Harrisonburg is not rural Virginia. It’s a city. It inhabits more than 50,000 people, includes James Madison University, and has gone Democrat in every presidential election since 2008. Still, I spent the last few weeks with my stomach in knots, working out a strategy for my weekend there. While the wedding I was attending was right on the JMU campus, our Airbnb was deeper into Rockingham County, my girlfriend’s grandma lives in Stuart’s Draft, and we had to drive through all sorts of places to get there and back from Brooklyn.
As my friend Kelly said, “It’s a college town, sure, but there is a Cracker Barrel.”
Next week marks my one year on hormones. Some trans people call this a second birthday, but for me that date is too nebulous. Do I claim the doctor’s appointment that acted as a first consultation? Or the first time I let a green oval of estrogen slowly dissolve under my tongue? Maybe it’s a month further when my blood work came back normal and I began taking a proper dosage?
I prefer to think of transitioning as a process with many beginnings. If I had to pick a date, it would be May 12, 2017, when I fully came out to myself. But even this erases the person I was at 16, who dressed in drag for the first time.
A year on hormones doesn’t feel like a landmark. It feels like I’m running out of time. Everyone is different, but I know generally there’s a timeline for when changes occur and when they stop. Some people claim it’s a four-year process, but most people see the majority of changes in the first two years. I’m halfway there.
Two weeks ago, the first trans superhero appeared in mainstream media. Nicole Maines portrayed the character of Nia Nal on The CW’s Supergirl in its fourth season premiere. Like hormone birthdays, this monumental event can’t be reduced to a single day. Nia isn’t a superhero yet; for now, she’s just a reporter working under Kara/Supergirl. And her transness wasn’t discussed in her first episode (though she mentioned it in the second). Both things are known because they were announced at Comic Con back in July. The first trans superhero in mainstream media, played by a trans actress.
Nicole Maines knew she was trans when she was three years old. By the time she was able to vote, Maines had successfully sued her school district, ensuring basic human rights to all transgender students in her home state of Maine. The CW’s marketing team has played up the “real life hero plays on-screen hero” angle and they’re not wrong.
I knew I was trans 20 years later in my life, after I’d finished my first puberty and voted in two presidential elections. Maines and I have drastically different experiences of transness, and yet I spent the last several months watching 65 episodes of Supergirl (plus crossovers!) to prepare for her debut last week. Sure, most trans women don’t look like Nicole Maines. Most cis women don’t look like Melissa Benoist. This is how this works.
Once I decided to go on the trip to Virginia, I also had to decide how I was going to present. I’ve been, as they say, full-time since February. Some days I just wear jeans and a t-shirt, like most women, but it’s been a long time since I’ve actively pretended to be a man. It always made me feel awful and as my breasts grew (now at a C cup!) it became more and more difficult. My girlfriend’s extended family knew she was dating a woman, but didn’t know I was trans. I felt up to the challenge. That weekend I was just a woman. Period.
It’s been my experience that the most mindlessly validating individuals are those I’d least expect: cat-callers and the elderly. My guess is they have limited knowledge of transness and classically feminine signifiers like a skirt or long hair makes their animal brain think woman. Of course, if they notice their “mistake” the cat-callers will be especially cruel. Still, these experiences factored into my expectation that a high femme presentation would get me through this weekend.
I have no idea what I look like. I’m not sure I ever will. Intellectually I know my face has feminized, but I don’t know how much. I don’t know why sometimes I get correctly gendered, but mostly not. I don’t know if people are just humoring me or saying what they’re supposed to or being kind when they say “Miss.”
I appreciate this effort, but it’s not what I want. I want to look in the mirror and see a woman, I want the people in my life to look at me and see a woman, I want strangers to look at me and see a woman.
In Virginia, nobody saw a woman.
The most trans-related scene in Nicole Maines’ first episode didn’t feature her at all. Martian J’onn J’onzz (David Harewood), recently retired, has joined an alien support group. While Supergirl has previously leaned hard on the alien as immigrant analogy, this scene isn’t the first time the show has equated alien status with queerness. Season two introduced an underground alien bar that was obviously meant to evoke the historic haven of the gay bar.
An alien that looks human begins by saying he’s at the group to share his happiness. “For the first time since I’ve been on this planet I feel like I fit in,” he says with a smile. “And it’s because of this.” He taps a device on the side of his head that reveals his true alien form, before switching back to the human veneer.
An older alien who looks human but has pointed ears and tusks on his forearms pushes back. “Who decides what’s normal? Why should we have to wear these devices that change our appearance so we can be tolerated?”
The first alien responds with the obvious: “Well, that’s easy for you to say. You just look like a Tolkien fan.”
Whether we want to look cis and whether we have the ability to look cis is certain to be a heated topic between trans people, because it’s often a heated topic within ourselves. Everyone is taking stock of what they have and what they want. And sometimes it’s impossible to distinguish what we truly need to feel okay and what society tells us we need. I identify as a binary trans woman, not because I believe in the gender binary, but because I’m close enough that I can live (for now) with that conformity. The more gender nonconforming you naturally are and the more gender nonconforming you desire to be the more external pressure you’ll receive.
I’m 5’5″ and 110 pounds and within my first three months on hormones I’d developed breasts. These are my natural privileges. My body hair, facial hair, and Adam’s apple are my negatives. The curly hair on my head and my masculine but not that masculine face are up for debate. Every week I get an hour of electrolysis done on my face, which is the process of hot needles and tweezers manually killing every hair follicle. It’s more painful than it sounds. I’m one year into this process and have at least another year left. It costs $75 per session and my ability to afford that at all is another privilege, while the huge chunk of my income it takes up is another negative.
My facial hair is my biggest insecurity and whenever I get misgendered I assume that’s the reason. My mom regularly insists it’s my Adam’s apple and if I would just get that surgically reduced I’d be able to “pass.” The truth is probably more complex. A mix between stubble, the Adam’s apple, and the small characteristics that are targeted in a comprehensive surgical process known as Facial Feminization Surgery.
I’ve never wanted FFS. I can’t even decide if I want the Adam’s apple surgery. Going on hormones was such an easy, obvious choice for me, but these surgeries can feel like a betrayal of my transness. I don’t want to look cis. But I do want to look like a woman. I’ve started to worry that for the rest of the world those will always be the same thing.
Due to my size I thought I’d be like the alien who looks pretty normal but just has tusks on his arms. I could proudly be like, “Look at my tusks/Adam’s apple! I’m an alien/trans. Deal with it.” Maybe I’m really the other alien, whose life is consumed by their alien status unless they change themselves. Or maybe we’re all both aliens and the support group is our minds. Two sides debating, one that looks in the mirror and sees a woman with some unique qualities, another that looks in the mirror and sees a man who needs to change.
I wasn’t misgendered until halfway through the wedding reception. I certainly got stares, but it was unclear whether those were lesbian couple stares or transgender stares. I chose to think lesbian couple. Last week my electrologist worked under my jaw so I could wear a full face of makeup. I wore a blue and white Kate Spade dress that was conservative yet flattering. I had on heels and my hair was up. It was the most femme I’ve ever looked. If a random cat-caller correctly gendered me the week before when I was wearing a sweatshirt and no makeup, then surely my gender had registered now.
Again, the goal is not that no one knows I’m trans. The goal is for people, without thinking, to say “she.” If afterwards they go “Hmm is this one of those transgendereds I’ve read about?” then fine. But I want to win over the gut instinct. I know this is wrong. Our identities shouldn’t require any external validation. But they do.
Once I began interacting with people and there was cause to gender me, I did about 50/50. But even when they were correct there was a pause. I suddenly felt very foolish. This idea I had that I was my harshest critic, that the man I saw in the mirror would look like a woman to these Virginians, was painfully misguided. I look how I look. It will continue to change gradually as I continue hormones and electrolysis, and this may or may not change how others perceive me. I can then choose to alter my appearance further with surgeries or, simply, accept the way I look.
“There’s nothing slight about fashion,” Nia says pitching a story. “It’s one of the most visceral forms of art. What we choose to wear tells a story about who we are.” A trans woman believing in the power of presentation is not exactly groundbreaking. But the show has always been filled with clichés that work because they’re true.
What struck me most watching Maines’ debut was the immediate fondness I had for her. This, of course, has as much to do with talent and charisma as it does transness. Maines injects Nia with an immediate likability, an awkwardness that recalls season one Kara, but with an added vulnerability. I’d framed this character as a necessary first step. Sure, she looks like Nicole Maines… still a trans superhero! But watching her on screen I became very aware that I don’t know Nicole’s insecurities and I don’t know Nia’s. I don’t know anybody’s experience of transness except my own. I don’t really know what gender is or what it means to be trans. Nobody does. We may craft personal narratives to decipher our wants and needs. Cis society may craft narratives to understand, or, more commonly, to erase. But we don’t know. I don’t know why sometimes I look one way to some people and a different way to other people. I don’t know why I have some insecurities and not others. I don’t know why some clothes feel good. Or why some don’t.
What I do know is it felt good to see Nicole Maines on screen. When Kara looked at her and said, “Oh my God. You’re me,” I thought, no. She’s me.