“My name is Sarah Szabo, and I’m a twenty-two year old transsexual,” goes a sentence that, not five years ago, I never thought I’d ever say. Five years ago, I was a high school graduate on way to being a college freshman. Also, a boy. My name was Josh, I had a beard, and I had a secret. I was lugging around a weight that any closet-familiar queer kid likely knows a thing or two about, that kind of smirking, “if-you-only-knew” knowledge of the self, held close and very personal behind a cloudy facade. I’m a woman and I know it, I’d think to myself. I wonder if I’m ever gonna tell anybody.
For transgender people, the closet isn’t so much a place you hide in as a jail you’re stuck inside. It’s not just that you can’t have the life experiences you want—your hormones feel wrong, your body looks wrong, your clothes hang wrong, and you hate your haircut. It’s like there’s another You in you, and if you’re closeted, your biggest wish for the longest time is that they’ll simply go away. If you’re ostensibly a straight man, like I was, you feel a little like a Dr. Jekyll-type doing your very best to snuff out a persistent and annoyingly faggy Mr. Hyde.
This isn’t to belittle the experience of gays and lesbians, who historically have been subjected to just as much persecution and misunderstanding as a people could possibly be. But a distinction between the gay experience and the trans experience needs to be made clear, especially in the modern West, where many transsexuals, myself particularly, often feel marginalized, even in social contexts that are ostensibly their safe places. The LGB(t) community, if you will.
The biggest difference today between the coming-outs of homosexuals and transsexuals is that only the latter group still feels an overwhelming pressure to explain themselves. While being gay isn’t easy, the definition is—”two men or two women in love.” No such luxury for the young transgender kid, terrified out of their mind and facing questions from all sides, with barely the bravery to answer. “Is it a sex thing?” “So you’re gay, right?” This isn’t to mention the boundary-shattering obsession with genitalia. “Pre-op or post-op,” I’ve literally been asked. Never answered. How about the story of your junk first, jackass.
So it’s terrifying, coming out, needing to both reveal your most tormented secrets and at the same time justify them to a roiling ocean of your perplexed peers. Not to mention your family, who for all you know will turn heel and show you the door forever over any misstep you may make, being so crude as to flip the script on your gender at them like that. I’ve never cried so much, nor been so scared to open my mouth in front of my mother as I was when I came out. I waited til I was 18 to do it, deliberately, with a harebrained notion that if I were to somehow be completely disowned, at least I’d be a legal adult and therefore, I don’t know, magically capable of handling it.
These fears would prove unfounded. Over the last four years, my incredible parents have basically done the equivalent of bringing me the moon and stars down from the sky, through all the things they’ve done for me. They are amazing people, and I know I’m fortunate, but even they had troubles grasping what it truly meant for them and me, the first time I told them, “I’m a girl.” I knew they probably would. Also, I knew I’d have trouble saying the words.
So I wrote a letter. I wrote a letter which I let everyone in my life read for themselves, with words I’d spent weeks prior stitching out, gently field testing them with two of my best and closest friends beforehand. I based its contents off of scarce accounts of others’ experiences online, watching for what was said most often, and doing my best to synthesize a perfect version of a speech I’d only ever have one shot at.
A therapist—not mine, rather my grandmother’s, who I don’t see too often—later said that the letter I wrote was the best example of a trans-oriented coming-out letter she’d ever read, and sought my permission to share it with other therapists, and patients; a kind of template for a task that’s very hard to do. I don’t know if she ever did, but I know that she made me want to. I’m sharing this now solely with the hope that doing so might make the hardest moment of someone else’s life just the slightest bit easier.
A lot of powerful memories came up for me, revisiting this letter—the way my mom cried and embraced me when she read the name I’d take; the way my brother slowly sank to the floor as he read it, in the hall; the overwhelming acceptance my fledgling college friends gave to me, the first response I received being “Szabo, I have nothing but respect for you.” Mostly I remember how happy I was, the moment it was public, eighteen years of fear, giving way to a budding peace. My transition’s still my greatest triumph, and when I see this letter, I see the trembling kid at the journey’s start, completely unaware of what a good decision she was making, hoping like crazy that she’d be okay. This letter is now for those whose journeys are still beginning. I was stuck in the closet once—here’s what I used to break out.
With this letter, I came out to the world as a transgender person on New Year’s Eve, 2008. To this day, it’s the only New Year’s Resolution I’ve ever kept.
Next: Sarah’s Coming Out Letter
By the time that I finish writing this letter, I imagine that I will have been working on it, on-and-off, for several days. I intend to take great care with it, because what I want from the outset is for this letter to preemptively explain away the things you may wish to know, and to answer the questions you will want to ask. Regardless of my wishes and best intentions, there will remain things that you do not know, and there will remain questions that need asking. It’s just the nature of things, I guess, so I suppose all that I’m wanting to say with this disclaimer is that I’m going to be trying as hard as I can.
And the reason I’m taking so much care, putting so much effort into making sure that what I say is what I really and truly want to say, how I want it said, is because I am writing you all to tell you that I am a transgendered human being.
This is… not as jarring of a proclamation to me as it probably is to you. If you saw this coming, that’s great! I didn’t really try to hide it. If not, please stick with me for at least a few pages so that I can try and explain some things.
All my life, I have felt wrong. And I do mean all my life. Since before most of you knew me, since before I could even put a full definition to what gender even was. I have always felt off in my own body, as though the world I expected and desired did not sync at all with what was happening around me, happening to me.
I have the brain of a female. In all likelihood it is biological, caused during fetal formation by little more than a slightly “off” series of hormonal developments. My mind is a girl’s, but it’s in the body of a boy, and it has been this way for the entirety of my existence, regardless of how I’ve been raised or how my worldly experiences have influenced me.
Imagine for a second here what that would be like. Imagine you, a girl or boy, in the opposite body, and unable to do anything about it. You see the world as a guy or girl, but have to live as a girl or guy, pushed along by societal current, tradition, and bare survival instinct into positions and identities that are increasingly uncomfortable to you, unpalatable to you. Everything about your existence is laced with lies, and it feels like there’s nothing that you can do about it.
This is how it is for me. This is how it’s always been for me. If you’ve always seen me as a Herculean pillar of masculinity, then I guess it just means I’m a good faker. I’m sorry if this makes you feel betrayed, or wronged. That’s never what I wanted to do.
For years I felt that there was nothing I could do about what I felt, and so for years I didn’t intend to do anything about it. Unsurprisingly, this did not work. Transsexuality, I have found, is not a habit you can break, a mindset you can force your way out of, or something you can treat with psychotherapy or drugs. It is a genetic construction that will never, ever change.
But as it turns out, there is something that can be done about it. I’ve always known it was a possibility, but until now I’ve been too terrified to make it a reality. It took time, it took lots of time, for me to build up the courage to admit to myself that it would be a mistake to continue living as a male, and to understand that any apprehensions that I had about doing anything to solve my problems were very much outweighed by the problems themselves, and the implications that they would have on my well- being for the rest of my life.
So I’m doing something about it, and I’m transitioning from male to female. It’s the only cure for my condition, and I am more than happy to take it on.
Here’s what this means. It means that soon, I will no longer be living as or identifying as a male. It means that I will be undergoing hormone replacement therapy to cancel out my body’s male hormones with female ones. It means that I will be physically developing as a female. It means that I will be a female.
It means that I will stop following male fashion trends, and will begin to dress as a female. It means that I will no longer be speaking with that booming bass voice of mine. It means that I’m going to spend lots of money to hire a professional to shoot my facial hair to death with a laser.
It means that I will be undergoing a long and tedious process to shift every bit of identification related to me to reflect my female identity, which will of course include a change of name. Soon enough, my name will be legally changed to Sarah—the name my parents would have given me had I been born a girl.
But above all of the rest, this is the part I want people to understand the most. This is the part where I’m going to be emphatic, where I’m going to be angry, and where I’m probably going to cry a little.
This is the part where I want to make clear that this is not a choice. I am not deciding to become a girl. This is me allowing myself to be who I am, and it is the only route that I can take, because I am done lying about who I am. In transitioning from male to female, I am going to become a second-class citizen in the eyes of many people. I am going to be opening myself up to discrimination and hate. I am going to lose my right to marry. I am going to jeopardize my likelihood of finding a life partner who accepts me. I am going to jeopardize my job security. I am opening myself up to abandonment and rejection by family and friends. I am diving headfirst into what is really a whole world of social trouble, and it is not something that I would choose to do. I’m going to go into debt hundreds of times due to medical bills, and this is not something that I would choose to do.
This is the next step of my life, of my existence and of my development as a human being, and this was always going to happen, because it was never my choice.
Coming to grips with this has been an absurdly hard process, and it has constantly sent me into depression and loneliness. Nearly every personal problem that I’ve had over the course of my life, I can trace back almost certainly to repressed questions of gender identity. Making myself realize it and embrace it took years, and even after that—basically all through high school—the fear and uncertainty of what to do about it made me miserable.
I never told anyone. I lied about what made me sad, or I just didn’t say. Coming out and actually telling someone “I’m transgendered” was a prospect far, far too scary to even consider. Instead I sank inside myself, jealous of people more brave than me and all full of self-pity, and it’s all because I was too scared to just tell anyone that there was something wrong with me. It took being completely low, down, and beaten for me to finally tell my best friend. It was a year after that before I told anyone else. After that person, a couple of weeks to tell another. Despite how scary it was all those times, and despite how scary it still is, it gets easier, and that’s why now I’m able to close my eyes, hold my breath, and send this to all of you—something that a year ago I wasn’t sure I’d ever do.
So before this letter, I told only a few people about my transsexuality—a few of the people closest and most trusted to me, people who I love and people who I felt cared about me enough for me to feel comfortable using them as test subjects in my little revelation. My conversations with them have guided me through the writing of this letter, and have helped me to find what I need to say with it. I want to thank them for letting me cry on them, for holding me, for propping me up and helping me through my very first steps. My talks with them gave me the courage and the confidence to go forward. Thanks so much for helping me, and accepting me, and making me believe that others would accept me too.
I’m writing this letter to everyone in my life so that you all can know what I’m going through, because I feel like it would be unfair for you to not know. I know you didn’t ask for me to spill my heart out like this, and I know it may be annoying to even hear it. I don’t expect you to write me with encouragement, give me three cheers or to be my support group. I just don’t want to give people the wrong impression of me anymore, and this letter is my first step in showing you how I really am. If this means you don’t want me around anymore, that’s okay. I really do understand. If you don’t want to speak to me anymore at all, that’s okay too. Some of you are more on the fringes of my life and probably wouldn’t be saying much to me anyway, and will probably just brush this off as a strange occurrence involving a strange person you met once. And that too is okay.
I can’t ask for acceptance from everyone. I don’t even really expect it. I just want everyone to know.
For the near future, know that my transition is underway right now. Things will be changing about my dress, my mannerisms, my voice, my looks – but keep in mind that beneath it all I’m still the same person. Same likes, same dislikes, same jokes, same taste. I know it’s going to be strange, I know it’s going to be different, and I know most of you have never had to go through this before. It’s okay, I haven’t either. I know there will be awkward situations. I know I’ll be accidentally called Josh and referred to as a male, and I know it will feel weird having to correct yourself when it comes to these things. I expect it, and I’m fine with it. I also expect questions, lots and lots of questions, and I want them to be asked without fear. I’m an understanding person, and I understand how weird this might be for some of you, and I want to minimize that as much as I can—for everyone’s sake.
I’m writing this to all of my friends and acquaintances new and old, but it is the people that I’ve known the longest that this will probably affect the most. People who I’ve known since freshman year of high school, or even before, who have seen me grow as a person and seen me change many times in many different ways, but never this much. I do feel like I should say sorry to you for keeping this a secret for so long, for building up a wall between us that I led you to believe didn’t exist. I’m not sorry for who I am, but I am sorry for who I made you believe I was.
Again, all I can do is ask for your understanding—but if I don’t receive it, I’ll probably live. Since coming to terms with all of this, I’m already a happier person. I am taking my short life into my own hands, and I’m going to live it the way that I deserve to live it. I refuse to go on acting as I’ve felt the world would like me to.
This is my story, and I’m going to write myself the way I want to be.
Love and peace to all of ya.
About the author: Sarah Szabo is a child of America. An ardent student of liquor, Greek history, and celebrity gossip, she lives in and works primarily from the back of a 2000 extended cab Dodge Dakota in northeast Oklahoma.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.