“You’ve gotta start before 25,” Josie said. I could imagine her exhaling a thin stream of smoke between pursed lips behind the gym. “You’ve gotta start before 25, or it’s basically hopeless.”
She was in the Navy, she said, and she had a fiancee. Or a girlfriend. The answer shifted, and she had a bad break-up at least once. She had the feel of an older girl, cool and disaffected and smoking between classes, offering little bits and pieces of wisdom to me here and there. She was about my age, but she was mad a lot of the time, about what it was always hard to predict. The world was just not the place it should have been for her.
She was in the Navy because she was saving for transition. She wanted to get there before 25, or before 30 as an absolute last resort. She was telling me — 24 at the time, as I recall — that the last exit was coming. That I would never, ever be happy if I didn’t start before 25. Or, y’know, 30 at the latest.
I met Josie in a chat room where people role played elaborate scenarios in which men were transformed into women. Usually, we were tricked into it, or we didn’t have a choice in the matter. Whoops, there you go. You’re a girl! Sometimes it was a fun bet that Got Out Of Hand. Sometimes it was just bad luck. That sort of thing. It was never our fault. We had no control. We were thrown about by forces beyond our comprehension.
I have always thought of Josie as a high school girl, I realize, even though we were roughly the same age, because that is what that chat room often was — a whole bunch of girls, arrested in adolescence, taking the one opportunity they had to be themselves, when the people they pretended to be weren’t watching. The room was a little like purgatory, a waiting space before we could finally begin.
The first person I ever knew to transition (not Josie) was someone I met there. But the last time I was there — shortly after I came out to myself and a few others — I realized how many names were there, were always there, waiting for the world to open up and force them to be girls.
I stopped seeing Josie a couple of years after that conversation. I don’t know if she ever saved up enough to transition. I knew her birth name at one time but have since forgotten it. I don’t know what happened to her. I don’t know if she still is.
I met Cassie on Reddit, and we quickly started chatting on Discord. She lived in the Los Angeles area, and she was the first trans woman I thought I might actually be able to hang out with in real life. She told me about a local support group and said she would be there, to look for her nails painted in the sky blue, pink, and white of the trans flag.
I went that night, and she wasn’t there. She came the next week, and I was surprised to find how quiet and soft-spoken she was for how brash and funny she had been online. She was still presenting male. She worked in the entertainment industry, but behind the scenes, in a place where she was reasonably worried both about how her co-workers would treat her once they found out she was trans and where she was worried about how an HRT regimen would affect her ability to lug around heavy equipment.
(Yes, the trans woman HRT regimen makes us physically weaker. About five months in, I realized how much heavier doors were. It was weird. Incidentally, this is just one small part of why objections to trans women’s participation in women’s athletics are completely ridiculous.)
I saw Cassie a couple of other times after that, and we talked a few more times online. But it was clear she was struggling with something, stuck on what doing something as momentous as coming out would mean for her. Her appearances at the support group pretty much stopped — and then I pretty much stopped going too. (Too many people had recognized me from my other life, and I wasn’t yet ready to be Emily VanDerWerff, very public trans woman.)
Then her appearances on Discord started to slide away, too. I checked today, and she hadn’t been online in almost a year. I dropped her a message, but I have no real way of knowing if she’ll read it. I hope she’s okay. I hope she didn’t force herself back in the closet like she talked about. I hope she still is.
The other night at Whole Foods, I looked behind me in line and was surprised to find myself in line with another trans woman. Her dress didn’t fit quite right, and her wig was all off-kilter, and she had that nervous “what the fuck am I doing?” energy so many of us have when we go out dressed as ourselves the first few times.
She seemed like she might jump at the sound of somebody laughing, assuming the laughter was directed at her. Or maybe I only thought that, because I could remember when that was me, going out with my friend, Amy, to go shopping, certain that every single person in the mall was laughing at me.
But she looked great. The dress was extremely cute, and in a couple of months, it was going to fit her like a dream. (She was also young enough to not seem like she was trying to force a youthfulness she no longer possessed, like the trans woman in line directly ahead of her, which is to say I was extremely jealous.) The wig needed work, but wigs are always a work in progress. The flightiness would recede in time. She was lovely, and grounded in the way we all are when we find ourselves.
I smiled at her, and that seemed to take her aback a little. I was going to say how much I liked her dress, because I remembered how much a spare compliment from literally anybody could make me feel amazing in those early days. But another line opened up, and she went to that one to buy her ready-made meal and slice of cheesecake. I was stuck behind a man who was buying half the store, and by the time I paid, I didn’t see her anywhere nearby.
Her arm was lined with scars, white against her brown skin. I cannot say with any certainty what they might mean, but I could guess. She looked so very lovely, but I know how hard the world is for trans women her age and especially trans women of color. I hope she has somewhere to sleep tonight, and I hope she got something good to eat. I hope she still is.
A thread on Reddit — a trans woman, on her death bed, having lived her full life as a man, determined to go out as her true self, even though she had so little time. I think about her all the time, even though I know she no longer is here. I hope wherever she’s gone gave her the grace of herself.
Friday, November 1 was All Saint’s Day, a day to mark the passage of the saints out of this world and into the next one, while the day following is All Soul’s Day, which rather broadens the number of people being remembered. It’s one of my low-key favorite times to go to church, a strange mix of solemnity and joy at the thought that there is some other world where we might meet again, where we might be better to each other at long last.
But there is another day this month. Wednesday, November 20 is the trans day of remembrance. It’s a day when we mark those we’ve lost, to violence, to mental illness, to disease, even just to old age. But as it approaches, I’ve been thinking not about those I’ve lost — because my small circle of trans friends is so very blessed to have all of us still here, still kicking — but about those I’ve lost, the girls who fell away along the way, who either decided not to transition for whatever reason or were finally just unable to transition.
I want to be clear that transition is not for everyone. Some people step up to the precipice and realize they’re not trans; others decide that they can be their truest self in private, with close friends and family, but continue to be some other self in public. Still others are trans only in the privacy of their own minds. I was one of them for many, many years, until I got dragged out of the waiting area and into the light.
But so many of us don’t make it. And so many of us who don’t make it never tell the world their name, never find their way out of purgatory. For every ghost that haunts this email, there are dozens of others of trans people I have known briefly, who have flitted away from me, the strange ephemeral nature of online spaces meaning that they are always, to me, a possibility space, out there in the unknown somewhere.
To be trans sometimes feels like living twice, like emerging from a harrowing situation as one of the few to have made it out alive. I was insulated by race and class, sure, but twist a few screws here and there in my psyche and my dysphoria presents differently and I’m unable to live through it. I am lucky, and in ways beyond the ones I readily think of.
In the book of Hebrews, Paul refers to a “great cloud of witnesses” — a community of early Christians who pointed to what that church saw as the truth. I think of that phrase a lot when I go into trans spaces, where we are taking care of each other, moving through grief, surrounded by might-have-beens and others who could be with us but for circumstances of time and chance. It is easy to portray transition as an act of bravery, because it is. It’s also easy to portray it as an inevitability, because it is.
But it is, most of all, to me, something I am lucky and privileged enough to be able to do, especially in a world where so many others are unable. I do not yet know where I am going, but I get to be, a ghost who found a door and willed herself back to life.
Read me: Have you read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House? Because holy cats is that a great book. I last read it around when the 1999 movie came out, and I liked it, but I read it again as the culmination of my “scary novels written by women” festival this October, and it’s an absolute monster of a book. It’s one of the scariest things ever written, despite doing absolutely none of the things you would expect a scary book to do.
Like… what even is this opening paragraph?!
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
What a genius Shirley Jackson was.
Watch me: All of the above was a bit heavy, no? Then why not check out one of my favorite dumbass videos of the past year — Garfield dancing to Mitski’s “Nobody.” It’s just 45 seconds, but I think it will make you feel better. Or it will get “Nobody” stuck in your head, which is what always happens to my wife.
And another thing…: Do you need a Christmas music playlist that won’t drive you nuts? I’ve written about this before, but Brad Ross-McLeod’s playlist is maybe the only one you’ll ever need. It’s beautifully curated, full of great versions of songs you love that you’ve somehow never heard before. Get used to it before the holiday music bug truly bites and you can’t escape the same five songs over and over and over again.
This week’s reading music: “Thing of Beauty” by Hothouse Flowers