by Jake Loren
“When did you realize you were a man?”
I’m disappointed when he asks me this at the bar because it betrays his unknowing. It seems like every time I open up to someone, I inevitably end up feeling like an alien. I chastise myself for getting my hopes up, but at least he isn’t like all the dudes whose ignorant and invasive inquiries I pointedly redirect – “Well, what is your penis like?” and “Why are you attracted to women?” and “When did you realize you were a man?”
He glances down nervously at his beer as though he senses that he said something wrong. He is genuine, I can see; he wants to try to grasp an experience beyond his understanding. Usually distrustful of cisgender men, I surprise myself and decide to indulge his earnestness. I search my memory for the answer to his question.
I remember almost everyone calling me “she” until I was twenty-three years old. I remember turning every object I found into a gun as a toddler. I remember in fourth grade I’d go into the bathroom, pull my ponytail behind my head, and reflect on how cute I’d be as a boy. I remember honing in on the other tomboys at Girl Scout camp as though I had some kind of magic “butch radar.” I remember dissociating from my body so thoroughly that I don’t remember the physiological impact of puberty but only the social implications of it: I was no longer allowed on boys’ sports teams, and I was expected to develop crushes on my male friends.
I’ve told doctors these stories for years, perched on wax paper in their sterilized examination rooms. I consider using these memories to satisfy the curiosity of my (maybe) new friend, now –but my gut tells me not to cut corners. For the sake of breaking the awkward silence, I repeat it aloud: “When did I know I was male? Hmm.”
I remember spending two years virtually estranged from my biological family after I embraced my gender non-conformity. I remember redefining what “family” means and looks like, spending Thanksgiving at the home where my then-lover was raised. I remember wonderful people who forced me outside of my self-protective, cynical emotional fortress, including colleagues and students at the middle school where I transitioned from “Ms” to “Mr” and my biological family that transformed in a truly remarkable manner.
My new friend peels the label off his bottle and shreds it on the counter in front of him. I am too deep in thought to notice that my fingers are doing the same to mine.
I remember injecting myself with testosterone for the first time, struggling to keep my right hand still as I brought the needle closer to my left thigh. I remember waking up with drains along my ribcage and my mother’s smiling face above me after a surgeon had erased all evidence of my former chest. I remember some days when I wished I’d been designated male at birth, but many more days when I considered my trans-ness a gift.
I remember a conversation with a stranger in a café in Manhattan, the first time I truly recognized who I am as I move through the world now: a white, straight, assumed-cisgender man. I remember sitting alone in Central Park for hours afterwards, trying to locate the distinction between passing and being. I remember bearing witness to transphobia at a gay bar in Chelsea when the culprits assumed I was on their side until I stated otherwise.
Should I tell my new friend that I’ve “known” for two years or twenty-five years? Should I tell him that I am lucky, or that I am unlucky? This vulnerability makes me squirm. Maybe I’ll just say I have to leave.
Instead, I go to the bathroom. He is waiting patiently when I return. “You don’t have to answer my question if you don’t want to. I hope I didn’t offend you.” He averts his eyes. I sigh.
“No, it’s fine.” I speak carefully, prepared to abandon ship at any moment. “I can remember a lot, but I can’t really remember one ‘when.’ It’s kind of a long and complicated story.”
He nods, looks at his watch, waves to the bartender. “I have lots of time. Let’s get another round?”
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