Crime. It’s a word that evokes a panicky defensive reaction. Your senses heighten a bit, looking for a threat. But what happens when your very existence is deemed criminal?
I first knew I was transgender when I was five.
A little girl from the neighborhood and I were playing dress up in her room. She was six and had borrowed her sister’s makeup. I’m quite certain I looked like a clown, but I felt beautiful. She had put me in her favorite dress and was experimenting with makeup styles she had seen in her sister’s magazines. I held onto the feeling when her mother and brother came in and started calling me names. It vanished when the beating started. By the time my mother saw me, I realized that this was something that had to be hidden. Thoroughly shamed, spanked and berated, I vowed to never let anyone see me like that again.
Most of us have things in our character that make us different in some unique way. How we deal with those differences defines us as a person. For most of my life, I guess I could best be defined as a prisoner in my own mind.
In school, I had no idea how to act. Everyone assured me that if I was just myself, then everything would be fine. I tried that. They lied. The problem was that “myself” is female, and “being myself” meant that I was an extremely feminine male child. Bullies of every persuasion just love feminine males.
If you try hard enough and work at it long enough, you can learn to be someone else. It isn’t easy and it isn’t comfortable, but it’s possible. You have to run every thought, every word, every gesture through a filter. The process creates lag in your responses, makes you come off as wooden, cold, forced. With time and practice, that lag drops to an almost imperceptible level, but, in my experience, it can never really be gotten rid of. You live behind a mask.
The problem with masks is that when you wear them long enough, they become a part of you: they grow into your skin, shape the person you evolve into, but they are never you. When you live behind a mask, behind a filter, working with a lag in your responses, it’s hard to make friends and almost impossible to have a functioning relationship – with anyone. For all intents and purposes, you are isolated in a world full of people.
I functioned fairly well in the world – as long as no one came too close, cared too much or tried to get to know the “real me”. I didn’t want to be as alone as I was, but experience had taught me that my secret was one that should never be revealed if I wanted to avoid social, mental and physical harm. The best way to avoid disclosure was to avoid people. So, I was the person you know, but never really know anything about. I was teflon coated.
I went to college, I dated, she got pregnant. It happens; condoms don’t work all the time. We discussed getting an abortion – and she went to the clinic – but neither of us were comfortable with the idea of taking a life we had created. So, we got married. Doubling down on a bad idea — I guess that’s human nature as well. It lasted 10 months.
I was completely emotionally unavailable. She kept digging, trying to find the truth of the person she was supposedly going to spend the rest of her life with, the father of her child. I kept running, terrified that she was actually going to be able to get inside my head. Finally, I told her. I broke down and told her. She didn’t react well. We had an epic fight. She hit me in the face with a frying pan, I executed an uppercut that landed her into the next room. It was over, right there. I still have a scar on my upper lip from the stitches.
She used my secret to have me judged unfit for the role of parent, but a wonderful resource. I paid support for a child I was not allowed to see.
The trial for divorce was something Jerry Springer would have been proud of. I was sent in for a mental health evaluation, then another, then a third. Southern culture frowns on people like me. I was labeled as several types of pervert, most of them far from accurate. The closest anyone came was “Fetishistic Transvestite”. All of the evaluations judged that I was hiding something. It was more than enough to inspire a soliloquy from the judge on the topic of filth, perversion, and threats to children.
I really wanted to die at that point. Some days I still do. I was tired of hiding who I was, but terrified of the reactions from everyone I had ever told. Death seemed like a comforting conclusion to a miserable existence. The only thing that kept me from killing myself was the knowledge that it would spark celebrations in several houses, and I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction. I’m stubborn like that.
This is the reason that the suicide rate for transgender people hovers around 42%. We live in a realm of shame, guilt, and fear. We can’t ever be honest, can’t ever not lie about something as fundamental as our gender, much less anything that builds upon that foundation. Seriously, think about that for a second.
There was another marriage after that, with similar results.
At some point you realize that what you’re doing just isn’t going to work. You’re doing it wrong. Doing it wrong for the wrong reasons, with the wrong people, in the wrong clothes, in the wrong body. The heartache that you experience at the conclusion of every single relationship, the shame you experience trying to please the wrong people. Every little cut that you feel kills you a little bit inside. It kills your hope – and if that dies, you’re done.
Something had to change.
I discovered Backstreet.
I discovered that there were other people like me, most of them were attracted to men, but, they were like me in all the ways that mattered. I made friends that I could be myself around, friends that I could talk honestly with, friends who could get me the medications necessary to change my appearance to match my soul. I started to transition.
I was enrolled in the MBA program at Brenau in Gainesville at the time. I worked as a restaurant manager and rented raw warehouse space in the old shoe factory in Buford. Yep, I lived in a loft before lofting was cool. It had no heat or air. I had to build out my own bath and kitchen from the water supply off of the single existing toilet, but it was 1500 sq/ft for 250.00 per month.
Why are you looking at me like that? What, a girl can’t learn home improvement? Honey, I currently make my living jacking up houses, fixing plumbing, and just about anything else that needs to be done to maintain a house. I didn’t say my early work was beautiful, just functional.
The changes in my body happened fairly quickly. I still had a beard to deal with, but it was thinner than before – not that I was ever all that hairy to begin with. I was starting to be able to look in the mirror and recognize the person staring back. This is huge. Really. I mean, dysphoria happens to all of us as we age, but trans people experience it from before puberty. Chew on that for a moment. From the point that you are eight, you look in the mirror and don’t recognize the person staring back at you.
I would go to the library on the Brenau campus at night to study because it was well-lit and warm, qualities the loft lacked. I went as a woman.
One night, as I was studying, something felt off. I felt eyes on me, someone staring at me with ill intent. I felt hunted. I looked around for the watcher and noticed a large male shaped shadow across the room, just out of direct line of sight. And one in another corner.
I needed to leave. Quickly.
For those of you who have lived even a portion of your life as a woman, you know exactly the feeling I just described. The guys, well, most of them just won’t get it.
I had parked in the visitors section near the gym and would have to cross most of the campus to get back there. I quickly gathered my things and left, walking as quickly as I could across campus, threading my way through choke points between buildings, shrubs, and cars. If someone was after me, they were going to have to work to catch me. I chose a route that was convoluted enough so that you would have to know where I was going to be able to circle in front of me; otherwise, if you lost sight, I was gone.
The adrenalin in my system made me notice that I really had to use the restroom. It was one of those moments when nerves and an already mostly full bladder combined in an intense “You Must Pee NOW” sort of way. The gym was still open for a few minutes and looked largely deserted. My broken field walk seemed to have shaken whoever had spooked me. I thought I would be able to go in, use the restroom, and go home. I wasn’t that lucky.
I went into the ladies room, locked the stall door and started to pee. The security guard who had been stalking me came in, kicked in the door, and snatched me off the toilet into the floor. He placed his knee in the small of my back and handcuffed me.
That was my last moment outside of a jail for a little over a year.
They charged me with Felony Peeping Tom. The way the law is written, it looked like it would to stick. The DA was talking 10 years.
I was taken into the station by a female officer, stripped naked and remarked upon at great length:
“It’s got tits and a dick, what the hell do we do with it?”
“Really? I’ve got to see this!”
“Damn, it really does, call someone down from medical.”
“Hey, Jimmy, we’ve got something in booking you have to see to believe!”
“Hey, I hear you’ve got one of those shemales in here, let me look at it.”
“What are we supposed to do with it?”
“Damn, it really is a he she.”
I wasn’t given clothes for an hour.
They finally put me in the section reserved for sex offenders. I had to fight. A Lot.
There was a girl in the library who was the daughter of a state senator. She had clocked me (a term used in the transgender community for not passing) and had called security. I’m still not sure what I had done to so offend her, but her statement indicated that she had felt threatened by presence. Security had watched me for a half hour before I noticed them. They believed that I had gone into the women’s restroom to spy on or assault someone as the gym was closing. Since I had locked myself in a stall, I had “secreted myself in an area in which I might view people unaware of my presence.” And that’s all you need to do to be convicted of Peeping Tom. Felony Peeping Tom.
I spent a year in that jail. Six months of it was in solitary – no blanket, no pillow, no mattress. The sewage would back up into the cells about twice a week. They would let you have books from the jail library, but only let you trade them out every other week, so if you read 800 words a minute, you had to stock up. Fortunately, books make a decent pillow.
I was moved to solitary, aka “the Hole,” after a particularly nasty fight. Three guys had tried to jump me in the shower. Naked, slipping on the tile floors, I managed to get to the mop and grabbed the mop wringer. I knocked one out and the teeth out of another before being tasered by the guards.
I had been feminine, putting on a show of being male. Jail — being housed in an open dorm with 80 to 120 sex offenders — changed that. At that point I looked like a girl — one who had to shave, but still a girl. I learned to fight like a man.
The state senator’s daughter’s daddy’s lawyer made sure that I didn’t get a bond.
In order to stay off the sex offender registry, I had to agree to the following conditions. I would serve a year in jail (conveniently the amount of time it took to go to trial) and an additional five years on intensive probation. I would have to attend therapy at the Highland Institute twice a week for five years.
I had no idea what went on at the Highland Institute, but figured that it had to be better than walking through raw sewage to get your meal tray handed to you through a locked door. I was wrong. I would have gladly sat in that dirty, shit smelling cell for the next five years had I known then what I know now.
Probation was a bit of a shock. It was a demented mix of jail and boot camp. They yell at you, drug test you, try to intimidate you. If you can’t do, teach. If you can’t teach, coach. If you can’t coach, or are too vindictive for BDSM, then become a probation officer.
You have to report to the probation office twice a month for drug testing. You also have to complete community service hours, pay off fines and fees, and adhere to a curfew. Officers will stop by your house at random intervals to make sure that you are home and sober. I was rarely sober, so I found excuses for not being home. I can’t tell you the number of times that I hid my car and slept in the outbuilding – or in the car – or in the storeroom at work.
Highland Institute was something completely different.
On your first visit to Highland, you are required to take several personality tests, write out a biography, and then strip naked and watch porn with a modified blood pressure cuff around your private parts.
I didn’t stutter.
They make you watch porn – naked – with a device designed to measure sexual arousal attached to your body. What you react to will determine your treatment.
I was arrested for peeing. Seriously, peeing. And now, I’m in a chair with a pressure cuff around my junk, being shown porn which – if found in the private realm – would land you in jail for child pornography. This is justice? Really?
I didn’t react to much at all, so they figured that they just didn’t have something “whatever” enough to set me off. They thought that I was so experienced that I was desensitized. They never considered the possibility that I was simply not what they were looking for and was so mortified that a physical reaction wasn’t possible.
I didn’t fit the standard of the typical Highland “patient.” I’m transgender, not a molester. So, they put me in with the molesters just for fun.
Therapy is what they call what they do at Highland. I guess you could call it that, in a demented prison camp in the middle of a third world jungle sort of way. I met with single therapists, teams of therapists, and experienced group therapy with a motley collection of rapists, child molesters and parking lot masturbators. The apparent goal, though not the stated goal, was to get me to admit to all of the socially frowned upon thoughts and urges I had ever had so that they might seize them and burn them out of me.
A favorite technique was to have me attend group therapy attired in an outfit selected by the group leader – tranny hooker drag – while the other attendees made commentary about my desirability as a cum dumpster. Frequently, I had to sit in the laps of the other group members during the session.
The following session, I would be badgered by a team of therapists about my feelings while perched on the lap of someone convicted of raping his three year old daughter and how it felt to sense his erection pressing against my bottom.
I hadn’t seen A Clockwork Orange at that time. If I had, it probably would have helped.
I had to walk back into that building twice a week for five years. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. I’m still shocked that I didn’t go berserk and shoot everyone in the building before torching it.
I coped by working as many hours as I could, working out, and drinking. Mostly drinking. I lost several years of normal life in the bottom of a bottle. I lost the ability to connect to anyone, much less trust them. There was a solid year in which I did not have a conversation outside of the probation or therapy offices. I mean, what the hell would you talk about? “How was your day?” “Hellish. My therapist and probation officer discussed the possibility of having me chemically castrated this morning. I’m actually on board with the idea, but can’t tell them why.”
Still, through all of this, I had to function in the real world. I did it, but as the walking dead. I didn’t feel. I didn’t dare hope. I didn’t care. I was so far beyond life and living that the thought of suicide didn’t even occur to me. You have to care to suicide, and for a long time, I didn’t care that much.
Fortunately, like a plant after a fire, I got my head above ground.
I believe that my coping mechanisms, the mask, the filter, allowed me to limit the damage from this particular version of therapy. After all, they were aiming at what they saw, the shell, the puppet, without ever suspecting that the personality that powered the entire construct was someone entirely different.
I wasn’t a threat to society before that experience. After it, I most definitely am a changed person. Fire does that to things – and people. Fire hardens you, and at this point, almost 20 years after the experience, I’m still hard, still ready to kill at even the hint of a threat. No one will ever have the opportunity to put me into that system again. I’m quite willing and ready to take life to avoid that fate.
You know, it’s odd. My motivation causes society to react to me with such vitriol. I am a girl. Or, at least I was – I’m not sure exactly what I am now. Wanting to express outwardly what I felt inside made me a fair target. What I’ve been through was deemed justified and moral. If my motivation had been god, glory and the FBI, and I went through similar experiences, I’d be the basis for some fictional action hero.
I’ve heard a lot about Transgender being a choice. After all that I’ve been through, if there was any other choice, don’t you think I would have taken another path? The only other choice was to die, and I wasn’t ready. I’m still not.