Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
“Do you ever feel like a woman?” my mother asked. I’d come out to her at 17 in the room where I grew up—the room where the Snoopy lamp shined orange due to the burn mark on its shade from when I knocked it over as a little boy. That’s how everyone saw it—the little boy knocked over the Snoopy lamp. Not the little girl.
“No.” I said. “I don’t know. No…”
Except I stared at that burn mark 1,000 times, asking myself the same question. I wondered what it would be like to wake up in a different body than my scrawny one. I obsessed over what it would mean if I was a girl desired by the straight men I coveted, and how that life might be bliss.
“OK,” my mom said, giving me relief. The subject was dropped, just that fast. But I wondered if she asked out of ignorance in the vein of “all gay men are really wannabe women,” or if she saw something specific in me.
I wanted to cry. Instead, I held everything in. I was going to college soon at NYU. I was going to get away from my parents’ fighting and flee to a whole new environment where anything could happen. Determining which letter I was in the LGBT acronym wasn’t going to rule my life, or ruin it.
Was it? That night I tucked myself into my bed, standard blue and green, cold. I caught sight of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic collection on my shelf. In it, an angry redhead transvestite finally finds peace as a woman, resembling Glinda from Oz, in the afterlife. It always spoke to me. Maybe death was the only answer. Would I look like Dorothy with my dark hair?
Instead of celebrating coming out, I suddenly wanted “out” in a different way. I thought about pills. I considered more violent methods. With my ingrained Jewish guilt, though, I couldn’t go through with it. I worried that I’d be punished by God for my cowardice—that there would be no final reward. Still, I wrote a note to myself: If by the end of freshman year you feel the same way and haven’t found yourself—give up.
Quickly, between the courses, the busy schedule, and an open-door policy in the dorm introducing me to foreigners, hipsters, gays, transgenders, and everything in between, I was stimulated at school and expanding in all new ways. In comparison to my closeted roommate, I even came to think I was borderline self-actualized. In May, I came across my depressing message, and all I could do was tear it up and laugh.
In ensuing years, though, dissatisfaction crept back in, especially when it came to another duality—my major. I ended up torturing myself switching between the main division of the school and the arts program, cutting through red tape, back and forth. It controlled my brain.
“I might as well jump off this balcony,” I found myself heaving over the phone in the NYU library my junior year. “Everyone else does. Why is this happening to me?”
The male/female issue also returned at this time, in full force. Objectify me, I thought whenever a cute guy didn’t look in my direction. Look at me like the piece of ass I should have been. Whenever I saw couples in the street, or heard news from my sister about her new boyfriend, about how easy things were going for her even though I still hadn’t even been kissed.
Mom suggested I see a therapist. I thought I needed one, too, but I was afraid of what I might tell them. If I revealed my secret, next would come talk of hormones, surgeries—and judgment would follow. Was I strong enough?
Within weeks, my doctor had insights about me I never would have come up with myself. She diagnosed me as having OCD. She talked about ADD and reward deficiency syndromes. She explained spectrums, unprocessed memories; behaviors that were mysteries since my childhood began to make sense. In the end, I got medicated, I got help, and I also got a second mother. As I did with my first, I still held the biggest issue back.
Three years after college, I was jobless, facing moving back home, and my relationship with the most masculine gay man I could possibly find had blown up. Thinking about my problems, why I was still so miserable at times, I decided to reveal the truth. During my next therapy session, my heart crunched in my chest. What would she say? How was she going to take it when she learned that I hadn’t told her the key to everything?
“I just feel like maybe if I was a woman, I’d be a lot happier,” I finally said through a lot of tears. It was done. There was no turning back. I felt brave, as though I claimed my identity. Then she interrupted.
“You’re not transgender, Michael.”
My head buzzed. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Are you sure?”
“Not that it’s always the case, but don’t you hate jewelry?” she asked. “And doesn’t makeup disgust you? Let’s do an experiment and shave off your beard.”
“No!” I yelped.
She felt bad that I waited so long and was keeping these feelings to myself. "Being gay is hard," my therapist said. "You have a dearth of role models, and you're constantly subjected to gender norms that don't apply. You have to work more on learning to be happy and creating an identity to be pleased with, not transferring yourself over to a whole new one."
We explored it further: I was basically a werewolf, yet I enjoyed sex in my body, and even though this was my most “humiliating secret,” it was oddly mood-dependent. I swiftly began to change my perception and see that being so caught up in the gender question had more to do with my other mental issues.
I still worry my therapist was wrong—every time that gay porn doesn’t do it for me, but straight porn does, or every time I see a group of gay men in a bar who I feel little connection to. Also, in the wake of the most trans-friendly year in human history, it’s hard to not wonder what it would be like to throw my lot in with trans people, as plenty of my friends have done, finding themselves complete. But now, I look at my Sandman collection. The transvestite who turns into Glinda still speaks to me, but in a softer voice. This time I understand there is no transformed me waiting for after I die, but that the me now is transforming.
My mom put in pink blinds in while I was out on my own. Now that I’m back, she bought me some white ones. “Here you go,” she said. “So you don’t have to feel like a girl.” She was right: I didn’t have to feel like a girl. Still, I liked the pink blinds and told her to leave them in. As with the Snoopy lamp, I wanted to look at the tinted light shining through.