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Transition timelines vary for each trans and nonbinary individual

By: Nicole Malte Collins*/Trans Headlines

Living authentically and truly as a trans woman is non-negotiable for me: No matter how much it can hurt not being accepted, I’ve resolved to just grit my teeth and keep moving forward. I either live as my true self or am not myself at all.

Much of my experience existing in society as trans has elicited the same sense of accomplishment and comfort that might come from trying to push an immovable object. Most of it has been the result of an outside-in type of dissatisfaction: society feeling more or less “unfamiliar” and “uncomfortable” with atypical trans/transition narratives.

For me, this results in very strong feelings of claustrophobia and self-loathing: the reluctance to stand out, to dress feminine—how I prefer—for fear of backlash from others who don’t see me as “trans enough.” And that, in turn, makes me feel like I’m not “trans enough,” so, I sink further into the gender dysphoria that has plagued me for much of my life. It’s a toxic mental deterioration that no individual should have to go through, and is usually only exacerbated by external pressures and society’s frivolous gender binary norms.

This external dissatisfaction may well be a result of the increasing (but not necessarily bad) prevalence of “popular” trans (and queer) narratives—e.g., Queer Eye type stuff. These stories are attractive and popular in the same way that anything else is attractive and popular to a large audience. They’re linear, make sense, and are pretty norm-centric. At its best, this sort of queer media is a much-needed and a greatly important step in the mainstream representation of the LGBTQ community. At its worst, however, these narratives can exemplify what is essentially termed as “marketable rebelliousness”—i.e., “trendy queerness,” something that was not fifteen years ago marginalized and underrepresented in pop culture—disseminated by (often) an oppressive power system and making those digestible narratives the only familiar ones.

So, when one of us—non-televised trans and non-binary people—enters the picture, we seem totally foreign and unrecognizable. We don’t match up with what people are used to, so people are uncomfortable with us and then, I feel stifled. It’s a constant battle of privileged people having to “get used to” us at the expense of our mental wellbeing. 

These storylines, in short, feed into expectations, which feed into stereotypes, which feed into increasingly uneasy public sentiments surrounding non-traditional trans narratives. And, that’s where I come in.

For me, my “unconventional” coming-out, transition, and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) timelines got me a considerate amount of flak. And by “flak” I mean more a very subtle, brooding skepticism that would slip, unspoken, into almost every social interaction: glares, rude questions (e.g. “Are you sure you’re a trans woman? Why isn’t your hair long?”), and just general inconsiderate behaviors.

Exploring my trans identity has been anything but normal. It took me years to acquire the vocabulary to match how I felt about my identity—let alone fully acknowledge it, nor was I immediately happy about it, either. It seemed sinister and unnatural. Thus, I tried not to think about it. This is exactly what led to my reluctance to immediately “look feminine”—as my trans self was able to more honestly exist and flourish in my mind than in person, especially in my conservative Illinois town.

I grew up in a small suburb north of Chicago, and while I, fortunately, lived what was a happy childhood, dysphoria began to mount and grow as I entered my teenage years—especially when I started high school. 

Suddenly, jumping into the gossip-filled ocean of that school’s 4,000 other students made me immediately have to focus on my appearance much more than ever before. Thanks to my wonderfully progressive sophomore year health teacher, who led us through a couple of days of discussion surrounding sexuality and, more pertinently, gender, I began to think more clearly about and begin to fully realize my full, true identity. The mini-unit helped me obtain the terminology to fully realize and, more or less accept, who I really felt like.

The experience after that was anything but easy. I “came out” to only a few people at first, to test the waters, and received what I deemed pretty unfavorable feedback. While some close to me were definitely supportive, others were discouraging to a point where I began to close up about my identity and stop talking about it for fear of more, similar reactions.

Moving to Brookline—a Boston suburb about a year later in July 2016—my experience was much more positive there. I eventually came out as a trans woman in March 2018 and began HRT two months later, in May.

But my HRT timeline hasn’t quite been typical. Due to very serious, acute brushes with bipolar disorder, I had to play it safe and stop HRT in January of this year. I plan on resuming it soon, but this is still, to my knowledge, not how transitions “normally” go.

These timeline variations have made things uncomfortable for me—hard to breathe in most “trans-accepting” spaces. This outside-in dissatisfaction can manifest in anything from a very visible uncomfortableness to incredibly rude questions (e.g., “You went off estrogen? Are you still trans?”), which essentially puts a mirror in front of me because—as before—in my mind, my trans self exists honestly, truly, and completely unfettered. But ignorant scrutiny shatters that image and instills this awful feeling of, “Am I doing something wrong? Why do I feel so unwelcome for something I couldn’t/can’t really control?” It brings me right back to that same dysphoria I experienced “coming out” and living as my authentic self battled all that time ago. I know that the same is likely true for other trans/gender-nonconforming people who have faced similar unfair pressures.

That self-hatred hovers like a cloud. It uncontrollably snowballs into a projection of the original issue; it feeds into declining mental health and then begs the question of what caused what, rendering the whole situation a dark, low-oxygen, doorless room. 

So, on top of all the identity-related mental baggage, the social claustrophobia (and maybe a very, very subtle form of transphobia) makes the situation a whole different beast to navigate—the specific strategies of doing so I’ll touch on in my next column.

Regardless, the people who step out from the crowd seem so much more wonderful after all this. There’s something so beautiful and admirable about authentic allies—those who are able to see past the timeline differences and understand them not as just deviations or atypicalities but instead see a person whose transition reflects the complex personal situations that have played out over the course of her life. Those people who probably do follow those mainstream, popular narratives, but are insightful enough to look past them and admire/acknowledge you for the woman you are and have always been. For me, those people were just latent within that same community, which had treated me with that weird sort of hostility.

*Nicole Malte Collins is a sophomore at Carleton College pursuing an English degree. Contact her at nicolecollinswrites@gmail.com.