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The Lost Year: A new dress, new self-acceptance, and a sudden onset of the soul

“That day, for the first time, I saw myself. And I knew I was trans. Holy shit.”

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.

Accepting your own trans identity is one of the hardest things any person can do. But during much of 2020, I’ve been talking to trans people who have found themselves coming to grips with their gender identities for the first time, because quarantine has locked them away with their own thoughts.

One such person is Sophie (not her real name), who contacted me over the summer to talk about her seemingly sudden, but actually inevitable, acceptance of her own transness. We struck up a friendship and have been talking off and on since then, and I’ve found her story of how lockdown pushed her to finally confront questions that had been building in her head for a long time incredibly compelling.

Sophie is from the United Kingdom, where on top of the pandemic, the year 2020 has seen an endless parade of anti-trans nonsense, from long bromides issued by J.K. Rowling to a horrific High Court decision that makes it absurdly difficult for trans children to gain access to necessary medical care. Sophie continues to thrive amid such dispiriting circumstances, while also speaking about the journey she’s on in a way that I found deeply moving.

Here’s Sophie’s story, as told to me.

Several months before lockdown, I had what at the time I described as a nervous breakdown. I came out for about three days, then went back in the closet again. I went out to a gay club at 1 am with my ex-boyfriend. He could see something was wrong, and I was like, “I’m a man. Everyone’s looking at me like I’m a man. It’s all wrong.”

A few days later, I was sitting at home, and something wasn’t right. And I looked down at my very hairy legs and thought, “Oh, this has to go.” I jumped in the shower and shaved my legs very quickly, so much so that the bathroom was covered in blood. My flatmates pretty much battered my door down, because they thought I had done something terrible. And I had just done a really bad job shaving my legs! [Laughs]

But eventually, I was, like, “Oh, I had a nervous breakdown. That was weird.”

I thought, “We’ll get that done, and then I’ll set aside a couple days to think about it. I’ll just take a couple days to think about this gender thing. I’m sure it’s no big deal.” And then lockdown happened, and I decided to be scientific about it. “Let’s just have an experiment here.” I kept a journal of everything and described how I felt, with the evidence for and the evidence against.

I also shaved more body hair. Like, “I’m getting hot and sweaty, but it’s the summer. I’ll just get rid of [my body hair]. I couldn’t understand why, but when I shaved my arms, when that hair came off, I cried in the shower. I didn’t realize how much I had hated that hair being there until it was gone. I was so relieved.

I decided to order a dress off the internet. I thought, “I’ll see myself in the dress, and I’ll look ridiculous. It’s 18 quid. Haha, it’ll be a funny story.” I deliberately went for a dress that was horrible. It was a big, boxy, gray thing. I tried it on with my back to the mirror, and I turned around ready to laugh and move on with my life. And as soon as I saw myself, my brain said, “That’s a woman. She’s got very broad shoulders and a lot of muscles. She’s got big eyebrows and beard shadow. But that is undoubtedly a woman in there.” I looked in my eyes, and it was very strange. I saw myself for the first time. I had looked in the mirror previously and thought, “There is a cheeky, handsome guy, and he looks fine.” But that day, for the first time, I saw myself. And I knew I was trans. Holy shit.

I went out in the dress and my mask, and people looked at me like I had some horrible disease. Some of them had pity in their eyes, and some of them hostility. The pity was just horrible. But I was like, “Let’s fucking do it.” I went to the supermarket in this dress, and I found that my body language automatically changed.

When I was 15, there was this girl who sat next to me in geography. The “other boys” were always, like, “She’s got great tits, a great ass.” But I always noticed the way she slightly turned her wrists when she picked something up and the way she arched her neck when she sat down. I thought I had a crush on her, and I now recognize I wanted to look and be like her. And when I picked something off a shelf [at the supermarket], I realized I was doing the thing she used to do automatically. I felt like I had been acting since I was 3 years old, and for the first time, I wasn’t. I was just being natural. I didn’t have to be taught this. I didn’t need to learn this.

I had felt for years that I was somehow soulless. Like there is something absent in me, some light that does not turn on that everyone else had. I used to be obsessed with the image of people finding out they were robots. I once wrote a poem about a kid who discovers he’s a machine. He learns he was made, and he is property. They take him away, and they break him down, and they throw him on a scrap heap, and he freezes and dies.

But that day I looked in the mirror, it was, like, “Bam, there’s the soul.” It really was like the finger of God had come down to be, like, “Shit. Sorry. I left that bit out.” Suddenly, memories took on a different texture and made sense. I started sleeping better. I was scared, obviously, but I thought, “Shit. This is good.” I would go and work out in the park. People thought I was a man, but I was, like, “I’ve got a secret. I’ve got a soul now. No one knows it, but I’ve got it. I found it.”

I knew it was going to be a hard and long road. Lockdown probably compounded that. But I knew I was getting out of [that soulless existence]. I thought, “I don’t have to stay here. I’m going to be raptured. I’m going to get out of this. I don’t have to be this thing that I don’t want to be anymore. The promised land is not closed off to me. This is not something I have to see through a window like a child in a Dickensian novel, pressed up against the glass. This is real. I can have this if I want to.”

In Britain, legally speaking and medically speaking, you’re in a horrible situation. Trans adults here — we don’t have the same legal and bodily autonomy that other people do. If a woman goes through menopause and wants hormone replacement therapy, she can get it from a general practitioner. If I want the same drugs, I have to wait to see a specialist and be diagnosed with a mental illness. If a cis person in the UK wants to get married, you need some ID. A cis woman can show her passport, and that’s enough. My new passport says F, but if I want to get married, I need to ask permission from the gender recognition panel to give me a gender recognition certificate. And it is notoriously difficult to get them to say yes.

Even as an adult, we do not have bodily or legal autonomy in the way that other people do. When we say we want informed consent [a system by which trans people can be prescribed hormones by self-identifying as trans; the United States has an informed consent system], it’s painted as this radical thing. But it’s what everyone else in Britain already enjoys.

Every time I reach a transition milestone, it seems like there’s some horrific news on the same day. I think I came out as trans pretty much the same day as J.K. Rowling published her manifesto. I got my passport on the same day as the High Court decision to take away puberty blockers from trans kids. But I’m not adrift and alone anymore. Women have fought for bodily autonomy and legal autonomy for centuries. And I am not alone in that fight. I have centuries of feminism to draw on for the fight that lies ahead. I have the courage of many, many people, cis and trans, before me. I have that strength. I have that at my back.

I couldn’t come out to anyone in person, because of Covid-19. A lot of it was done by phone and email. In the UK, you have to get a diagnosis of being mentally ill before you can then get an endocrine appointment. And in order to be diagnosed with dysphoria, they will ask you, “Are you out to anyone?” So I had to tell my family pretty quickly and over the phone, which wasn’t easy. My brothers were cool about it. But my parents ...

I want every parent to know that if your child comes out as trans, whatever the next word is out of your mouth, they will remember that word for the rest of their life. Even if you change it. Even if you go back on it. I will take to my grave the sound my mother made when I told her. The groan of anguish and disappointment and the way I heard my father in the background saying, “What?!” And my mom said, “He thinks he’s trans.” I will never forget that.

It’s like pulling teeth with them. My father wouldn’t speak to me for a month. My mother came down to see me, basically to come down and try to stop me, I think. I wore the clothes I wanted and the makeup I wanted, and I opened the door, and she said, “You look weird.” And she said my voice was the same. I later discovered my father had come down on that trip, but he had refused to see me. He was afraid I would answer the door in a dress.

So I practiced my voice a lot, because that’s what my mother commented on first. They came down to see me again, and for the first 10 minutes, it was a little awkward. But they got used to it after they saw I was cogent, and I made us all lunch, and we could have a conversation. Everyone saw I wasn’t insane. It’s two steps forward, one step back with them. When they see me, they’re reassured. But then they go home again, and a week later, it’s back to square one.

We’re an English family. You can’t talk about this stuff in my family. I have a trans cousin, who is referred to obliquely as, like, “Uncle Fred’s nephew. Sorry. Niece.” She’s spoken of with this weird shame. I’m going to feel the pressure come Christmas. There’s never been an openly queer person in my family who isn’t spoken about in shameful terms. I’m very much my parents’ daughter. And I’m proud of the ways I’m like them. They have interpreted it as a rejection, but it’s not for me. It’s coming home for the first time.

A few days ago, Sophie reached out to me again to say that she is now at her parents’ house for Christmas, and it’s going well. “My dad used my name for the first time yesterday!” she said. “He seems to save it for special occasions, when he really wants to make me feel welcome, and the rest of the time, him and my mum dance around using any name of gendered language at all. But they are really trying!”

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