I remember seeing myself for the first time.
As a kid, you don’t really pay a lot of attention to your body. You are what you are, and you rarely ever question it. Then one day, you wake up, come online if you will, and suddenly, you feel very aware of the space around you and how you fit within it.
I was a late bloomer. At 12 and 13, I was pretty slim, flat-chested, and awkward. One day while my mom and sister were gone from the apartment, I stood before closet mirror doors in my mom’s bedroom and just stared at myself. Eventually, I took my shirt off. I remember standing there looking at my chest, how flat it was, the size of my nipples, the little muscle definition I had forming on my stomach. I loved it. I ran my hands up my stomach and felt my chest, felt the muscle. My heart sank in that moment because after a light squeeze, I winced. My chest hurt, and I knew why.
It felt like a nightmare come true. I had been told that one day soon, everything would change, and I would no longer have a child’s body. I waited in fear for that day to come, not really knowing what to expect.
I hadn’t started my period yet, but I could feel the firm breast tissue forming under the skin and I knew it was only a matter of time before I wouldn’t be able to recognize my body anymore. I thought, This must be normal. Every little girl must feel this way. No girl could ever really want to be a girl. Everyone secretly wants to be a boy.
For years those thoughts crept up every time I saw a cisgender male my age. I couldn’t help but obsessively stare at them. I tried to be discreet but got caught a few times. My friends would laugh at me because they figured I was just checking them out, but really, I was trying to put the pieces together in my mind.
I didn’t understand why their clothes fit their bodies the way they did and why mine fit too snugly. I was fascinated by their slim hips and broad shoulders. I wished I could look like them, and that confused me even more. Why didn’t I look like them?
I was a girl. My body was different. It was that simple, but knowing that didn’t stop the same question from repeating over and over in my mind. For me, it wasn’t necessarily about penises and vaginas; it was about the image of myself that I saw in my mind that was so different from the person I saw in the mirror. I wondered what she’d look like when she grew up; if she’d be successful, happy.
I remember staring at myself in mirrors a lot growing up. Sometimes, if I stared long enough I would start to disassociate. At the time, I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing, and it scared me a lot because I would see this person, this girl I knew was me, and then suddenly, she wasn’t. I didn’t recognize this person, like I had never seen her before in my life, but then I’d blink and, in an instant, I was back inside my body.
One time, my sister, who is five years older than me, told me about a girl from school who had died, car crash I think it was. The girl was 16 years old. My sister had said something about how she remembered this girl saying that she couldn’t picture herself as an old woman and believed she’d die young. Sounds like my sister was probably fucking with me now that I think about it, but either way, it stuck with me. I couldn’t picture myself as an old woman either and for a very long time, I was certain I would die before my 16th birthday.
Slowly, these feelings receded to the back of my mind at the onset of puberty. At 14, I had finally started my period, and I swear to God, overnight I grew breasts. One morning I came out of my bedroom. My sister and mother were sitting on the couch in the living room. I didn’t have a shirt on, just a bra and pants. I remember their faces when they saw me. Both of their eyes grew wide and one of them said, “Where did those come from?”
I felt my face flush with embarrassment because I didn’t have the answer — one day I was flat-chested, the next, I had B-cup tits. Womanhood had come and I no longer had anywhere to hide.
Something in me had changed, though. I felt the strong urge to embrace my femininity, because surely, if I welcomed it, I’d learn to love it. I have had many conversations with my sister about being a woman, and when I found out that she loved it, loved that she was born a woman, I realized then that there was more to what I had been feeling — I just didn’t have the words.
I ignored those pesky thoughts, though, and continued to search for my happiness. Fifteen came and went, 16 too, and still I couldn’t find it. At 17, I was pretty detached. I suffered from terrible anxiety attacks and anorexia. I lost a lot of the weight that puberty had put on me. I didn’t go to school, dropped out, partied all the time, smoked a lot of cigarettes, and stayed out all night.
One evening, when everyone was asleep, I stood in the doorway of my bedroom, looking into the mirror in the bathroom from across the hall. I put on a short skirt I had lying around and once again took my shirt off. I stretched my arms out and held on to the door frame, turning my body this way and that. I finally had a gap between the thighs, and my ribs stuck out against my thin skin. I thought I looked pretty and I was certain that maybe I could be happy now.
I came out as a lesbian when I turned 18, and for the first time in my life, I was convinced that I had figured it out. Finally discovered the root of my issue. I wasn’t broken; I was just a lesbian.
But if I’m a lesbian, why am I still attracted to men? Don’t think those things. You’re a lesbian; that’s why nothing feels right. Just celebrate the fact that you’ve finally figured it out.
At least I could finally sag my pants without feeling weird about it.
It’s a weird feeling to be so sure of what your issue is and at the same time feel so uncomfortable with the conclusion. After I shyly stepped out of the closet and adjusted to my new label, I quickly started to abhor it. For a long time, I subconsciously used my lesbian title as a shield against men. I felt protected, safe from them. I wouldn’t have to look inward anymore because they were no longer something I had desire to pursue.
I can’t say that my attraction for women wasn’t real. It was, and I had a girlfriend for many years who I loved deeply, even planned to marry one day. However, as in all my relationships prior, it didn’t take long before the fire went out. A year into the relationship my desire for sex began to dwindle. This had always caused issues in my relationships. Eventually, I just didn’t want sex after the thrill of new love died out. I didn’t want to be touched or looked at. I had no problem pleasuring my partner, as long as the lights and hands were off me. When I could no longer bear the guilt of turning her away, because I knew how much she wanted to feel close to me, I’d start to panic. Don’t touch me there; don’t look at me. I hated the way I sounded, the way the curves of my body caught the light.
I found myself looking in the mirror again, standing there alone in my girlfriend’s bedroom, stuck in this trance. My hips were too big, my cheeks too round. Why did I have this burning desire for a beard? I shook my head, but the thoughts never strayed.
The summer I turned 24 I met a guy, a friend of my girlfriend’s. He was coming to visit for a few days and he’d be staying with us. Through conversation I’d found out that he was transgender. Transgender. I knew that word, but I didn’t know what it really meant. I was told he was very open about it, but I knew I wouldn’t have the courage to ask questions.
During his visit, he and I got along very well. I took him around all of Seattle and felt light and happy in his company. This was the first time I was aware of meeting a trans person, and his energy was addicting. There was so much positivity in him that it was nearly impossible not to be affected by it. I tried not to pry and invade his privacy, and only a couple times did his being trans come up. It wasn’t a topic that we focused on too long before the conversation was changed again. I had decided it didn’t matter, I was just happy to have made a new friend, and when he left, the house felt empty. I felt empty.
A few weeks after he got home, he reposted a YouTube video on Facebook. It featured Skylar Kergil and his one year on testosterone transition. I clicked the link and watched with wide eyes. With each passing month, he slowly transformed from female to male. My brain started connecting the dots, started turning, and by the end of the video, I felt the light in my mind go off. This! This is it! In that moment, everything became clear and not 10 minutes later, I came out for the second time.
I began my medical transition on January 5, 2015. My girlfriend and I broke up not long after, and only a little while after that did I come out for the third time as a gay man. Navigating sex and hormones becomes so much easier when you feel at home in your body. When you are perceived the way you perceive yourself, the internal battle lessens and allows for room to grow. This isn’t strictly a trans experience, but a human one. And I think we forget that sometimes.
There are people who will hate me because I’m trans, people who will refuse to see me as the man I’ve worked so hard to become. They’ll hate me for being gay and loving the man who stole my heart but it’s OK, really, because when I look at myself in the mirror, I see a man who’s finally found his happiness.
COLE HAYES is a Seattle-based freelance writer and aspiring author and musician. Follow him on Twitter @itscolehayes.