What Meeting a Transgender Woman Taught Me About My Gender

My therapist handed me a slip of paper with 10-digits sprawled across it. “Her name is Ella,” she said. “I want you to reach out to her. I think you guys have a lot in common.” What should’ve been a relatively simple task, texting a girl, sent me into a catatonic state of anxiety, relieved only by an after-work, Coors-Light binge at the local Chili’s (I hate admitting how normal a shameful night light this was for me in my mid-twenties).

Who I was when I met Ella.

When my belly was finally full of beer and salsa, I went home, ran upstairs, shedded my pants, hopped into bed, and successfully brought my vision together long enough to type a text message:

Hey Ella, this is Eric. Doctor G asked me to reach out.

Two minutes went by, no reply. My steadfast confidence quickly diluted with regret. I sat there, a very sad human, my desperate face lit by the cheap glow of a flip-phone.

It was obvious, there was only one more thing to do: text again.

She said it would be okay to text you. I hope it was okay to text.

Another two minutes: Hope you’re doing well!

Another two minutes: You know, it’s about the thing.

And then, by the power of the great almighty, the God of Human Dignity, I fell asleep before I could type-out any more nonsense.

The thing I’m talking about is something I had been dealing with my whole life. Ella had dealt with it too but was treating it much better. Before her, my only education on the subject was through culture, movies like The Crying Game, Ace Ventura, and Silence of the Lambs. If you’re still curious about what this thing is, it’s that I wanted to skin women and make a mask of their bodies. Kidding! It’s that I was, well, am, transgender. It was 2009 when I reached out to Ella, and at that point, the terminology was practically non-existent, and/or confusing, as it can be today — still! Ella transitioned from male to female and was apparently able to do without skinning any women.

The morning after my Chili’s rager, I woke up and began ripping through my bed, feeling the profile of my phone through the covers. I know it sounds weird, but this was better than Christmas. My phone, those texts, could possibly provide me a solution to this puzzle that lived inside me. I kept digging, feeling like Steve Erwin, tackling down the baddest gator them all, my insufferable inner demons! I slayed the beast, no easy task while suffering dehydration and a pounding headache, and quickly flipped open my phone.

Two messages (rejoice!).

Hey! The doc mentioned you’d be reaching out. I’m so glad you did!

Then: I’d be happy to talk about THE THING if you’d like. What sort of questions do you have? :)

My mind searched. Where to start? I thought. I felt like I had been given a million bucks and three-minutes to spend it.

We paddled back and forth in conversation but Ella suggested we meet, outside, in the world, unhidden, talking about, THE THING. Of course, I said yes, because although my greatest fear on earth was discussing my gender anywhere besides my mind, it seemed clear it wasn’t hers. I trusted her confidence and wondered where such courage comes from. Am I in love with her?

Great! It’s a date!

When the date finally came, I remember being nervous and gitty. I felt like one of those science room plasma balls, every touch erupting a tiny lightning storm. We met at Starbucks. It wasn’t hard to find her; she was the tallest girl in the room. She had a soft face and eyes so big that they made you feel small. Her makeup was pristine and perfect. She walked up to me with a big smile, her posture graceful and absolute, her confidence wafting through the air like a heavy perfume, consuming all. The world knew she was there without even looking.

I lost my breath, incapacitated by the confrontation. I was face-to-face with a lifetime of validation. She was a real woman. How is it possible that she was once a boy like me?

“Hey, Eric,” she said warmly. I computed the action, accepted the impossible and snapped into my best attempt of “not awkward charm-mode”.

“Oh, hey!” I said. “Ella, right?” Of course, I knew it was Ella.

“Yes, that’s me!” She said with a cheerful look that stole life from the room.

We sat down and began talking. Unlike myself, she wasn’t shy about approaching the topic. “So I hear you have some feelings about your gender?” She asked.

I almost fainted at the acknowledgment. Right here? At Starbucks? In Providence?! Are you crazy!? It fessed up: “Yes,” I said quietly, hoping no one heard.

She could sense my anxiety and pulled-away from the subject. Instead, we talked about life and school. She graduated from design school and was actually wearing one of her own dresses. It was a short black dress, mute when far away, but intricately laced and patterned up close. She had breasts. Real ones. Legitimate homemade boobs. Impossible! I thought! She had grown up in Providence and battled through school with the promise that she could live her true life, a much better life, at college. That’s when she transitioned.

I told her I graduated from business school. I wanted to become a writer or artist, but the business school was safe. She asked why I would give up on the things that were important to me. I told her that I always thought normalcy, or society’s idea of it, would somehow be the cure. Ella had a hard time understanding this. She was the kind of person that believed all things were possible. She could change the things she wasn’t happy with. I could not. My actions were always driven by the assumed perspective of others. I was playing the part of “normal guy,” in hopes the role would become my reality.

We continued talking as my eyes darted around the room, worried that others might hear our conversation. Did they know she was transgender? Do they assume I’m transgender by proximity?!

“Are you okay?” She asked.

“Oh yeah, totally,” I said, my eyes still making reps around the room.

“Are you uncomfortable talking here?”

“Yes, very much so.”

I’m realistic in most ways, but not when it came to talking about my gender. In my mind, that Starbucks was full of undercover detectives that would somehow tell my parents, my girlfriend, my boss, my friends, THE WORLD! If they found out, I would be so overwhelmed with shame and embarrassment that I’m not sure where I’d be right now. But this was my standard, to build an unrealistic world around me where the worst-case scenario was the only one available.

Ella knew this feeling and did her best to empathize with an offer: “Would you feel better if we talked in my car?”

“Sure,” I said and we ventured out into the night as the Providence weather spit and wheezed in our face. At this point, I was already overwhelmed with the experience. I almost wanted it to end there, but I kept walking, one foot in front of the other until we reached her car and settled into the seats. I took as much time as I could to collect myself, knowing the second I stopped moving limbs, fixing seat belts, wiping rain off my face, whatever, we would be faced with the inevitable conversation of gender.

I put my head down, the rain now hammering the car window, an ominous foreshadow for the moment, and said words I never thought I’d say, “I’m transgender. I think.”

“You think?”

“Yeah. I can’t explain it, but I just don’t feel right and never have.”

“So you want to be a girl?”

“Ummm, yeah, for the most part,” I said, trying to avoid committing myself to it. As if the denial would make it less true. “Ever since I was a kid, I would lie in bed and dream of being a girl.”

“So you’re a girl,” she said bluntly. You were born a boy, but you want to be a girl. You’re transgender.”

“Yes. I’m transgender,” I said as the words stole my last breath. I paused a moment and tried to hold myself together. My heart pounded, my face went flush.

I looked back at her, waiting for a reaction. Waiting for judgment. But it wasn’t there. I was able to admit something I felt shame for my whole life and there was no punishment to follow. Everything was intact! We survived the apocalypse, in a little red Volkswagen Beetle perched on college hill!

She turned to me and said: “I totally get it.”

And it was the first time I ever heard those words. I had never had anyone I could tell this to who could relate.

I had so much more I wanted to say at that moment, twenty-four years of words and feelings that I wanted to throw-up all over the car, but I couldn’t. Just the word “transgender” from my mouth, turned me from stone to mud. I kept trying to regain myself, I even tried laughing at my ridiculousness, but my attempts were fruitless. Even worse, Ella wasn’t going to let me get away with this, she stayed serious and silent. I was forced to feel every bit of that moment.

Finally, when my thoughts went from elation to regret, she jumped in: “It’s okay to tell me. I’m transgender, after all.” She smiled big and bright, a beacon of beauty and understanding.

I forced a laugh through the pain and said, “I know, but I never expected to tell anyone and not be looked at with shame, or embarrassment, or disgust.”

We stayed up most of the night, the dismal weather still trying to make up its mind on who/what it wanted to be that night, I could understand. Ella and I talked about the pain and darkness we felt growing up. We talked about the girly fantasies that plagued our minds growing up. It felt good to be understood.

Now, I wonder where I would be without that night. She was the first transgender person I had met who was happy, determined, and looking toward a future. And for the first time, so was I.

When we finally signed off, I wished her good night and she turned to me and said, “For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“About being transgender?” I asked.

“Yup. Not a thing. I won the lottery. Some weird, fucked-up lottery.”

“Well, it’s easy for you to say, you’re beautiful,”

“You’re beautiful too,” she said. “And one day you’ll start seeing it.”

It was a cheesy line and at the time, I didn’t believe it. But, here I am, writing a story to a bunch of strangers about something I couldn’t even say aloud for a quarter-century. I’m wearing a dress. The people I loved still love me. I’ve got boobs. Real, homemade boobs! And she was totally right, I am fucking beautiful.

Elise works full-time for a tech company and moonlights as an unpublished writer of peculiar fiction stories. She lives in Providence with her wife and dog.