I climb onto the paper-lined exam table, while my mother sits in silence. It’s 3:30. The school day is over, but I’m still miserable in my gray uniform slacks and white polo. Light colors can’t hide my thick belly and rolls of fat. My bulging body, along with my almond eyes and copper skin, invites the scrutiny of junior high bullies. But none of the teachers at St. John the Beloved gives a shit; the white boys’ taunts go unchecked.
My parents take notice of my size, too, which is why I'm at the pediatrician’s office today. Dr. Gadea enters the room with a stethoscope and a file folder of my medical history. He starts with the basics, listening to my heart and lungs, depressing my tongue for a better view of my throat. I step on the scale, and he slides the weights back and forth until the measures level off.
Now for the real reason I’m here. Dr. Gadea tells me to take off my shirt and lie down. Nervous and sweaty, I comply.
It’s not like a boy’s chest, my mom explains.
The doctor palpates my breasts, shrugs, and says they might go away if I slim down. My mom looks helpless. I put my shirt back on in silence, stretching the fabric with my fists so it doesn’t bind so tightly.
The sun is still high and fierce when we leave. In the car, I lean my head against the window and close my eyes, hoping to black out the world with a short nap. But I can’t fall asleep. Floating above the drone of Christian talk radio, my mom’s words echo in my head:
It’s not like a boy’s chest.
Not like a boy.
The summer before high school, I watch MTV for hours, waiting for an Aerosmith video to air. It doesn’t matter which one. The band’s music is bad, but their songs trigger powerful fantasies of melancholy pleasure. Each video tells a story of carefree youth, the secret life of nice girls gone . . . not quite wild. Unbound, maybe. They run away from school and the suburbs, escaping boredom in an ill-gotten convertible. The scenario is at once mesmerizing and sad. I imagine joining the girls on their adventure, opening myself up to any new experience. But the price for orgiastic fulfillment with Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler is an aimless life: driving through the desert, holing up in small towns until . . . what? Youth only lasts so long. Riding with the top down won’t thrill me forever.
Maybe I don’t want to be a third wheel to two hot girls. I feel a new kind of longing, a truth I can’t yet explain. What if I could be blonde and slim and white? What if I could be a girl instead of a boy? I could wear skirts when it’s hot out, cute tops cut low. I could look at my reflection without disgust. I could be in a room full of girls, and none of them would be afraid of me because I’d be one of them. I wouldn’t be scary like fathers who abandon their families or school priests who defend your tormentors or the pastor at the Baptist church who convinced your mom that a troubled and lonely seven-year-old needed an exorcism, and he took you into a plain white room and closed the door and prayed and prayed, and he placed an oiled thumb on your forehead, anointing you in the name of Jesus, imploring the Lord and Savior, the Holy Father and One True God, to release you from Satan’s grasp. And your mom watched and wept but didn’t stop him because she believed in the power of Satan more than she believed in the goodness of her son. And from then on Jesus was scary because he was a man, and God was scary because he was also a man, the father of everything and everyone, terrifying in his severity and absence. Your parents’ thirteen-year-long separation fucked up your sister, too, but no one ever said she was possessed. And you think that maybe it’s because she’s a girl, because grown-ups think that girls are sweet and compliant, girls aren’t capable of evil. You don’t yet understand that being a girl is its own kind of trap. You just need love, a kind of love you’ve never received as a boy, that you believe only girls deserve: a gentle love, a love that shields you from the world, a love that doesn’t care about how strong or resilient or independent you are, a love that demands nothing. A love that keeps you safe.
When my dad comes home from work, he and my mom call me into the kitchen.
Tell us the truth, he says. Do you smoke?
It’s unclear why he’s asking, when the answer is a resounding, obvious yes. For the past two years, I’ve come home every Friday and Saturday night reeking of cigarettes. To say nothing of my parents’ spies. I don’t know who they are—maybe some of their Filipino friends, maybe one of the teachers at the school where my mom works. But their intelligence is reliable. On Sunday mornings, before my family goes to church without me, my dad tells me where I was and who I was with the night before. He thinks his omniscience will put the fear of God in me.
Dad’s narcs once spotted me downtown wearing a black skirt. This was cause for grave concern. I am still unclear on the line between acceptable experimentation and family-shaming queerness. My parents take my velvet jackets and eyeliner in stride. But only girls can wear nail polish. I ask my dad why. Social convention, he says. Social convention means a lot to middle-class immigrants. You have to act normal, like you belong, like you’re white. Social convention demands I only wear garments that keep my bare thighs from touching. Maybe my femininity reawakens old fears. During my freshman year, Dad freaked out because he thought I was gay. I denied it over and over, but he couldn’t bring himself to believe me. The truth was, I didn’t know and didn’t care.
The truth matters as much to my dad as the appearance of respectability. I’ve already denied him the latter, so why not give in and answer his question? It’s not like he’ll punish me. I’ve set a low bar with my hospitalization last year. So long as I’m not dead or cutting myself again, so long as I’m sane enough to go to school, they can tolerate—if not forgive—anything.
I look at my feet and confess.
Yes, I say. I smoke.
Don’t do it in the house, Dad says. My mom turns to him and says something in Tagalog. They both start laughing. I have no idea what’s going on. When the laughter dies down, my dad walks to the kitchen table and sorts through the mail. My mom opens the refrigerator and starts dinner. This is weird. I go upstairs to retease my hair and put on some fresh foundation. The powder in my compact is two or three shades lighter than my face. It helps me feel something closer to pretty. I pout at the mirror in the hallway at the top of the stairs, which will never show me a beautiful girl with porcelain skin. In a few weeks I will smash that mirror during a fight with my parents about God knows what. Stitches will bind the small gash in my wrist but won’t repair the damaged nerve. Part of my palm, close to my thumb, will stay permanently numb.
Circle back to the beginning. My mother says she knew she’d have a son the moment she learned she was pregnant. Brief as it is, she’s told me this story often, especially after we’ve had an argument or if I start to distance myself from the family again. It’s her way of reassuring me that I belong.
I loved you before I even met you, she says. For the boy I’d be, for the man I’d become.
On the day I was born, my father watched the doctors slice my mother open down to her uterus. Gloved hands reached inside her body, scooped me up, and held me in the air for her and my father to see. Writhing and wet, I spread my legs and flashed my dad.
Balls! he cried with joy.
Forget biology. Here is how my mother’s prediction came true: for the first few seconds of life, I was nothing but a mass of potential, a fragile agglomeration of insatiable need. Not a he or she, but an it. A thing to keep alive. But my father’s declaration, his pride in what my scrotum held, changed that in an instant, laying the foundation for how he would raise and discipline me, for his expectations of how I’d dress and who I’d love, of all the ways I might take after him. My genitals didn’t make me a boy; he did.
It’s painful to watch pop culture grapple with contemporary gender politics. Edgy sitcoms mock college students’ earnest efforts to discover who they are, treating non-cis identities as a fad. Boomer lefties on Twitter praise campus activists but dismiss their demand to be addressed by the correct, sometimes not-obvious pronouns. As if dignity, too, were a fad. If I were just starting college this year, would I speak up and ask my professors to call me they instead of he? In 2000, during my first semester of school, most of them ignored my skirts and makeup or the rare times I dressed in full drag. It never occurred to the dorm’s security guard to comment on my leopard print skirt or stuffed bra during one of our regular midnight smoke breaks. As far as everyone was concerned, I was just a weird dude in art school. I had no vocabulary to describe how I felt inside, except maybe “Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles.” Without the words to make them real, I buried those feelings. I spent the better part of a decade wearing plaid cowboy shirts and Levi 511s like every basic white guy in his twenties. I thought fitting in might make me feel more like a grown-up. And it did. And it was awful. Lying in bed one night, I wondered aloud to my partner, Christina, Why don’t I play with gender anymore? For seven years I didn’t own any makeup. Then, at thirty, I got a theater gig. I was the lead guitarist in a rock opera, and all the musicians were on stage and in costume. Now I had an excuse. I went to CVS and bought eyeliner at the self-checkout. But I was still terrified of what my parents would think when they came down to DC for a performance. Maybe they would recognize the defiant joy I felt in dressing up. I emailed my sister and confessed my fears. What will they say about my nail polish? I wrote. The answer, I soon learned, was nothing. They liked the show. They posted pictures of me in full corpse paint on Facebook. We got burgers afterward, and as I shoved french fries in my mouth, I didn’t bother to hide my painted nails, the way I do now during staff meetings or performance reviews with my department head. But my coworkers at the library don’t say shit either. Some of them are queer, too.
Remember your Chaucer, and how one professor introduced you to the term occupatio. When it’s their turn to tell a story, some of the pilgrims en route to Canterbury preface their tales with a list of what they won’t talk about. So, of course, you take note of those details; you listen for the silences, believing—no matter how exhaustive the narrative may be—that the ultimate truth lies elsewhere.
I won’t talk about the hours I spent sobbing in the middle of the night while reading trans message boards. I won’t talk about all the women’s clothes in my Amazon search history. I won’t talk about the number of times I’ve googled “HRT and erections,” “estrogen and mental effects,” “transitioning without hormones,” “nonbinary transition,” “genderqueer swimwear.” I won’t talk about the voice feminization techniques I learned from YouTube videos that I keep forgetting to practice. I won’t talk about all the pictures of Asian women with bangs I have in my Downloads folder, references for a haircut never gotten. I won’t talk about the countless times Christina has had to crouch down to comfort me while I had a panic attack on the floor, freaking out that I'd never be pretty, that the whole world was afraid of me, that I'd never be seen as anything but a man.
So far I’ve only talked in depth about my gender to three friends. While I played with my braided pigtails outside a cafe near Georgetown University, Maeg, a fellow lit major from my third and final stab at college, reassured me that no one would ever mistake me for a bro. Last year, while we ate Wawa hoagies in our band’s rehearsal space, my longtime BFF Sandro admitted he didn’t quite understand what I was going through, but he still listened and asked questions with care and respect. A few months ago, during a hushed-voiced heart-to-heart in a crowded West Philly coffee shop, my friend Jess shared an insight that had never occurred to me. I didn’t fully grasp the truth of it until after I biked home and told Christina.
You want to be a good person, and you think you can’t be a good person and be a man at the same time. But you could wear khakis and a plaid shirt or show up in a dress, and you’d still be Alex. You’d still be a good person.
In the waiting room, while I fill out medical history and consent forms, the receptionist offers me a glass of wine. If I still drank, I would ask for three. When I’m done, a supervisor takes me to a private room and explains the procedure to me—as if I hadn’t already spent hours on the internet researching the process. For weeks I mulled over whether I could justify the expense or if the end result would really make me happy. Finally, at 2 a.m. on a Saturday, I typed my credit card info into the Groupon page and said goodbye to four hundred fifty dollars. When the confirmation email for my first six sessions arrived, I was giddy.
Do you understand that the effects are permanent? the supervisor asks me.
I nod. Why does she sound so solemn? She reaches into a file folder and produces a line drawing of a man’s face with clear European features.
What do you want gone? she asks.
All of it, I say.
She takes a gel ink pen and scribbles a full beard over the white man’s cheeks and chin. I almost laugh. I’ve never come close to growing something so fulsome.
Perfect, I say.
I hold the drawing next to my face. The supervisor takes a picture with an iPad before leading me to another room. I stretch out on a paper-lined exam table. My technician is gentle and welcoming. Her small talk is pleasant and free of probing questions. She doesn’t need to know why I’m here, just how much work lies ahead of her.
How far up do you want me to go on your sideburns? she asks. I stare at the wall while she holds my hair back. This is it: time to tell the truth.
Can you make it, um . . .
The word doesn’t come out. I try again.
Can you make it feminine?
I gotcha, she says. I’ll take care of you.
She shapes the hairline around my ears with a razor so it more closely resembles hers. I’m ready. She turns on the machine, adjusts the settings, and zaps my cheek with the laser.
Does that hurt? she asks.
Not really, I say. But as she makes her first pass to kill my facial hair—hair my body should never have grown, that tells the world lies about me—I find I still have to hold back some tears.