If we were to believe the dominant narratives around gender transition, we could only conclude that it’s a magical, affirming, and life-giving process. With these stories—and the glorious “before and after” photos that accompany them—we’re told that the uncomplicated truth of transition is that when the transformation is complete, we emerge on the other side whole and shimmering.
I am not whole, nor am I shimmering.
I often wonder: Can it be true that I can’t inhabit this body anymore—with its curves and parts that alienate me—but am still bonded to it? Top surgery is on the horizon for me. While I can’t fathom living the rest of my life with this chest, a part of me is grieving this loss. These curves were always guests (never residents), but their absence still means something to me.
I understand it only in metaphor. Imagine the kidnapped person who bonds to their captor. Imagine that the trauma forces them to forge a bond that will sustain them and wound them all at once. Imagine the attachment that is both real and illusory, born out of a need to survive.
For many transgender people, we find ways to form attachments to the assigned bodies and identities that harm us so that we can bear the burden for another day. And so the euphoria, disgust, and the fear come all at once. Behind the joy, my transition has been grief. My transition has been letting go. My transition has been hard.
I am losing the face that I knew. I delight in my beard, yet I long for the softness that was once underneath. I am angular in all the right ways, yet I still have affection for the youth I once held in my cheeks. And I wonder if it’s possible that the face I rejected (the dysphoria and the distress still real) wasn’t mine to keep but still meant something to me.
I know the feeling of being misgendered, like a knife perpetually wedged between your ribs. And I know the feeling of entrapment in a body that isn’t “right,” a fleshy coffin that conceals and suffocates you. And someday, I hope I’ll know the relief of having broken free of those things—to recognize myself fully when I look in the mirror.
But I live in the real world, too, where the pretending had to be so emphatic, it flirted with the truth. I had to be something I wasn’t long enough to reasonably convince myself, and the feelings there are residual, even now. My breasts disgust me, but they are familiar to me, too—sometimes I cringe, sometimes I cry, sometimes I laugh, sometimes I even smile, and sometimes I feel nothing at all.
When your body is the captor, and your urge is to survive, how do you go on? For some of us, we dissociate, we separate, we detach. But I believe that some of us form attachments, too—to our dead names that our protectors used to coo as they cradled us in their arms, to our bodies that lovers used to gently trace with a finger or lusted after from across the room. And while we know in our hearts that we must change, the intimacy and meaning of what we were was never lost on us.
And it’s this attachment that too many trans people are deeply ashamed of. How can I be seen as valid if I am not willing to abandon the entirety of what I was, of what that felt like? Am I truly transgender if I am unsure, afraid—or grief-stricken, even? If this is everything I need, but it hurts just the same? How can I hold this contradiction if it threatens my existence?
My brother, on occasion, slips and calls me his “sister.” Like a good trans person, I correct him. But some part of me cannot admit that when he says it, I am sometimes comforted—not because I am a woman or was ever a girl, but because I remember the warmth and protection his voice carried when he said it to me, when I was small and still new to this world.
When he says “sister,” it evokes a memory—a very particular one—of blood. When I cut my head open when I was 13, and despite his undeniable phobia of blood, he held his breath and a towel firmly against the wound while I cried. He was brave and he was sensitive and he spoke so softly to me. Then, and many times over, I was so proud to be his “sister.”
I admit that I am still learning to be proud of being his “brother,” too.
Like many trans people, I am learning to reattach to new words and new parts. I imagine what my body will be with immense joy and fear, worried and wondering what of “me” I’ve gained and what of “me” I’ve lost. Every year that passes, I fall more deeply in love with my name—Sam Dylan Finch, which rolls off the tongue like a tender incantation—while still wondering if the name I buried lives on someplace else. The unfamiliar becomes sweetly familiar, while the once familiar nips at my heels like a neglected dog.
It all had to mean something—and in a parallel universe, I think it still does, living on just as it was—because for this life to be bearable, I had to make meaning of these things. Because while the trauma of my assigned gender was at times like a clenched jaw around my body, it was, at first, the only thing I knew. And I created safety with what little kindling I had; I built a fire. Though it may have burned me and even, for a moment, engulfed me, it also kept me warm.
The truth of transition, they will tell you, is that it is pure and unadulterated joy and discovery. It makes for a touching story, to be sure. But quietly, I hold the space for something more—the messy reality that mingling with that joy is also raw and relentless grief, a letting go that too many of us struggle to make sense of.
To live these lives—to survive the trauma of being transgender in a world that denies us, invalidates us, destroys us—we’ve struck a delicate balance of detachment and attachment, forming bonds with our captors that we are unlearning as we become who we’re meant to be.
They tell us that those bonds make us confused or invalid. But I write these words to speak the truth: those bonds are a testament to our resilience. And whether you choose to break them or protect them, what matters most is that you’re still here.
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This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Unapologetic Feminism.