That first morning in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the summer of 2008, I opened the sliding screen door and stepped into my new backyard, my body buzzing with a combination of relief and uncertainty. Hard yellow light slanted across the mowed lawn and over the landlord’s vegetable and herb gardens. An impressive rosemary bush as tall as my chest sprawled next to a minimalist patch of cacti, one with a pink flower blooming from its spikes like the tip of a paintbrush. Carefully laid flat stones encircled the prickly plants, an arrangement more southwest than southern, I thought. On either side of the yard, a significant strip of woods had been left intact, and squirrels scurried through treetops. Insects buzzed. A loud, excitable wren called from its perch on an old gray fence post.
After living for a decade in New York City in cramped apartments, hustling to make rent, I’d landed here—in the country, in the South. I’d come for graduate school.
I was also running from something I could not yet put into words.
I stood on the back deck, like the one at my parents’ house in Ohio, and breathed in the sweet, thick country air. An electric fence separated the backyard from the neighbor’s property, a rolling pasture with a cattail-lined pond. Three cows congregated around it. Two of them were gigantic and obese, and the third looked like a cartoon, all knobby-kneed and hunchbacked. Later, I would learn they were rescue cows.
Different girlfriends had tried to broach the subject, but I always brushed them off. I don’t have gender confusion, I said with a laugh, a scoff.
There was a rustling from behind the trees, and I held very still. Four white-tailed does emerged from the woods, long necks stretched, mouths tugging leaves from saplings. Startled by their beauty, perhaps I gasped. In any case, I’d been detected. The deer stopped chewing, stared back at me. Then, one turned and leaped over a log, disappearing into the dense brushwood and behind the oaks and walnut and maple trees, and the others followed, white tails up, flags warning each other.
My gender, my name, my pronoun, my body—I believed I couldn’t change any of this. I was thirty-five years old. My ship had sailed.
Except here I was. Changing my life.
When I came out in the early ’90s, I had never heard the word “trans.” I came out as a lesbian because I had no other way to describe my queerness. The dyke community welcomed me, and for years, I tried to make this loving, edgy, alluring space my home—but it’s difficult to feel at home when you don’t know who you are, who you want to be.
Still, for a while, it worked. I carried myself as a butch. Though I wasn’t one at all (which all my girlfriends immediately understood), I at least felt comfortable dressing the part—in men’s jeans and T-shirts and sneakers. Short hair, clipped tight above the ears. No jewelry or makeup. I dated and fell in love with femmes, whose queer, bold femininity—sometimes stilettos and fishnets, sometimes torn-up tank tops and huge hoop earrings—and the intimacy they extended to me, made me feel safe and seen: I was their opposite, at least by the way I looked, the butch to their femme, the boy to their girl.
By the early 2000s, I’d met a few trans men, but we didn’t run in the same circles. From afar, I couldn’t see myself reflected in them. With their flat chests and bulging biceps and sideburns and beards, they embodied and emanated masculinity and confidence; they knew exactly who they were.
I felt increasingly unmoored and alone. Frustrated girlfriends described me as closed-off, distant. I didn’t know where to turn. The only narrative I’d ever heard about trans people didn’t apply to me. I didn’t feel trapped inside my body. More like I wasn’t even there.
Leaving New York was the equivalent of forsaking the World, and I found camaraderie in Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That,” about moving out of the city: “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” Except I couldn’t fathom this move to North Carolina as a beginning to anything. That first week, desperately alone, I reeled with the stupidity of my decision. What was I thinking? I didn’t know anyone here, and school didn’t start for another month. The apartment, attached to the landlord’s ranch-style house, glared with emptiness. I owned a bed and small table, but no sofa or chairs. The kitchen itself was as big as my apartment back in New York. I didn’t know how to fill up the space.
I missed crowded streets and strangers, the noise and aliveness of the city. I missed my ex. For two years, I’d been dating a beautiful, gentle woman, an artist who painted landscapes of light. Too weak to break up with her, I’d put her in a hopeless situation, passively forcing her to be the one to call it off. I never asked her to move to North Carolina with me.
Now I left long rambling messages on her voicemail, apologizing, begging her to visit.
She finally picked up. I told her I wanted to come back to New York. Pack up my stuff. Put everything in its boxes. Come back to the World.
She had moved on. Kindly, she said, “There’s a reason you felt like you had to leave. It’s time for you to be with yourself. To figure that out.”
To get phone service at my new home in the country, I sometimes had to stand outside. The morning sun blasted my face, but I couldn’t move around or else I’d lose reception. My father told me my grandfather had died. I knew it was coming. A POW in WWII, he’d been in a nursing home for the past year, no longer able to tell the stories I should have recorded, his mind deteriorating. He was the last of my grandparents. My dad’s father.
What to wear? I hadn’t worn a dress in a decade. But I couldn’t summon the courage to show up in a men’s suit. So I compromised with myself: men’s pants, a women’s blue pin-striped button-down shirt that I held onto for family situations, and ugly black boring shoes, women’s shoes, shoes nobody pays attention to. Except me.
Queasy with shame, I put on my business casual costume—my humorless, stuffy, sad drag.
The day was hot and humid and thick with sorrow. I had come to mourn and pay my respects, but I couldn’t stop wondering how family members were seeing me. For years, my family had tiptoed around my queerness; nobody ever asked me if I went on dates or if I was involved with anyone. We abided by the official military policy: don’t ask, don’t tell. A city-dweller who was apparently always single, I floated among the married couples and their children, like a strange, solo fish looking for its school. Did anyone here sense my “gender confusion”? Was I confused by my gender? Here, as granddaughter, daughter, sister—in my terrible shoes, the shirt too tight across my chest—I didn’t want to be seen. I wanted to disappear.
After the funeral, we gathered on the farm where my grandfather had grown up, the old homeplace. Distant relatives mingled, swapped stories about my grandfather, and recalled family histories. There was a basic cheese and meat spread, vegetables with the obligatory ranch dip, casseroles, and a cooler stuffed with ice and Budweisers. I cracked a beer to take off the edge. One of my cousin’s kids came up to me. She was around three or four years old. Blond curls, a ruffled dress, clear blue eyes. She turned her sweaty face up at me.
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
Around us, my aunts and uncles and cousins continued to chatter, and I pretended not to hear her. Didn’t work. She wanted to know.
She asked again, louder this time: “Are you a boy or a girl?”
My face flushed with desperation, my heart pounding. This had happened to me many times before—a guy on the subway leering, or a customer waiting in line at Key Foods who demanded to know what I was. Tense, threatening encounters that also made me feel occasionally, strangely, seen. But this time there was nothing aggressive about the question; she was a curious kid who wanted an answer, who expected the truth.
My relatives looked away, politely pretending not to hear. My mother walked out of the house, heading right toward us—in a dark dress, her hair sprayed, makeup just so. What I was supposed to look like.
“Girl,” I muttered, maybe even laughed, like, Of course, what else would I be?
The kid just looked at me. She wasn’t buying it.
In the mornings I went outside on the back deck and drank coffee and watched the sun shift the dark land into bright shades of green and gold. I walked out to the fence line to talk to the rescue cows on the other side, looking into their unblinking, serious, wet eyes. The cows were calm and peaceful, and had nothing to say to me. From what had they been rescued?
Alone with myself, I read and wrote. I’d kept journals since I was eighteen. They sat in a moving box, unopened. One day, I told myself, I would read all of them, follow the turns of my life, recognize the silences and longing, and all that I could not say. String the snippets and lone sentences together to tell a story about myself that was true.
But not yet.
Most of the time, far from the lights and hectic noise of the city, I spent the days gazing at another kind of world. One early morning, a herd of deer pranced up the gravel driveway in a line, like showgirls leaving the stage. I wanted to disappear into the stillness, sequester myself like a monk, and never think again about gender or sexuality, or desire, or bodies. But the universe keeps moving, surprising you with what it drops in your path.
At the coffee shop in town, I clocked them right away. Flanked by friends, all dykes. The newly low voice, an almost hairless face. I gazed, sipped my coffee. A week later, I forced myself to go out at a queer bar in Durham, and they came over to make introductions.
“I’m Stephen.” Their T-shirt tugged tightly across their flat chest. I spotted the stubble above their lip, the start of sideburns.
I said my name, hating it. For years, I’d been pining for a more gender neutral name, writing them in my journals and waiting in vain for someone—a girlfriend—to christen me with a cute, boyish nickname that would stick and feel more like me. I didn’t know how to choose my own name, how to baptize myself—that would have required speaking and taking a step forward. Stuck in a self-imposed holding pattern, I circled and circled.
Stephen was unlike anyone I knew in New York. They loved Appalachia—their home—and bluegrass music. Stephen said things like “reckon.” Their mountain way of talking reminded me of the voices of my grandparents, but Stephen also articulated their understanding of their own identity as queer and trans in ways I hadn’t heard before. In the early stages of transition, Stephen was eager to talk, and I was the perfect, hungry audience, asking about surgeries and testosterone, about how Stephen knew.
“I didn’t feel trapped in the wrong body,” Stephen said. “When I was little, I never felt like I should have been a boy or that I was a mistake. I was just me. Now this is me too.”
A happier me, a more truthful me, Stephen explained.
Trapped in the body was shorthand for trans, but didn’t ring true for them or for me. To be trapped was to be imprisoned inside a body that didn’t belong to you. Stephen had made medical changes to their body not to escape, but so that they would feel more present inside the body that had always belonged to them.
Like me, Stephen had identified for many years as a butch lesbian, with similar doubts and anxieties. Now, as a trans man, they radiated a flamboyant, gay vibe that, at that point in my life, I had not yet encountered in trans men. When I looked at Stephen, I felt some deep, terrifying, joyful resonance inside me that I eventually realized was recognition.
I wanted to feel present in my own body and in the world—to be here, and not over there.
Which is maybe another way of saying, I wanted to live.
When I told Stephen my idea to write about the trans community for my thesis, Stephen invited me to a “Trans 101” panel they was on later that week. If Stephen wondered why I was so interested in the trans community, instead of say, the lesbian community, they didn’t let on.
I found a seat near the back of the classroom. There were about 40 people in the audience. The panelists began by stating their names and pronouns, which I’d never heard anyone do before—how radical, how thrilling!
One young trans guy who sported a shaved head and sleeves of tattoos and enormous plugs also identified as a devout Christian. “My mom was sad she was losing her daughter,” he said. “But I told her, you got to have a daughter for a long time. Now it’s my turn.”
A young pretty trans woman, the mother of a three year old, spoke about her military service, about stepping out of the shadows. The years she spent hating herself. Her stepmother, whose heart was in the right place, bought her a hideous dress and took her to get a pedicure.
I was surprised by the lightness of the room—the laughter, the joy that shone through the darker, sadder stories. This is what life could look like. This was how to live a life free of shame.
I couldn’t stop staring at one of the guys on the panel. He was about my age, with spikey hair, smooth face, flat chest. We looked similar. He wasn’t planning to go on T or undergo surgeries, he explained. That could be me, I thought. I could change my name. My pronoun. Start binding—something I had not considered until now. I was learning about possibilities.
As the panelists shared their stories, I took notes, ostensibly for my thesis. Stephen talked about not “knowing” when they were a little kid, but figuring it out with each new day. Gender, like sexuality, was fluid. Not a box to fit into, but a river winding through the mountains.
“I don’t know. Things changed,” Stephen said. “This is how I feel comfortable now, in my body and moving through the world.”
I wrote down the word “comfortable.” My hands were shaking. A catch in my throat. I couldn’t swallow. I looked down, staring at the blur of words.
As night descended, I waited in the backyard, standing in the last patch of bright sunlight. The rescue cows on the other side of the fence grazed, their heads bowed as if in prayer. They’d been abused or neglected, or headed for slaughter. An electric fence divided me from them. I sat down in the hot, scratchy grass, desperate for clarity. Wishing someone would rescue me. Lead me to a field like this one, with a pond and wildflowers and trees. Promise me safety. That everything would be okay.
When I think back to those first few months in North Carolina, I see now that I’d already started to turn around the ship that was my life. At the time, I thought I was just running. And, maybe a part of me was trying to escape: in order to see myself, I had to undo my world. But this was more than running away: I was searching and seeking, figuring out how to step into myself, to a deeper, truer place.
Stephen opened a door for me, and soon after, I met other genderqueer and trans people. I interviewed them for my thesis, and their stories gave me permission to tell my own. I talked constantly about gender to my friends, trans and cis, queer and straight. I went to support meetings. I started therapy. “Gender confusion,” I realized, wasn’t correct or accurate. I hadn’t been confused, just lost and scared. I didn’t know the words. I didn’t have a map.
One day, I opened the moving box of my old journals. I started to read.
Over the years, I’d documented those frequent times that someone read me as a guy, but I didn’t relay my feelings or questions or thoughts about the deep recognition I felt. I didn’t know how to process the gallop of lightness in my chest, or listen to the deep hum in my belly. There was a song in me, but I could only catch the faintest of notes. On a page in my journal, dated a couple weeks before the move to North Carolina, there was a single line, an instruction: “Go to meetings on gender stuff.” I had no memory of writing that.
My journals offered glances of a life I’d noted but tried to ignore, forget, bury. I wrote in a kind of code to myself, a code that for so long I didn’t know how to, or want to, break. I hadn’t been able to face myself or decipher my own story or follow the map of own trans path. Not until I moved away from my life, from the only world I knew.
It’s hard to live in a world that doesn’t want you. Where you’re not seen as fully human. Where you may be cut off from family. Where you’re considered a freak. A mistake.
But the alternative—to not transition—is so much worse.
I never thought I could. I believed I didn’t have the right. I wasn’t trans enough or I was too old, or this wasn’t my story to tell. I was terrified to change my life. But about a year after moving to North Carolina, I tested the waters, and then, slowly, I swam out to the beautiful deep end. I didn’t sink. I didn’t want to disappear anymore. I wanted to be seen.
The night insects and spring peepers had started their mournful music, and the sun held on, a glowing pink line. The rescue cows, silhouettes in the field, stood still. Noble statues, protectors.
From my chair on the back deck, I caught a movement, a shadow. A deer walking out from the woods. Ignoring me, she stepped regally and soundlessly across the yard. Moments later, a fawn appeared. It started to follow her, but paused by the garden to munch on a yellow daisy. I didn’t dare move. After a few seconds, the fawn looked up, suddenly realizing it was alone. Its mother waited on the other side of the yard. The fawn began to run toward her, and then it leaped—
I held my breath, my heart in my throat. By leaving the city and everything I knew, in order to face myself, I’d found myself living in a dream-world where cows, rescued from the confinement of pens, wandered freely, and where a long-legged fawn leaped through my backyard. I was learning to see.