Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Frank Sinatra High School Of The Arts, Astoria, NY
Educators: Melissa Jean-Baptiste, Stella Lee
Category: Personal Essay & Memoir
Dear Trans Kid
Pay attention to every inch of your body; you’ll need it for the debate. You, unfortunately, are the debate. You are likely painfully aware of this fact already. It’s probably attended a few of your birthday parties by now. Your zipper will clamor for the chance to introduce itself to strangers before your vocal cords can, but they should both say the same thing if you can help it: I am not what you think I am.
As for me, I want to say congratulations. I want to say I’m sorry, and I want to say I’m so proud of you, and I want to say thank you, and I want to say so much more to you, so many incredible things, but we are only so infinite. I’m so stuffed with ideas for what to tell you that they clog my mind’s drain. No one can be sure of anything, but I’m sure you know that feeling.
I don’t know your name. I know things about you that no one else does, things you wish you didn’t have to know, things you want your family to know, but know they shouldn’t (or perhaps they don’t deserve to). You may not even know this letter is for you yet. I believe that to embrace one’s transness is currently one of the most dangerous—and therefore, the most rewarding—method of loving oneself. There are no forms of love that willingly seal themselves in a voicebox, so this letter, while for you, cannot be about you. It’s about me, sprinkled with assumptions of you (and I apologize again because I know how deeply assumptions can plague us, but it’s as close to you as I can get). Maybe you needed this letter; maybe you didn’t. I can only hope that our experiences and aspirations overlap enough for me to feel as if I can tell you “you’re welcome” by the end of this and not be a liar.
Your birth was many things; an emergence, a preamble, and destruction of the freedom you had when you were nameless. Within your first breaths, every witness to it snuck into your lungs, like cigarette smoke, their classification. You were expected to learn the lessons of whatever you were assigned until you didn’t have to think about it anymore, every day descending into pure clockwork. Of course, for you, time slowed here. At some point, you felt as if you were trespassing in public bathrooms. You wished for your hair to crawl down your back or slice itself off. How people talked about you began to sting. You resisted skirts. You struggled in derby shoes. Even when fully clothed, you felt exposed. It all felt wrong for some reason, but you knew everything technically fit you. So what was the issue? Your current reality wasn’t what you wanted. While everything was according to plan, it was still as if something was off-script.
The truth is, it wasn’t your reality, was it? It was someone else’s fantasy—everyone else’s fantasy. Every stranger who has assumed incorrectly of your being is pretending to live in a world where everything is clear cut and straightforward, where they know things about others that they don’t, and you pretended to follow along in order to entertain their illusion, either out of safety or simply because you couldn’t be bothered to burst their bubble. It may have taken you years to notice this, that the world has coerced you into fulfilling a role you never chose. It may have taken you just a few hours of web surfing on a whim. It may have even been nothing more than a split second where everything you thought was permanent snapped open. The outcome, nonetheless, is the same regardless of the obstacles that prevented you from reaching it, and it’s in your hands now, pulsing. Your only true identity is the one you forge. This newfound awareness is both rejuvenating and life-threatening.
I was one of the extremely fortunate ones, which in itself saddens me, but for it, I am also infinitely grateful. I know how much more brutally others—hopefully not, but perhaps, even you—have it. For me, the personal path to self-discovery was rather gradual and linear. I never had a stage of denial. While I don’t have contact with the majority of my family, nor do I plan on changing that, the very select few that were informed about my self-made manhood were more or less welcome to it and supported me. (While my gender is possibly the only thing my mother respects about me, I’ll take what I can get.) I felt safe enough to come out to my high school teachers as both agender and then later as transmasculine, and they accommodated my new names (it’s hard to find one that perfectly fits the first time!) and pronouns without so much as a second thought. My classmates, for the most part, treated it as no big deal. It was incredibly relieving. It was freeing. It was also an incredibly rare success. If I weren’t living in such a large city as New York, I’m almost sure that what I have now would’ve been nothing more than a pipe dream as I counted dust bunnies in the closet.
That said, I still get reality checks: ones where the box is blood-stained, others that verbally maim you and defend it by claiming brutal honesty, some that start with hashtags. I’ve known trans men with bound chests and full-grown beards—and they have gotten misgendered even then. This is not to discourage you if you wish to go through with hormone therapy yourself, nor a warning that people will know your secret no matter what you do. That isn’t true. These men pass very well, virtually ninety-nine percent of the time. This is not an admittance of defeat, either, nor is it an excuse for such disrespectful mouths. I’ve read anecdotes of cis folk who will occasionally get interrogated by strangers who, for whatever reason, refuse to believe they are cis. In the end, the ignorant mind thinks whatever it pleases. Such is life, at least for now. Try not to beat yourself up if someone foolishly tries to recreate you. It is not, nor will it ever be your fault.
Assuming you haven’t had this occur already, someone will demand you prove how real you are. Many people will. I am going to tell you right now that this is impossible. Gender, at its very core, is a spiritual object, a bit like consciousness, the only evidence that matters (or is viable) being one’s existence. It is as beautiful and natural and undefinable as love. We have existed for as long as civilization. If they don’t believe you, then nothing you say will change that, and you will have to accept this and invest your energy elsewhere. You are not a topic of discourse. If not even God needs to prove his existence to his children, then neither do you. You are already a miracle. You are allowed to just be. There are infinite ways to do so, and there’s always room for another.
And, assuming you haven’t gone through this already as well, there will come a day in which you question everything you’ve accomplished. You will worry if people who don’t even know you were right about you all along, that you’re merely playing dress-up with your skin. It’ll get in your head and constrict your spirit like clay sitting in an angry palm, a pearl too big for its oyster. “What if I am faking it?” you’ll cry in your head. (By the way, you’re almost guaranteed to misgender yourself by accident at least once. It happens to most of us. It doesn’t mean your unconscious mind knows the “truth.” Your previous designations have been ingrained in you for years, and breaking any routine will take practice—lots of it.) You will look in the mirror and gouge out your own eyes, searching for proof that this is not just a phase. Do you know what a phase is? Pain. And it will pass.
Even if you suddenly wake up one day and think to yourself, I don’t feel like myself like this anymore, that does not mean you were ever living a lie. The truth just changed. You did not waste your time. You did not inconvenience the world. If you had a partner that you loved with everything you had but eventually grew apart, is the life you built with them now meaningless just because it’s unfinished? Does it mean that you never loved them at all? No, it doesn’t. That’d be ridiculous! Let’s say an artist begins a project and—despite having poured their heart into the paint buckets—decides after a while that they don’t like the idea anymore and wants to move on to something else. Was all that progress for naught? Was all that time wasted? Does it mean that they never created that piece? Does it make them a liar? No! All experiences are ones to learn from, and the ones that made you happy in the moment are always ones to look back on fondly. You will be okay. You’re allowed to change your mind if it ever comes to that. Being human is all about adapting to yourself.
I’ve suffered and recovered from countless episodes like these. I would ask friends to deadname and misgender me sometimes to “make sure” it still made me uncomfortable. Imposter syndrome is simply a facet of the human experience. Nobody thinks they’re enough, and this is the most miserable lie anyone can ever teach us. Even as I was beginning my testosterone injections, I was anxious. And this was something I’ve fantasized about for years! I was determined to get them. It’s what forced me to keep living. I didn’t want to die while neglecting what my body ached for so earnestly. I couldn’t. But as I got closer to obtaining my first shot, tangibly close, the second thoughts began to creep up on me again like bashful ghosts. Who could blame them? Some parts of what I was signing myself up for would be permanent. It was a big decision. I wondered if I should wait (as if I hadn’t already been waiting for long enough!). I thought about if what I wanted was worth it or if I was making a mistake.
And then I said “fuck it” and signed the consent form.
I was excited. I was nervous. At some point, you realize that nervousness is just excitement that’s a bit more careful than usual, the same way that fear is just your body’s way of preparing to do something courageous.
Remember how I said there are infinite ways to be human? There are also countless ways to be transgender! Your experiences might be just like mine, but most likely they won’t. You may want bottom surgery or no surgeries at all. You may enjoy your birth name enough to keep it. Your name may be the only thing you decide to change about yourself, adoring the body and the way you dress as-is. You might go on hormones for just a few changes you’re looking for and then stop. You could decide to go by multiple names, more than one set of pronouns, rotate your labels like your wardrobe. You might declare yourself from the rooftops, or never disclose your transness unless asked (and perhaps not even then). You might comfortably align with most of your gender’s norms, or you might actively subvert them with reckless abandon. You may hate the fact that you’re trans, you may love it, or you may not care either way. All of these are okay. No method is greater or lesser than any other. They just are.
I can’t begin to imagine how different my life would’ve turned out if I was cis, or even if I had to stay closeted for a while. My transness has touched absolutely every corner of my life, and it will continue to do so until I die. What does that mean for you and your transness? Nothing. It’s principal or as insignificant to your life story as you believe it to be. You may call yourself a trans person, or you may not want to call yourself trans at all. Regardless of your relationship with it, your transness will—especially due to our current political environment—be an integral part of who you are as a person. But remember: you are a person first. To be trans is to figure out what you want from yourself, to regulate your reality, to curate the version of yourself that is the most comfortable. Yes, you are trans, and it’s unlikely that will change, but before anything else—and I absolutely cannot stress this enough—you are human. You deserve to be treated as such. Never forget this. Never let anybody tell you otherwise. Ever. Please. Promise me this. You are human! Everything else is secondary.
Living as a marginalized individual of any kind is exceptionally difficult. Even when you’re proud as a lion, people will want your head mounted on their wall. Even when you feel as if you’re on top of the world, the world still hates you. And it hates you passionately, as much of a grim recognition that may be. Self-love as retaliation is good. Self-acceptance, however, is essential. The world will try to convince you that you’re on fire. When this happens, pretend your ears burnt themselves off so that you can’t hear them, because this is a lie. You don’t need to escape yourself. They were the ones who lit the match and tried to slip it into your hair like a bobby pin. When the system’s steel grip try to strangle you, grip its hands and breathe. When it complains that your lungs disrupt the “order” which it demands of its people, live disobediently. Live. Apologize to nobody for what you can’t control. Don’t let anybody drown you out.
Make sure your fly is up. Now, remember your vocal cords? That butterfly net for your voice? Do you know how vital it is? Use it to repeat after me: I am breathing. I am breathing. I am breathing whether the world wants me to or not.