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Today is a very special day for me.
The date as I write this article is March 31st, 2020. As an LGBTQ+ person, there is a lot of purport in those numbers—but in my case it is not necessarily what you’d think.
Yes, today is Transgender Day of Visibility. And yes, that plot point is relevant here. But the full story begins three vast years ago, in the early hours of March 31st, 2017…
I had just awoken to pee, at approximately 5 AM because my body was still on high-school-time. But I was not in high school anymore; I had graduated nine months prior. I wasn’t in college, either. I was in a perplexing pall of disabling pain and physical limitation, which really threw my teenaged brain for a loop. But at this moment, I wasn’t contemplating my lost life…all those jogging routes I could now only trace with my mind…all those drawings my old self would meticulously beget from pencil onto page….all those foods I now couldn’t eat, all those books I now couldn’t read, all those AP Bio lessons I couldn’t employ as a Wikipedia-worthy, groundbreaking, lifesaving female scientist (someday)…
At this moment I was merely sitting on the pot, giving the bladder relief, and fumbling for some toilet paper. I didn’t even know that in three short years, I’d be touching a precious commodity. Nope, there were a lot of things I didn’t see coming, in the darkness on that March morning.
Like the dream into which I then dove. For a few months I’d been gulping a migraine preventative medication reported to cause “unusual and vivid dreams.” It started with a spider, and some blueberry pancakes, then—
Well, I won’t give too much away. In those hours I was utterly privileged to witness a detailed glimpse of someone’s life, and upon waking I knew I’d seen something so powerful I could not just let it dissolve. To the usual fate of dreams, this story could not go. “Maybe I’ll just write a poem…” I pondered, in my transition from bed to recliner. (All of my days were spent in the same recliner, resting and thinking. That was all my body could handle). “No, this is way more than just a poem, maybe a short story, okay maybe a novella…” By the end of the day, I knew I could write nothing short of a full novel. And I was ec-static.
For my other eight or so months of disability, I had a somewhat varied existence. Don’t get me wrong, my location never changed; the recliner it always was. The bulk of my life’s real substance was internal. Some days I would conceptualize fantastic meals which I would eventually, surely, muster the strength to cook. Other times I’d invent alien creatures, and use that good ol’ AP Bio knowledge to get creative all the way down to the cellular level. It was pretty entertaining to devise new modes of respiration, and then wonder if they would actually work!
Some days, I didn’t think much between lunch and dinner.
Some days, I was in too much pain to think.
But on days when I had the mental resources, it was neat to analyze the underpinnings of civilization, or to examine mortality after our family dog’s euthanasia. However, none of this gave me a solid endeavor. A protracted project to which I could devote my life energies; a goal towards which to strive. As an adolescent, my primary goal had been building a single human being. Not only accruing a hearty library inside her head, but also physically building her. I walked and jogged miles, followed by a couple more sweaty hours in the garage, channeling my body-image urges into rusty iron movement. One of my main functions as a living creature was to ensure that I had a six-pack, striated pectorals, and subtle “cuts” of definition on my quads. Why? I don’t know, it’s just important to me so if you don’t mind I’m going to work out now, talk to you later…
It was also important that I liked who I was– within. So part of my sculpting took place in the psychological realm, refining my abilities to stay calm and grateful. The farther I delved into these values, the more distance stretched between “Me” and my stale concept of “Sarah.” Oh man, was she a scorching brat! Selfish in the girliest possible way, angry in the most femme of manners, and perhaps cringiest word of all: sassy. So the calmer I became, the more neutral I evolved. Of course, the irony is that by investing so deeply in one person (myself, and my body) I was indeed pursuing a somewhat selfish existence. But at least I was working toward changing the world as an influential, lifesaving scientist. Someday.
Upon developing migraines, though, I could neither exercise myself nor educate myself. I was a stagnant, rather useless hull of human meat. I’ll admit that I laughingly found my abdominal muscle to be quite sexy, but as weeks crept into months in a couch recliner, those stone-carved ridges eroded away. As did the leg muscle, and the beloved striations on my chest. With less taut tissue to keep them in check, my breasts spread like flabby contagions over my otherwise flat, happy sternum. And if it wasn’t shameful enough to be dragged, wincing and silent-screaming, back into female biology: I was too weak to take a shower.
So is this what all those workouts and AP tests were leading up to?
A wasted endeavor. So to emerge from this wrenching, raw, realer-than-reality experience on a primaveral morning, I was almost deliriously joyful. What an incredible dream. As if by magic my life had purpose again. And unlike my busy schooling days, during which I would study the Krebs cycle inside my skull while running a neighborhood circuit— now I had nothin’ but time.
The shift was dramatic, albeit invisible. Since I could not even physically speak, no one in my house knew a darn thing had changed. But I now found myself rushing through repasts (which for a foodie, is near blasphemy!) to resume brainstorming my novel. Previously my emotions would sort of “Tarzan” their way from meal to meal, sipping tea to assuage post-lunch-letdowns. It was the only tangible action I could undertake, and my instincts craved the tangible.
But clearly, something inside me far deeper and more complex had been craving this book for a long, long time. It overrode food, it even won out over sleep. I needed to remind myself of the intense joy I tasted during these “vivid and unusual” dreams (and I do mean tasted, although I never did sample those blueberry pancakes. Have you ever noticed that you tend to wake up before getting a chance to eat?). In this manner I bribed myself to drift off, rather than succumbing to drug-induced insomnia and grinning my way through a few more paragraphs.
Queerly, yearnings for my lost life had evaporated. Why would I ever want to re-invest myself in Sarah? Wait, how did I even get so caught up in that garbage anyways? No, THIS is what I’ve been needing, this is ALL I need….
In the dream I watched a purple-shirted boy navigate life at an all-male academy. He was quiet and contemplative: an old soul. I started to realize something about him as he snuck glances toward other boys—often unbeknownst to his own self. There was something about him that he didn’t see, but others saw it all too clearly. After all, the kid wore purple shirts.
So here I was fathoming the psyche of a gay boy, all but glugging sweet nectar from the Holy Grail. I was lucky enough that I had no obligations: no textbooks to probe, tests to take, or squat sets through which to grit my teeth. So when—
–my period resumed after four years of prideful amenorrhea, I could simply detach from the old flesh-bag altogether. (That happened mid-April, to give you a timeline).
Since my life was constituted entirely by this novel, it merged with my personal identity. I was defined by this: my endeavor. Which meant that telling someone I was writing a book about a gay boy—all day every day, yes I was that passionate—would be like coming out. And to think that all these years, I’d felt a void where that event should be.
Of course, I wondered what the world’s stern eye would say about a straight woman who wrote about some other demographic. Extractive writing much? I daydreamed myself onto talk shows, preferably with Stephen Colbert, gabbing about my new book and its invaluable impact on the lives of young gay individuals. All the struggling souls spared from suicide, and the skeptical parents whose minds were flipped like lava lamp switches into perfect understanding from reading my inspiring story!
“And, er…how do you identify?” the host would ask dubiously.
“Oh, I’m a straight female, but I’ve always felt…” She goes on, gesturing with lean arms beneath swathes of long wavy hair. What would I be wearing? Could I wear a purple collared shirt like my character? Would they let me? Wow, wouldn’t that be cool, if I could make a prime time appearance in a collared shirt, the loose masculine kind.
Puh-lease, as if you’ll ever be able to talk again. And how would you handle the studio lights? It’d be one solid migraine for weeks.
Oh well, no matter. The book is still gonna save queer lives, whether I’m the face of it or not. You know what, let’s pull the old female-author trick and go with initials for my first name. S. A. Huiting. Ain’t nobody gonna be judging this book by its author’s gender!
Gender, gender, gender……
I didn’t know it, but I was getting high on what we call “gender euphoria” throughout these writing sessions. Or at least, that’s what I call it: the sparking sensation ignited by passages such as, “He couldn’t see it, but his throat now crooked sharply in the front, as the rounded smoothness of youth had been whittled away by the last few months.” Argh. So beautiful it hurts.
Because my senses were all hyper-sensitive, I couldn’t weild a pen to save my life. Typing in front of a screen was also a doozy, since the eyestrain would be a physiological disaster. Plus, computer keys make a lot of noise. Not even my doctor knew why I was this horribly affected, but all I knew was that I wouldn’t use the word “horrible” at all.
Anyways, I resorted to memorization for every treasured sentence. It was indeed ambitious to attempt such a feat—shouldn’t I just be tossing ideas instead? And wait to write the details until my migraines miraculously turn off? Surely I’ll forget all these nuanced words. But it turns out it’s rather effortless to imprint something that should have been your tale all along. With every chapter I memorized, I was deleting another painful portion of my old life. Or at least plastering over it.
My life was irreversibly altered by March 31st. In honor of that dream, it is my character’s birthday. Hey, I know another guy who was born in March—me! March 11th, 1998. Woops, I mean a gal. It wasn’t uncommon for me to chuckle and inwardly quip, “This is my favorite subject ever! I am secretly a gay man.” Whew, if only my parents knew what was swirling through their daughter’s head on those silent afternoons! Someday, maybe when the migraines turn off, I would come out to them—after all, the book had to be published eventually. They’d need to read a manuscript, y’know, for grammar and whatnot…
“He gestured with his fork and, after a few failed attempts, managed to adhere some vocal sound to the air whistling out of his throat.”
Voice cracks. What a neat thing to [never] experience. But I was compensating now, because let’s be honest here, who else has the luxury to lose themselves in a story so very dear to them? Granted, my days were not unplagued by nasty needles of self-doubt, all the more enhanced from recoiling glimpses of my mirror. I’d half-joke, upon diagnosing a cliché in my writing: “People will throw this book at a wall.” My one goal? “Don’t write something people will throw at a wall.” Now, getting banned is a whole ‘nuther story. I will wear “banned” like a badge, and for a book that centers on male homosexuality I do not see this as a difficult badge to obtain.
Recalling my late-March experiences, I think I can pinpoint a mental cause of this dream. Two days before, my sorry scrap of a body was wheeled into a neurologist’s office with the hopes that he was my wizard. Behind a curtain somewhere, he’d toggle switches until blip! the migraines switched off. As my mom desperately relayed all the fun things her daughter could no longer do, I sat soundlessly in my wheelchair and queried to the man’s white coat, “How do you feel about gay people?” Talk about non-sequitur. But in any given interaction, it was the most pressing thing on my private mind.
So my theory, which unfortunately I lack tools to prove until inventing a Mental Go-Pro, is that my subconscious got itself into “gay mode” with this question. (Well, more gay than usual). And hence the heartrending dream. By the way, if no one ever foresaw toilet paper shortages, then perhaps a Mental Go-Pro is not as far-fetched as we primitive 21st century beings believe.
Now, before I get to our grand reveal (as if you couldn’t already figure out I’m trans) I will share a few things I learned from all this. Neutral, non-queer lessons about writing, about life. In order to write a truly authentic story, the author really needs to immerse himself (uhh, herself) in the minds of their characters. It is an exquisite exercise in empathy, and now I understand why it took Steinbeck a full year to write East of Eden (a banned author I can only strive to emulate!). A whopping twelve years gestated the masterpiece Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (a book which I did not yet know existed. But as we’ve already established, I had plenty of revelations in store back in 2017).
Characters grow in both fiction and non. Once you’ve committed to unearthing a human’s inner world, you are destined to realize the depths that we all hold. Anyone who truly believes that they have full control over their protagonists—and antagonists, and even minor “extras”– is deluding themselves. Or who knows, maybe they aren’t; after all everyone’s experience is different. But I found that “my” story often wrote its own self, and it’s a bit ineffable the way people’s personalities were immune to my subjective choice. The broader lesson here is just how independent we are from one another. There is so much about other humans which we can never ever influence. Perhaps more prudently, there is so much about other humans we can never know in the first place. It’s almost overwhelming, but every dot you glimpse from a low-flying plane is just as intricate as you are, and in a completely unique way. My job as a writer was to authentically transcribe as much of this depth as possible, while resisting temptations to mold my own imaginary doll.
So indeed, I discovered that even friends, even family members do not know each other as well as they think. And this is how nearly two decades elapsed without a parental inkling that their daughter was actually a son.
After exactly four months and four days of writing boy stuff, I had the lightbulb moment. An answer key to all of my memories’ unfilled gaps. Embodying a male gender impelled me to lift weights, in fervent hopes of resembling my male peers. It explained why I couldn’t bear the grating sound of female pronouns, which all felt selfish, angry, and sassy. And hence the need to dissociate from a sassy girl named Sarah: an absurd body with even less value inside….
That night I lay awake until 1 AM. Holy crap, all these fathomless years of pining, longing, bleeding to be something else—it’s been true all along. It would take months of processing before I managed to fully unite “gay man” with “a person who used to be called Sarah who thought she—HE—was abhorrently snippy but was actually quite calm (I hope?) and just happens to have long hair and boobs.” It’d be an intense hike through my past, over heaps upon heaps of projections. But at least the destination was reachable. I was so blissful tears bloomed in my eyes.
Transgender Day of Visibility (sometimes TDoV) is such a smart idea, and I appreciate whoever conceived it. Transgender people are not just short bearded men and strong-jawed women, who would look totally “normal” if they didn’t say more. We are the boys who still speak in high tones as adults, whose pelvises curve and whose nipples swell. Transgender Visibility is important because, even years beyond this personal epiphany, my brain glitched during the world premiere of Interstate. (I admit I didn’t see it in-person, but I am friends with Dash and am therefore made privy to exclusive material!). A quick synopsis: Interstate is an Asian pop/rock musical following two queer musicians—Dash and Adrian—on their tour across the United States. Dash is trans, and he looks like a dude; Adrian is a lesbian. Cool, got it. But whoa whoa, what’s this..?
Henry is a transgender teen whose body matches my description above. He was not named Henry at birth, but rather a girl’s name. So there I was, chock-full of LGBTQ+ book material with mastectomy scars on my chest and testosterone gel dried up on my shoulders—and I glitched when I heard Henry sing.
A hauntingly beautiful, glasslike female voice…
…exuding from a long-haired, plump-hipped form. All the indoctrination in the form of ma’ams and F’s and magazines and his-and-hers sinks—it all screamed GIRL with resounding clamor. Make no mistake, trans folks are just as interwoven in gender taboos as anyone, and if my own story is any indicator we don’t gain enlightenment just by living it. So it’s important to be visible. To make those high-pitched male voices heard. (And the deep female ones as well). We need to see without distortion the true depth of those long-haired boys in recliners. And perhaps admit that, despite seeing their bodies, we don’t see much of them at all.
Happy March 31st, everybody. And happy birthday, Ian.