‘So, do you like boys, then?’ Emily had asked.
‘Couldn’t you rather just have been gay?’ my mother had asked.
‘I’m open-minded. I just want you to be happy,’ Zach had said when I’d told him.
‘How do you know?’ Leo had responded.
I’d become fairly used to telling people that I was transgender. After coming out to friends and family, I’d never gone to great lengths to hide my identity. As time passed, however, I began to notice a few patterns in the questions people would ask me, especially if they’d known me before my transition.
People seemed unable to resist the temptation to ask about my sexuality. Depending on who I was talking to, and the mood I was in at the time, I’d either brush off the question entirely or launch into a patient and lengthy explanation of the differences between assigned sex at birth, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.
I’d go to pains, firstly, to reassure my audience that there was no need to feel guilty about having an incomplete understanding of these words and the concepts that they represented. They’re not the kind of things that schools and universities educate us about, a tide that was changing slowly, at best.
I’d go on to explain that my sexual orientation was more about them than about me. It didn’t relate to my gender at all, but rather to the gender of people to whom I experienced attraction. Terms like ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ form a fallacious relationship between gender identity and attraction.
My gender identity, on the other hand, was an innate sense of who I was – man, or woman, or neither, unrelated to my sexual orientation, and not determined by my the sex assigned to me at birth. The disparity between my assigned sex and my gender identity was the source of my dysphoria.
It had all been confusing to me at first, too. The existence of the phrases and identifiers, though they might not always have fit perfectly, helped me to understand that I was not abnormal – I was just a different kind of normal.
Often, when coming out to people who had always related to me as a man, I’d need to explain the implications of my being gender dysphoric. Sometimes I would have to spell out that it meant that I did not identify in any way with my biological maleness, that I’d fallen victim to some manufacturing error that had taken place when I was a foetus. That trying to relate to the world around me as a man was alien and frustrating.
After I came out, people would frequently tell me that they thought me brave or courageous, or that they were proud of me. I always felt that the praise was undeserved. I had no choice in the matter of my identity; the only choice I had was how I would handle it. Even then, it was not much of a choice. To try to continue living life pretending to be a man was not survivable – of this I was certain. But I didn’t feel like I deserved any praise for following my path.
As time went by, and I decided that I would live openly and make the story of my journey heard, words like ‘courageous’ became easier to reconcile. Taking the journey itself was no act of bravery, but talking about it was.
Another common response to my disclosure was, ‘I am open-minded.’ I struggled to wrap my head around the fact that anyone should need to be open-minded not to take issue with another person’s gender identity. When I’d heard it from those close to me, I was sure I’d understood what they had meant to say: ‘I recognise that because of who you are, and the prejudice and intolerance inherent in the world, you are faced with adversity, and you must have been conditioned to be afraid of rejection. And I want you to know that you will face no such rejection from me.’
One would never respond to disclosures such as ‘I’m short-sighted’, ‘I was born with a leaky heart valve’, ‘I’ve had red hair since I was a child’ or ‘I’m left-handed’ by saying, ‘Don’t worry, I’m open-minded.’ Some of these may be departures from what is common, but none of them is a choice. I did not choose my gender identity. My dysphoria caused me distress. Left unchecked, it would have killed me. My ‘condition’ was uncommon, but not abnormal. Nor was it an illness.
Why would anyone need to be open-minded to accept that?
The last question that came up fairly regularly was, ‘When did you know?’ My answer must’ve begun to sound very well rehearsed: ‘It’s something I’ve experienced my entire life, although I didn’t always understand what it was.’
People seemed to expect some sort of lightbulb moment – a dramatic event in which the heavens opened up, and light shone down, and everything became clear. I hated to disappoint them, but the process was so gradual as to have been almost imperceptible.
It began with my inharmonious relationship with society and the role it had always wanted me to play. First, I realised where I didn’t fit in – that I was different from other men in my behaviours and my thoughts. Next, a long stretch of time passed in which I ignored the implications of this difference. My deviation from accepted norms became my own normal, and I stopped being acutely conscious of just how divergent I was. Then, I began – slowly – to feel my way out, trying for the first time to find what did fit for me instead of what didn’t. As I stripped away the fabricated mannerisms and behaviours that I’d subconsciously embraced, I started to discover who I was. When I stopped disguising how I spoke, I found that it was soft and gentle, with instinctive inflections and prosody. When I stopped holding them down, my hands would flit about as I talked. I stopped reminding myself to try to sit in a manly way when I caught myself crossing my legs at the knee and sitting on the edge of the chair. I examined myself head to toe in the mirror and saw a slender waist, wide hips, tiny wrists, delicate hands and small feet.
On a day, I woke up certain of who I was, and of what I had to do. And on that day, whenever it may have been, not only was I sure, but I was unable to remember a time when I hadn’t been.
This excerpt was taken from Anastasia Thompsom’s book ‘Always Anastasia: A Transgender Life in South Africa’. To read the full story of her experience of coming out as transgender, buy the book here.