CHAPTER ONE sorted
It’s a testament to the all-consuming pervasiveness of gender in our society that the very first thing we do to babies is sort them into genders. In fact, for most, it’s the very first words ever spoken about you. When you’re born, the doctor or midwife shouts, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” and from color-coded hospital hats to the balloons greeting your arrival in the recovery room, your life is predetermined.
My parents didn’t want to know the genders of me or my brother before we were born. With my older brother, my mom was pretty certain throughout her pregnancy she’d be having a boy, but when he finally arrived after an agonizing thirty-six-hour labor, she didn’t ask about his gender. The very first thing she said as my newborn brother was swaddled into a blanket was, “Is the cafeteria still serving food?”
My mom, God love her, knew that getting a solid meal was way more important for her capacity of being a good mother than knowing whatever gender her baby apparently was.
Me and Mom
Still remembering how hungry she’d been after my brother’s birth, she took no chances with my labor. When her water broke on a sunny Kalamazoo afternoon about a week before my expected due date of Mother’s Day, she was in the kitchen fixing lunch for herself and my brother.
“Austin,” she calmly told the two-year-old as she chopped watermelon, “we’re going to have to go to the hospital soon to have a baby, but first we’re going to finish lunch.”
She finished with the watermelon, spread mayonnaise on their bologna sandwiches, and they sat down to enjoy their lunch while my dad sped home from work to drive them to the hospital.
As determined as she was to get one last good meal in, by the time my dad arrived, my mom admitted that things seemed to be moving fast. The three of them headed to the hospital as my mom’s contractions came closer together.
There had been a whole list of friends and family members who volunteered to watch Austin during the birth, but my unexpectedly early arrival on a Friday afternoon meant nearly everyone on the list was busy. The person able to get there the quickest was my dad’s mom, coming from a two-and-a-half-hour drive away.
So Austin joined them in the hospital room, where the nurses turned on the TV to pass the time and my mom did her best to hide her pain from the toddler—even after being told things had moved too fast for her to receive an epidural.
Her labor continued to progress rapidly, and eventually Austin was taken out to the hallway by a nurse and given some toys to play with. Shortly thereafter, our grandma arrived to keep him company, and within the hour my mom had started pushing.
The whole labor lasted less than five hours and went so quickly that the nurses didn’t even pause to switch off the TV. I entered the
world at 5:25 P.M. on May 4, 1990, to the static murmurings of The Oprah Winfrey Show playing in the corner.
My mom says that throughout the entire pregnancy she wasn’t sure what gender I was. While she’d had a preternatural knowing that her first child would be a boy, she insists she never had a clue about me. She was so stumped, she even considered asking the doctor at her ultrasound appointment, despite her and my dad agreeing they didn’t want to know. (She didn’t, though.)
It wasn’t until she was admitted to the hospital to give birth that she finally got the definitive sense I was going to be a girl—at least as far as we were all concerned for the time being.
Assigned Female at Birth?
Assigned Female at Birth, or AFAB, and Assigned Male at Birth, or AMAB, are the preferred terms to use instead of “biological male/female,” “born male/female,” “natal male/female,” “male/female bodied,” “genetic male/female,” etc.
When you break it down, it’s a lot more difficult to distinguish what a male or female body actually is, or what it means to be “biologically male/female” or “born male/female.” Is a male body one with a penis? What about men who lose their penises due to injury or illness—are they no longer men? Does “biologically female” mean someone with XX chromosomes? Not to be presumptive, but have you had your chromosomes analyzed? Most people haven’t. And what about the one in one hundred intersex people in the world? Many of their chromosomes, reproductive organs, or external anatomy don’t match with our cultural expectations of male or female. There are countless examples of men and women not lining up with the typical definitions of male and female—even before we get into discussions of transgender people.
The terms AMAB and AFAB are also useful because lots of trans people bristle at the phrase “born male/female.” We were born as ourselves. Just because we didn’t realize we were the gender we are right at the beginning doesn’t mean we weren’t this gender all along. Additionally, the “assigned” part of these terms emphasizes that we were sorted into a particular gender before we had any say in the matter.
One last note: Knowing this accepted term, some people might be tempted to ask trans or nonbinary people what sex they were assigned at birth. This can quickly turn into a faux-polite way of asking what’s in their pants. Consider why you need to know. Even when you’re using the “accepted” language, your question can still be rude and invasive.
Prior to having kids, my mom had promised herself she would raise her children as free from the binds of gender stereotypes as possible. She’d grown up with the strict gender roles of the 1960s and ’70s and was fed up. Especially if she had daughters, she wanted to make sure they knew they could be tough and self-reliant, and that they had more choices for their futures than just being wives and mothers.
So when I showed signs of boyishness even from the beginning, it wasn’t immediately a cause for alarm. My mom was happy to see that I was an independent spirit. Her first inkling that maybe there was something more going on, however, took place when I was just over two years old.
We were swimming in a kiddie pool she’d set up for us in the backyard on a hot summer’s day when my brother Austin got out to pee in the bushes. I toddled behind him, trying to do the same. When it wasn’t working, I got upset and my mom gently explained how girls’ bodies are shaped differently than boys’.
This in and of itself is not a unique moment. All toddlers have to
be taught at some point that girls’ and boys’ bodies are different. And I think plenty of toddlers would be upset to find out they can’t do something as cool as peeing in the bushes like their big brother can. But I wasn’t just throwing a normal toddler tantrum, my mom says. I was telling her, very soberly, that it was wrong. It was wrong that my body couldn’t do that.
She tells me now that she had a brief moment of thinking maybe there was something more to my words then, but again, I was a toddler, and toddlers say all kinds of weird things. So she let it go.
But moments like that kept happening. My mom, a talented seamstress, often sewed my brother and me custom outfits, especially for special occasions. One Easter when I was three, she made me what she thought was an absolutely darling dress (it even had pockets!), but when she dressed me in it and pulled out the family’s camera to mark the occasion, I gave her the dirtiest look she’d ever seen. She was taken aback, but got the message loud and clear. “I’m not spending any more time on dresses this girl isn’t going to enjoy,” she thought to herself.
So instead, she sewed me vests. A themed vest for every holiday. Little waistcoats with snaps down the front and printed designs all over them for Easter, Valentine’s Day, and Fourth of July. Unlike the dresses, I loved those vests. I even made her remake a couple of them when I outgrew them on subsequent holidays.
My Fourth of July vest.
The vests weren’t the only part of my wardrobe that changed when I started preschool, around the time I started throwing a fit anytime my parents tried to put anything remotely girly on me. Gone were the pink dresses and ruffled blouses. From three years old onward, my day-to-day wardrobe consisted of my brother’s hand-me-downs and clothing from the discount rack at Bugle Boy.
While my parents allowed me to run around in ripped blue jeans and polo shirts on most days and even to school, there were still a few occasions on which I was made to dress like a girl, namely school picture days, piano recitals, and church.
One of them would come at me with a dress bunched up in their hands, trying to force the neck hole over my head as I screamed bloody murder. The whole affair would last several exasperating minutes and end up with either me in some type of semi-androgynous wardrobe
compromise or me wearing the dress paired with a tomato-red face from tears and embarrassment.
Neither outcome made me too happy. Even at a young age, I knew that the wardrobe compromises, which usually consisted of shorts or pants instead of a dress and some type of shirt with flowers on it, looked dopey and out-of-place. Meanwhile, wearing a dress made me intolerably uncomfortable. I felt so naked wearing only one article of clothing over my underpants and extremely, extremely embarrassed. I felt the eyes of everyone on me wherever we went. Surely someone would notice how wrong I looked, how wrong it had been of my parents to make me dress this way. But of course no one ever did. Instead, strangers usually told me I looked “sweet” or “cute as a button.” Until I scowled at them.
On one memorable occasion, I placidly told my mom that I wished God didn’t exist so I wouldn’t have to wear dresses to church. She was, understandably, shocked to hear her three-year-old sharing such aggressive atheist convictions, and I’m sure said something about how God was wonderful and we should be grateful to him. I don’t really remember what she said. I just remember realizing that I had offended her, so I switched course: “Well, then I just wish church didn’t exist.”
Unlike church, which I was probably never going to enjoy as a toddler, there were many other events in my young life that I think I would’ve looked forward to much more if they hadn’t come with a dress code I couldn’t wiggle out of.
A good example is the Daddy–Daughter Dance when I was seven years old. I was excited to attend a special night for just me and my dad, but resolutely told my mom I wouldn’t wear a dress. I wanted to wear a suit. Knowing me, I probably even tried to convince her that the point of the dance was to dress like our dads. To compromise, my mom sewed me a bright blue skirt suit, complete with big gold buttons and shoulder pads. I looked like a baby Hillary Clinton.
Ready to hit the dance floor… or run for office.
Like the holiday-themed vests and so many other questionable fashion decisions of my childhood, my insistence on wearing a suit to the Daddy–Daughter Dance didn’t faze my mom. Maybe if I had been growing up now, with so much more awareness of and resources for gender-nonconforming kids, she would have thought to question some of my behavior. But back then, she just thought I was being myself—unabashed, independent, tomboyish, and a bit of a weirdo.
• • •
In many ways, these early revelations about my gender may make it seem like I experienced the most stereotypical transgender narrative—the kind you often hear on daytime talk shows: I knew from my earliest memories that I should’ve been born a boy. I felt trapped in my own body. My life was nothing but misery until I transitioned.
This is not one of those stories. While there may be some incidents my family and I can point to in hindsight as clues about my
gender, none of it was so clear when it was happening. Yes, I felt different growing up, but as far as I knew it could’ve been just as much because I was a total dork as it was because I was kind of boyish. Maybe I looked at the boys in my class with envy, but I never felt for certain like I should have been one of them, only that I sometimes wished I were.
This is not a story about a lifetime of hating my body or knowing with absolute certainty that I needed to transition. Those stories exist and those people’s experiences are valid, but they aren’t everyone’s. Some people don’t have any inkling that they’re transgender until later in life. Some people have a much more fluid or back-and-forth relationship with their gender. Some people are very much aware of who they are, but have no desire to physically transition. All of these and more are true, valid transgender experiences.
If you’ve met one transgender person, you’ve met one transgender person and that is your basis for transgender fact until you meet another, with a possibly different story. The trouble is, many people haven’t even met one transgender person. So that leaves much of the world, trans and cis alike, believing the few stereotypical narratives about transgender people we see in the media, from an overemphasis on medical procedures and an obsession with shocking before-and-after photos to even more damaging language about us, especially transgender women, being villainous figures out to trick poor, unassuming cisgender people. Transgender people are rarely shown in a positive, accurate light or as having rich lives outside of being transgender.
For cisgender people, the danger of hearing only the same narratives is not affording transgender people with different stories the dignity of respecting a most basic part of their being. But for transgender people, the danger of hearing only the same narratives, when theirs differs from those, is not knowing there’s anyone else like them in the
world—not knowing they could be transgender, and not knowing what they can do to ease the feelings of gender dysphoria they may be experiencing.
That was the case for me. My story is not the one the media was peddling in the ’90s, which consisted mostly of hyper-sensationalized and demeaning representations of trans women and almost none of trans men, especially not queer trans men. So I believed myself to be all alone in my struggle. While media coverage of transgender people has improved by leaps and bounds in recent years (in large part thanks to the agency social media platforms provide trans people themselves), it has only underscored just how many different ways there are to be trans and how important it is that those stories are told. So here’s one story. It might not be the most unusual or the most incredible, but it’s mine.