I’m outside, kneeling in the grass, examining the pillbugs and ants and brown grass-dwelling spiders, testing their patience with leaf stems and small twigs, trying to coax them into obstacle courses of my own devising: leaf tunnels, trenches dug with an index finger, mazes made from grass blades. My hair is pulled aside and tucked over my shoulder, to keep it from falling in my eyes.
My mom calls me in. Reluctantly I step into the warm light of the house, away from the dusky yard. That night as I’m preparing for bed, my mother is angry, as usual, at the way I treat my hair.
“You have to take better care of it! You’re a girl. It’s embarrassing.”
“I don’t want the hair,” I say.
“Don’t say that. Other people would love hair like yours. See mine? It thins when you get older.” She pushes me in front of the mirror to face my own sullen expression.
The next evening I am in the yard again. I’ve discovered a millipede, and this is very exciting. I’m ignoring the fact that dusk is near, and that up and down the cul-de-sac, parents are retrieving their children, the dim silhouettes of mothers in doorways, illuminated from behind by comfortable light; fathers ambling out to the driveway to beg young children to get their toys and come inside.
A kid named Zoey sits by her mailbox. I don’t notice her until her conversation with her mother flares into an argument. I don’t know what her mother has said, but her words are a match thrown into a gas leak, and I hear the girl’s reply: “I’M NOT ZOEY!” I look up and see her mother standing in the driveway, angry and exasperated, demanding Zoey come inside. Zoey is crying, adamantly refusing. She is Zach, she insists. A boy.
Later, I ask my own mother about Zoey. Her voice goes quiet and somber in a strange way, a tone usually reserved for topics she prefers to dance around. “Zoey thinks she is a boy,” she says. My mother seems to pity her.
That night I don’t fight it when my mom brushes my hair. I do, however, wear my hair pulled back, out of sight, more and more frequently.
Thirteen years later. I sit in the lab, late one night. I’m tired because I have been running data for my study, and I still need to finish. My eyes feel dry and unfocused. It’s raining outside as the sky darkens; the droplets tap quietly at the windows. I am alone in the lab and, as far as I know, alone in this wing of the building. My mind, as strained as my eyes at this point, wanders with abandon. I consider one of the tests I have been processing results for.
The differences between men and women: how robust these differences can seem in our tests. I administer the tests to myself. Spatial reasoning: perfect. 2D:4D ratio: masculine, possibly linked to prenatal testosterone exposure. I am a scientist, and know I should not place too much meaning into these things. I know better. The trends in our results reflect averages, not individuals. But I can’t stop thinking about it: how I have so little in common with the people I am supposed to and their average behaviors.
I imagine the brain of an infant: tiny, delicate, passive. Helpless. I envision it bathed in a fateful flood of androgens, that entirely irreversible, formative moment that leads to masculinization of the brain.
I close the statistical software and leave my chair. The corridor light flicks on as I pass through it and enter the restroom, where I stand before the sink and mirror, lean forward, watch droplets fall into the sink. There is, I know, no cure for this kind of broken. It’s a very long time before I can wash my face and return to the lab.
Five years earlier. I come home from high school and shuffle down to my room, drop my backpack to the floor and sit down beside it. Eventually I stretch out and lie flat on my back.
I think for a long time this way. A semi-decision has been made in my head, and I argue it for a while: agree, then disagree, then agree, then disagree. They would never guess the real reason. It would get erased the moment my synapses went dark.
I tie a length of rope (I have kept it hidden behind my comic books) to the wooden bar at the top of my closet. I tie the other end around my neck. And then I sever my mental attachment to the world, and I fall. I am floating and dizzy and my eyes feel like they are too tight, and then suddenly, confusingly, I hear a thud and I am choking.
The tiny supports that hold the wooden bar to the wall have broken. I am lying on my shoes, in the coolness of the closet, and I am staring forward, and I feel nothing and am thinking nothing. Time does not exist. There is my body, there is the closet floor, and there is nothingness stretched out before me. I lie this way until I am found. I spend a long while in the hospital after that.
Five years later. A good friend sends a text: “I know it will be hard for you. But you’re my friend. I support you.” Before I can respond, another line appears in the speech bubble. “Oh, wait. How should I refer to you in public? Sorry if this is a rude question. Don’t want to accidentally out you.”
I realize I hadn’t considered this.
“Not a rude question,” I type back. “I guess for now, it’s just between us.”
Soon after, I’m on a bench at the mall with a different friend. I’ve just finished speaking, and she pulls me into a hug against her side. “You’re my friend, dude,” she says. “I love you no matter what.”
And then I am sitting in the department office, haunting my usual seat, staring at my cell phone as though it could bite me. When it finally buzzes, my heart flies up through my throat. I open the text thread and see the messages my mother and I have already sent back and forth: my opening query of “what if I was actually a guy,” her initial reply of “what in the world are you talking about”—I tend to make fairly strange comments, and this was not, all things considered, too unusual for something I would say—and my response of “what if, in other words, I was born in the wrong body.” And now I see her latest reply, the one I have awaited so anxiously, and it is lengthy, and I read it twice, and a flood of relief washes over me.
Four months later. I lie on the bed, despondent. I have been happier lately, astounded, continuously, at how much lighter I feel. But other weights remain, and they are wearing down on me: the cost of testosterone. The cost of surgeries. The difficulty and time involved in a legal name change in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The time it will take to fully look like I should.
It’s hard for me, as I stare sideways at the blue of my bedsheets, not to be jealous of my male friends who were born that way. They never had to spend 21 years pretending to be female. They were born with the right parts, and never had to deal with menstruation, or sexism against women, or having to go through puberty as an adult as part of hormone replacement therapy.
I think about what someone close to me said recently, in an effort to cheer me up: “Think of it this way. If you had been born a guy, you might be a completely different person.”
I reflect on this. It is probably true. There is a respect for women I will always have, the kind of respect that can only come from having been placed in their shoes.
This thought is a comfort to me: small, but noticeable.
Three months earlier. My phone has been buzzing with congratulations and support, and I do not know how to handle it. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. I had feared this day for so long, the public acknowledgment of my coming out, in the form of a Facebook post. I had agonized over the wording for hours:
So. You might notice the new name and wonder what’s going on. I’ve decided after much nervousness to be open about myself more publicly. By coming out about this, I’ve felt a weird sense of relief, and I’m finally happy with who I am. I’ll go by Avery from now on, and I’d like to be referred to as male (him, he, etc.). Those of you who knew me as Alyssa, please rest assured that I’m still me. I’m just finally being honest and not hiding a frustrating and depressing secret anymore. Also, I realize that many of you have gotten used to thinking of me as female. You might slip up and use my old name or refer to me as ‘she’ or whatever. That’s ok. It will take time to get used to saying the new things, and I realize mistakes will happen; we’re all human here. I won’t hold them against anyone. All I ask is that you acknowledge me for what I am, and try to re-learn my identity.
A message from my brother this time. He and I are very close, and in our family he was the first to know. “Just wanted to let you know the post you made has gone over very well. Everyone’s pretty chill about it. Last I heard, they were talking about how to explain it to Rachel”—our 5-year-old sister—“without confusing her.”
The following day, I sit down for class, nervous. I don’t know what to expect. To my relief, the class begins as usual. When it comes time for people to address me, my peers don’t miss a beat: They refer to me by my new name. They address me as “he.” I try to contain my relief and am filled with appreciation.
When I get home, I open my email, and see a kind message from my advisor. And that is it, my eyes brim despite my best efforts. I regain my composure, but it’s like a new light has been flicked on in my mind.
Twelve years earlier. I sit in the corner of the playground, under a tree near the woodchips and the playground equipment. My friends, Will and Tyler, approach me.
“Want to play Dragon Fight?” Will says. This is the game we’ve played for the last few weeks. We think the lightning dragon, with his electric breath depicted in our crayon scrawlings, is the coolest; of the others, the fire dragon is weaker, and the water dragon is a girl.
“My mom says I should wear my hair down,” I say. “She says I should wear skirts, too.”
“Why?” Tyler asks.
“Because I’m a girl.”
Will giggles. “A skirt?”
“Yeah,” laughs Tyler. “You’re basically a boy.”
“You’re like us,” Will agrees.
I stand up and dust off my shorts.
“I’m going to be the lightning dragon,” I tell them.
And then we chase after each other, and the only sounds are the crunch of woodchips under our feet and the wild laughter of boys at play.
Avery Malone is a Ph.D. student, researcher, and sometimes writer. This is his first (non-research-related) publication. Malone lives in Buffalo, New York, with his cat Aerith. When not in the lab or classroom, he plays bass guitar (terribly) and is an advocate for the dignity and rights of transgender people.