You Don’t Always Transition Once

Against my better judgment, I once showed my mother one of my pronoun pins. You know the kind: the self-declarations you use to adorn your faded backpack or your fraying messenger bag. They’re passive announcements to the world that inevitably fail to dissuade questions, and even bring scrutinizing stares. We don them for the sake of public information and, sometimes, our own self-assurance.

It was a little purple thing, with sharp silver letters spelling “SHE/THEY”. I pulled it from my bag and flashed it to my mom, smiling. “Look what I got,” I said to her in our native Persian. I grinned the hesitant grin of a child expecting the worst, hoping for the best.

She laughed just enough that I felt humoured. “But why ‘they’?” she asked. “You’re just ‘she’.”

I shrugged. “Why not?”

Thankfully, that was that. She didn’t pursue, and I was relieved. Because I didn’t think I could explain to my own mother the journey I had to take to find confidence in that pin. There was no way I could lay out that path bare for her to see.

I was in my late teens when I realized I had to transition the first time. It took nearly two decades of externalization and, eventually, introspection, for me to see what had to be done. In those early months I subsisted on the lifeblood of a freshly cracked egg (so we affectionately call those of us who’ve yet to find ourselves — when an egg hatches, a chick comes out). I needed something to feed my newfound desire to understand who I could become. I’d seen it before, in the furtive glances I’d steal at Facebook posts and YouTube videos. I’d had a taste, and now I couldn’t do without more.

So I sat down and trawled through reddit and dove into the foul waters of 4chan looking for the revered timelines. The juxtaposed befores and afters of those who had gone ahead of me from trying to be what they were told they ought to be, to living the truth of someone who had discovered self-determination. I took in each one with hungry, yearning eyes.

Timelines are magic; they evoke the wonder of metamorphosis. A boy is put in a hat. The wand of estrogen is waved (this is not optional). A girl hops out, smiling, bright and beautiful. The audience claps, and the applause is fueled at least as much by longing as it is by admiration. We want to find ourselves in that hat. We want to have the wand waved so we can pop out, perfect. The way we were supposed to be.

But like any magic, the hat obscures; the metamorphosis is an illusion. We salivate over the transformation in the instant it takes us to glance from one photo to the next. To us, on the other side of the veil, it’s gratifyingly quick. We don’t see what happens in the hat. If we did, it wouldn’t be a timeline. It would be life.

The true metamorphosis is cramped, sweaty, uncomfortably stuck in a cocoon to gestate for who knows how long. Each tear shed is a drop in the bucket for the alchemy it takes to complete the trick. Each frustrated grunt punctuates the time that passes, not in those magical befores and afters, but in the concrete incubation period between now and later. So, so, so very much later.

An egg is a surprisingly sturdy miracle. Prop up a platform on four of them, and you can stand on it without so much as a crack. They don’t break easily. To be inside one is stifling. It’s endless suffocation and confusion, sitting there surrounded by an opaque barrier. But in its own way, it’s safety. If you were told that when you left the egg, you’d be met by a cocoon strangling you, would you? If you knew the next step was the frying pan, would you bother to budge?

The timeline is a necessary lie. It gives hope to the hopeless and reassurance to the lost. It offers the promise of a hat you can search for and a wand you need only wait to be waved. But if it’s to be a good timeline, it has to elide reality. It has to lie. It has to leave the burden of truth to those who collect them like prayer beads, running them through their fingers wishing for the moment to come. Because those are truths each of us can only discover for ourselves. They can’t be taught. That would ruin the magic.

I’ve worn dresses before. That’s what you do when you hatch; that’s how you entice the chick to come out of the egg, as sturdy and reassuring as it is. That’s what so many feel-good comics and success stories paint as the revelatory moment. You throw the fabric over your head, stick your hands through the arm-holes, and wiggle until you’re met with the embrace of what’s right. Then, you spend a second, a minute, an hour, staring at yourself in euphoria because this is what you were supposed to be all along, isn’t it?

Isn’t it? That’s what I thought to myself, looking in the mirror. I’d scrutinize myself and do a little twirl. I’d hold my breath and try to smile. And I’d grunt and take it off and throw it at the wall and scream into a pillow, because the revelation wouldn’t come.

I’d tell myself I just wasn’t far enough along. That when the estrogen had done its work, when my hips had widened and my tits had softened my chest, I’d put the dress back on and marvel at my own beauty. I was still too much of a boy. I just had to wait for the wand to be waved. Because this is what you’re supposed to do when you hatch and come out, a real chick, a woman. This is what I was supposed to be all along, isn’t it? It was only a matter of time.

A month later, I’d try a dress again. It might be the same one; it might be another I’d ordered in a desperate moment of soul-searching. It could be a sundress or a nightgown or a cocktail dress or a skater dress. It didn’t matter, so long as it had the shape of something a woman wore. And still I’d only stare and grimace. I’d tear it off and throw it at the wall again. I’d bury myself in my blankets and wet them with my tears. Isn’t this what I’ve been waiting for? Isn’t this the girl that’s supposed to come out of the hat, so pretty and delicate? I was only doing my best to follow the instructions I’d been given. To perform the magic trick and make myself into myself.

It’s only a good timeline if a girl is pulled out of the hat graceful, soft, in a flowing dress. Obviously, I just had to let my metamorphosis continue.

I was in my early twenties when I realized I had to transition twice. Like so many trans folk, I coped by projecting onto others. I projected onto Korra. I projected onto Tracer. I projected onto the video game avatars I’d spent so many hours crafting meticulously. I survived by living through them, by feeling their strength and their selves vicariously. I couldn’t be myself — it was too much to be me — but I could be them, by losing myself in their stories. I didn’t exist. Only they did.

That’s how I stayed alive for so long.

When I hatched, I searched for community. On Tumblr, on Twitter, at my campus LGBT center, I looked for people I could talk to. People who could help me work out everything that confused me so deeply. I was fortunate enough to find them.

There was a culture I had to acquire in doing this. I had to learn the language and unravel the mysteries of how we gays and queers behaved. I discovered the trope of the useless lesbian on her fifth date, unaware. I was introduced to the communist trans girl coder in rainbow thigh-highs. I learned that gays in SoCal are obsessed with astrology, and determined that I was a Pisces Sun, Gemini Moon, and Aries Rising — whatever that meant.

And I was educated on the sapphic dichotomy of butches and femmes.

It’s a bit of a game to collect the characters from any particular piece of media and arrange them on a spectrum from stone butch to high femme (there is much to be said on the contrivances of this spectrum itself). Naturally, it interested me to see the game played with characters I projected on. I wanted to see myself, insofar as these projections became myself, on the sapphic spectrum. It was another way to stay alive while I did not yet feel like myself. I couldn’t take a picture of me and pin it somewhere between butch and femme — I was still stuck in the hat — but I could look at a drawing of someone on the same scale and pretend I was her.

But something went wrong here. Those characters, the ones I loved and identified with, seemed to end up on the wrong end of the spectrum. Tracer, a soft butch? That doesn’t seem right. How could she be butch, when she was me? Korra, butch? Well, maybe — but I guess I never identified with her that much. How could I? I was feminine, right? Like a good trans girl, like the after of a timeline, like the beautiful woman pulled out of the hat for everyone to see. I was a woman, the way the world says women ought to be, flowery with billowing skirts and little purses. Or at least, I would be, when my metamorphosis was complete.

Right?

“Butches aren’t real women.” Everyone thinks it — I’m just saying it. I was a real woman, I had chanted that I was, I had absorbed it as my mantra, I knew that trans women are real women. So how could I possibly be… that? I was an unobjectionable, desirable sapphic woman. I wasn’t a dirty angry dyke.

Right?

How could I be pulled out of the hat, how could I possibly have my after, if I was that? Wasn’t that just my before? Did the wand even do anything?

I once saw it written that the strongest sapphic energy comes from a transfeminine lesbian willingly venturing to the men’s clothing section.

The first time I transitioned, I ordered dresses and nail polish off Amazon. I had an older trans friend take me to Sephora and help me find mascara. I bought panties and lace bras. I did these things because I wanted the after I’d seen so many times, and there’s only one way an after is allowed to turn out. I did them because they were, as far as I’d been informed, what a woman does.

The second time I transitioned, I went to Goodwill and found a men’s jacket that squared my shoulders. I bought baggy men’s joggers from the nearby mall. I ordered a sports bra from TomboyX.

When I looked at myself in the mirror then, I didn’t twirl. I didn’t curtsy. I saw the “tomboyish” figure before me, the illusion finally broke. I figured out the trick behind the magic. I realized I didn’t want the after of a conventionally successful timeline; I wanted myself, a later I could only find by constructing it on my own. I would never be the girl pulled out of the hat in a brilliant white wedding dress, and that was okay, because I no longer wanted to be. I didn’t want to be what I’d been tricked, yet again, into thinking I should be. I wanted to be what I was, and I could finally see it clearly.

I was never pulled out of the hat, because I never went into it. None of us did. I only came out of the cocoon, tired and proud.

The indignation I felt whenever people called a character I identified with butch came from the faith I had in an illusion. It came because I believed not in myself, but in a magic trick. That’s okay. Four years ago, there was nothing in myself I could believe in. There was nothing I could latch onto, so I needed magic, however misleading it may have been.

When you’ve lived your life being beaten down by the lies others tell you about yourself, you end up needing a miracle. The hat, the wand, the girl in the dress — they were all miracles. And they weren’t real. They were the lies I needed to find the truth on my own. Nobody else could give me that.

The first time I transitioned, I tried to be a girl.

The second time I transitioned, I came out of my shell a dyke. I was not respectable. I was not acceptable. I was me.

When I was an egg forced to shop in the men’s section, I did it to emulate maleness. I did it to put on an act and pretend, to the best of my ability, that I was what they told me to be. I was following a script I was given, unconsenting and unaware, and I was uncomfortable every second of it.

When I, a trans dyke, shop in the men’s section, I do it to take back masculinity. I do it because men are toxic, but masculinity is gorgeous. I do it because after twenty years of being lied to, I’ve found my truth, and I know it’s my job to perform masculinity better than any man ever could. There is no power like a trans dyke breaking free from the maleness forced upon them and turning the perverse masculinity they’d been taught on its head.

What I couldn’t tell my mom that day was that I wasn’t just ‘she.’ I couldn’t possibly be just that. ‘She’ evokes images of the after. It brings forward idealizations of a woman, porcelain, soft-featured and hairless and clad in delicate silk. How could an Iranian dyke with the nose of a hawk and forests for eyebrows and pants that always sat too low on their waist just be ‘she?’ How could the image of the after ever capture the way I walk down the street and the shape of the clothes I hang on my body? I couldn’t be reduced to ‘she.’ I wouldn’t let myself be simplified.

This was not for my mother to understand. She didn’t have that baggage — our language doesn’t have gendered pronouns — and, as far as I was concerned, she didn’t need it. It was mine to bear. So it went.

It was society’s decision that I be given one lot in gender. It was my decision to try the other. In doing so, I realized that neither could suffice. In the end, I had to walk out altogether, because both tasted foul on my tongue. The lie of the woman was one step above that of the man, but it was a lie all the same. I couldn’t abide that.

This was a journey I had to take in two steps, because it was only through the first that I could discover the second. Whatever fables we may tell ourselves about liberation, our transitions are often paths picked out from a short and heavily curated menu the world around us has offered. I couldn’t choose to do what I needed to do; I could only choose the next closest thing.

It wasn’t until that choice came to fruition that I had the space to see I needed something else. It isn’t until we try the transition we’ve been shown that we realise it’s not for us. I began by doing what I was expected to do, because if I had to audacity to defy my birth assignment, I could only be allowed to do it the “right” way. I was only ever shown how to do it the “right” way. I couldn’t know anything else.

My mother made this very clear in the language she used to describe me, to describe who I was supposed to be. It always came back to one word: lateef. In English, delicate. That’s how a transition is supposed to go, from a rough before to a delicate after. That’s the right way to be a woman, as far as the world is concerned. It isn’t the right way to be me. The conclusion is obvious.

If someone looks at me and sees a man, they’re mistaken. If they look and see a woman, I won’t bother to call them wrong. But they’re certainly not right either, as hard as it might be for them to understand why.

Esther Nikbin is a Tehrani-born trans lesbian working on a PhD in Philosophy at UCLA. More often than not they can be found staring at a wall and wondering, "gender, I mean, what's up with that?" They're a committed transhumanist, and not just because it's a good pun (though that always helps). You can follow their train of thought on their Twitter.

Esther has written 1 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. “Whatever fables we may tell ourselves about liberation, our transitions are often paths picked out from a short and heavily curated menu the world around us has offered.”

    you put into words exactly what i’m trying to figure out. Thank you for writing this beautiful piece!

  2. “When I, a trans dyke, shop in the men’s section, I do it to take back masculinity. I do it because men are toxic, but masculinity is gorgeous. I do it because after twenty years of being lied to, I’ve found my truth, and I know it’s my job to perform masculinity better than any man ever could. There is no power like a trans dyke breaking free from the maleness forced upon them and turning the perverse masculinity they’d been taught on its head.”

    *praise hands*

  3. “The true metamorphosis is cramped, sweaty, uncomfortably stuck in a cocoon to gestate for who knows how long. Each tear shed is a drop in the bucket for the alchemy it takes to complete the trick. Each frustrated grunt punctuates the time that passes, not in those magical befores and afters, but in the concrete incubation period between now and later. So, so, so very much later.”

    This piece spoke to me so much. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful essay with us!

  4. It’s really gratifying to see a story like this in particular because, well, I’ve been finding something similar lately–after years of assuming that the reason I never quite did all the super femme stuff I thought I was supposed to do was just that I was lazy, starting to explore a little butch identity and realizing that for so long I’d just assumed as a trans woman I couldn’t. I mean it’s not the /same/ as this story, we all have our own… but it’s nice to see some common threads in something I just somehow never realized could be a thing.

  5. the fact that there are trans women who are butch lesbians gives me hope that i’ll be able to be a trans man who is feminine (why isn’t there a gay male version of butch? there used to be, but fairy is considered a slur now and I’m not a twink)

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