On February 15, 2021, I downloaded the application called FaceApp to my phone, just for a laugh. I’d had a new phone for a few months, and I was curious. Although the app allowed users to change age, shape, or hairstyle, I was, specifically and exclusively, interested in the gender-swap function. I fed in a mug-shot-style selfie and in return got something that didn’t displease me: a picture of an attractive woman in whose face my features were discernible. Changing genders was a strange and electric idea that had lived somewhere in the recesses of my mind for the better part of my 67 years. But I had seldom allowed myself such a graphic self-depiction; over the years I had occasionally drawn pictures and altered photographs to visualize myself as a woman but had always immediately destroyed the results. And yet I didn’t delete that cyber-image. Instead, over the next week or so I hunted down and fed in every image of myself I possessed, beginning at about age 12: snapshots, ID card pictures, studio portraits, book jacket photos, social media pictures. The effect was seismic. I could now see, laid out before me on my screen, the panorama of my life as a girl, from giggling preteen to last year’s matron. I had always hated seeing pictures of myself, but these made every kind of sense. My desire to live as a woman, I could now see, was a coherent phenomenon, consistently just under the surface of my nominal life for all those decades, despite my best efforts to pretend it wasn’t there.
After that, something took over, a wave of pure momentum that persists even now, on good days overriding my always-crippling self-consciousness. Whatever that force might be—very likely the tectonic power of something long confined that is suddenly released—it converted insight into imperative. My cover with myself had been blown, and I had no choice but to take action. The last two weeks of February are a blur in my mind because so much was going on inside me that I couldn’t keep track. I was about to make a radical break with my previous existence, but I have no way to reconstruct just how I proceeded to its execution. All I can remember for sure is driving 300 miles from my home in Ulster County, New York, to Utica and back for my first COVID vaccine—appointments were hard to find in those early days—trying all the while to decide whether to hit the mall in Albany in search of a wig store. Tired of the drive and a bit fearful, I went straight home, but I came out to my therapist the following day.
Trembling but resolute, I told Dr. G at our weekly Zoom session that I had always wanted to be a woman and now felt it urgent that I take the necessary steps. Dr. G had consistently maintained an imperturbable nothing-human-is-alien-to-me equanimity, but I was nevertheless stunned by her quick and unsurprised assent. “It makes sense,” she told me. “It sounds like a good idea.” In the four or five years I’d been seeing her, I had never broached any mention of gender. My inner omertà relegated all such thoughts to the deepest, darkest corners, guarded by dragons. I’d seen therapists for nearly 40 years by then, but only one previous practitioner had ever come close to breaking the silence. Around 1991, Dr. P got me to admit that I had tried on my mother’s dresses and undergarments in early adolescence, although we never got a chance to explore the ramifications. Not long after I made that admission, Dr. P died of a massive heart attack 20 minutes after I left his office. My relationships with therapists had been checkered before and after—one tried to convert me to New Age spirituality; one spent most sessions talking about herself; one admitted that her expertise was in child psychology—and I never fully trusted another until I began seeing Dr. G.
In trans circles, a transgender person who is not yet fully aware of their nature is called an “egg”; when the moment of revelation occurs, the egg is said to crack. Subject to individual temperaments, cultural and environmental pressures, and any number of mysterious X factors, that can happen at any time. It is often said that while all trans stories are individual, all of them are the same—the order of those two phrases can be reversed. While the shape of the arc is generally consistent, some people are aware that they are trans from earliest childhood, some realize it at puberty, and others only tumble to the truth much later in life. After that, the egg can crack immediately, or it can take years—or, as in my case, decades.
One day in the fall of 1965, when I was 11, I was sitting in the kitchen of our tract house in New Jersey, waiting to be picked up by a friend’s father; we had recently moved, and my friends were all now five miles away. For some reason there was a mirror on the table, and I picked it up and looked at myself. I wore my hair in a modified bowl cut, which needed a trim just then. I gathered the longish loose strands above my temples and bent them into spit curls, wetting them so they’d hold their shape, and brushed down my bangs. I widened my eyes and softened my mouth. I looked just like a girl. Then I heard a footstep upstairs and quickly messed up my hair again. That was the first time I played with my appearance in that way, although thinking of myself as a girl had already been an intermittent preoccupation that I fought hard against.
In the following years the thoughts became more constant. On those rare occasions when my parents left me alone in the house—I was an only child, and overprotected—I experimented with my mother’s clothes and undergarments. I didn’t leave them on for long, though, because I thought my mother would be able to detect my body odor once puberty set in. She was vigilant about keeping me on the straight and narrow, and as my adolescence went on, she would subject my room to regular sweeps, with no drawer or cubbyhole neglected and no text, printed or handwritten, unscanned. She was looking for—what exactly? Porn? Drugs? Atheism? In any case, it had the effect of making me hypervigilant. I learned to never write anything down that was private—I have never kept a diary—and to subject every piece of printed matter I might be tempted to take home to a rigorous shakedown, leaving on trains or park benches most of the underground newspapers I eagerly consumed.
I was then beginning to take an interest in research, and so began, gingerly, to research my condition. My resources were meager, but then the culture was meager in turn. Transgender people were punch lines, figures of fun; the image was of someone in a shapeless polka-dot dress with a bad wig and stubble. I followed French pop music enough to know Jacques Dutronc’s “Il est cinq heures, Paris s’éveille”—five o’clock in the morning is when the transvestites (les travestis) go home to shave. At my all-boys Jesuit high school I leafed through yearbooks from the 1920s and ’30s in search of photos of students playing female roles onstage, which had ceased to be the custom. I knew a bit about Christine Jorgensen, the transgender pioneer of the 1950s, and she at least looked and acted like a woman, but in my view at the time hardly anyone else did.
What did it mean to be transsexual (a term that was in popular use at the time)? It appeared to entail traveling to Bangkok or Casablanca and getting one’s downstairs business excised. The thought hurt, and I avoided it. (A few years later, when I was 20, I was walking around Malmö, Sweden, late at night. I passed a porn shop where, in the middle of a dense collage on the front door, I spotted a photograph of a pretty young girl with a penis. How could that be? What could that mean? I was shaken.) I plundered the library for materials, which were scant. I read Krafft-Ebing’s bloodless classifications and endless sexological tomes that typically accorded half a page to “transvestism,” with diagnoses ranging from neurotic affliction to permissible as an occasional bedroom kink.
But was I a transvestite? I did love women’s clothes, and I loved wearing them on the rare occasions when they fell into my lap—a red floral blouse left behind in an East Village apartment I moved into, a whole pile of laundry abandoned atop a dryer in student lodgings at the University of Geneva—until I expunged them, rapidly. To me, back then, there was something sordid about transvestism, something not genuine. As it was, I prevented myself from taking any further action. I couldn’t shop or even browse at certain Manhattan haunts such as Lee’s Mardi Gras Boutique, or visit the Edelweiss or Club 82, or, later, spend time at the Pyramid Club, even though at one point it was less than half a block from my apartment. Anyway, however much I could appreciate drag culture from the outside, it wasn’t my jam. I wanted to be a woman, not a satire. I was uninterested in big hair or big tits or high heels, and I hated the thought of being gaped at by men. At least that was reason number one. Number two was that I was terrified of the power of my wish. I was mortally afraid of the very process I am now undergoing, although I also knew too little about it to be able to judge. When I was in single digits I used to imagine being transformed into a girl overnight. Some nights I would yearn for it; on the others I shook with fear at the prospect. It was too desirable but too unobtainable. I could never really be a woman, so I had to resign myself and keep the thoughts from overwhelming me. Not until the internet came along, bringing with it a range of transgender sites, did I know much of anything about hormones.
Now and then I talk with J, a friend of more than 40 years who transitioned two or three years before me. We compare notes, and although our backgrounds and personalities are very different, our trans histories are hilariously similar. We laugh at the fact that as children we both thought we were the only humans on the planet who had ever wanted to switch genders. But that was our time, so different from the present. My parents have now been dead for 20 years, but I cannot bear to imagine their reactions. Although I was an only child, I had an older sibling, stillborn a year and a month before my birth. My parents named her Marie-Luce and bought her a 10-year grave (in land-poor Belgium, graves are leased). I gathered that my mother had suffered miscarriages previously; in any case, the doctors gave her cautious approval to try pregnancy once more, but only once. When I was baptized, my parents inverted my sister’s name and added a few more saints in gratitude.
My mother’s depression lasted the entire time I knew her, so I don’t know for sure when it began. Her family life was unhappy, but she certainly presented cheerfully enough in snapshots from her postwar 20s—her smile was never as genuine after that time. For one thing, the vexed process of childbirth clearly took a heavy toll on her. She seems to have mixed up Marie-Luce and me, or at least I got used to being called ma fifille or ma choute (because mon chou is masculine, she had to invent a feminine form). Although in areas of Europe pink had long been for boys and blue for girls, my mother bucked convention, dressing me in blue in honor of the Virgin Mary. I was effectively sexless as a child, drawing and reading and playing with my large family of stuffed animals, to whom I assigned family positions. My mother and I were very close then, twice traveling back from New Jersey to Belgium and living for months without my father while she settled affairs and debated moving back. But when puberty brought along secondary sexual characteristics, everything turned. From sometime around then until I left home at 18, my mother hit me every day, usually a backhand across the dinner table. She also twice underwent electroshock therapy, after which she’d suffer temporary memory loss and mistake me for her brother.
No one knows the causes of gender dysphoria. Only limited scientific research has been done on that or other transgender matters (what we know about the immediate and long-term effects of hormone replacement therapy remains largely folkloric), because there is so little funding for it. In many cultures, including our own, transgender people are situated at the very bottom of humanity, the unthinkable. We are lepers, and if we are vulnerable we are preyed upon and often killed. Unsurprisingly, the mob mentality that drives such superstition is present within us transgender people also.