‘I’ve always known I was different’: Four trans people share their stories
Most trans people have a story — the moment they knew, the person who lit the way. Transitioning is always a journey, sometimes marked by medical interventions, often not. While most trans people say transitioning made them feel more satisfied in their lives, many trans people also lose things after they come out. As part of reporting the Post-KFF Trans in America survey, four trans people talked to The Washington Post about their experiences. Their stories have been edited for space.
Josie Nixon (all pronouns)
My experience as a kid just felt very, like, hidden. I never remember a time where I didn’t have hidden clothing in my closet or under my bed.
When I got out of high school, I knew I wanted to leave my hometown. I was fortunate enough to be able to go to college in a different city and tried to find myself a little bit more in the privacy of my dorm room, which really just led to a lot of buying clothes on Amazon. I was still way too nervous to buy things in stores. But every now and then I would be brave enough to go buy a sports bra or a skirt, and I’d be sweaty and nervous and so scared that someone would ask me why I was buying it, which never happened, of course.
As I was able to express myself more privately, it really forced my social persona the other direction. I went deeper and deeper into the closet. I showed the world a very macho, gym-going guy who was not healthy. I got wrapped up in a group of friends that I don’t think benefited me. I said dude and bro a lot. I was sort of a toxic person and sought alcohol and drugs to satiate this need to hide who I really was.
That led me to getting into some trouble. I ended up spending a little bit of time in county jail because I violated a probation that I was on from drinking. I don’t know if I could say jail is what turned me around, but I think it made me reflect on how I wanted to be interacting in the world. I got connected with a crowd of people who are more open-minded and who loved me for who I was and not how I presented myself to them.
Every day [now], I walk out of my house and I look visibly trans, which I am happy to do. I feel like I am exposing people to a trans identity that they might not be used to seeing. And there’s power in that.
I believe my femininity is the source of my power. But I view my masculinity and my androgyny with just as much affection. My voice will never sound like how I look, but I will never look like how I feel. And all of that confusion might make me harder to understand, but I don’t need you to understand me to respect me.
Tessa Jelani (she/her)
I didn’t understand I was trans until I was 19 and met my friends Charlee and Mikela. We started playing in makeup, and I was doing drag for a while. It wasn’t a shocker to nobody. It was more of a shock to myself at how comfortable I was in that form. Then it became a pattern to where I didn’t want to take off anything. I would wake up and the first thing I’d do is my face.
When I moved back to D.C., I wasn’t physically transitioned yet. I was basically cis-presenting, but trans-identifying. It was hard because work wasn’t coming to me fast enough. I wouldn’t disclose that I was trans. I knew I had to play the system — not only try to get the job, but to keep myself safe because a lot of the places where I was looking for jobs, I could tell they weren’t LGBT friendly, or, if they were LGBT-friendly, I was not the demographic type. So I had to pick and choose the battles until I could at least get some work in. I knew about sex work, but I didn’t want to implement that because of the dangers of it. I ended up at [the LGBT youth shelter] Casa Ruby.
After Casa Ruby, I moved to SMYAL, [another local LGBT shelter], and that stabilized me to actually get my name change, my hormones, my insurance. Now, I have my own place, I have my own car.
A lot of the discrimination happened at the beginning when I wasn’t as passable. I still face it now, but a lot of it comes more online than in person. Where it was physical for me was those beginning stages where I could be easily clocked, when I didn’t know how to do certain things to feminize myself.
The best way to explain it is my life is not so dark anymore. I don’t see my life path just being in the shadows.
Not saying it’s easy at all because life, society, but every time I look in the mirror I just smile at myself, because I’m happy. I’m happy I get to feel up on my curves in the morning and see my womanhood for what it is every day.
TC Caldwell (they/them)
The first trans person I ever heard of, her name was Helluva. I was 10. She was also the first trans murder I ever heard of.
She would go to the straight clubs, and she was the star, but once they found out her business, she was no longer she/her to them.
I’ve always known I was different. When she was murdered, it really put it in perspective, like, I need to keep hiding. I’m not going to be able to do it.
That didn’t change until my late 20s. I met this amazing organizer, Alexis Murphy, who used they/them pronouns. I had never heard of nonbinary, but Murph gave me language.
I tried out the pronouns first. Oh, my God, it was so hard. A lot of times, especially with older folks, I would say, “You know how back in the day Prince and Grace Jones blurred the lines? That’s what I do. I blur the lines, and I don’t use she, and I don’t use he. I use they/them because I’m a mixture of both.”
I started [testosterone] after my grandmother died. I had always said that when she leaves, she could take this body with her. I didn’t want her to think I didn’t appreciate coming into this world as a Black woman. As hard as it was to lose her, I also know if she was still here, I wouldn’t be fully me.
She passed in April of 2019. The following year, Murph, the person who introduced me to nonbinary, passed. And that broke me. I felt like, “If I don’t live now, it’s never going to happen.”
My best friend, Que, started transitioning before I decided to, so I had a guide to help me. I was always fascinated with his transition because I was so envious. I started taking videos. In my mind, I was documenting my journey as his friend. In reality, I was preparing to transform into who I’m supposed to be.
I was terrified because I had never given myself a shot. I went home and FaceTimed Que, and he walked me through which leg to do it in. He told me if you put it in at an angle, it won’t hurt as bad. I recorded myself, and I kept saying, “I’m so scared, but I feel free.”
Knowing that there is something other than grief that can sit in this body has been so, so powerful.
I have stable housing. I got a good job. I have mental health resources. Once upon a time, I didn’t have access to any of these things. I couldn’t have those things until I was fully myself.
Tim McCoy (he/him)
I knew when I was 3 years old. I was assigned female at birth, but I distinctly remember someone saying, “Oh, what a cute little girl.” And I said, “I’m not a girl. I’m a boy.”
My entire life, I’ve felt like a male, and I’ve even told people that. I was involved in the lesbian community, but I told them, “Well, I’m part of this community, but I’m really transgender.”
I think by the time I was a grown adult, there was one thin softcover booklet about transsexuals, and I read that, but there was nothing else available. There were no other trans people to connect with. Well, there were, but you didn’t know how to reach them.
The lesbian separatists certainly were not supportive. They tried to convince me that I was not transgender, that I was just a victim of the patriarchy and just wanted the privilege of the White male. I assured them that was not true when I was 3 years old.
I thought everyone that knew me accepted me as transgender. I found out years later that when people don’t accept you, often they don’t tell you that. They just stop talking to you.
I worked in the criminal court system, and in 2003, the job was privatized, so I lost that job. I became very depressed. I came across a transgender female-to-male community online. And that’s what started my transition. I had top surgery the next year. I changed my name, started hormones, had bottom surgery.
I’m very out, but in new situations, you always have that fear of what’s going to happen when you tell somebody you’re transgender, especially these days.
I just moved to Syracuse, and I don’t know anybody, so I joined this card-playing league. Oh my God, what a mistake. After listening to those people talk, it did make me more fearful for my own safety. I didn’t tell them I was trans, which indicates a lot right there.
I started a group on Yahoo for transgender men over the age of 40. When Facebook came about, I transferred it over to a Facebook group, and I thought I’d be lucky if I got 20 people. Now, I have almost 3,000 trans men over the age of 40.
We talk about everything. A lot of it is about family. Still, at that age, it’s “How do I get my parents to love me even though I’m trans?”
A lot of the guys in my group say, “I know I’m transitioning late, but I don’t want to die in the way this body looks now.”