Essays on Technology and Culture

How To Be Myself

About a month ago, my mind went back to an experience I had in Oulu, Finland, for the Air Guitar World Championships in August of 2018. We had gathered at an island cabin for an event we called “Airentation,” and were introducing ourselves to each other. A friend of mine who I’d met at my first air guitar competition, Justin Howard, better known as Nordic Thunder, told us his story. To retell it here would take too long, but what stuck with me was something he said about how the air guitar community taught him about himself, and how to “be a man.”

Through out my life, I’ve always felt as though I didn’t fit. As a child, as a teenager, and as an adult, I always felt as though I was at a remove from the world at large. Unwilling to accept that I was the problem, I took the attitude that “If there’s nothing wrong with me, maybe there’s something wrong with the universe.” This changed once I got a proper ADHD diagnosis in 2016. I came to the conclusion—a mistaken conclusion—that medication would solve this, bringing me more in tune with the world around me. To a certain degree, it did, but there was something that didn’t fit right. I would figure it out.

It took until 2018, and my trip to Oulu, for things to click, and realizing that took a while. After I returned to to normal life, I began to make changes to how I presented myself to the world. At first, these were an extension of personal changes I had made starting in 2017, where I’d made it a point to get in better shape and lose weight.

The first thing I did was trim my long, bushy beard to a close-cropped one. For the hair on my head, I had been shaving the back and sides, but I decided to let the long part of my hair grow, giving me a long, floppy, asymmetrical haircut that was androgynous. My mode of dress began to change, with more fitted clothing, more exploration of colors and patterns. I began to wear nail polish on a daily basis, even to work. Inspired by a comic by Mattie Lubchansky, I started wearing a little bit of makeup when I went out on weekends. On New Year’s Eve of 2018, I took what I considered to be the true first step of figuring out who I was and how I fit into the world: I got my ears pierced. I began to wear subtle jewelry: metal bracelets, rings, and a thin silver chain with an octopus charm that was a birthday gift from my partner.

I was coming to the realization that presenting myself to the world in a way that read as stereotypically male no longer felt right. It may never had felt right, in retrospect. The more I moved away from masculine presentation, the better I felt about myself. I had found the missing piece, or at least begun to work out the shape of what was missing. I started to use they/them pronouns for myself. As 2019 continued, I wound up splitting myself in two—the feminine, true-to-myself version of me that I put into the world on nights and weekends, and the somewhat effeminate, but still masculine self I presented to the world during the work week. It became a relief to come home, strip off the more traditionally masculine clothing of the work day, switch to leggings and a t-shirt dress, and be a form of myself that felt more comfortable.

As 2019 progressed, so did my exploration. Living in New York City, I was lucky enough to have access to spaces where it was safe to explore my presentation, my identity, my gender, and I used those spaces to their full potential. The moment where it sunk in about what was missing and where I needed to go, came a few days before Halloween. I was going out to a dance party, and had decided to go out in “costume” as a stereotypical goth girl in a Wednesday Addams dress. In preparation, I bought a black wig, and shaved off my close-cropped beard. When I looked at myself in the mirror, clean-shaven, with the black wig, makeup, dress, and a padded bra, I could only say one word: “Fuck.”

As I looked in the mirror, the ramifications were clear to me, though I was hesitant to follow through. The person in the mirror was who I was supposed to be. The path was clear, but I knew I couldn’t yet walk it. There was fear, there was trepidation, and I needed to address those before I could even consider taking another step down that path. Despite those fears, I consider that night out to be the first time I went out into the world as myself.

One of the common ideas of the traditional transgender narrative is the concept of physical dysphoria—the sense that something is wrong with one’s body, and how it connects to their assigned gender at birth. This is something I never experienced much of. Not to say that there weren’t aspects of my body I was unhappy with, but they were small things—my weight, but also my chest. I have always had a minor case of gynecomastia, and while it never bothered me enough to address it, my feelings about it gave me pause. “If I feel this way about my chest now,” I thought, “what makes me think that hormones and developing real breasts will be any better?”

I chewed on this. My body, though not ideal, was something I’d grown to accept and appreciate, both for what it was, and what I had done to improve it. Despite this, I also knew that there would be other benefits to HRT that I knew I wanted—it would change my brain’s internal wiring in a lot of ways, and put me more in touch with my emotions. What I experienced in my life was a different form of dysphoria: social dysphoria. I knew many of the expectations that come from being assigned male at birth were expectations I could not fulfill, and many of which I never wanted to fulfill in the first place.

My male-presenting and male-identifying life was a series of wearing different, ill-fitting “Man costumes.” Some fit better than others, but even the ones that fit best began to ride up or chafe after a while, so I would put it aside, and find another one that felt like it fit me better. By the end of 2019, it was apparent that I was running out of male-coded costumes to wear that had even the slightest appeal to me. How the world saw me—as a man—no longer mapped to how I saw myself, and I knew I had to change this. Hormones were the last hurdle to jump to make that happen. After speaking with my therapist about it in January of 2020, I decided that by the end of April I would start hormone replacement therapy. I would try it for a month, at least, and see how I felt. If it was beneficial, I’d keep it up.

The April deadline was one born out of practicality. At the time, I was employed as a contractor, and the six-month contract was running out. It was unclear if my contract would be extended, if I would be hired, or if I would need to find another job. As a safety measure, I began to look for new, full-time work, hoping I could land in a place where I could have good health insurance, and would be safe to transition at. To aid in this, I cut my floppy hair to a buzzcut, stripped off my nail polish, and put the feminine version of myself into a closet, so as to present to the world as someone normal, someone it was safe to hire. My contract job ended, and I was let go, but I got lucky. At the end of February, I began working for a well known New York City museum as their Email Marketing Manager.

Two weeks later, the COVID-19 Pandemic forced the museum to close its doors to visitors. Everything was in chaos, though my job was safe. In the chaos of the first few weeks of the pandemic, starting hormones, and medically transitioning took a back seat to navigating the changed world. In time, I managed to secure a telehealth appointment with a doctor at Planned Parenthood, and on April 24th, 2020, I received a prescription for Estradiol. I masked up, walked to a nearby pharmacy to pick it up, and took my first dose.

My original transition plan was to live for the most part in “stealth mode,” presenting as male—as best as I could—while my body changed. I had planned a trip back to Finland the end of August, and hoped that when I returned, I could make a more public coming out at my new job. The pandemic, of course, threw all of that into disarray, though it had a small benefit. As long as I wasn’t on a Zoom call, I could present however I wanted at home, and even when I was on Zoom, as long as I was masculine from the shoulders-up, nobody would notice a thing. I could at least live like myself in isolation without fear.

What I did not expect was for hormones to hit me as quickly as they did. By June, I had developed a more prominent chest, and hiding it from the world in the few times I went out into it was becoming more difficult—not that I wanted to hide it at all. The changes to my body were one thing, but the changes to how I felt were another. While things in my head were far from perfect, I did feel a sense of completeness. I was no longer two people, hiding one side of myself from the work-a-day world, and letting my true self out at night. I was whole. I felt more connected to my changing body, in a way that is difficult to explain in words.

I came out to my parents by phone in June of 2020, and to my work a couple weeks later by email. To my surprise, my social transition was much smoother than I ever expected it to be. Every trans person has heard the horror stories of coming out: losing friends, losing family, losing jobs, constant misgendering and abuse. I have been lucky enough to experience none of these things. The worst that happened was a coworker calling me the wrong name on Zoom on my first day as Rachel—and even that was because she hadn’t seen my email yet. This was easily understood, and more easily forgiven.

The next few months were a blur. A good friend moved back home to Helsinki, as the pandemic had destroyed her livelihood. There was a COVID-safe camping trip in September with a group of queer friends, and in October, I filed a petition to legally change my name to Rachel Anderson. It took time to complete the process, but on December 30th, 2020, nearly two years after I began trying to figure out my identity, I’d completed the first, legal step to being who I truly am.

Just over a month ago as I write this, I travelled to Chicago, for the 2021 US Air Guitar National Championships. The entire US Air Guitar apparatus moved online in 2020 to allow for virtual competitions, but the state of the world had improved to the point where we could come together in person again, from across the nation. I jumped at the chance to go, not just because it would be my first chance to travel in over a year, aside from seeing my parents in Philadelphia for Easter, but because I wanted to reunite with some of my friends in that community.

Yet, I had a fair bit of anxiety going into it. The last time I saw any of these people had been August of 2019, in Nashville, and while I was in my exploratory, genderqueer period then, I was going by my old name, and I looked and presented somewhat masculine. Even though they had all known about my transition, and had expressed support, I worried how I would be received and how I would be perceived.

I worried for nothing. It felt like old times.

On our last full day in Chicago, sitting on a rooftop at a bar and restaurant, I confessed my anxiety to a friend who told me that “I think we’ve seen the most authentic you yet.” I had to agree.

I think this is one of the key things a lot of people don’t understand about being transgender. Transitioning isn’t always about becoming someone else—it’s about becoming the person we are. It’s about being more true to ourselves. I lived for thirty-five years in a cloud of confusion, wondering why I felt strange and out of place in the world. Was there something wrong with me, or something wrong with the universe? It’s not an either/or question with a simple answer. All I can say for certain is that I know I am who I am, and that I no longer feel as out of place in the world around me.

There’s a way to go yet. I may be out, and I may be seen in the world as who I am, but transitioning is a long process, and there’s more to be done about the social, legal, and physical aspects of transition. I’m in the process of updating names on various accounts, getting new personal documentation, and even working towards getting gender-affirming surgery. I am, however, at a place where I can look back on the journey and understand how it began and how I got here. I need to get it into words, and share it, mostly for myself.

I am Rachel. I am transgender. I use either she/her or they/them pronouns. Am I a woman? I don’t know, but woman feels close enough for government work. Am I a man? No, I am not. I am, however, myself. That is the most important thing, and it’s the thing that has been missing from my life for far too long.