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An inside joke.

What a year to transition

Hello dear reader. I wrote this before RBG died on September 18th, and I decided to just let it be what it is, rather than trying to twist it into something to express my feelings about her death, or its implications for my civil rights. I hope this can serve as a brief celebratory escape from the U.S. political hellscape.

A year ago I told a hundred thousand of people I was transgender. Some of those people were complete strangers, reading about the news on Twitter or NBC. Others were colleagues in my academic world. Others were coworkers on my campus, or friends in my life. And, wondrously, nearly every response was the same: I see you, I support you, I’m proud of you.

I didn’t feel much pride up until that day. Mostly what I’d felt was shame. To me, my transness had always been something to loathe and to hide, and the idea of telling anyone about my dark secret was, by far, the most mortifying thought I ever had. It took me a year in therapy to tell myself this dark secret out loud, and I when I did, I faced a flood of ugly, shaking, uncontrollable tears. Saying those words to myself was simultaneously the most liberating and humiliating moment in my life. Telling my wife, then my family, then my close friends, and then everyone in my life, meant reliving that same moment each time, just with fewer tears and a larger audience.

I know now, in hindsight, what those tears were about. They were about what this fact about myself would mean for how people see me. After all, my shame had come from the world, and so how could sharing this shameful secret with the world lead to anything but more shame? Coming out was scary because of all the anticipated shame that I expected to experience. Of course, I was lucky to not get much of that shaming at all, due to the privilege of having supportive, inclusive, gender-affirming communities.

Of course, I wasn’t just wrong about shame. There were also a whole range of consequences of coming out that I just hadn’t really comprehended, and far from being grief from broken relationships, they were mostly just hard work. It began with name change labor. While I thought I’d spend all of September and October dealing with rejection, I spent most of it logging into websites, changing names and email addresses, waiting on the phone to come out to confused customer service representatives, and fighting impenetrable bureaucracies to change a single text field in a database. My pervasive feeling then wasn’t of shame, but of frustration, fatigue, and injustice.

The hard work continued as I worked on my voice. I had started working with a vocal therapist shortly before coming out, but didn’t really feel like I could practice in public until I was out. I learned that while there are some things biological about voice—the size of our vocal cords, the size of our vocal cavities—most of voice is learned, and just a byproduct of muscle memory. Changing a voice, at least from masculine to feminine, is mostly just about using some muscles less and other muscles more. Again, this wasn’t a feeling of shame, but frustration and fatigue from practice, and embarrassment from having to publicly practice and change such a personal thing about myself in front of my entire community.

While I was working on my voice and my name changes, I was also starting a very busy academic year. I’d fail to really account for the time involved in transitioning. Clothing choices, grief from deadnaming, navigating new gendered social norms, coming out to a long tail of people who hadn’t seen my original message, supporting closeted trans people in academia who needed to lean on me for support, the increased service load from being tokenized as trans, teaching a long 2-hour lecture twice a week with my unpracticed voice (and then teaching another 90 minute class right after), and more. I already had a full 50-hour work week from my job. Coming out meant another part-time job on top of that, and one that was emotionally exhausting.

As I wrangled my professional and personal workload, I also struggled to see myself as a woman. I hated the face I saw in the mirror, which I still saw as a man’s face, and desperately wanted to see the woman that I was. I did a consultation with a plastic surgeon and was terrified by how excited he was to peel off my skin, shave down my bones, carve chunks of my upper lip away, and tug my hairline down. There’s was something so subjective about the way he just looked at me for three seconds, made a quick judgement about what he thought I should look like, and then carefully measured my head with his assistant before telling me it would cost $100,000. I left, in tears, and then almost got hit but a truck on my way to the train.

After making it through the most challenging academic quarter of my life, and accepting that I might just have to live with my face, I looked forward to a more quiet spring, where I could recover, focus on caring for myself, and finally having some time to just enjoy being me for once, rather than being a robot that did research, teaching, and service from 8–5, a self-advoacy warrior from 5–9, then a mess of emotional tears from 9–10. Nature, unfortunately, had a different idea, and instead started a pandemic. Suddenly, all of the things I was just beginning to feel confident in—interacting with people in public, navigating gendered social dynamics, dressing how I liked—didn’t matter. All that mattered, at least in terms of gender, got funneled down to three things: my face, the top I was wearing, and most importantly, my voice. I became a gendered picture on a screen, and all of the things I hated about my voice got amplified into everyone’s ears. All of this might have been manageable if I’d actually gotten the planned reprieve at work. Instead, I got a wave of escalating pandemic and protest crises, forcing me to put my attention on caring for others instead of myself.

As Spring wound down, and the crises became manageable, I began to find some peace. My therapist and wife helped me find better self-care practices. I gave myself space to just be with myself. I processed my shame. I began to fall in love with myself in small ways for the first time. I slowly replaced all that self-loathing I’d started the academic year with which more localized dislikes: my large feet, my forehead in the wrong light, my lack of curves. I settled into being like most other women in the U.S., just deeply insecure about every detail of my body and my behavior. But not loathing it, just wishing it were different, and unsure how it should be, or whether there is a should. That felt nice, comfortable, and after 8 months of constant effort, earned.

As the quarter wound down, and the pandemic wound up, civil unrest mounted. It began in my news feeds, and in then as conflicts in classrooms that I needed to help manage, and then my lab, and then in my professional communities. The resurgence of public attention on the Black Lives Matter movement pulled me out of that comfortable complacency, and reminded me that as comfortable as I was, I was not safe, because our most vulnerable in society are not safe. Compounding that, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that trans people like myself should be less safe, removing our right to health care. While I felt more comfortable with myself, I felt less comfortable in the world, as I learned more about the broader constituencies that wanted me dead.

I found myself compelled to act, in whatever way I was positioned to help. I wrote about racism in higher education, tweeted endlessly about police and other injustice online. I was dogpiled on Twitter by conservatives, canceled by CS faculty angered by my critiques, challenged by colleagues for speaking so plainly about things that we just don’t talk about. I learned that talking about injustice means starting conflict, and trying to translate that conflict into progress. I learned that taking refuge from that conflict is essential to self care in these battles, especially when that conflict is about my own rights and my own oppression. I was grateful to have others in the trans community come to me with advice about how to manage my time online more effectively.

As I learned to self-advocate more effectively, and build on that foundation, I found myself in a reflective mood this past August. I wanted to take stock of what I’d gained and what I’d lost in the past eleven months by coming out. I returned to a post on privilege that I’d written many years ago, and examined my life from the opposite positive, trying to enumerate what privileges I’d lost. In a way, this was cathartic, because it showed me that in practical terms, I hadn’t lost much. But the reaction to this list, especially by cis people, showed me that few really understand what it means to not have privilege until it’s made explicit. And that adjusting to injustice doesn’t make it any less unjust.

Twelve months after coming out, I’m left in a curious place. In just one year, by being out, my life is transformed, inside and out. On most days, I actually like myself now and like most of my body. I feel like there was an entire cloud of dark thoughts, feelings, and fears that were just excised from my brain, leaving room for so many more things, including feelings I’ve never felt, dreams I’ve never had. Everything is just so much clearer now that gender dysphoria isn’t clouding every thought. Most people don’t get the privilege of seeing themselves in such starkly different ways in their entire lifetime, so I feel lucky to have known two very different selves in just a year.

And beyond myself, as frustrating as it is to have to live in a world that often disregards, dismisses, or denies my identity, it also feels uniquely empowering to be in a position to fight against those forces. Most people don’t get the privilege of empowerment that comes from saying directly to society’s face, “You can’t deny me; I exist, and it’s time to make space for how and who I am.

While all of this might sound foreign to cis readers, it strikes me that a gender transition is not unlike other kinds of transitions in life. Starting school as a child, becoming a parent, moving away from home for the first time, getting divorced, becoming deeply ill, becoming disabled, losing a loved one, almost dying—all of these transitions disrupt not only the daily patterns in our lives, but our sense of self and how we relate to the people in our lives. Gender transitions are a particular kind of disruption—one often grounded in a changing body and changing treatment—but other transitions are just as disruptive, often along the same axes. The optimist in me then views my own transition as not only an ultimate form of self-acceptance, but also a moment to build resilience for the transitions to come. Perhaps your transitions are the same for you.

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

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