"Here, sign this," my friend Dave says. He's holding out a Sharpie and a copy of a comic book anthology we've both contributed scripts to.
You have to sign comics with a Sharpie, because regular ink smudges on the glossy paper. Signing in permanent ink requires a certain boldness and fluidity of motion; there are no second chances. Even a mildly successful comic book writer like myself will sign thousands of comics over the course of a career, so it's something you learn to do quickly and effortlessly. A signature on a book makes it personal, more intimate, more real.
As I lower the Sharpie to the page, it hits me: I don't have a signature.
I used to have one, of course. A loopy whorl I first developed in ninth grade, in the hope that one day I would produce something worth signing. I developed it over time into a robust emblem, always taking care with it, because a signature means something. It's more than just your written name; it symbolizes you. It represents you to the world.
When I came out as transgender, though, I changed my name to Lilah. That lilting name is immensely important to me, and using it is one of many ways I lay claim to my identity as a woman. I kept it secret for years, cherishing it, protecting it like a candle flame, before setting my entire life ablaze.
Given its importance to me and the fact that part of my job is to attend events literally called signings, you'd think that I would have come up with a beautiful signature to match such a lovely name.
Most adults rarely encounter situations of such pure, unadulterated incompetence. Such surprises are rare. But now that I'm transitioning into womanhood, they are more or less a daily occurrence. Everything is new. I'm remaking my entire life, and my way of interacting with the world has changed. There are moments of bliss, when I interact with women as a peer, learning their wisdom and laughing with them in a way I once thought impossible. There are moments of wonder, when I consider that every day I do things that paralyzed me six months ago.
There are even moments of outright defiance: When I went to pick up my hormones last week, the cashier deliberately called me "sir." I quietly stared him in the eye for five solid seconds until he relented and muttered, "ma'am." I sauntered away, 6 feet 3 inches of bad bitch.
And then, OK, there are moments when I'm sitting on the floor of the bathroom, sobbing until I can barely breathe, wondering how I'm going to face every hard thing I have to face for another day.
I would love to say that transition has been easy, but that would be a lie. I've lost friends and loved ones who couldn't cope with my identity. I'm scared of strangers who stare at me in public; I wonder whether they wish me harm. I'm worried and mortified at the thought of laws that will make it illegal for me to use the correct restroom. A comic fan on the internet wrote that I'm mentally ill and he'll never accept me as female and will continue to refer to me by my old name. He will never understand how hurtful that is.
It's worth it, though, all of it. Because every time a waiter calls me "ma'am" I almost giggle. When I hear my name, I shiver with pleasure. My wildest dream has come true, and nobody can ever take that away from me.
My new life as Lilah is a gift, even if I'm still figuring out how to unwrap it. There are so many things I want to know, so many questions I want to ask. I push myself into social situations. I go out of my way to make new friends. I pepper other trans women with questions about their bodies, their lives, their journeys. I stumble and I make mistakes and I pick myself up and keep going.
When Dave hands me the Sharpie and the book, and I realize I have no signature, I laugh. Another new thing to learn, another opportunity to be me. I grab a a blank piece of paper and scribble a few candidate designs. Nothing looks good, so I settle on just the single word LILAH in big block letters. It won't win any design awards, but it's the truth.
The book I'm signing isn't just any book, either. It's called Love Is Love, and it's a response to the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting, containing dozens of stories from the comics community. All proceeds from sales of the book go to support victims of the shooting and their families, via Equality Florida.
I was still closeted when I wrote my contribution, so it was credited to my old name. I struggled with the shame I felt, hiding my identity while contributing to a project that eulogizes and celebrates people who lived their lives out and proud. In a burst of optimism, though, I penned a story set in a hopeful future, a future in which we have escaped from the tragedies of our past and found a way to remake ourselves.
A few days after Dave hands me the book to sign, the publisher tells me that the demand for Love Is Love is so high that it's going back for a third printing. And because they are very nice people, they took that opportunity to update my name in the credits; my story will now say that it was written by "Lilah Sturges."
I can't wait to sign it.
LILAH STURGES is a New York Times best-selling comic book writer who lives in Austin.
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