I had a lot of trouble imagining how my life would change once I came out as nonbinary. I was assigned female at birth, but had always been gender nonconforming throughout my growing-up years. I hated feminine dresses, especially as my mom put me in them for church on Sundays, and I was always so much more comfortable in plain jeans and a T-shirt. It didn’t help that I grew up in the 1990s, when girls fashion was either wildly revealing or weirdly oversized. I felt like I was drowning in waves of fabric.
As I hit puberty and started developing, I figured everyone else hated their chest just as much as I did.
As I hit puberty and started developing, I figured everyone else hated their chest just as much as I did. My breasts started coming in, and I remember looking down at my body going, “I guess this is being a woman, huh?” I didn’t wear what I called “real bras” until I was in college. Before then, it was only sports bras that I could pull on over my head; no need to bother with straps or hooks. I also learned how to play with femininity, donning skirts when the occasion called for it and even investing in the occasional evening gown for formal events. I recall thinking at the time that if G-d had called me to be a woman, then I better learn what that means. In the context of my evangelical upbringing, that meant letting men take the lead and being uncomfortable in my own skin for the sake of harmony in the church.
By the time I learned about “genderqueer” and “nonbinary,” I had already put too much weight into the “woman” box of my identity to consider seriously if those labels applied to me. I was gender nonconforming, a tomboy, and later in queer culture, a lesbian butch. That was it. Nothing but a woman, even though I could not define what “woman” meant to me.
It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s, isolated in a pandemic and left alone with my thoughts, that I finally allowed myself to admit that I’m not a woman. I’m nonbinary. The thought had been lurking in the back of mind for at least five years, but admitting it to myself and coming out publicly felt far too disruptive. I was too busy, too involved in too much stuff to reset and relabel and reconfigure my body and my relationships to a new identity.
Without the disruption to my daily life that was the pandemic, I probably could have continued on presenting as and calling myself a woman. It chafed, but I’d become an expert at distracting myself. Plus, I have a career I like, a friend group I deeply enjoy, and a chosen and biological family who love me and would continue loving me no matter who I am. Could I have stayed a “she”? Sure.
But I wouldn’t have been happy.
Amid the current onslaught of anti-transgender legislation across the United States, attention has focused on how harmful it is for trans people — including transgender children, who often vocalize their identity from a young age — to be denied proper medical care for their gender dysphoria. In study after study, medical transition has been shown to alleviate dysphoria, to essentially “cure” the comorbidities associated with being trans. Without access to proper care and the ability to transition to the correct gender, we know many trans and nonbinary people experience depression and suicidal ideation. I have numerous friends in the trans community who have either attempted suicide or experienced ongoing, unresolved ideation, often for years, before they could get the medical care they needed. Some, like Terri Bruce, a transgender man who was suing the state of South Dakota for refusing to cover gender transition care in his state health plan, don’t make it through the fight.
But this is the narrative everyone is familiar with about trans lives. Our life, to the cisgender audience, has too often been characterized by violence, pain, death and struggle. Because of this, we are called “brave” for simply continuing to live.
Not as much thought has been given to what happens when we do obtain access to transition-related care, when the path is made smooth.
Not as much thought has been given to what happens when we do obtain access to transition-related care, when the path is made smooth and we’re able to finally get through.
On April 8, I went under the knife to get top surgery. I’d always hated my chest, even when I viewed myself as a woman, and after I came out as nonbinary, I realized I could finally do something about it with gender-affirming surgery. In 2021, I began the process of getting a masculinizing mastectomy approved by insurance and jumping through the medical hoops to transition. I woke up in the recovery room that Friday to the nurse removing the oxygen mask from my face and asking how I was doing. I reached up and patted the bandages over my chest. “Huh, it really happened,” I thought to myself. “They’re gone.”
Later, when the anesthesia wore off, I found myself inspecting my new body and just smiling. No more DD breasts that stretched my button-up shirts in awkward places. I could cross my arms without having to find some way to get around the boobs. Over the next few weeks, I found myself texting friends and accosting visitors: “WANNA SEE MY CHEST?? LOOK AT HOW GREAT IT IS.”
My dysphoria had never been particularly strong. I didn’t sink into a depression over my breasts’ existence. I didn’t experience ideation, and they didn’t cause me physical pain. But now that they were gone, I was shocked by my own happiness.
These are the stories you don’t hear very often or very widely. The pain and dysphoria are an easier narrative to process and understand — after all, everyone knows what it’s like to be unhappy. But to be happy, even joyful, in transition? Somehow that emotional endpoint is considered an afterthought, inaccessible.
Being who we are isn’t just about bravery over pain, or courage in the face of discrimination. We are pursuing, full force and at full speed, our own happiness. That, more than anything, drives us — that we could feel comfortable in who we are, that we could present to the world the image we see in our mind’s eye, that we could be finally free and happy.
Two months after surgery, I was in Los Angeles on business. I packed my swim trunks and wound my way over to Venice Beach, famously home to an outdoor gym and lines of shops selling shoddy tie-dye shirts and shorts with “property of Tony” emblazoned across the rear. I walked down to the beach, pulling off my shirt as I went, and waded into the ocean, the waves cresting and hitting me on my bare chest. I must’ve looked strange, standing out there in the cool water, a massive grin just plastered across my face. But I felt like I was finally me, and that’s all that matters.