I used to think I hated parties.
You’re sitting with your eyes closed, slumped on the floor in the small, dark entryway of a college dorm. Your friend, a tall, awkward looking boy with blue eyes, thick glasses, and sandy brown hair that falls in his face (though he stubbornly insists that it’s blond, despite the evidence), sits next to you, having an equally miserable time. Behind him, past the closed door of one of the bedrooms, the muffled, bass-heavy sounds of a party thump relentlessly against the air. You swallow, and your throat feels thick, heavy, like the air in your lungs is trying to solidify.
The door to the hallway bursts open, bright fluorescent light spilling into the room. Three drunk people stumble across the threshold, and you have to lean to shut the door behind them. Two of them—a small curly-haired girl in a short skirt and tight crop top, and a muscled blond boy you don’t like very much—head towards the bathroom, bodies already intertwined, giggling surreptitiously. The third, a skinny blond girl you recognize from class, looks at you apologetically before heading into the party. You struggle to take a deep breath, in through your nose, out through your mouth, in an attempt to push down the waves of anxiety surging through your body. The music changes – a new song, no less loud, no less bass-heavy. Any inclination to try and enjoy yourself has long since passed, and the rest of the night will be about survival, a fight to keep your head above the rising water.
My mom doesn’t quite understand what it means to be “nonbinary,” I think. She understands all the individual pieces—not identifying with my assigned gender at birth, they/them pronouns, varying presentation day-to-day, high waisted pants—but the puzzle still seems incomplete. She asked me, when I began HRT, what exactly I was transitioning to. To her credit, that’s a good question. While the word “transition” seems to imply a clear destination, being nonbinary often feel like running away from something, instead of towards. What I was running from was easy—being a man—but it’s taken me time, and distance from the gender assigned to me at birth, to figure out what I wanted to run to.
In January of 2021, I went on a date with another nonbinary person, and, predictably, we eventually started talking about ourselves and our queerness. I mentioned, almost in passing, that my approach to escaping the binary has been to overshoot the middle (in my case going from the masculinity of my “assigned gender at birth” and skipping past androgyny towards a feminine aesthetic) in an attempt to re-approach neutral from the “other side.” My date sat upright, and told me that this was also how they felt about their relationship to gender. Instead of striving towards a specific presentation, we both cared more about rejecting the expectations imposed on us by society.
Recently, while digging through my closet looking for something to wear to go out, I found several Robert Graham shirts, an expensive line of designer dress shirts for men. They’d belonged to my uncle before he passed away, and his wife had given them to me as a way to remember him. I wore the shirts often, until, as my transition progressed, I found myself discomfited by their association with masculinity. Now, months later, I found I was able to wear them again, my body transformed enough that I no longer felt like a man while wearing a men’s shirt. I looked at myself in the mirror as I cuffed my sleeves and unbuttoned every button down to my belt, and for a moment didn’t recognize the person looking back.
You’re sitting on the floor of your poorly lit living room at three in the morning, drunk and high and manic. Two people sit across from you on the couch. You’ve dated both of them at different times, albeit briefly, and they’ve also dated each other. While a nightlife purist might scoff at the characterization of this night as a party, the frenzy inside your head has reached a pitch and fervor traditionally only reserved for loud clubs full of strangers. One of them looks at you intently through the large, round, wire-rimmed glasses that have almost become a trademark of nonbinary and otherwise gender-variant twenty-somethings. They have dark hair buzzed close to their head, and both arms covered in an eclectic collection of nerdy literary tattoos.
“I had such a crush on you when we first met,” they say, and you want to scream, or kiss them, or maybe punch yourself in the face. Instead you just sit there, holding their gaze for as long as you can before you break and look away first. Is this what being queer and 22 means? That as gender categories disappear the platonic/romantic line blurs, monogamy falls away, everything is messy and nothing makes any sense? The constrictive logic of cisheteronormativity that gives everyone a part to play made navigating the world of dating much easier, and you feel adrift and unsure in your new social role, even as the joy you find in your own body has increased tenfold over the past eight months.
I began hormone replacement therapy on October 2, 2020. For all its devastating effects, the pandemic gave me the space to begin medical transition away from public life and its prying eyes, and time to allow the effects of estrogen to start to show. Hormone therapy is a strange, slow process. Visible effects—the kind every trans person is waiting for—don’t begin for about three months, and even then progress can be painstaking, with some changes, like breast growth, taking more than two years. What under normal circumstances can be an awkward, inconsistent, and publicly visible journey was, for me, as simple as falling asleep and waking up eight hours later. I left public life in a body that wasn’t mine, and reentered in one that was.
By May, nothing of that original body existed anymore. In addition to hormones, in the intervening months I’d given myself bangs, bleached my hair blonde, and begun wearing almost exclusively skirts and dresses. Once I started HRT, my skin softened, my leg and facial hair thinned, and my silhouette began to change. The new person in the mirror brought with them a host of new experiences to navigate—I’ve recently discovered the simple joys of thirst trap selfies, for one—and radically changed the way I inhabit the world and how I’m perceived by others.
Men catcall me on the street now, and shop owners call me “ma’am.” In February, on a second date, I attempted to put an arm around the person I was seeing and found myself physically unable to do so in a way I’d never encountered before. After a moment of quiet confusion (exacerbated by the full bottle of cheap white wine I’d drunk over the previous hour) I figured it out—my date had already moved to put their arm around me, and it was now my job to make myself small and lean into them. I was the girl. For the first time in my life, the arbitrary rules we assign to gender were making a social interaction easier, simpler, more straightforward, instead of being something I felt I had to actively push against.
I exist in a fresh, new, virginal body now, and I’ve started to uncover what that means for me, as the city’s clubs and bars have begun to reopen in tandem with the warm weather. I dance differently, now, and I flirt differently and fuck differently too, all with more ease and grace than I ever could have as a “boy.” Now, when I go to parties, I know where to put my hands.
You’re sitting with six other drunk people in a cramped Uber racing its way across town to catch the last call at Cubbyhole before it closes at the unfairly early hour of 11:30. Music oozes out of the speakers and into the small interior—”She Looks So Perfect,” by Five Seconds of Summer. “Fuck yes,” says one of your friends, a short, intense queer person with several rings on each hand and a thick silver chain around their neck. “This song is literally made of fire.” You won’t make it to Cubbyhole that night. By the time you get there a stream of dejected dykes is already pouring out the front door, but it doesn’t matter. The club you end up at is loud and dark and full of fog, and the music swells against your eardrums and the back of your skull. You shut your eyes and bounce to the pulsing bass.
Your hands are everywhere, twisting lazily in the air above your head, keeping rhythmic time to the beat on your chest or the side of your leg, running up and down your torso over curves that just a few months ago were not there. You make eye contact with a girl you don’t recognize and then suddenly she’s kissing you, pushing you up against the wall, and now it’s her hands running over your body, in your hair, on your face. You break away and lose her in the mass of sweaty bodies, but it doesn’t matter because you can feel the music in your chest, overpowering your own heartbeat. It’s nearly four in the morning by the time you get home and collapse onto your bed without taking your shoes off, letting the haze of the night soak its way into your long-term memory.
Loved this whole piece and especially related to “an attempt to re-approach neutral from the ‘other side.'” Didn’t really have the words for this concept until seeing this, so thank you!
I love this whole series and El is gorgeous!