I'm 33 now and didn't know I was trans until I was 28. I mean, I knew something was up, but I didn't know what it was except that the more visible it got, and I got, the more people hurt me. Through all that abuse, I learned really early on that something about me is bad, and even though I had to for my own safety, I couldn't actually stop it. To cope, I broke away from it, isolating the hatred I felt into distinct realities I could splinter off and set adrift like icebergs.
Like, when I was in fourth grade, my teacher called a parent/student/teacher conference to talk about my lower-than-expected academic performance, and then listed a series of feminine behaviors that were also somehow linked to my bad grades. It was like I wasn't paying enough attention to being male and was doing it wrong, just like with my math homework. He picked a few boys out for me and told me he’d keep lowering my marks until I stopped spending lunch with this new girl who was my only friend. I needed to be around boys to be better at being one, and therefore more grounded and more effective as a person.
Of course, I wasn't actually doing anything wrong. I was in the throes of my first gay crush, and nobody else mattered except the girl with the pretty brown hair who laughed at my dad jokes. I wanted to spend every minute with her and found myself obsessing over it instead of my schoolwork. A lot of people have this experience as a kid, but the conflation of my teacher's transphobia with his homophobia made it seem impossible that that was what was going on. Even though, in any of my cis-male classmates, it probably would have been celebrated, I had lost touch with reality and needed to be reeled back in.
When I sat down next to Reza at lunch the next day, as instructed, it was like I broke in half. Part of me started flirting with this cute kid and believing this was what I needed to be doing. And the other half that knew what was true — that I had been in the midst of a perfectly normal childhood experience — that got shoved into a corner of my brain where I couldn't touch it anymore. I let the reality I was assigned take over for me. Soon I was treated better by my teacher, and my grades started going up.
What I learned was that people would subject me to less scrutiny if I could, A) excel academically, and B) be coupled off with someone in a way where I was read as male.
As I got older, the pressure got more intense, and the violence for associating with women got more severe. I built an entire reality predicated on my being able to be read as an ambitious gay man. In a time where trans identity was less well known and gay people were even more disenfranchised than they are now, apparent effeminacy and constant discomfort could disappear behind this label that seemed to rationalize them.
By the time I got my cannabis prescription, I was 26 and had been in a committed relationship with a man for four years. He found me desirable and complimented my intelligence and I liked that, and at least in the beginning, when people saw us together they didn't ask questions about who I really was or why I acted the way I did. When I started my master's degree at MIT, however, a few years into the relationship, I'd entered a world where the people around me were empowered enough in their discomfort to dismiss me as if I was nothing more than an assemblage of flimsy pretexts. Although my grades were perfect, every one of the PhD programs I applied to afterwards rejected me. From the folks who were forthcoming enough to divulge it, I later learned one of the main reasons was my recommendation letters advised against my admission. So, I moved in with my boyfriend while he finished his PhD, and when he got a job at a university in Southern California, I followed him there. I knew the world I'd made for myself wasn't working, and I wanted to find a way where I'd just be able to exist, somewhere far away from where I had been.
Unlike in the states I'd been living in, in California cannabis was easy and legal to buy online or in a store; you just needed a prescription. I went to a doctor and told her what I knew: Being in my body felt...weird, and the older I got, the scarier it was. Various vices brought some relief, but I couldn't sleep, and it always seemed like I was a million miles from myself. Though I was forced into taking SSRIs as a preteen, it didn't do anything about whatever my problem was, and I didn't want to try that again. She obligingly wrote out my scrip, hoping it would help.
I started consuming cannabis daily. A lot changed. For the first time in my life, I'd found the means to breathe and be present with myself, in my body. When I got high, the old protective mechanisms began to flicker off. Instead of working and finding people to attach myself to — the things I had done to scramble to survive — I took baths and long walks, which eventually turned into daily trail running. I figured out that I actually liked having a body, and in watching how it slowly changed with daily exercise, I also learned that I had control over it. I dropped the preppy armor I'd cultivated for the Ivy League and started wearing tank tops and floral short shorts. Although I had previously been really uncomfortable with my body, I bought a Speedo and spent a lot of time by the pool. I started being open about my attraction to women. People noticed that I seemed more present and at ease...at least sometimes.
There was also something growing in me that I could not name. Weed had propped the door open, but I couldn't see around it yet. I spent hours watching myself and my masculinizing body in the mirror, wondering what was wrong. I worked out more, and harder, thinking that I wasn't masculine enough and that that was the problem. Then, after a long smoke session one night, I started shaving off all my body hair. Another stoned evening found me using the nail polish I'd thought I'd bought for an art project on my actual nails and realizing that I liked it. Finally, one day, for reasons that weren't entirely clear to me, I smoked a bowl and then bought a bunch of women's clothes online.
Soon after, I was smoking a joint in the bath after a long Facebook chat with a trans friend of mine who noticed something was going on but wouldn't outright tell me, and my free hand slipped down between my thighs and tucked my genitals out of sight. I looked down at the empty triangle I'd made, and out of nowhere told myself, "I know, but not yet." I was shocked that this happened — who said that, what did they know, and how? — but I let the moment pass and tried to move on.
It was 2016 by this point. I was 28. I'd been consuming cannabis daily for two years. My boyfriend made his displeasure with whatever was happening known. He still loved and supported the pretty, ambitious, intellectual boy he'd met years earlier...but that person seemed to be slipping away. When he left California for a fellowship back east that fall, I didn't follow him. I told myself some project I was working on was the reason why, but really I needed to be alone to figure myself out.
I moved to Palm Springs. I bought a truck and grew a beard and doubled down on hiking and yoga, until I became apparently desirable enough to the gay men around me that my actual personality didn't matter and I could feel safe. I started going to therapy and kept trying to name what was going on and coming up empty. To cope with my growing confusion, I'd get really stoned every night, and, eventually, the person who spoke to me in the bath would drift in now and again.
Although I told myself I liked the beard, in my smoke-filled nights when that other part of me took over, they'd shave it off. I'd hit a bong and then go stare at my increasingly muscly body in the mirror and scream at myself that I was a man, only to find some smaller voice I couldn't place retorting that I knew that wasn't true. Then things started happening even when I wasn't stoned. While trying to work, I'd find myself compulsively reading about trans people online and shopping for more women's clothes. At my therapist's suggestion, I bought a box of skinny jeans and cute sweaters.
When they came, I rolled myself a J and tried them on. The pants were fine and looked great with my newly thicc thighs, which for some reason I just loved, but the tops looked weird. My arms had gotten too bulky, and I was so square now. I cried for some reason. And then it all clicked. The sense of dis-ease with my body, the feeling I'd been having as I got older and my hairline receded and my jaw widened and my voice dropped: It had a name, and it was dysphoria. I rolled another joint and reached out to the trans friend from the night with the bath, and she told me how she never really knew what was wrong but always felt weird and sad and like her brain didn't work. Psych meds didn't help, but estrogen did. She pointed me to Reddit, and after an hour of wide-eyed scrolling, it was really obvious: I'm trans too, and I needed to transition as soon as possible because if left to its own devices, my body would keep masculinizing, and I would just feel worse and worse.
Although it took a while, cannabis had finally led me back to myself. I started HRT a few months later, and I haven't looked back.