When I was thirteen, I told my dad I wanted to go to MIT. I was going be an engineer, and I wanted to go to a prestigious school. My dad was about three quarters of the way gone from reality at this point, but he wanted to see me succeed, so he encouraged this idea of mine. At some point in the days we spent talking about this, he told me how women shouldn’t be in STEM; that women just aren’t as good at math and analytical thinking. This felt bad to me, but I also never knew how to argue with my dad, because he would always pull the authority card on me, so we didn’t talk about it further.
When I was fifteen, I started attending a local votech for general ed college courses. While I’d like to claim this was because of my unique gifts and talents, the truth is community colleges and vocational schools in Kansas have been encouraging highschoolers to take dual credit courses for some time now. Technical courses are free for under 18 year olds, in a singular good move by the Kansas legislature, and general ed courses are heavily discounted. As I was homeschooled, my parents hoped taking dual credits would help show my readiness to colleges like MIT. It helped that my mom taught nights for nursing classes to earn a little extra money, and so my courses were covered as part of her employment.
I had my first college ID for a long time; an extremely scruffy teenager who looked ten years older than what was on that ID. I grew up tall and fast; at age thirteen, I was already nearly the tallest I’d ever be. I played for a year on a homeschool basketball team, and the team doctor measured me at 6’5″. My family was convinced I’d end up being seven foot by the time puberty was done with me, but in the end, 6’6″~ was the tallest I’d ever get. To this day I’m not totally sure where all those inches went (at doctors offices I now measure 6’2″-6’3″ depending on the day), but either way, I was tall at a young age and I’m still above average when it comes to these things.
At age nine I had a dream about being out on the beach with a bunch of the girls from church, and turns out I was a girl in that dream too. This scared the shit out of me; I had no idea how to process it. So I developed an intense fear that one day I was going to secretly turn out to be a girl all along. I never knew why I was afraid of this, and in due time, it started to creep into my idle daydreams and thoughts. What if I was forced to be a girl? Then I’d just have to go along with it, I guess.
The backdrop to this is that by this point I was playing Pokemon on the regular. I played countless hours of Pokemon Emerald on my little Gameboy SP, and what would you know, I picked the girl. Well, I played through with a boy protagonist, and then I deleted my save and picked the girl. Just to see if anything was different. Maybe something would be different? I had to be sure. And then I picked up my brother’s old Crystal cart and loaded in as a girl. By the time Diamond made its way into my hands, I was loading in as a girl in every game that I could.
At age fourteen, I started attending a homeschool coop, which is a fancy way of saying one mother with an English degree taught a dozen different classes at near-starvation wages by a bunch of parents handing over meager checks. I word this very negatively, but to this day I appreciate my highschool teacher. She did us kids a lot of good, and was a shockingly moderate voice to the often outright batshit parents who sent their kids to her. She never charged much, because she wanted every kid to be able to come get an education. She absolutely deserved much more than she ever received, and the thanks she got was a bunch of parents getting together a few years after I graduated, demanding she teach dominionism. She refused, they stopped sending their kids, she didn’t make enough to pay rent to the church she hosted us out of.
At age fourteen, I started attending a homeschool coop. I met Michael there, the first of my hard-and-fast relationships. A highschool junior, he was the kid of two professors who had hate fucked him into existence; somehow, his home life was nonetheless rather calm. I was drawing Minecraft schematics in my notebook, he looked over and saw, we exchanged server IPs and usernames. Our friendship grew over the years, and even after he graduated highschool and went to university, I’d still frequently visit him. He was going into software development, and I idolized him just a bit. In retrospect, I probably had a bit of a crush on him as well: something he never reciprocated. In this dynamic, he was my best friend in the whole world; to him, I was just a friend he’d hang out with every other week. I counted the days until I could go to his place again, he was busy pursuing his own little passion projects.
At age fifteen, I told Michael that I’d been trying to lucid dream, and was dreaming about being a girl. This probably sounded really funny to him, given that my dysphoria (spoiler!) beard was in full force. I really, really, really hated how I looked clean shaven. It made me look young, and I didn’t want to look young. I wanted to look older, because looking older meant people respected you. No one respected you if you looked younger. The dysphoria beard would continue until I visited my cancer-fighting grandmother in the hospital, when under the influence of heavy narcotics, she told me that I looked like a terrorist and should shave it. I started trimming and keeping it more under control afterwards; this problematic tale would be recounted by my grandfather, many years later, at my lesbian wedding. It did not go over well.
Me and Michael started to record our dreams together. He was interested in lucid dreaming too. I, of course, talked about trying to dream about being a girl more. He was receptive, but perpetually mildly amused and confused by it. I asked him if he’d try out being a girl: he said maybe for a morning, you know, for horny purposes. I laughed along. That’s the only reason a guy would have for wanting to be a girl, after all.
At age ten or eleven, in the attic that was once my brother’s room in a house on the outskirts of a quarry, I got access to my parents’ Netflix account on a laptop that I had managed to connect to the wifi, bypassing my dad’s strict internet whitelisting that all the hardwired computers were subject to. There was a documentary streaming that I’ve yet to find again called “Transamerica” or something like that. I clicked on it because late oughts Netflix had a fairly limited streaming catalogue, and it seemed interesting from the thumbnail. It was a documentary about six trans folks, I believe split evenly between trans men and trans women. The pervasive theme was hardship and struggle; all of the trans men were depicted as relentlessly horny, two of the trans women were sex workers. The remaining, if I recall correctly, was a more well-to-do girl from a family in a good financial situation. She was the only one that got all the surgeries she wanted. The show also depicted her arguing with her sister a lot about gendering things, and the family being generally “yes of course we support [her] but this is a bit silly isn’t it.”
The terms transsexual and transgender became conflated in my mind, with all the baggage of the former sticking out the most. My conception of gender deviancy and nonconformity was set as just that: deviant, sexual, a fetish. It didn’t help that, as my teenage years went on and the hormonal cocktail that gave me that height advantage in middle school also made my sexuality spin out of control. It especially didn’t help that when I thought about sex, I could never imagine myself as a guy. It seemed weird, not right, off somehow. I thought I must be gay, which was why I always imagined myself as a woman. Obviously that’s the gay thing to do. It was extra weird how I preferred depictions of lesbian relationships in media. Guess that meant I was definitely a gay dude.
At age sixteen, I became a subteam lead in my homeschool robotics group. I had started participating one season prior, where I was teamed up with Michael to make the lifter portion of an elevator robot. It went spectacularly well and I loved it; the adult mentors took notice and made me chassis lead the next season, with some new fresh folks under my wing. Michael went off to another subteam. It was about then, as I was told to pick who’d be part of my team, that I noticed that none of the girls on the team were out on the shop floor. They were all inside, working on the marketing portions of the team, or the aesthetics, or othersuch thing. If it meant actually working on or influencing the robot’s operations, there wasn’t a girl to be found. The adult mentors also skewed heavily male, with any women mentors inside with the rest of the girls. Subteam leads of these indoor teams also tended to be boys.
I started to feel out of place. I started to feel like I didn’t belong out on the shop floor. I loved working on the robot, I loved building things and testing things and prototyping and solving problems. But I didn’t feel like I truly belonged.
At age twelve, I joined a bionicle forum and proceeded to post way too much cringe for years to come. I also learned how to write, how to organize folks for games, how to behave like not-an-asshole-kid. I ran several forum rpgs, I participated in several forum rpgs, I got into my share of disputes on the site. I also, at some point, changed my forum gender marker from male to female. It was for a joke; I changed my name every ninety days, and that time, I changed my name from Alex to Alexandria. Of course, when it came time to change my name again, I went back to Alex, but didn’t change my gender back. It’d be funny, after all. No real girls on the internet, after all. And so what if people gendered me according to how I had self-labeled? That was just more of the joke.
At age seventeen, I fell in love with a girl I played forum RPGs with. Of anything I can recount at this point, it feels the silliest. I fell super, super in love with her, for about four months, give or take. We’d sit up at night chatting on Skype. We got up to other shenanigans. She lived in Virginia, and was going to school out on the east coast. I decided, rather than MIT, I wanted to go to Virginia Tech, to be closer to her. My family, begrudgingly, indulged this and started making plans for that. When the relationship broke apart in record time, I decided I’d attend a local university instead. I probably gave my mother a few gray hairs in the process.
At age seventeen, I fell in love with a girl I played forum RPGs with. One night, as we sat on Skype talking about things, I confessed I wanted to be a girl sometimes. Actually, be a girl, you know? That I wished I could have been born in the right body, that things would be better for me. She told me how I’d hate it. How periods suck so much. She spent maybe ten, fifteen minutes, recounting just how much periods suck and how you can die from having a tampon stuck inside you and how I’d hate being a woman. We ended the call with me crying and saying I wouldn’t talk about it again.
At age seventeen, as I sat in my cousin’s basement watching TV with him, we watched the Legend of Korra series finale. I had loved the show, and I loved the final season. I’d seen Korra and Asami get closer and really liked that for reasons I didn’t get. The finale drew to a close, the two women held hands and stared at each other longingly under the light of a spiral of hope and unity, and I was stunned. My cousin, sitting on his bed behind me, asked rather deadpanly “did they make them gay??”, and then complained that they ruined the show. I would go home and rewatch the episode.
At age eighteen, I moved out from my parents and moved in with Michael, now living in a little apartment up in Wichita. The summer was ahead of me, with me going to WSU soon. My last semester of highschool was marked simply with a couple filler courses at community college. I could devote time to hanging out with my best pal and his girlfriend. One of the games we ended up playing was Huniepop, a newly released game at the time. It was and is a cringe-tastic game that I simultaneously cannot in good faith recommend but also think is a really good game. One of the deals there was you could install an nsfw patch to make the stills of the girls you dated in it into full-on nudity, before Steam let any and every hentai and porn game in existence onto the platform. You could also select your gender; if you told the game you were a guy, your after-sex stills had some ‘tasteful’ white splotches on the girls. I always selected girl in games; Michael always selected guy. I thought about this a lot as I 100%’d the game. Michael would force me out of his house a few months later for unrelated reasons, and we stopped talking shortly thereafter.
I met a girl at my first job, who I grew closer and closer to. We’d start to go out after late shifts, eat at IHOP and laugh about the world. We started talking about ourselves and each other more and more. Eventually, one night, under the light of a street lamp and the moon, I told her that I didn’t feel right as a guy. That I thought I’d be happier as a girl. She confessed to me that she felt the same, but in reverse; that she’d be happier as a boy. That her mom said they thought she was going be a boy at first. We laughed and bonded over this. In the present day, she denies this conversation ever took place, and currently uses she/her pronouns while insisting that “cis” is a slur.
I had a mental breakdown trying to do engineering school and washed out of the program, and redirected my efforts to a math major. I started working at Target Mobile, selling cellphones. During that time my first boss there invited me to his place regularly to play video games and help him bake cookies and such. One night, as I was playing Fallout 4 on his Playstation, he sat next to me on the couch and put his hand between my legs, asking me if I’d ever given a man a blowjob before. He was 55, and I was 18. I thought about the knife I had tucked in my cargo pants, I bluffed my way into excusing myself from his home, and I reported him for sexual harassment a month and a half later. When I confessed this to my father, he told me this was how all gay men acted, and how I was wrong to ever associate with them.
At age nineteen I was married and had a kid. That girl I had confessed my feelings to had told me she was infertile, and we ended up proving that wrong. I would spend three years fighting to go through school and earn enough to keep my family fed, while things slowly deteriorated more and more around me. I failed out of more classes. I barely slept. I started finding excuses to be on my own. I’d spend long nights in the basement of one of my stoner friends, laughing and listening to good music, dreading when I’d have to come home to a wife who would tell me all the new evils of the world her mother had told her.
At age twenty one, a friend and coworker would describe me as a “well meaning cis guy” on Reddit. We ended up having an hour long conversation in which I confessed I had no idea what my gender was. I started using they/them and, more limited, she/her, in Discord servers. I adopted the online name Alexandra. Eventually I “formally” came out as a trans woman, and started looking at hormones. I told my wife this; she was supportive at first, but quickly started talking about how much she was going miss “the old me.” She resented the changes my body started to make, after I was prescribed hormones a year later. She would tell me constantly how she was never given enough time, how this was unfair to her, how I was betraying and confusing our child.
At age twenty three, my now best friend Bridget convinced me to file for divorce. I did, and I stood on my porch as my far-more-scary aunt put a physical barrier between me and my mother-in-law, who was screaming that Jesus forsaked me and that I was an abomination. In perhaps the best one-liner retort I’ll ever have in this life, I told her Jesus forgives her, and she did her best attempt to break my jaw. My ex left the house, and Bridget drove overnight that weekend to come and stay a few weeks and console me through it all. She braided my hair, painted my nails, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was free to finally figure out what the deal with my gender and my sexuality was.
I went on to meet my now-wife and talk about so much of what’s been written here and more. I figured out things like my therian identity, neo pronouns (I generally use shi/hir in writing and she/her in person), and I watched it figure out its identity as well. I surrounded myself with folks who had gone through journeys of their own, saw them continue to change and refine what gender meant to them, and watched that reflect back on me.
I don’t particularly have a strong conclusion or a thesis statement out of this, particularly as I could write another half about how my involvement in Empty Spaces has begun to change how I view my gender even more. It’s my involvement in Empty Spaces that inspired this sort of story-driven essay to begin with (that and being activated like an MKULTRA sleeper agent by hearing the Huniepop Ice Rink soundtrack again for the first time in years). It’s my involvement in Empty Spaces that makes my identity lean more to “witch;” feminine coded, a desire to be perceived as feminine, but not necessarily woman, not necessarily human. The latter might seem obvious, with me openly identifying as a canine therian, but there’s dimensions there I’m still figuring out.
There’s so many things I could pull out of my experiences. How my desire to be perceived as older when I was younger was monkey-pawed into being forced to mature and get older by the confluence of life. How when folks hear about me now, they invariably assume I’m in my later thirties from all I talk about, how I talk about it. There’s experiences that shaped me and, in some ways, my gender that I haven’t discussed, like my mother getting my father involuntarily confined for his violent outbursts when I was seventeen. So many different events, tugging on different strings, influencing different things. How part of my identity and heritage as Cherokee comes through my father, but was carried on by his mother, and how I think about that a lot when it comes to what relatives in my life have and haven’t told me about these things.
I originally meant to write about how my gender is in the here and now, but the backstory certainly got lengthy. There’ll probably be a sequel to this at some point to discuss exactly that. But, for now, here’s three thousand odd words about how gender is fucked up, and you should never let anyone tell you your gender journey was wrong. No one gets the perfect story-book version of finding themselves. It’s nice to find common tropes in our various stories, but we can’t use that to police other’s stories.
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