I Didn’t Know I Was Transgender

“Is this the last time a stock photo I posed for will be used with a Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart piece?”


When I first started writing about LGBTQ issues for Slate, I knew nothing about what it meant to be transgender. I wrote from a butch lesbian perspective because that was how others saw me, and I’d never questioned that identity. The little I knew about trans people made me uncomfortable—I’d made a life for myself based on assumptions about how bodies and gender were unchanging facts, and the existence of trans people threatened that certainty. But the more I learned about trans people, the harder it was to avoid facing the possibility that I am trans myself.

Growing up, I never asked myself whether I might be transgender. When I first learned about transvestites and transsexuals in elementary school back in the 1980s, and later about transgender people in high school and college, I asked other questions, the wrong questions. “What’s wrong with transgender people?” I wondered. “Who do they think they’re kidding? Everyone knows you’re stuck with the sex your body is assigned at birth.”  

I could have asked other questions. Like, “Why do transgender people make me feel so uncomfortable?” Or, “Why do I feel more comfortable when I wear men’s clothing rather than women’s?” Or, “Why do I feel so negatively about my body size and shape, regardless of how much weight I lose or gain?” There was no shortage of signs that I wasn’t necessarily cisgender, but I actively avoided thinking about such things. Thinking much about my body or my gender was painful and embarrassing, and I didn’t see the point.

I had a lot of prejudices about transgender folks—ones that a lot of bigoted, fearful people share. I thought that maybe trans people were crazy, unable to accept reality the way I had. I also suspected there might be something sinister or dangerous about transgender people, something that needed to be resisted. I thought they mistook societal gender norms for natural rules—though I’d never investigated what actual trans people thought about gender norms, and the reality is that the transgender community tends to be a lot more progressive about gender norms than mainstream society is. I also reckoned that I could always spot a trans person—that a person’s “real” gender always showed through. I saw sex and gender as something one was stuck with, and I believed it was a sign of weakness to complain or try to change whatever nature had left you with.

I also believed that all women secretly wanted to be men. This is not actually the case.

Early in my writing career—although not quite early enough for this not to be mortifying—I wrote a piece called “Why I’m Still a Butch Lesbian.” I argued in favor of keeping the boundaries around gender norms and roles as wide open as possible. This is a position I’d gladly defend today, albeit with some caveats. I am not a butch woman. I think many butch women are strong, inspiring, proud, admirable, and often incredibly sexy. I do not think all of them are secretly trans men. I was secretly a trans man, and on some level I must have known it, because I remember writing that essay and leaving out little details that I feared might make people suspect I was transgender. I knew, but didn’t know, and I feared asking the right questions of myself.

For instance, I might have mentioned that I’d always wanted to have my breasts removed. Not, I thought, strongly enough to do anything about it—but I persistently and stubbornly imagined that chopping them right off would be preferable to having them, going back all the way to when they sprouted, unwelcome, from my 12- or 13-year-old chest. I felt a similar dislike for other feminine aspects of my being—my hips, my monthly periods, my softness, my shape. Oh, yeah, and I also wanted a penis. Not desperately and constantly, but as an absent preference, arising mostly when I was turned on. I thought that writing about this would confuse people—but this was pretty obviously gender dysphoria, and I was the person who was confused, or perhaps just ashamed about having it.

I had discomfort with my body, sometimes severe and sometimes less so, but I never thought of myself as having a gender identity, per se, and to be honest I’m still not 100 percent clear what it means to have a “gender identity.” I don’t feel my gender in my bones the way some people do—the way my wife, who’s a cisgender lesbian, describes feeling about her femaleness. (It came as a shock to hear my wife describe feeling strongly female, because I thought that strong feelings about gender were something only trans people had. One more reason I couldn’t possibly be trans.)

My understanding of what gender dysphoria was and the realization that I had it came slowly, often through experimentation, as I became more aware of the experience of trans people and more willing to try things out myself. When it was only trying men’s clothing and nothing more, I thought my comfort in those clothes meant I must be a butch lesbian. Later, when I tried things like packing and binding my chest, and when I saw pictures and videos of trans men who looked just like any other guy, it became clearer that there wasn’t a natural stopping point short of a fully masculine appearance that would work for me. Every step I took felt better than the last, and the more I learned about different ways of being trans, the clearer it was that transitioning to male might work for me.

The idea of asking people who experience dysphoria not to transition, when transition works so well, and when there is no other effective treatment that we know of, has come to seem unreasonable to me. I could probably live as a gender-nonconforming woman who wished she was a man, but why should I have to do that if I could live more comfortably as a man? With the help of my wife and a therapist who specializes in gender identity, I decided to start hormone therapy. Right now, I still think of myself more as transitioning to male than as a man, because the bodily changes, rather than the social identity, are my main focus. I still use female pronouns, and I have yet to change my name.

Testosterone makes people with bodies like mine look basically indistinguishable from cisgender men. It grows beards, lowers voices, and redistributes fat. I didn’t know that this was a possibility when I was still calling myself a butch woman—I didn’t know anything about hormones or other medical treatments. I had a lot of opinions about transgender people and zero facts.

There’s still a lot that I don’t know, but if there’s a chance that testosterone will alleviate the feelings of disgust and wrongness in my own skin that I had, I think it’s worth finding it out. It’s early days, but so far the treatment seems to agree with me—even without any drastic physical changes, there have been subtle emotional and mental benefits that are hard to describe beyond saying that I feel calmer and more at ease with myself.

I’ll end with a caveat that belongs in all trans stories: This all applies to me and not necessarily to anyone else. I don’t mean to imply that trans men aren’t real men if they don’t take testosterone or that female pronouns shouldn’t bother other transgender men. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I’m not an expert on anyone’s experience but my own—and sometimes I haven’t even been that.