“We all come out of the closet twice…at least twice,” is a running joke among trans women.
This was certainly true for me, as my first trip out of the closet I intended to live life as a gay boy instead of a trans girl, even though I already knew on some level I wasn’t a boy and that I most certainly liked girls. I was knowingly trading out my small closet for a slightly bigger one. Gay men were becoming increasingly accepted and loved; surely being an extremely feminine man would be close enough to being the woman I actually was? At least then I wouldn’t be in the weirdo category of “my girlfriend is a man” that I saw on Jerry Springer. Or the men in dresses I was intended to point and laugh at. Or the pathetic creatures wheeled around on news specials and movies I was expected to pity before congratulating myself for being so open minded, never someone I was intended to actually identify with. And the most damning were the perverted men who got off by wearing women’s clothes and pretending to be something they weren’t.
These were the four types of trans women offered to me by cis media:
- The Deceiving Slut, who is probably a sex worker and an addict and on a fast track to a tragic end.
- The Man-In-A-Dress, who shows how ridiculous it is for anyone born with a penis to identify as a woman or to do anything feminine.
- The Loser, who was almost always masculine, ugly, and unloved, but stays positive and makes the best of it by improving the lives of cis people around her.
- The Pervert.
This last one, the trans woman as sexual predator who preys on cis women and fetishizes femininity, has caused me more harm and self-policing and internalized hatred than I have ever really acknowledged until very recently. It’s at the core of why I have fought so long against accepting myself as a trans woman and a lesbian. Because I always knew I was that last one.
I knew the only way I had ever had any kind of genuine sexual enjoyment was when I dressed like a girl and thought about other girls and touched myself like a girl. I knew how confused I got as I tried to figure out if I wanted to be with the girls I had crushes on or if I wanted to be them. I knew what the psychology papers and other research I could find at the library called me, an autogynephile. I knew what I was, on some level, always. But I didn’t want to accept it.
It’s why I felt disgusted with myself whenever I would express my femininity or my sexuality. It’s why I suspected anyone who claimed to love me, thinking they only said so because they didn’t know what I really was. It’s why I accepted the church when they preached people like me were abominations worthy of death and damnation, even after I stopped believing in god. It’s why I believed any abuse or bullying or rape I experienced were well deserved and thus never reported by me.
I was a pervert. I knew I was a pervert. And there was nothing I could do about it.
I tried all kinds of ways to stop being who I was: prayer, drugs, self-harm, alcohol. Sometimes I would throw away my secret hoard of girl clothes and makeup and sex toys and other shameful things I had amassed in my room in a dramatic purge that was going to change everything, this time. There were the girls I fell in love with so desperately because I believed they would be able to “fix” me into being happy with how I was born. There were also the boys who saw me for who I really was, who I would spread my legs for in one way or another in order to have my actual gender validated, even if the boys themselves were usually trash and self-imposing of my body. I was extremely confused, had compartmentalized a lot of my memories and perceptions, and had no idea how I was going to live any kind of successful life being what I was. I desperately hid as much about who I really was as I could. I carefully crafted a straight boy persona that was like me, but socially acceptable. Occasionally I considered killing myself as a civic duty to others, but knew how much that would hurt the people I loved.
And what’s maddening is, on some level, this has happened with every damn closet I’ve burned down.
Coming out of the closet, no matter how many times I’ve done so, is always a disorienting and alienating experience. It’s the sudden, sickening realization that my entire life up until this point, all of my memories and accomplishments and experiences, have all been crammed into such a small and confined space. A small and confined way of conceptualizing who I am, how the world works, everything. All in your life is suddenly and rudely shown for what it really is. Your old rationalizations and justifications and compartmentalizations that helped you justify staying in the closet melt away and you’re suddenly in a new place, frightened and unsure of where to go.
Nearly everyone gets lost in their closets for a while, some longer than others. Some die in their closets. Some are found and cornered in their closets by others and then killed. And some, thankfully in increasing numbers, some of us find our way out and try to help others find their way out as well. And even now, any time I look back on my childhood or even early adulthood, I have to go back to the remains of those closets to find what I need.
“Oh yeah, everyone thought I was a boy back then.”
“That time I tried to be masculine because I didn’t want to be bullied or raped again.”
“That was when I tried to be straight because my roommates gave me all kinds of shit about being a lesbian.”
“That’s when I thought I was bisexual and polyamorous.”
Now that you have perspective and hindsight, you realize how many times you acted foolishly while trapped in the closet. You can see how certain things might have looked very important in the closet, but in the new light of the real world begin to fall apart. And other things that seemed trivial become more important now that you can see them properly and fully appreciate them. So you pull everything out of the closet, salvage everything you possibly can, and then try your best to destroy the closet so you can make room in your life for better, more functional living quarters.
Then comes the gradual and indignant realization that, while you’ve been living in this closet others have grown up in whole houses and neighborhoods and cities and worlds. You realize there are people who don’t have long torturous histories of agonizing about their gender or their sexuality. Who didn’t spend long hours at night praying to any gods they might think of to fix them and make them normal. Who don’t even perceive their gender or sexuality because it’s so accepted by the world. There are people who have never believed their natural forms of self-expression are worthy of condemnation, who might genuinely feel their ways of existing are the only natural ways and should therefore be embraced by everyone. You begin to become angry at people who have no idea how special a life without closets can be, who try to tell you that growing up in a closet isn’t so bad and that you should just get over it. And on some level you have to get over it in order to survive, but it never really leaves you. You never really forget what living in that closet was like.
So you push back against closets. You go to support groups to meet other closet survivors. You read everything you can from other people who grew up in closets. You start to inject your narratives about closets into mainstream stories and media, since they never really want to talk about closets beyond any surface-level niceties. You try to tell others how their actions contribute to reinforcing closets, making them stronger and harder for people to escape from. And sometimes they listen. But usually they don’t. Not because they want people to be trapped in closets, but because closets are simply something they don’t have to worry about. You learn, the hard way, that the greatest evil is indifference, not maliciousness.
And your greatest fear becomes not being forced back into a closet (because you know you would never allow it to happen), but that you are still in an even larger closet. Closets can be comfortable. You can be really happy in a closet if it’s well furnished with a wifi-connection and a mini fridge and a nice cot to sleep on. And you’ll never forget how easy it was to try to make accommodations inside that closet rather than face your fears and walk out into the unknown. And the knowledge that you’re willing to make that compromise, even a little, can make you feel small and cowardly. You begin to worry that maybe everyone is just in various sized closets, that maybe that’s why so many people get annoyed when you try to make them aware of the closets you’ve escaped. That no matter how hard you try you will never really be able to see the rest of the house, let alone the world. And what’s terrifying is you have no way of knowing except to blindly fumble your way forward as best you can. As soon as you make your way out of one closet, you are forever searching for another doorknob.