logical world of engineering. But inside I was slowly coming apart. My deferred dream wasn’t sleeping very peacefully. Much more than in high school, many of the couples I saw on campus were clearly sexual–my own roommate often spent weekends with his girlfriend–and this lack of inhibition reminded me of my own social hang-ups, which I was convinced could only be resolved by becoming female. Also, except when I was home during the summer, I never had a chance to cross dress, to indulge in that tangible expression of my fantasy. I forced myself to ignore it, but it didn’t ignore me. I would see a (straight) couple walking across campus, holding hands, and want so badly to be _her_, to have her body, wear her clothes, be the happy girlfriend in a relationship. I got depressed. My grades started sinking. I was getting desperate. It’s fine to say that gender dysphoria is all in one’s head, something I acknowledged to myself even then. But I couldn’t find a way to get it out of my head. If I could’ve tuned in to how attracted I was (and am) to women, and channeled that energy into overcoming my shyness and asking one out, it might have changed everything. Instead, my envy of women’s beauty always got in the way of simple enjoyment, in the way of what might otherwise have been an unfettered pursuit of romance and sex. My image of myself as a future woman always blocked me from imagining that I might be the opposite partner in a relationship, that maybe I could be the man, that I could give love and support to one of these women I so adored.
Soon after beginning my first semester as a senior, I sought out a psychology professor who had taught a course I’d taken as a freshman, asking her if she knew of anyone specializing in gender identity issues. She did, and I started seeing this therapist close to campus. My parents knew nothing of this. A few weeks later, without telling anyone I was going to do it, I withdrew from all my classes, feeling a sudden urgency to focus all my energy on what had, in my mind, become a crisis. My parents were shocked, but seemed to believe my explanation that I’d been under more stress than even I realized, and agreed with my plan to continue my studies in January. I moved in with some friends from high school, two guys in whom I had confided everything, and who at this point were trying to talk me out of wrecking my life. A few weeks later I told my parents the full story. I sat with them at the kitchen table, watching them as they sobbed. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. The worst part was when they told the younger of my two brothers. Though six years apart, we had been best friends throughout my teens. Now he was losing the older brother he’d always looked up to, and all I could offer as consolation was some vague idea of becoming his sister. I felt horrible about dropping this bomb into our family; it was utterly selfish, but I was convinced it was the only way to save myself. I simply felt that I couldn’t go on living as a man. I didn’t realize it then, but I was embarking on a 30-year career of selfishness, all because I got carried away with a fantasy.
What followed was about a year of psychotherapy with a man who resisted my plan from the start, challenging my assertions about what I needed to be happy, always steering our conversations away from gender transition and toward things I had no interest in thinking about: How did I see my parents as a child? Do I think my father loved me? Why is it so hard for me to cry? I had begun dressing as a woman now all the time. My hair was getting longer and I worked on a more feminine voice. The friends I lived with gave me feedback on how I was doing; they were in the tough spot of wanting to help me as friends, but also of not knowing how they should help. My parents joined my therapy sessions for awhile, but soon decided they wanted no part in them anymore, perhaps fearing that the therapy was somehow encouraging me in my quest. My therapist was associated, after all, with something called the Case Western Reserve Gender Identity Clinic, whose very existence must have troubled them. It’s not surprising that they couldn’t take very much of sitting in a doctor’s office with their son wearing a skirt and makeup, while the three of us tried to talk about our feelings. Fine, I thought, when they told me they weren’t going anymore, now I can just direct my arguments toward one person instead of three. My mother, who during these months had become a born-again Christian (shaking up our rather staid, quiet family nearly as much as I had), wanted me to see the pastor of her church, instead of this “secular humanist” psychiatrist. To her there was a spiritual battle being waged for my soul. Satan had planted this delusion in my mind, and my only salvation was to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior. Soon after my mother’s religious conversion my youngest brother, the one who had taken my news so hard, “got saved” himself, becoming my mother’s ally in that spiritual battle. All of this would make for some good material in a melodrama if we hadn’t all been in such pain, clinging with a death grip to our respective positions.
After a year of “cross-gender living,” which really entailed little more than dressing as a woman in public, since I wasn’t working at the time, my therapist reluctantly referred me to an endocrinologist. After getting a physical and giving my assurance that I understood the risks, I was prescribed estradiol along with spironolactone as an anti-androgen. When my body started feminizing, I was thrilled. I had taken a huge step in my plan. My legal name change, from Michael to Denise, went smoothly, as did getting a new Social Security card and driver’s license. I don’t know what Ohio requires these days for changing a driver’s license (I’ll find out this fall, when I change my name back to the original), but the first time around, the BMV clerk simply looked at the court order for the name change, and at my request switched the sex designation to female. That single letter on my license thrilled me as much as anything else. Yay! I thought. I got an F! It felt like a passport into another country, one where I belonged. No more worries about getting pulled over by a traffic cop, or, though it never happened, being challenged in using a women’s bathroom. And now getting a job would be much easier. I wanted a job where I could dress up, of course, where I could express how feminine I believed I was, but I didn’t have any experience working in an office environment, nor much experience at all except for delivering pizzas as a teenager.
I found work in a faucet factory in a Cleveland suburb. It was just jeans and tee shirts, no pretty outfits like the women in the front office wore. But it was a job and I found it as Denise. I moved out of my friends’ house and into my own apartment. I had a checking account, a credit card, a driver’s license, an apartment lease, and an actual job, all in my new name. The meds were working wonders on my already short, small physique. All those miles of jogging as a teenager were paying off. My breasts were small but at least they were mine, and by my fantasy-fueled definition “natural” because they weren’t implants. My face was getting softer, my hair longer, the tone of my arms and legs smoother, my hips and thighs fuller. I was so guarded about maintaining my “stealth” life that I decided not to risk seeking out electrolysis. Instead, I started tweezing my whiskers, every day, sometimes for an hour, sometimes two. It was a way of avoiding any five o’clock shadow that threatened to show through my makeup; it was a way, too, of avoiding having to shave, which didn’t make me feel very feminine. So, with enormous discipline, my overall presentation was good enough. It didn’t bother me too much that I had to “tuck” down there. I was making so much progress everywhere else that it was easy to forget I still had a penis. And that would be taken care of too, eventually, whenever I had the money. I still thought about returning to Case to finish my engineering degree, but working an actual job seemed more important at the time.
Guys were paying attention to me, too. A male coworker asked me out, another guy while I was in a laundromat. Men struck up conversations with me in the checkout line at the grocery store and I realized (or believed) they were flirting with me. These encounters were frightening but thrilling. My default response was always to decline any invitations, usually lying about having a boyfriend. When I had my surgery, I told myself, then I might say yes. It would be enough of a challenge to get a man to accept me as transgender, but then to expect him not to mind that I still had a penis would be insane. I really wasn’t interested in being beaten up or possibly killed because I trusted the wrong guy to understand. This was before the proliferation of online dating, including the emergence of lgbt dating sites, so I was yet to discover the tranny chasers out there, those who find the incongruity between gender and genitals some kind of turn-on. I did eventually date such a man, meeting him on a site called PlanetOut, which I don’t think exists anymore. I think I was trying to consummate my vision of myself as a straight female by having sex with a man, though in truth I didn’t like it as much as I did in fantasy. At any rate, we carried on for about a year before the novelty of it apparently wore off for him–and for me, to be honest.
Living in my little Cleveland apartment, I wondered if I’d ever see my family again. It was going on two years since I’d come out to them and my father still refused to let me come home as Denise. I spent holidays either alone or with friends, though most of my family lived less than an hour away. There were painful phone calls, and now and then a long letter from my mother, ostensibly to share any family news but filled with pleading, too, beseeching me in the name of Jesus to cast off my delusions and come back home. The letters always began with, “Dearest Firstborn Son,” or “My Dearest Michael…” When I mentioned that the mail carrier might be confused by envelopes addressed to ‘Mike,’ since it was ‘Denise’ on my mailbox, she began addressing them to ‘Resident.’ These letters infuriated me. My own mother, who had inspired my dream of growing up to become a woman, now seemed to scorn me for that dream. I should have seen that in their own way, my parents were trying to get me to come to my senses because they loved me. But I had no interest in being loved as Mike. I only wanted love as Denise, a persona they steadfastly rejected. Slowly things began to thaw and I was allowed back home, but only if I cooled it on dressing up. So, much like my work life, I appeared on my parents’ doorstep in jeans and a shirt–except here it was baggy enough to hide my breasts a little. I kept my hair in a ponytail and wore just a touch of makeup. It wasn’t easy for them or me. They didn’t call me ‘Denise’ and wouldn’t play the pronoun game, but at least they were trying to reestablish something like “normal” contact with me. I should have been much more grateful for that than I was. Instead I focused only on what I didn’t have (acceptance as Denise), rather than what I did have: a family who, because they loved me, just couldn’t say goodbye to Mike.
I left my faucet factory job for a better one, where I made more money and got the chance to run CNC mills and lathes. I learned to program these machines and do set-up. I was confident, knew how to joke around with the men I worked with, and aggressively sought out more opportunities to learn. My previous image of myself as a traditionally feminine woman was fading away. Before I quite realized it I had become something of a tomboy. I had a nice wardrobe of dressy clothes but never much chance to wear them, and when I did, usually on Saturday shopping trips, they just felt forced. The more feminine I tried to make my appearance, the more self-conscious I was about passing. Maybe I was better off, I thought, working on a factory floor instead of in an office. I job-hopped a little more during the 1990s, building a broader resumé as a machinist. Returning to Case grew less and less likely. I was making good money, especially without any dependents, and I estimated that I’d soon have enough for surgery. I began writing short stories and wrote a bad, semi-autobiographical novel, _Diary of a Tomboy_, in which an MtT factory worker falls for a female coworker. I tried to tell myself I was attracted to men, and even _wanted_ to be in order to build my self-image as a traditional woman (case in point: my fling with the guy I met on PlanetOut), but men have never turned me on the way women do. So I started seeing myself as a lesbian. I know how absurd this is, but for a while it seemed a viable
adaptation to where I was at the time: presenting myself as female, finding a comfortable niche as a tomboy, and being, as I always was, overwhelmingly attracted to women. Maybe I could find a partner who would accept me as an “honorary” lesbian. But I still wasn’t right down there, which might put a damper on the lesbian thing. People can be such sticklers for correct anatomy. In time, I told myself. Keep taking care of yourself and keep saving money.
Gradually, though, my thinking changed about surgery. My body had become fairly well feminized, but the estrogen and spironolactone never reduced my libido very much, possibly because of the dosages, or possibly because I still enjoyed masturbation (quite adept by now at ignoring the irony of having a penis while fantasizing about being a woman), thereby keeping things alive, so to speak. But I began to worry about how much pleasure I would have after such a radical rearrangement. I wasn’t sure I could trust accounts from post-op MtTs about their sexual satisfaction–I suspected that most people who undergo something like that may be inclined to give it a favorable spin–nor did I have any way of knowing how my own surgical outcome would be. What if it was awful? What if I couldn’t come anymore? Was I willing to trade orgasms just so I could look more like a woman? Just so I could wear tight jeans without tucking? Maybe it was better to imagine the vagina and keep the orgasms, rather than getting the vagina and possibly having to imagine the orgasms. After all, I’d been doing the former for a long time. Also, everything was stable in my life, not perfect but good enough. I didn’t feel the need anymore to risk surgery and its possible complications, didn’t need a hospital stay, didn’t need to take a leave of absence from work and worry about explaining it. I decided I didn’t need any of it. So I went from seeing myself as pre-op to no-op. I would simply live as a woman with a penis. As crazy as it may seem, it was a compromise I felt I could live with.
In reality, I think my eventual choice not to have surgery was a way of hedging my bets. Though I couldn’t admit it to myself yet, I wasn’t so sure anymore that I was as “transgender” as I once thought. Not having electrolysis might be seen this way, too, as well as my “accidental” career in a very masculine field. Seeing myself as a tomboy was a way out of living the feminine life I had thought I wanted. Instead of high heels, I wore steel-toed work boots. I kept my hair tied back and worked almost exclusively with men, who probably figured I was a lesbian, since my “boyfriend” was never seen. In some ways I had made a genuine transition–hormones, name-change, and to some degree presenting as female–but my original vision had never materialized. Welcoming home my husband with a martini and a kiss had been long forgotten as a part of my fantasy. Still, as Y2K rolled around, I was comfortable with my life, if no longer thrilled by it.
I kept working as a machinist and writing in my spare time. My life as Denise really began to end, as I see it, when I decided in 2006 to write another novel, this time from the perspective of a lonely male park ranger. I set it in 1974 and called it _The Pardon_, after Ford’s pardon of Nixon that year, but it was really a late bloomer’s coming-of-age story. My protagonist was Gary. He is short, shy, still a virgin in his twenties. He loves women but doesn’t know how to approach them. He has a difficult relationship with his father. When he was a teenager his mother was killed in a bus crash while on a trip with a church group. While not literally taken from my own background, this character was, in many ways, me. Writing from a male perspective was surprisingly refreshing, as was the honest exploration of this particular man’s challenges and feelings of loss, many of which were my own. As I worked on it I found myself envying the relative simplicity of this character’s life compared to mine. I had some of the same concerns he did, but I was so much more encumbered by all of my trans baggage that the happy ending I wrote for the book didn’t seem nearly as likely for my own life. But I couldn’t let go yet of everything I’d worked so hard for. Part of it was stubbornness, part of it pride, part of it my ego–a very masculine ego–clinging to the accomplishment of “becoming a woman.” I wasn’t yet ready to admit that my real accomplishment had merely been a successful, or at least an adequate, impersonation of a woman, that all along I had never been a woman, that I honestly couldn’t say I’d ever felt like one. What man could? But I still wasn’t there, wasn’t ready yet to give up what I had to admit was basically a need to pretend.
The next big turning point came in December of 2012. By this time relations with my family were as good as I thought they’d ever get. I had been welcomed back home for a long time now. I think my parents realized that keeping me at arm’s length wasn’t doing anything to change my mind, only creating more pain for all of us. No one seemed very bent out of shape anymore by my appearance, and during visits back home I dressed as I pleased. And, to my great amazement, beginning around this time, all but one member of my family started calling me Denise and using female pronouns. Even my fiercely religious mother had somehow found a place for me, as Denise, in her view of the world. The older of my two younger brothers explained it to me something like this: “It was getting kind of silly to keep calling you Mike when you’re standing there in a dress, with breasts and long hair and makeup…” It had taken more than twenty-five years, but they’d finally come around. I knew they hadn’t really changed their minds, that when I wasn’t with them they still referred to me as Mike, but I was touched by the simple courtesy of their effort. The lone holdout was my youngest brother, the one who had followed my mother into a born-again Christian life soon after I’d come out so many years earlier. We were cordial to each other now and had recovered much of the closeness we had as kids, but he never went along with the rest of the family in playing the name game or using my preferred pronouns. I can’t remember where it was, but I read somewhere on this site how someone’s refusal to use trans people’s PGPs was a way of keeping the door open for their return to who they really are. I love that way of putting it, and my brother expressed something very similar to me a few months ago, after I told him I was finally done with being trans. He said that his refusal to call me Denise was never meant to be mean, but that he just couldn’t “close that door” and lock Mike away like that.
Back to December, 2012. It was a Friday. I had taken off work to do some Christmas shopping, spending the day walking through malls, picking up gifts here and there for my family. I bought myself a new blouse to wear to Christmas dinner, too. I still loved shopping for clothes and imagining myself as a pretty woman, but there was a palpable hollowness to it lately. I had given up so much for this fantasy and really had nothing to show for it. I might look ok, but so what? The original plan, I reminded myself, was that by becoming a woman I would be so free, so open to my feelings, so much more sociable and outgoing, a full member of the world. But none of this had happened. I was still the same introverted, narcissistic, self-centered jerk I’d been when I decided back in 1984 that I had to be “free,” no matter the toll on my family or my relationship with them. After my last stop, late that afternoon, I got in my car and switched on the radio for the first time that day. There had been a shooting that morning in Newtown, Connecticut, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty children shot to death. All between six and seven years old. I was completely shattered. I have never cried so hard before or since. I was crying at work, crying at home, crying on and off for days. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. All the stupid drama of my life reared up to mock me. Here was real tragedy, real pain. A few months later, on Easter Sunday of 2013, shortly after my 50th birthday, I did something I hadn’t done since my teens: I went to church.
I didn’t know what to expect, and it still had to be on my own terms, as Denise, but I had been feeling so empty and generally disgusted with myself that I was willing to give it a try. I actually googled ‘most liberal denominations.’ Episcopalian popped up high on the list. Ok, I thought, I’ll try that one. So, that Sunday morning, I put on a nice dress and set out for an Episcopal church about half an hour from me. I had the nervousness of a newcomer and found the heavily liturgical service a little complicated. We had been Methodists when I was a kid and this English-flavored Catholic stuff was kind of odd to me. But everyone was friendly and I found myself enjoying it. My family was quite surprised, and probably a little skeptical, when I told them I’d found a church. My extremely conservative mother said something to the effect that it wouldn’t have been her first choice as a church, but it was better than nothing, and she was glad I was trying it. After the Easter service I resisted the urge to retreat back into my closed little world, forcing myself to stay for coffee hour. As I was leaving, a woman turned to me and said, “Happy Easter!” She was clearly older than I, but I liked her striking green eyes and warm smile. I replied in kind and left, looking forward to the following Sunday.
This woman and I became fast friends. She was twice widowed, had a son and daughter about my age, and lived on a sprawling farm. On Sundays after church she began inviting me over for tea. She told me all about herself, how she had taught English and drama at the local high school for 33 years, how her husbands had died, the first from a brain tumor when he was 38, the second from esophageal cancer in 2010. I reciprocated as much as I dared, telling her about my machining career, my attempts at writing, how the Newtown tragedy had led me back to church after a long span of agnosticism. I began feeling guilty about withholding “the big secret” from her; she had told me so much about herself. She had directed 71 high-school plays during her career as a teacher and still loved theater. Well, I thought, maybe someone from this kind of background will understand someone like me. So I told her, one of only a handful of people outside my family I’ve come out to over the years. Her reaction amazed me. She was so kind about it, so completely accepting.
How it all happened I don’t know. I think we were both incredibly lonely when we met. We had our church friends, but also some difficult losses and sacrifices in our lives. But however it was, we became intimate with each other, soon after which she asked me to move in with her at the farm. My parents were thrilled by this. They had no idea then that we were more than friends. I had met an older woman at church who needed help around her farm. We had become great friends, we could talk about anything (I told them I’d come out to her and that she’d accepted it with no problem), and I was tired of living alone. So, I think the biggest influence of all for me, in my return to living as Mike, was this strange, completely unexpected relationship with a woman 23 years my senior, a year older, in fact, than my mother. I had never been intimate with a woman, had never really thought I could be, my lesbian fantasies notwithstanding. I wasn’t very good in bed, to be sure, but it was wonderful for me to open myself that way, to be naked with her, to fumble our way through lovemaking. I was able to be the man in a relationship after all, even if at this point it was only behind closed doors.
I lived with her for almost two years before she got sick last September. The doctors suspected meningitis and possibly a kidney infection, but it took a long time to treat. She had to spend a couple of nerve wracking weeks in the hospital, and during this time her son and daughter shocked me by asking me to move out. The daughter knew I was trans (her mother had told her early on), but not the son, though he surely knows now. She (the daughter) said it had nothing to do with that, however; they had simply never been comfortable with the whole arrangement. There were too many stories in the news, she told me, about seniors falling victim to con artists. I bristled at this. I may have been a con artist of sorts, but I’d only been conning myself about being a woman. I would never try to take advantage of someone. But I had little ground to stand on. It wasn’t my house, and the woman whose house it was still lay recovering in the hospital. To be honest, we both knew our relationship couldn’t last forever, and we certainly had our share of arguments. So, the idea of my moving out had been on the table even before it was hastened by her son and daughter. It was a painful end to an incredible time in my life. I still love this woman and we call and write each other often. She was the first person I ever felt comfortable enough with to share the idea that maybe I didn’t need this trans business anymore. Just having someone to talk to about this is something I will always cherish. She did nothing less than change my life, just by being who she was, in the right place at the right time. My dabblings in organized religion never took hold, but who am I to say there is no God, one who doesn’t work in mysterious ways?
To January of this year. As I mentioned in my first post here a few weeks ago, I had been terribly depressed. I could no longer see my beloved friend. I had just gone through another Thanksgiving and Christmas, welcomed as Denise by my family but just not feeling it. And I was frankly exhausted by all of this transgender crap. It had been a kind of parallel career for me and I had finally realized–and accepted–that I didn’t need it anymore. I was ready to retire.
I’m a machinist at a fairly large auto parts plant (about 220 hourly employees), where I run something called a rotary transfer machine. This is truly a work of art, performing eleven different machining operations on the parts it makes (high lift followers for engine valve trains) and producing a finished part every six seconds, machined to tolerances in the microns. In addition to running this amazing machine, I work with a great bunch of guys. They’re all guys in my department; I had been the only “woman.” In other words, I really like my job. So it was with great trepidation that I decided to risk losing it. I approached our Human Resources department and scheduled a meeting with them and my supervisor, a friendly enough but somewhat imposing former Marine. The small meeting took place, with our two HR women and my boss, and all three were completely supportive. A bigger meeting was scheduled, this time including 20 department heads, at which I stood up and simply told the truth: I had lived and worked for 31 years as a woman, but in fact I had been born male. And the reason I’m telling all of you this is because I’ve decided to go back to living as a man. An hour later, at our individual shop floor meetings, these supervisors passed the news along to their respective teams. Within 24 hours the news was plant-wide. As I indicated in my initial post, people were mildly blown away. For days afterward I was getting compliments on my courage, and even a couple of hugs. Within a week I had new uniforms with ‘Mike’ on the shirts instead of ‘Denise.’ I’m still on the payroll in my current name, but everyone has been great about calling me Mike. I do get the occasional female reference but I don’t let it bother me. What I had worried about the most, people giving me trouble about locker rooms, never happened. No one has scratched FAG into my locker in the men’s room, or done anything at all to intimidate me. And on the women’s side of things, no one has confronted me about having used their locker room. (This had been another tipping point for me, the growing feeling during the last couple of years that I just didn’t belong in that private space.) There are some married couples who work there and I had some serious concerns about an angry husband or two approaching me. But so far, so good. There has been nothing but widespread respect from my coworkers. Just seeing this kindness and forgiveness and support–not only from them but from my friends and family–has been inspiring.
It hasn’t all been easy. Even with my short haircut and the beard that’s coming back, somehow, after years of yanking it out, and wearing chest binders ordered from an FtM site (irony of ironies!), I still get “Ma’am” sometimes from strangers. At this point I think I passed better as a woman than I do now as a man, except that “pass” isn’t the right term anymore, because I actually am a man. I’m short, as I’ve said, and rather small-framed. My face and body are still soft from decades of estrogen. My breasts don’t seem to be shrinking very much and at this point (almost eight months after stopping the meds), I don’t think they will. Whether or not to have them removed is an open question. Maybe I should get rid of them, as a last symbolic severing of Denise from my life. Or, maybe I’ve wasted enough time and energy worrying about my appearance. Maybe I’ll even ditch the binders but I don’t have the guts for that right now. I think most strangers read me as a transitioning FtM, which in some ways I am. Not that I was ever female, but currently my body is a lot more feminine than masculine. To say the least, it’s an awkward time for me. In public I feel just as self-conscious as I did during my early days as Denise, and to be honest this part of my “retirement” (the self-consciousness) has been a struggle for me. But I’m working on it. I had my testosterone tested a few months ago and it is coming back, though whether or not it will get back up to normal levels for a man in his early fifties is another open question. Just for my bone health, I don’t want to be stuck in a lingering hormonal vacuum, with neither enough estrogen or testosterone in my system. So T supplements are a possibility, though I hope to avoid them. The good news, despite these physical and social concerns, is that I feel a deep peace in returning to life as Mike, and such deep gratitude for this second chance to be a real person, flaws and all.
I will close now (another miracle!) with a message for other trans folks out there who may be done with it but can’t find the courage to admit it. There is great power in opening yourself to others, even in revealing things you may not be proud of. If you need to save face, then chalk up your trans life as a bold experiment that played itself out. If you do acknowledge it as a mistake, remember that everyone makes mistakes, and the first step toward redemption after any mistake is to be honest about it. Try saying this out loud: “I’m getting tired of this, it isn’t doing me any good, I don’t need to do it any more.” It’s not such a terrible thing to admit, certainly not as bad as struggling year after year to be someone you’re not. I swore to everyone around me that living as a woman, to the extent I could, would make me happy. I argued my case with great conviction and skill. But I was still wrong. This is a damned hard road, and you don’t have to take it. If you’ve already started on it, no matter how far you’ve gone, there is always a way back home. Just keep following the signs that say Honesty.
Thank you for letting me post this, Gallus. Writing it has been a great experience for me.
[title and images added by me- GM]