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Illustration of a family in a car driving on a road near the sea on a cloudy day. Illustration by Annie Mok

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The Catastrophist, or: On coming out as trans at 37

I loved The Handmaid’s Tale. And then I saw myself there.

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.

In March 2018, I came out to myself as a trans woman. Six weeks later, I started having the dream.

In it, my wife and I are on the run, driving up the backroads that hug the California coast. I don’t know why we’re running, but I do know we are trying to get to Canada. Our daughter, who doesn’t exist in reality but feels so, so real in the dream, is in the back, too young to understand what is happening.

The other car comes out of nowhere, crashing into us and running us off the road. Usually in the dream, there’s a jump cut, like my brain is omitting part of a memory it blacked out. A uniformed officer gets out of the car. He drags our daughter from our grasp. And then he shoots me.

I have the dream enough times that it loses its sting. I try to see past its surface to the crew members who must be just outside the frame, holding boom mics and moving the camera. I try to imagine what happens between the edits. I try to make the dream feel less like prophecy and more like the pastiche I know it is.

It was obvious to me even the first few times I had the dream that my subconscious was disassembling The Handmaid’s Tale — first one of my favorite books and then one of my favorite TV shows — and reassembling it to cope with a reality I was still barely able to think about, not without feeling my very self split apart into atoms. What happened in the dream bore striking similarities to the opening scene of the TV show, where roughly the same events unfold. I had simply transplanted those events to a more familiar California geography.

I have never had this experience with a TV show, not really. I watch so much television that my subconscious generally knows how to flush it. But from the moment the series debuted in 2017 to the moment I started having the dream the next year, The Handmaid’s Tale felt magnetic to some part of me, particularly its story of a handmaid named Emily, who watched her wife and son flee to Canada, then found herself suffering a fate worse than death.

I had the dream for only a few weeks, but I’ve come to recognize it as an important step in allowing myself to acknowledge my womanhood. In my day-to-day life, I slouched through the world, perceived as a man, invisible but miserable. But in the dream, I felt free. In the dream, I wore jeans and a T-shirt, but unmistakably women’s jeans and a T-shirt. I had breasts, and my voice was a smooth alto. My daughter called me mommy. My wife called me her wife. The dream was a tiny gift my brain gave me each night, telling me I was doing the right thing by transitioning.

But acknowledging my womanhood also meant acknowledging my tendency toward catastrophic thinking. It was telling, I think, that I inserted myself into The Handmaid’s Tale. In Gilead, there are no trans women. In Gilead, “gender traitors” are exiled or executed. So every night, at the end of the dream, I died.

The catastrophic thinking my brain latched onto in the wake of my coming out was not completely unfounded. The day after I started hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which will slowly but surely feminize my lumpy 30-something body, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration was thinking about defining gender as “a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.” The move would effectively legislate transgender Americans “out of existence” in the eyes of the government, as part of a larger effort “to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law.”

Illustration by Annie Mok

It was as clear a sign as possible to abandon ship. I kept asking myself, “Why, when you’ve spent so long running away from examining your gender too closely, are you coming out now?”

I am old enough to have a career, a marriage, an understanding of how much privilege I have benefited from as a white man in America. For me, coming to terms with my gender, a process that took years — most of my life so far, really — was a little like wearing a sweater and picking at a tiny, fraying thread.

Maybe you’d be more comfortable in something other than the sweater. Maybe you don’t like the way the sweater looks. Maybe you don’t like sweaters. But you’re already wearing it. You have been wearing it all this time. And you don’t really know if what’s underneath the sweater is what you’d rather be wearing. You just suspect that it would be more comfortable.

So you tug at the thread just a little and a few strands come loose. And that looks terrible, so you tug a little more, until your whole arm is bare.

Eventually, you either find a way to cut the thread short or you no longer have a sweater. Instead, you have a pile of yarn that used to hold the shape of a person but never actually was a person. You are the person. You are not the costume you wear.

I could have lived as a man for the rest of my life, I think. I am sure it will invalidate my case for my own transness to many of you reading this if I say that I did not find it literally impossible, as so many trans women do. And yet to live as a man was to take such bad care of myself that “the rest of my life” drastically shortened. The disconnect between my brain and my body grew harder and harder to take. I ate more and more. I received alarming doctor’s reports about blood sugar and cholesterol and knew that I probably wouldn’t make it to 50.

“But,” I secretly reasoned, “who really cares if they live or die?” I certainly didn’t.

Illustration by Annie Mok

And the longer I put off transitioning, the easier it became to say, “Oh, maybe this latest arbitrary sign is the reason I shouldn’t do this after all!” Being a white man in America is to have everybody see you, notice that you’re wearing a sweater, and then ask if they can turn down the temperature 10 degrees to make you more comfortable. Do you really want to be one of the people rubbing your arms to scare off gooseflesh?

Still, as the Trump administration continued to try to dehumanize marginalized groups, including transgender people, the contradiction between who I seemed to be and who I was grew increasingly stark. Then I read a March 2018 interview with the trans writer Daniel Ortberg and said, “Ahh, that’s me,” and I said to my therapist — who had already been listening to me tap-dance around my gender for 10 years — “I think I would like to think about thinking about transitioning,” and that was it.

From that point on, there was no sign that could push me back. I realized the greatest act of resistance I could perform was simply to keep existing. I moved forward with HRT. I kept changing. I stopped believing I was only meant to die.

The Handmaid’s Tale debuted in April 2017, and its arrival caused an instant sensation. The show was a beneficiary of timing; though its first season was largely produced before the 2016 presidential election and entirely written before that event, it tapped into a vein of catastrophic thinking that has only become more pronounced among certain segments of the left. Its story of a world where women are subjugated and held captive to be ritually raped once per month in hopes of producing a child carried with it an unspoken warning: Here was the end result of unchecked theocratic rule! Beware!

The Handmaid’s Tale is also one of the most white-feminist shows alive. It is aware of intersectionality, but mostly in the sense of including women of color and insisting that the word “women” always trumps the words “of color.” It can sometimes fetishize suffering, becoming too lost in the idea that the birthright of a woman is to be stripped of her humanity by a society that has long studied how not to care.

But even though the show’s feminism is profoundly limited, there’s a power to its limitations. That terrible birthright unites many of the show’s women characters, across all strata of society. Its filmmaking even parallels the growing revolutionary consciousness of its protagonist, June: She goes from someone focused simply on staying alive in season one — which is shot mostly in extreme close-ups that blur out the horizon, so that we are trapped in June’s state of mind — to someone increasingly focused on tearing down society in season three.

Emily VanDerWerff

The close-ups have since lost their punch, but in season three, The Handmaid’s Tale tends to favor shots that track through the sterile environments of its theocratic wilderness. They serve to connect the women in the show’s universe in ways that have perhaps flattened them into their gender in exactly the same fashion that Gilead does, but that have also caused them to see and acknowledge one another with a fierceness unrecognized by the men around them.

The effect is a kind of dawning consciousness of what it means to be a woman, of being seen as just that — “a woman” — and nothing more. Even the women who persecute other women on this show are signal flares for a community not yet realized but understood.

I think this is why I so responded to The Handmaid’s Tale when it debuted, and even more after I came out to myself, to my therapist, to friends, and now to the public. I have received those same looks of acknowledgment from the women I have told about my deepest self, felt the way they expand the community to draw me in.

I have been on hormones for a little over seven months. In that time, I’ve realized that my whole life has been built atop a series of routines and habits, a collection of elements and rituals that added up to the person I called myself.

For most of my life, the inside of my head has felt like a cluttered apartment. I would hang on to everything I could — every memory, every phone number, every piece of information possible — because the more I could distract my brain, the more I could keep from thinking about who I really was. Trying to remember things instead of writing them down is not, in and of itself, a sign of someone ignoring a central truth about themselves, but it was for me. Disorganization helped me avoid confronting the facts of myself. I knew that if I did confront them, I would have to come out. I feared what would happen when I did. I imagined losing my marriage, my family, my friends, my job.

What has been astonishing is that I had little to fear. The people I love still love me. My friendships — even my friendships with men — have deepened profoundly. Not everybody in my life has been a cheerleader; far from it. But many people have cleaved nearer, and the coming-out process has better clarified just who I am and what I value, in a way that has created real and valid relationships where once sat a series of habits and routines that my brain returned to every time I had to talk to my sister or discuss a piece with my editor. I’m not going to say these relationships are better, but they are truer.

I am aware that I’m lucky to have lost very little in the process of coming out. I think that’s largely a function of waiting so long to do so. When I finally started cleaning out my own head, the woman I found myself to be was more fully formed than the person I had masqueraded as since birth had ever been.

What I have lost, mostly, are the routines. I feel like my brain is restructuring itself, clearing out space for all the new things we can be and become. Memories come and go now, especially in the short term, and I have a bad tendency to forget that the thoughtless, careless things I did before coming out still weigh against me on my ledger. I am not a wholly different person.

But in some ways I am, because I am a person, not a collection of routines. Maybe I started dreaming about fleeing an oppressive regime and dying on a desolate California highway because I finally had a life I didn’t want to lose.

In some small way, The Handmaid’s Tale spurred me to confront my gender, because it forced me to think about the rural small town where I grew up, the fundamentalist Christian churches I attended in my most formative years, and all the ways that women were subtly reduced within those communities to elevate the primacy of men. It forced me, for the first time, really, to think about those women’s stories from their own perspectives.

I knew women who were simply trying to get by and dulling themselves just a little bit to do so, like The Handmaid’s Tale’s June. And I knew women who benefited from the patriarchy and pretended not to notice how it was chipping away at them, like Serena. And I knew women who couldn’t exist within that place and had to escape, like Emily.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a society that views womanhood not as something human, but as a series of thankless roles — wife, domestic, handmaid. Whatever caste the women of the show belong to, they are defined less by their personhood than by the part they play in a series of deeply codified rituals.

Illustration by Annie Mok

The society I grew up in was a microcosm of the show’s world, one where women circumvented their established roles of wife, mother, and helper not by demolishing them, but by inventing their own communities within those roles. In some strange way, even though The Handmaid’s Tale presents the logical endpoint of the churches I grew up in as a horror show, it helped me see the many ways I had come to understand womanhood. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be a wife or a mother. There is everything wrong with teaching young girls that those are the only options they have.

I’m not saying anything radical here. The distinction between what we desire and what we have access to is, in essence, Feminism 101. But I am only now realizing how the artificial barriers of my church and my hometown kept me from seeing myself for decades. I spent an entire childhood and adolescence knowing that something about me didn’t quite line up, but I didn’t know what it was. So I created a series of routines and habits built to keep me functional, to keep me moving smoothly throughout the world without provoking response, to keep me in the good graces of my loved ones. I was a woman. But I didn’t realize I was hiding.

Starting as season two wrapped up last year and continuing as season three begins this year, The Handmaid’s Tale has been trending toward some sort of arc based around the revolution to overthrow Gilead and restore some version of modern liberal democracy — an unjust system, but one that at least fumbles toward offering women agency. I used to think I wouldn’t want The Handmaid’s Tale to head down that path, but now, as the show billows with flames, I find myself thrilled. The revolution feels like the fulfillment of a promise the show made to its viewers, but also of a promise that I eventually made to myself.

I used to think I wanted to see June and the other women on the show persevere in the face of suffering, because on some level, I believed that to embrace my own womanhood was to embrace suffering. Now I realize that I do want to see Gilead burn. I don’t want suffering anymore. I want catharsis. And not just for me.

Growing up, the women I knew were often the worriers. The men I knew would struggle against the constraints our society placed on them to be stoic and strong and emotion-free, and their efforts were seen as valid and brave. But the women were trapped between the expectations of their husbands and their God.

To be a woman was to be a catastrophist, to know that if either of the walls you found yourself between shifted slightly, you might be crushed. The whole system is rife with the potential for abuses of power, one that required everyone within it to navigate carefully constructed identities built atop a series of agreed-upon lies.

Where I live now, in Los Angeles, is by no means a perfect place. It has its own systems with the potential for abuse, its own series of lies. (A very minor example: As soon as I came out, an entire lifetime of unrealistic expectations for women’s beauty came crashing down on my head.)

But I wonder what might have been had I grown up here. Would I have embraced my true self when I was a child, a teen, instead of tugging at a series of fraying threads that spanned decades? Would I have learned years earlier that there is so much more to being a woman than being afraid?

What I believed for too long, and what you might believe too, is that your body is not a gift but an obligation. That it is not who you are but a series of tasks assigned to you by the accident of your birth. This is not true. The best obligations — the only real obligations — are chosen. Your life is your life. It is worth fighting for.

I’m writing these words from a Culver’s restaurant in Michigan City, Indiana. It is late April, but a steady rain is flirting with becoming snow. Outside, cars pull forward out of the drive-thru and wait for a server to run out with their food; the kitchen is backed up. The car sitting just outside the window has a man and a woman in it. He is talking loudly, angrily, his face red. She is listening calmly, nodding every so often.

I recognize this scene from a lifetime spent among men who are angry and women who know precisely how to handle that anger. The men get to feel things, sometimes clumsily, sometimes eloquently. But the women are so often defined not by who they are but by what they have been asked to handle. That was true where I grew up, but it’s true where I live now too.

Illustration by Annie Mok

And for as much as I intuitively understand my own womanhood, I am still unlearning the lessons imprinted on me as a child. I’m trying to learn from the women in my life who have defied the expectations placed upon them, in ways big and small, women like my wife and my sister and my best friend and my boss (and her boss). And I am surrounded by other trans women who have welcomed me into their communities, all of us charting our own journeys and facing our own struggles, but bearing each other up.

Many of these people have asked why I’m writing this piece. But I never once imagined I wouldn’t. Professionally, I have always tried to be as open as possible in my writing, to let my criticism be obviously informed by myself. It is impossible to write about something as personal as art without revealing at least something of yourself, after all. But now I am also correcting a misconception. The real reason I have always shared so much, I think, is that I knew I wasn’t really sharing myself. If I could build up trust by telling every truth except one, no one would ever guess I was hiding something.

So let me start over. My name is Emily VanDerWerff. I fought hard for that name, as hard as I’ve ever fought for anything in my life. Now that I have it, I’m so scared of losing it, so I’m telling you in hopes you will bear it forward and carry it in your heart.

Outside, a server brings the couple their food. He is still yelling, but she is taking a bite of her cheeseburger, because he is already losing steam. He starts to pull the car away, and for a second, I think maybe she sees me inside, writing, but that’s probably just what I hope would happen, because it would make a better story. Once the car is gone, I can see behind it, to the birds flitting through the trees, which are flowering, in hope of spring.


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