by Bethany Cole
with photographs by Anna Caitlin Harris
"It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” — E.E. Cummings
"You might notice your attractions seem to shift. That scares some people when it happens to them. For example, maybe you’ve only been attracted to women and suddenly men have started to look a lot better than they used to, or vice-versa! Some people think it's from hormones shifting, but your change is bigger than that. You're becoming more and more authentically who you really are. It's perfectly normal to feel different – as you accept more and more of the parts you've shut out, you're becoming more fully yourself.”
I heard those words last autumn at a conference for transgender and gender nonconforming people (as well as their allies) here in Seattle. As a mental health therapist and as a transgender woman from an overwhelmingly cisgender world, I went because I needed to hear stories beyond my own. Sitting there listening to the panel, I felt recognized, seen, and connected to others with similar experiences.
Those words: "You're becoming more fully yourself." They stayed with me. Throughout transitioning I’ve been surprised by the parts of my personality I've rediscovered, recognizing aspects that I repressed in order to survive. For me, transition has been a process of reintegrating those parts. Rather than changing into something new, I’m becoming the person I always was. I continually find myself arriving back home, finally able to settle into to my own body. Piecing the fragments of my story back together. Remembering my life. Re-membering.
I'm three or four years old in the Sunday morning daycare at church. Putting plastic fruit and veggies onto pink plates. Making "dinner," playing house. Another child approaches and asks if he can play house with me; I smile and say "OK! I'm the mommy." Silence. A moment passes. Laughter.
My face feels hot and prickly. Confused. Humiliated. Memory cuts in and out.
When things become clear again, I'm in front of a toy I do not know the name of. It's like a single-person merry-go-round for toddlers. The previous child riding it has left, so I sit down, turning the crank round and round. I start to spin, slowly at first, but the room quickly becomes a blur. Internal feelings succumb to outward dizziness. Sadness, embarrassment, and all feelings fade. My world is light, sound, and motion. Soothing and pushing down my feelings. Disembodied. Dis-integrated.
This isn't the first time. These events repeat several times over the year. Months later, I don’t go back to the play-kitchen anymore. Not if the other kids are there.
Psychologist D.W. Winnicott described the "True Self" as a state of mind where we are most able to have spontaneous and authentic emotional experiences. It’s a feeling of stability and vibrancy; of embodied living with access to a range of emotions. He contrasted this with the "False Self," which is a defensive facade, a mask people live behind to protect themselves from feeling overwhelmed by their own emotions. This state of mind is described as feeling dead and empty inside, lacking spontaneity. While different, there is a feeling many transgender people report experiencing that sounds similar – we call it dysphoria. For me, dysphoria is sadness and disgust that results in a disembodied, disengaged feeling. In those moments, I tune out and emotionally retreat from the embodied experience of being in the moment. When I transitioned during graduate school, this phenomena lessened almost overnight. Some of my classmates in the counseling psychology cohort said "I had no idea, but this feels like you! There's a spark of life in your eyes that wasn't there before." I smile – relieved to be seen and have my existence affirmed. Still, there on the periphery of my bubble of happiness, I feel a haze of pain and sadness; a dissipating cloud that hasn’t quite evaporated.
I'm ten years old, at the grocery store with my mother. I'm waiting in the magazine aisle to read while she shops. I pick up a comic book to escape to the world of Betty and Veronica — high school relationships and bad puns. Glancing up, I notice an image on the front of a celebrity gossip magazine. It's Julia Roberts, promoting “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” Her smile seems so effortless and radiates joy. I smile and then feel a sort of hollow sadness; numb longing and grief. I can’t put words to it yet, but I feel inadequate and hopeless. I will never be as beautiful as that image. Girls like me will never be on magazine covers. Later that night, I repeat the same prayer that has become almost a ritual: “God, please fix my body. When I wake up, let me be a girl on the outside and not just the inside. Please make everyone know who I really am.”
Those prayers may have worked - although not quite in the way or on the timeline that I wanted back then. My body changed as I grew older, but my innate sense of gender never did. This has convinced me that each of our particular gender identities are innate to who we are, even if they are not necessarily contingent on our genitals. That said, my expression and experience of gender became more grounded as I grew up. In my experience, expression flows out of one’s identity, especially when it is given space to flourish. Additionally, each of us - transgender or cis - consume societal messages based on our gender identity and expression that give us a particular lived experience over time.
Speaking to that, Simone de Beauvoir said that “one is not born a woman,” but that she becomes one based on her lived experiences. Judith Butler took this idea further, describing gender as “performative:” a constant state of becoming, a journey. We don't just have gender, we also do gender. Society responds to the particularity of who we are, which forms and inscribes meaning on us while potentially influencing the way we understand ourselves.
I think there is something of a conversation here between identity and expression. Maybe gender is a process of speaking one’s own truth, listening to the response, and then speaking back; an incessant and repeated act of becoming. Womanhood then, is one’s being, journey, and destination. For me, this process began long before I named it out loud and has shifted as I began to visibly walk in a world that lays claim to women’s lives. I emerged like a sprout into a world of beauty and danger.
I’m an adult now, walking to see my therapist. Cutting through a short alley, I glance up and notice a man staring at me from the sidewalk ahead. His gaze is appraising, eyes roving up and down my body. His smile doesn’t feel friendly, but possessive and hungry – threatening. “Damn!” he says in a tone that would be more appropriate if it were directed at a painting or a flashy car. I realize that’s what I am to him right now – a thing. I don’t feel flattered. I feel angry. Annoyed. I notice that no one else is around and my pulse quickens. Fear seizes me. What if he found out I was trans? Would he yell at me? Attack me? I feel my jaw and shoulders tighten, and I grip my purse tighter. As he continues on his way, still looking back at me, I slow my pace to widen the distance between us. He finally moves on, stepping into the coffee shop I had planned to get a quick lunch at. I decide to skip lunch and instead walk straight to my therapist's office. I cry for the first fifteen minutes of our session.
In moments like that one, I emotionally become the same little girl I always have been—scared, self-blaming, defensive, hypervigilant. I always have that young, green part of myself with me. It's like the core of a tree trunk, the years adding on like rings, sometimes darkened by fires or drought. These rings are kept in the lines on my face, the furrow in my brow, and the tightness in my shoulders. To be clear, these experiences have not made me more female and they are not emblematic of all women’s lives, but they are part of my story.
As a child, I was the same person I am, and yet I was not all I would become. I experienced a particular type of girlhood, intuitively knowing who I was and internalizing what I saw society expected of girls, but never having my reality accepted. Still, I was a child and not fully acquainted with what it meant to be a woman in this world.
I think that people are not merely the sum total of their experiences, but that those experiences flow out of and back into the particularity of who they are. We are in constant conversation with the story of our lives that started being written well before we were born. Many people talk about transition as if it had a definite starting and ending date. While the change of medically transitioning tapers off after a season, we are always learning. I imagine that this goes beyond my particular experience of transition and that living itself is a constant act of becoming.
The cells of our bodies refresh; energy and matter change but are never truly lost. One season gives way to the next: life is constantly in transition. In the midst of this, in our lives and the world, let's bless it all—the past, the possibilities, the breath in our lungs. While we may wish our stories had been different, we survived. We persisted. We held onto this life when everything felt catastrophic. Life is transition. Although we're the same people we always have been, we're not yet all that we'll become.
Bethany Cole is a mental health therapist and recent graduate in counseling psychology. Her passion is helping people navigate relational dynamics, develop emotional metabolism, and process trauma. She lives with her wife in Seattle, Washington and in her favorite moments can be found sipping coffee and gazing at Puget Sound.
Anna Caitlin Harris
Anna lives in one of the most beautiful spots in the world, Oregon, and loves using the built-in overcast lighting and gorgeous green landscape as her photography studio. She is inspired by people and their life stories, and with her little magic box, she loves to help them capture the beautiful and genuine moments in their lives. See more of her work at annacaitlinphotography.com.