I usually do it without even thinking about it, but it's always kind of funny to me when I catch myself. My roommates are all boys, and when I'm just hanging out with them around the house I tend not to be overly concerned about my appearance. But when a girl comes over... quite often I'll slip off to my room, quickly dab on some foundation, maybe a bit of mascara, tie my dreads back (they look a lot more feminine that way), take my glasses off (they're a very masculine style, and I can see well enough without them), and spritz on some floral perfume. I come out again, still presenting as a boy, but feeling just a little bit prettier.
It's silly of course, but what can I say? I'm attracted to women, and like most people who are attracted to women, I want to look good around them. It's just a little disorienting when you happen to be a queer woman presenting as a feminine man around straight women.
Then again, my orientation has long been a source of confusion to me, just in different ways at different times. The thing is, while I've always been primarily attracted to women, I've never quite been exclusively attracted to women. As far as I can tell, I can be physically attracted to people of various different genders, but am romantically attracted only to women. Figuring that out would have been difficult enough on its own, but growing up trans made it more complicated still. For that matter, so did growing up religious.
I'd never heard of transgenderism or transsexuality when I was a kid. At most, by the time I was in my mid-teens I had a vague idea that there was such a thing as a "sex change", but I didn't have a clue what one might entail, and just assumed it was some kind of bizarre fetish thing. Certainly, at that age, it would never have occurred to me that someone changing their sex probably had feelings very similar to, if not the same as, the ones I was dealing with.
So, not having a concept of trans-ness, I made the best use of the meagre and distorted concepts I did have: I knew I was boy because everyone said so and I had boy parts; I knew, in some vague sense, that some aspect of me was deeply and fundamentally feminine; and I knew, because I'd learned it from my culture, that feminine boys were gay. Not surprisingly then, when I finally became honest enough with myself (around 19 or 20) to admit that there was something "different" about me, I thought it might be that I was gay. This despite the fact that I was primarily into girls.
There was another concept in vogue at the time that helped me make sense of that inconsistency: the so-called ex-gay movement. Nowadays of course the ex-gay movement is widely discredited even in most Christian circles. But this was back in 2008 or so, and we evangelicals all thought it was legit. There were stories everywhere of people whose homosexuality had been "cured" by their faith in Jesus. Some of them had even gotten het-married and had kids. They all smiled as if they were happy. And it was in this context that, desperately trying to make sense of my gender and orientation, I thought I might be one of them.
My feminine personality is that of a gay man, I told myself, but I'm mostly attracted to women because Jesus is healing me. Yeah, that makes sense, right?
Now I find it downright embarrassing to admit that I ever thought something so stupid. I will only say, in my defence, that if you've never been deeply religious you probably have no idea how badly it can screw up your ability to think.
And so it came to pass that, in the summer of 2010, while camping out with two fellow believers in the beautiful Alberta wilderness, I came out as "possibly gay" for the first time. Except you don't say "possibly gay" when you're an evangelical Christian coming out to other evangelicals; you say "struggling with homosexuality," because you have to pretend being gay is bad even if you can't for the life of you think of a reason why.
"I struggle with homosexuality," I said.
"It's okay," they assured me, "it's no different than any other sin. We all struggle with sin."
The second time I came out was much the same. But the third and final time something important happened.
It was late 2011, nearly a full year before I gave up on faith, and about a year and a half before I figured out I was trans. I had joined a small group bible study that met weekly, and at one particular meeting the discussion turned to the question of why homosexuality was wrong. We knew it must be because the bible said so, but we were scratching our heads trying to figure out why. It didn't seem like it hurt anyone, and God wouldn't just make up arbitrary rules, would s\he?
It seemed like a good time to come out to the group. "That's actually, uh, that's something I struggle with, personally." I said quietly. They all thanked me for trusting them enough to share that with them. The discussion would simply have continued from there, except for the curiosity of one group member.
"Wait. How does that work?" he asked.
I looked up.
"I mean, sorry if it's a personal question," he continued, "but like, do you actually find men attractive? Like, are you attracted to men the same way that I'm attracted to women?"
Not a very tactful question perhaps, but I'm glad he asked it. Because, for the first time in my life, I was forced to try and put into words how I felt. No longer could I cling to the ill-fitting constructs I'd been using to understand myself. "Um, well, for me personally it's not so much about being interested in men, it's more like..." my mind raced, trying to find a way to express something I'd never had a name for, "...it's more like... I guess I've always felt a bit like a girl trapped inside a boy's body."
Even as I said it, I knew it wasn't a totally accurate description of how I felt. But it was much, much nearer the truth than everything I'd been saying up until then.
To illustrate what I meant by it, I told them about a time I'd seen an adorable pair of red strappy high heels in a store and felt almost heartbroken that boys couldn't wear shoes like that. (Obviously, high heels are absolutely not what being trans is about, but I was still over a year away from even learning the word "trans"— at the time it was probably the best explanation I could give.)
"I don't think that's gay," responded the guy who'd asked the question. "I mean, not if you're not attracted to men. I don't know what it is, but it isn't gay. Gay guys like guys."
"Maybe," I said. "I don't know."
"Well, they do."
The room fell silent for a moment, then one of the women spoke up. "I feel really sorry for someone like you," she said. Her eyes shone with compassion. "Like, if a girl wants to wear boy clothes, people just think she's a tomboy and nobody has a problem with it. But if a boy wants to wear girl clothes, in our society people judge him for it. And that's just so, so unfair."
I appreciated her concern, but inside I was thinking: No, you don't understand. This isn't something that's wrong with society...
This is something that's wrong with ME.
Evidently no one present that evening knew what being trans was. If they had they'd probably have said, "but of course you're transgender!" and I'd have gone home and googled the word and learned I wasn't alone and gotten a year-and-a-half head start on figuring out my identity. But that's not what happened. And in a way maybe it's for the best. Getting out of religion first and then learning I'm trans has meant I've been able to work out my identity without needing to worry the whole time about what God thinks. That seems to me a much better way to go about it.
So, I didn't learn I was trans that night. But I did learn that loving cute shoes doesn't make you gay, and that was an important thing to learn, too.
In 2013, when I did finally learn the word "trans", I was amazed to discover that the "boy trapped in a girl's body" formula has been so over-used that it's become cliché. To this day I'm still not 100% sure if I made it up that night or if I'd heard it somewhere before, but I don't suppose it matters either way.
Of course, just learning I was trans did not mean I instantly and automatically understood everything about my orientation. For a while there I worried that maybe who I really was was a lesbian, and that my limited interest in men was just some kind of penis fetish arising from a subconscious heterosexism that viewed female sexuality strictly in terms of being penetrated by a man. That is to say, that I liked the idea of being with a man because in some twisted way I thought that's what would make me a woman. Soon enough I realized that's probably not where that interest comes from, that I probably don't have such insidious ideas lurking in my subconscious, and that even if I did (or had at some point), that wouldn't make an interest in men bad in itself— heterosexism is the problem, not heterosexuality.
The most important thing I've learned, though, is that a sexual orientation is something to be enjoyed, not worried over. I'll probably never understand how butch women can make my heart skip a beat, or why I think Eddie Izzard looks gorgeous in a dress but not so much with a beard. I'll probably never understand why I find narrow hips and broad shoulders sexy in other trans women even though I dislike those features in myself. But it doesn't matter.
Perfectly understanding myself is not a prerequisite for being myself. And I can continue to make myself look pretty around girls, disorienting though it may be.