My life without gender: ‘Strangers are desperate to know what genitalia I have’
Raised a girl, became a boy, and now? From navigating public bathrooms, to choosing what to wear, Tyler Ford on living as a genderless person
This morning, I got out of bed, put on a yellow vinyl miniskirt with a tight black-and-white striped crop top and posted a picture of myself on Instagram. I often post selfies online and today the comments range from “Slay, Tyler!” to “WTF! Is this a boy or a girl?” to “rehab would be the solution”.
Later, on the street, a man standing two feet behind me yells, “Damn, I wanna smack that ass! You look so good!” I don’t respond. I am a poet who sings, and later, after a performance, a 60-year-old hugs me and tells me how wonderful I am. But on the train home, the people sitting opposite whisper about me, trying surreptitiously to take pictures of me on their iPhones.
Five years before actor Laverne Cox became a household name, five years before Miley Cyrus said, “I don’t relate to being boy or girl, and I don’t have to have my partner relate to boy or girl” and five years before Caitlyn Jenner would share her transition with the world, I came across the term “transgender” for the first time. I was 20 years old and attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee – if it is possible to “attend” when you are depressed to the point of not being able to get out of bed. I happened to discover a YouTube video of a trans man documenting his first year on testosterone. When I shared the video with some of my close friends, they mostly replied, “Oh, wow, that’s cool.” I didn’t know how to tell them what I was screaming internally: “This might be me!”
I was brought up in Florida, the only daughter of a single mother, who was always working to support us. I spent 11 hours a day in school and, during holidays, at summer and winter camp. I was very solitary – the quiet, smart kid the teachers used as an example to others – so I had plenty of time and freedom to experiment with my clothes and my identity.
At 17, I was sitting in a psychology class when I found myself admiring a girl in the corner of the room. I spent weeks struggling to pull my eyes away from her and, every afternoon, would spend hours Googling my way into my sexuality: I think I like a girl. Am I gay? Over the next two years I voraciously watched The L Word and South Of Nowhere (both dramas that centre around lesbian characters), trying to work out where I fitted in. I read autostraddle.com – an entertainment/news website and community resource for “girl-on-girl culture” – and was part of an LGBTQ messageboard, but I knew something was wrong. Instead of feeling relief upon discovering that I was what other people would call a lesbian, I felt guilt, as though I were an impostor. I knew I was not like the girl I admired from the back of the classroom. I was not like any girl I had ever known. I did not know any more than this.
As time went on, I attempted to embrace the word “lesbian”, but it wriggled away uncomfortably. I didn’t know how to embody sexuality like the girls I attempted to identify with on television. I wondered if I needed to have sex with a girl to finally feel like a lesbian, but the idea of having sex with anyone felt so distant from my everyday desires that I was not sure how to, or if I even wanted to. Every day was more isolating than the last. Where could I find a place to exist if I didn’t even feel at home within myself?
I have always felt like a walking brain, living in my head while everyone around me seemed to have some innate understanding of their bodies: how they moved, what they desired.
As a young child, the only desire I had for my body was to grow a penis, but as soon as I hit puberty and came to an understanding that this would never happen, I gave up on the fantasy. I replaced those dreams with dreams of bigger breasts, thinking that if I somehow developed attributes that were deemed “womanly”, I would start to feel that way, too. Neither the breasts nor the feelings came, and I wandered through adolescence feeling absent and hollow.
Learning about the existence of transgender people for the first time, at college, allowed me to start imagining a future for myself. Researching trans issues became a round-the-clock hobby: instead of going to class, I endlessly watched videos of trans men at various stages in their transitions, read blogs about gender identity, researched the effects of hormones, and tried to piece together my identity and my future. After eight months of exploration, I decided I wanted to start hormone replacement therapy, and I started coming out to friends and family as a transgender man.
To help them understand, I opened up about the gender dysphoria I had experienced throughout so much of my life, and I asked them to use a new name for me, and new pronouns (he/him instead of she/her). Most, though not all, of my friends were understanding, and I have always had the support of my mother. She was the one to help me with all the logistics, from legal paperwork to doctor’s appointments. After just one appointment with the gender therapist, I was deemed “transgender enough” (meaning I knew how to say “I feel trapped in the wrong body”) and was given a prescription for testosterone. I was thrilled at the prospect of hormones – I imagined they would bridge the gap between my body and my true self.
The next year was incredibly exciting. My body was growing and changing, and my life was shifting along with it. I dropped out of college, got a role on The Glee Project 2 (a reality TV show in which contestants compete to win a guest-starring role on Glee) and moved to Los Angeles. Every day brought new surprises. Waking up with a different shoe size? Cool. Waking up to shoot a music video? Cooler. I was singing every day and my vocal range became unpredictable; I mourned the loss of my high notes, but was ecstatic every time the lower end of my range increased. Everything was changing so rapidly that I could barely keep up, and the fact that I still felt disconnected from my body did not help. As a result, I rarely reflected on whether or not I had made the right decision by transitioning. As my voice became more stable and my beard filled out, the novelty of manhood and of puberty slipped away, and I found myself slipping back into depression. I attributed this to everything but my newfound identity: the pressures of being on TV, hating Los Angeles, feeling lost in terms of my career when the show ended (I didn’t win the role on Glee). It wasn’t that I was in denial; I just assumed that my identity was a done deal – that I had figured it all out.
The pronouns I use, and that other people use to refer to me, are not “he” or “she” but “they”, “them” and “their”. These pronouns feel as neutral as I do; any others feel like sandpaper against my skin. Friends say, for example, “Tyler? They love to sing, and I love hearing their voice.” Many people tell me that my pronouns are grammatically incorrect; however, they use “they” as a singular pronoun on a daily basis without thinking twice about it. When telling a story, Person A will say, “I met up with a friend from college last night!” Person B will respond, “Oh, cool! What’s their name?” In this scenario, Person B does not know the gender of Person A’s friend, therefore defaults to a gender-neutral pronoun. This is the only appropriate way to refer to me. Upon meeting people for the first time, I typically ask, “What are your pronouns?” and inform them of mine as well so we know how to correctly refer to each other. I also use only neutral terms to describe myself including: person or human (not boy, girl, man or woman), child (not son or daughter) and sibling (not sister or brother).
Reactions are incredibly varied. Some people use my pronouns correctly, some use them on and off, saying they find it too hard, and some flat-out refuse, which I feel is a way of invalidating my identity. When Miley Cyrus brought me to the amfAR Inspiration Gala (for Aids research) as her date earlier this summer, posting on Instagram that I was “a queer, biracial, agender person, whose pronouns are they/them/their”, I was pleasantly surprised that the conversation around my gender and appearance was positive overall (though I knew I looked fantastic in my plunging dress). However, I feel as if I am constantly defending my humanity to people who refuse to attempt to understand me, and who perhaps wish I did not exist at all.
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