On the first day of classes, I stopped by my favorite campus eatery to grab a quick bite before I headed off to my stats class. A couple of the employees murmured for a few seconds after I walked through the door. The cashier approached me, and asked “Did you have a sister that went to Duke?”
I'm a semi stealth transman at Duke. What does this mean? It means that about 80% of the people in my life have no idea that I'm a transgender man. The other 20% are folks I met prior to my transition. After a semester of transitioning, I took a leave of absence from Duke to fully adjust to my new life. Now I'm back a year later, no longer resembling the person I used to be.
It was two and a half years ago when I came across a couple hundred youtube videos of transgender men talking about their lives. I was studying abroad at the time, and I would spend hours at a park near my apartment watching video after video of these men discussing their transitions. I had known that there wasn't something “right” about my gender since the age of 6, but thanks to familial pressure and a education at an all girls catholic high school, I had learned to suppress whatever unresolved feelings I had about my gender at risk of creating trouble in my household and my community.While the notion of becoming who I always knew myself to be was empowering, it was not without many nights of deliberating. This was so much harder than when I came out as pansexual; my decision would have countless permanent life-long implications on almost every aspect of my life. Needless to say, I made the decision to go forward with my transition. When I came back to school that fall, I came out to everyone as a man.
I couldn't have asked for a better group of friends to come out to. I'm eternally grateful to the people who were by my side during the earliest stages of my transition; without them, I'm certain I would not be writing this to you all today. However, coming out as transgender at Duke was hard; and even “hard” is somewhat of an understatement here. As someone who prides himself on his reserved and private nature, what would normally be information that I wouldn't share with strangers was now something that I constantly had to explain to everyone: the students in my project groups for my classes, my professors, my fellow coworkers, and every new person that I met. After coming out I was met with a barrage of invasive questions, most of which I didn't even have the answer at the time. “So when are you going to have the surgery?”, “But how do you expect people to treat you like a man when you don't look like one?”, “Are you sure about this? You should see someone”. After 10 weeks of this, it was certainly time for a break. I left Duke for a year, continued transitioning, and spent my days surrounded by close friends whose presence nursed me back to health both mentally and emotionally.
So what's it like being back now? I'm happy to report that after a year and some change into my physical transition, my life here is fairly average. The energy that I used to spend correcting and explaining is now used on cramming for tests and marathon sessions of playing FIFA13. I haven't been misgendered in well over 8 or 9 months. In the eyes of the law, I'm still a 5'9 brown eyed female who requires corrective lenses to drive, but that's going to change after a trip to the DMV soon. Besides cashiers taking my credit card and my DukeCard, I haven't had to come out to anyone in quite some time. Every time I've outed myself in these situations, the people in question have been accepting and apologetic for the most part. My Fridays are no longer filled with anxiety about being outed in public spaces; instead I'm back to twerkin at my favorite bars and kickin it with friends wherever the best drink specials are in this city.
I don't like the idea of “it gets better”, because in a lot of ways it hasn't. My relationship with my family has changed for the worst, I still deal with gender dysphoria from time to time, and living with an endless paper trail detailing my former life is stressful and overwhelming at times. However, I will say that my life here has gotten a hell of a lot easier. I'm back to living my life as a Duke student, balancing procrastination and academic stress like a champion.
Was it all worth it? There are some days where I have massive doubt about the answer to this question, but ultimately, the answer is always yes. Being a stealth transgender man at Duke hasn't always been a party. As I wrap up my last few months walking around this campus, I'm proud to be where I am now. There aren't words to express the feeling I get when I check myself out in the mirror before I head out in the morning. A lot of this experience has been brutal physically, emotionally, and mentally, but I'm still hanging in there.
With the support of my close friends, a small community of other trans folk, and various admins all across this campus, I feel really good about being here.
And isn't being here the most important part?