People often ask me, “When did you transition?”
It’s a question I don’t especially like to answer, because the notion that transition is a quantifiable concept is something that troubles me. Because once we start assigning a start point to transition, the next logical step is to assign it an end point, too. And once you have a start and an end, transition quickly becomes something that is “incomplete”, or “partially complete”, or “however-many-percent complete”. And, if my own transition is regarded as, for argument’s sake, fifty-percent complete, what does that say about anyone else’s transition? Like the trans woman who doesn’t have access to hormone therapy, or who doesn’t feel safe coming out at work, for fear of losing her job? Is her transition somehow less complete than mine?
So when I am asked to delineate my transition, I usually answer that it began three decades ago, when I was (mis)assigned male at birth, and that it is an ongoing process that will end only with my death (or perhaps later, because I’m sure there are some people in this world whom I intend to haunt even after my demise).
Having said that… well, there was a time before I stood in my truth, as I do now. A time when the world around me regarded me as something other than what I am, and even a time when I tried to be that which I was misregarded as. A time before I knew I was trans, and a time before I made the decision to start hormones, and the decision to change the way I present, and the decision to amend my name and gender marker. A time when all I knew was that I was different, and that somehow things didn’t quite fit… but before I had the resources or the insight or the tools to really appreciate the reasons underlying those feelings. A time before I knew that things could be different.
And, by many metrics, it was rather a long time. During those years – those decades – there were many significant events and milestones that happened. Some of them I don’t remember personally – my first words, or my first lost tooth. My first day of school. Some of them are a little clearer – winning a bunch of academic prizes at the end of primary school, my “coming of age” in the eyes of the Jewish faith, graduating from university with a medical degree.
I say “a little clearer”, because that really is accurate; even those memories feel “far away”. There is a degree of detachment that separates me from them. There are a few different reasons for that. In some cases, there are unpleasant associations, times of particular strife, or discontent. You are probably aware by now that my childhood was a complicated one. Given the difficult situations I was forced to navigate, and the emotional abuse of which I lived in constant fear, I’m sure you can understand why it’s difficult to look back with unconditional fondness.
But, there’s more to it than that. Because all the time that I was navigating these treacherous waters, dysphoria lingered. Unbeknownst to me at the time, but it lingered nonetheless. The fact of the matter is, I have always been trans. When I reflect on those times, I recognise that although I wasn’t able to articulate what I was experiencing, I was very much held in dysphoria’s throes. Not having the vocabulary for a feeling or an experience or a concept does not invalidate its existence; it doesn’t simply disappear just because we don’t know how to identify it.
The time when I ceased to present inauthentically was definitely a turning point in my life. It’s a single, tangible, identifiable moment in this overarching concept of transition. A quantifiable moment, in an unquantifiable process. Of course, I’ve spent a fair bit of time and energy reflecting on what happened to me before that moment, and trying to interpret those experiences through the lens that I have now. I had to, after all – I mean, I did write a book about it.
The realisation struck me, however, that when I think about my life pre-transition, although I remember many of the facts, and the details… it sort of feels like it happened to someone else. Almost as though I read about it in a book, or saw it in a movie. It happened to me, but it didn’t happen to me, if that makes any sense. It’s a strange concept for me to grasp myself, let alone to try to articulate. I’m not a different person now than I used to be; I’m just more… complete. More authentic. More secure, more confident, more at ease, more real. But not different.
The dilemma with which I struggle though is this – where do those first three decades go? Everything that happened in that time, all of those milestones from which I feel so detached, what do I do with all of that? I’ve touched on this before, when I spoke about how I cannot find it within myself to embrace photographs from those days, or to share before-and-after images. If I ever have children of my own…. well, what do I do when they ask? I don’t have childhood photographs to share. My graduation photos are not of me, but of someone I pretended to be. Someone to whom my connection grows ever more tenuous and incorporeal.
What stories will I tell of my youth, or my adolescence, or my college years? Granted, there always was a paucity of stories. And a paucity of photos, too. In fact, just a paucity of memories. Because I was never happy, through any of those times. Even before I knew that I was wrestling with dysphoria, I knew that there was little to which I wished to hold on. I always wanted to write new stories, instead of fixating on those that belonged to the past.
The missing memories are just one side of the coin, though. Because there is part of me that can’t help but wonder over what could have been. And when I do, it becomes difficult to hold back the tears. I imagine what a young Anastacia would have looked like growing up. The toys she’d have played with, the TV shows she might have watched, the friends she would have made. I know she would’ve been precocious – I mean, she was. I was. But through all of that, I was holding myself back. What would my life have looked like if I hadn’t been?
If I hadn’t gone through the wrong puberty, if I hadn’t spent years upon years trying to make the people around me comfortable by playing into those expectations, if I’d had that time to myself? As it is, I got off easy. For all the years of testosterone poisoning that I endured, the scarring might have been much worse. But if I hadn’t had to go through it? I can only dream of how different things would be.
And all of those achievements, all of those milestones, all of those hard-earned successes… they would not have to be bittersweet and only half-owned in my mind. I’d be able to celebrate them fully and entirely, and reflect on them without reticence.
Of course, it wouldn’t have fixed everything. My childhood would still have been a difficult one. I’d still have grown up feeling largely alone and forced to become self-aware (and self-sufficient) while my peers were revelling in the naivete of youth. The dysphoria would have been better, but I’d have encountered transphobia and prejudice at a far younger age.
It’s not lost on me that the sum of those experiences were instrumental in shaping me. The passion, the insight, the empathy, the awareness… many of those qualities of which I am so proud today were forged from the despair and the distress and the dysphoria. Had I not endured it all, had things been easier or more straight-forward, perhaps I wouldn’t have the strength of character that I do, or the drive. The fact is that I don’t know; I can never know.
In any case, the quandary remains unchanged – what do I do with the lost time, the missing years, the absent decades?
Apparently, I am a year older now than I was. Of course, this is an arbitrary metric – as human beings, we do not remain static for the period of a year, and then suddenly grow older and wiser by 365 days. The concept is ridiculous, but nonetheless, we assign some significance to the anniversary of our births.
In the space of 30 years, I do not have fond memories of a single birthday. They vary on a spectrum from “utterly disastrous” to “simply disappointing”, but there was never a good one among them. I won’t delve into any of the details – many of them are lost to time regardless – but, for the most part, my birthday has always been a time of melancholy for me, above all else.
For many years, I went along with the whole ordeal, for the sake of people around me. People become uncomfortable when one defies social convention, and the celebration of birthdays is social convention. If I expressed my desire to just let it pass unnoticed, people became rather uncomfortable, and often they’d either force me to acknowledge it, or I’d simply acquiesce for the sake of avoiding further argument or discussion.
I’d get the phone calls, or the text messages, or the Facebook posts – many of them perfunctory, or insincere. People would ask, incessantly, if I’d been having a “wonderful time” – it wasn’t a question in fact, but an expectation. It was my birthday; how could I not be?
It’s a lot of pressure, for a day that’s ultimately arbitrary. After all, what does it mean? I survived another orbit. Another 365 consecutive days of putting up with all the assorted shit. I mean really, it had very little to do with me in any event.
Looking back, I can recognise with much greater clarity why I was always so uncomfortable with my own birthday. A celebration of the anniversary of the day I was misassigned, of the day that would cement my destiny for the next three decades, living a life that wasn’t mine, pretending to be something I wasn’t just to keep the world around me content?
That’s not much cause to celebrate, now is it?
I had big plans for my thirtieth birthday. The first one since I was “out”, since I was “full time”, since I had transitioned. I wanted it to be what all the others had failed to be, but what everyone else had expected them to be.
You know by now that my life is chaotic and unpredictable. Around the time of my birthday, I was inundated with “stuff” – media, and meetings, and book things. I couldn’t even find it in me to plan a small get together, and before I knew it, the day was upon me.
I was a little disappointed, admittedly – because I’d built up in my mind what I’d hoped for it to be. This fresh start that I had, the chance to do things right for once – like my birthday, for example.
I’ll let you in on a little secret – it came, and went, and the world didn’t end.
It all just seemed rather silly. The calls and messages, whether they were perfunctory & insincere, or whether they were heartfelt & authentic… they were about a date on a calendar, not about me.
Not about my achievements, or my victories, or my hopes, or my dreams. Just a date, on a calendar.
If you look back in history, the date itself is a rather inauspicious one. It’s marred by conflict and natural disaster and all kinds of bad karma.
And then there’s me. I’ve spoken about this before (mostly in my book), but I have some hang-ups over my own origin story. Not just because of that misassignment that I’ve spoken of several times now, but also because, from the time of my conception, I was weaponised in the conflict between my parents.
When I learned this for the first time, the full gravity of the revelation was lost on me. But as time has gone by, it has become one of the hardest truths of my existence for me to swallow. Many of us never think about things like this, but don’t we all expect to have been conceived out of love? To have been wanted for who we are, not for our value as materiel in some conflict.
I don’t compare my situation to that of someone who was conceived out of, say, sexual assault. But nonetheless, there is baggage that I have around my entry into this world. It’s not something I asked for, not something I chose, but it’s something that, although I do my best to work through it, continues to cast a shadow over my existence.
A couple of weeks ago, I took my date of birth off of my Facebook profile. Facebook reminded me, a few days before the date itself, that my friends wouldn’t know to send me good wishes. I captured the screenshot and tried to stifle a sardonic giggle.
On the day itself, I got two telephone calls, a card, one text message, and a well-hidden wish inside a Facebook comment.
I explained, to those who asked, that I wasn’t celebrating this year. It made them uncomfortable. I didn’t care.
Because, here’s the thing – if my birthday is, in your estimation, really about me, then I should have agency over what I do with it. And that includes the decision to ignore it. If it’s actually about you… well, you have your own birthday to celebrate. And I will support you in that – I’ll gladly spoil you and make as much of a fuss and a big deal as you want. It’s your day, after all. Your day, your agency.
As for mine… it’s a reminder of the lost time. It’s a reminder of the sacrifices I made and the losses I endured in order to try to be who everyone else wanted me to be. It’s a commemoration of the day when I first became subject to the damaging expectations of societal convention as to who I should be and how I should behave. And it’s the anniversary of my coming into this world as an object, a pawn, a weapon. Not within a context of love (or at least, not unconditional love), but within a one of conflict.
If you want to celebrate me, then celebrate my achievements, my successes, and my growth. I’m a published author, I’m a well-regarded activist, I’m even a role model to some. I’m a figure in the queer community, an inspirational speaker and an aspirational athlete. I’m a great cook, and I have a pretty good sense of humour. I’m a human being of ethical integrity.
These are things we can celebrate together, and I will do so gladly.
But please, don’t make a fuss out of a day that is, at best, arbitrary and, at worst, an anniversary of all the adversity, hardship and pain.
So if you missed my birthday this year, don’t feel bad. I’m glad that you did. I didn’t want you to know about it, or remember it. If it’s still buried somewhere in your diary, then be kind to me, and go scratch it out right now.
I’m older and wiser and stronger and better every day. And while I can’t do anything for the time that was lost… I can do my damnedest not to lose any more of it.
So let’s celebrate the good stuff, rather. Deal?