Last year, I made an appointment to talk to my priest, Father H., and nervously told him my deal: I’m transmasculine, which means I can’t lay claim to being either a woman or a man; I’m somewhere in-between. But aside from getting an undercut haircut and slimming down, my transition has been mostly spiritual and personal, not physical—hormone treatments and surgery don’t interest me because they wouldn’t affect my ability to embrace and love myself. They wouldn’t make me happier.
For me, coming out helped me to settle into my chromosomally female body. Until then, I’d spent 27 years locked in combat with my body. I wished that being feminine and being happy weren’t at odds with each other, and hoped that wearing my makeup the right way would make me into a Real Woman. But I was trying to shove myself into a woman-suit without success—because I’m simply not a woman.
When coming out to my friends and family, I felt a sense of obligation to reassure them that very little about my transition was going to affect them, but the stakes were somewhat higher with my priest: I was coming out to Father H. in preparation to have my marriage blessed in the Church.
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“Well, you did always seem sort of androgynous,” Father said, absolutely zero shock or discomfort on his face. “As long as it doesn’t interfere with your attraction to Michael or your openness to having kids, I don’t see why it would be a problem in terms of marriage.” Try to imagine coming out to someone—your priest, no less—and receiving a response so reflexively cool, reassuring, helpful, and accepting. This, friends, is a man who’s good at his job.
But Father H.’s reaction stands in pretty sharp contrast with most of the responses I’ve received, even from people who are allies—or even members—of the LGBT community. An ideal reaction to coming out might be, “Cool. What can I do to help?” Or, as my brilliant husband Michael put it (perfectly) the first time I told him I wasn’t a woman: “As long as you still love me.”
Sadly, many people’s reactions haven’t been so compassionate. When I came out, some people seemed immediately concerned with simply projecting the right image, while others acted dismissive of my transition because I’m OK with continuing to look physically feminine and keeping my traditionally feminine name. Either way, they were too concerned with their own discomfort to be a friend.
I get it: As a culture, we’re still in the baby stages of understanding transgender identities, so a lot of people now assume that a transition happens mostly on the outside. The most public transition of basically ever has been Caitlyn Jenner’s. She’s a woman who clearly needed to go the hormones-and-surgery route, but because she’s the only example many people are familiar with, a lot of folks seem to think that all trans people must want to change their appearance.
The truth is that one’s transition begins early, in your heart and mind and soul. Interventions like hormone replacement therapy and surgery are frequently medically necessary, because they are capable of easing the debilitating emotional suffering a lot of trans people go through. But HRT and surgery can’t change who you are—they can only validate you. This works for a lot of trans people, but for others, it isn’t the right path.
Things were just settling down when, a few months after my wedding in the church, I found out that I was pregnant. I was immediately sidelined by hyperemesis gravidarum, a titanic version of morning sickness which is—I’m fairly sure—the only thing Kate Middleton and I will ever have in common. Soon after, the body I’d always been happy with starting changing dramatically: My boobs inflated, my butt became blazing hot at night (just my butt, nothing else), and I started hating the taste of ginger and the smell of cooking oil, potatoes, and toast. I couldn’t drink water without getting sick, so I had to drink Gatorade for five straight weeks. My skin cleared up on my face but got worse on my chest and back, and I started needing to take midday naps. Inevitably, my abdomen started to protrude enough that I had to give up on my jeans and start wearing what we’ll generously call “athleisure.”
It’s cool: I wanted this. Well, not exactly—Michael and I wanted kids, and I happen to be the one who has a uterus, so I’m doing us a solid and gestating a baby. I never wanted to be pregnant, because it sounded like a nightmare, and to be honest, it is. Pregnancy is an absolute nightmare that I never want to go through again. That’s the case not least of all because, on top of a physical affliction that put me in the ER three times in a week because I couldn’t eat or drink, pregnancy has forced me into the hard realization that some of my friends and family must feel that I didn’t insist on my masculinity enough, or in visible enough ways, for them to respect my transition.
It’s fine when people I don’t know well call me “a pregnant woman,” or “Mommy.” How could they know who I am just from looking at me? But when my loved ones, with whom I’ve had multiple conversations about my transition, suddenly default to describing me as a woman, that’s a problem. To make matters worse, some have also encouraged me to accept the more odious gender roles that people ascribe to women in general, but especially when they’re pregnant. They’re not uncommon complaints, even if they affect me a little differently than pregnant people who aren’t trans: submission to people violating your physical boundaries by touching you without permission or giving unwanted attention to the way you look; accepting that people will talk to you as if you’re the child, not the one carrying the child; resignation to the “fact” that your baby is now your identity; or the insistence that mothers (and otherwise female-bodied parents) must follow the very narrow, strict codes of presentation and behavior that have plagued people like Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian after they had children.
Sometimes I feel like if I’d really committed to presenting as more masculine—like if I’d started asking people to refer to me as Rex and been really particular about pronouns, started dressing in a more masculine way, or gotten medical interventions—I wouldn’t have to deal simultaneously with pregnancy and gender dysphoria. Maybe I brought this upon myself by not living up to what other people want out of a transition. But if I’d gotten hormone treatments, regardless of the fact that I didn’t want to, would it have been so easy for me to get pregnant? And isn’t what my partner and I want for our future more important than whether or not I look not masculine enough to be happy with myself but masculine enough to convince other people that, yes, I’m really trans?
Being told to defer to other people’s expectations and feeling guilty are, I’d imagine, some of the few ways in which I share the emotional experience of pregnancy that women must go through. A friend said that his family was convinced he’d been a colicky baby because his mother had eaten spicy food once during her pregnancy. (I’ve been downing hot peppers like my life depends on it… should I be worried?) My sister told me she’d overheard a woman who was so paranoid about her eating habits that she opted out of coffee for her entire pregnancy even though you’re allowed to have one cup of coffee per day.
Between the horrifying morning sickness and my heartbreak over realizing that some of my loved ones didn’t seem interested in actually knowing me, I started feeling like I wasn’t ever going to ever be happy during this pregnancy. Maybe I was going to look back on it with regret, and maybe once the baby was born, I’d spend the whole rest of my life having to stand up for myself as both a person and a parent. Since one of the reasons I had wanted to have a baby in the first place was my faith, I met with Father H. again and told him how discouraged and deficient I’d been feeling.
“You know,” he said, “I think that your willingness to embrace ambiguity is going to be a huge advantage for you as a parent.”
If you aren’t sure you’ve ever experienced grace, think about any time in your life that someone said something elegant and simple to you that washed you in calm. That one sentiment reminded me that my experience as an individual and my experience as a parent are going to be reciprocal. When I’m my home with my husband, I feel total support, love, and perfect happiness with who I am and who we are. Whether or not anyone else understands my transition is irrelevant to the fact that I understand it and celebrate it myself, and that my husband, partner, and co-parent loves me for it. In raising a child, that happiness will be fed into my child and back to me; it will compound itself. And from what I understand, that’s the beauty of parenthood.