How I Found Myself

2018-12-07

This is part two of a series of posts about my trans experience. The first entry was Every Way Was Wrong, about my childhood and youth.

This part is about my process of self-acceptance and my eventual coming-out.

A german translation is available.

Panorama photo of Vancouver, English Bay

As I have written in part one, I knew that I was actually a girl early on, around age eight or nine. Not seeing any way how to safely express this, I decided to hide and bury these feelings deep. That of course didn’t prevent them from surfacing again and again over the years. However the representation of trans people and especially trans women that was available to me first and before that the complete lack of knowledge in that regard prevented me from acting on them for a long time.

I think I became aware of the existence of trans people at some point in my early twenties. But what I saw was a highly distorted view through the lens of mainstream media. Today things have improved slightly but back then in the early 2000s the common view on trans people was either as a sexual fetish mostly in pornography targeted at cis men, or especially in the case of trans women as supposedly nefarious tricksters who only want to manipulate unsuspecting cis people into having sex with them, basically painted as sexual predators. Of course both of these views have nothing to do with reality but it was all there was at the time from my perspective. This didn’t help to contextualize my experiences at all. I didn’t know any spaces where real-life trans people would talk to each other and where one could see that we‘re just regular people who simply live under unusual circumstances. Because the image I had of trans people was so negative I didn’t investigate further. I was very sure that I wasn’t „one of those" figures that mainstream media had shown me. I also had never heard of the concept of dysphoria, therefore lacking more necessary vocabulary to describe my own situation to anyone. I just felt that there was something wrong but couldn’t express any of it.

So, I put more effort into suppressing my real self and my feelings further. I talked to nobody about how I felt and tried my best to just adapt and act like people expected from me. This permanent pressure of maintaining an act contributed largely to my anxiety disorder getting continually worse. After it had become unmanageable in 2012 I went to therapy and during that dug up a lot of my childhood and also those suppressed feelings, even though I still didn’t have the courage do mention those to my therapist or anyone else back then. But in the following years I finally got to see some real trans people through social media, mostly Twitter. Around 2014 I found a few trans friends, most of them from the US and Canada, some in Germany. All that helped free myself from the distorted media view about being trans. At that time I was very aware that continuing to act as a man was clearly wrong and would only hurt me further. Still not able to fully accept being an actual woman and afraid of the consequences of that, I first explored non-binary gender for a while. The most important thing at the time seemed to move a way from this fake male facade but it still wasn’t right and didn’t take long after that to accept who I actually was. The facade had finally crumbled enough.

I want to make it clear here that although my own path went through a short time of trying out whether non-binary gender would fit me and it turned out to be only a stepping stone for me personally, there are of course people who it actually does fit. The notion that non-binary gender, similar to how bisexuality is often framed, is „just a phase" is incredibly harmful and invalidating. My own experience does not represent that of others.

My eventual coming out to others started in spring 2017, following those several years of re-discovering what I had supressed for so long. I know that it is not my fault but looking back I am deeply sorry for that little girl who did not get to grow up as herself and I'm angry at this world that didn't give her a chance to. But the past few years have also been a process of tremendous recovery. Wearing such a heavy mask for so long didn't leave much energy for actually living, it prevented me from taking care of myself enough and left me constantly exhausted. Now this strain is finally gone.

Revealing myself to the world happened over the course of several months. I had started putting on a clearly feminine presentation more frequently in early 2017 while still exploring the option of a non-binary identity. That was pretty much the first time I ever felt comfortable in any clothing ever since being a very small child. After a short time I only put on the „boy mode" (still presenting to others as male as an AFAB trans person) clothes for work and when seeing family. I spent my summer vacation of 2017 in Canada, visiting friends in Toronto and Vancouver. Those were the first two weeks of presenting myself publicly in a feminine manner without interruption. That experience was so incredibly affirming and putting the facade back up after returning to work felt just awful. After that it was clear that I needed to fully come out soon. I just couldn‘t bear wearing this mask anymore. Having supportive partners and friends was a huge benefit during that time and it still is. Exposing yourself to the public as a trans woman is exhausting, sometimes dangerous and having a social support structure to catch me when things were really bad was very important.

I still hand‘t found the right name yet at that time and people still using my deadname while already referring to me as „she" was clearly not a sustainable situation. I had a few criteria that I wanted to meet: Two syllables, known but not too common in English and German, no easy abbreviation or „nickname" version, not too modern, and more or less following the line of other women‘s names in my family. After searching for a few weeks, I had found a name that I wanted to try so I ran a test phase with some trusted people. Every time some one used that name when referring to me was incredibly validating and came with a small rush of euphoria. After a couple days it was clear that I had made the right choice: Esther (the English style of pronunciation, short „E" at the beginning). Searching for the right name was certainly a valuable experience and has brought me much closer to a consistent self-image.

That left two things: work and family. I had worked as a freelancer for about two years at the time, with clients and projects changing every three to six months. Continuing that line of work would have meant to come out to a new set of colleagues with all the risks attached to that every few months and going through all the bureaucratic difficulty of working under a name that isn‘t yet legally changed. In order to avoid that I decided to go back into regular employment and found a company that supported me with those formal challenges, e.g. having my legal (but wrong) name in the contract but using the correct name for everything else: company email, Slack, business cards, etc.

Around the same time I sent a couple of long emails to my close family members explaining my situation and why I had been to shut off from them in the months before. Of course there were questions but that was expected. Although I was surprised that some of them had never heard of trans people at all. My worries were not confirmed, it went well and they accepted who I am quickly. Over the next few months I met all of them again in person, this time as myself. Still, even a year later, hearing them introduce me to others as their daughter/niece/etc is one of the best feelings I’ve ever had and I’m incredibly thankful for having that kind of support from my family.

It has now been about a year that I’ve been out to everyone and I no longer wear that old mask anywhere anymore. One year of authentically living as myself completely and although it has been a very challenging year and live certainly has become more difficult in many ways, I know I made the right decision. At this point it is unimaginable to disguise myself again like I had done for so long. This poses some challenges, since my legal documents (ID, passport, etc) are not yet changed and that often leads to difficult situations when people want check my identity and the name they see doesn’t match the person they see in front of them, especially since the physical changes from medical transitioning (e.g. hormone therapy) are really obvious by now.

I could have done all of this so much earlier if I would’ve had access to more realistic media representation of trans women, somebody to identify with and someone explaining all this to me. I can only hope that trans people, especially kids, who are discovering themselves today have more of a chance to accept themselves earlier in life and don’t have to spend decades acting as someone they’re not.

It took a long time, but now in my thirties I have come to accept and live as who I really am: a woman who was forced and manipulated into concealing her true self for most of her life. A trans woman. And I'm done hiding.