Expect Problems

A transition blog.

One of the things that I often find being discussed when I'm talking to other trans people - trans women especially, is passing. That is, passing for cis. Usually, these discussions happened privately, just one-on-one. But 'passing' is something that's a touchy subject for very good reason - it's classist and exclusionary, at the very least. Any number of reasons may mean you can never 'pass' in the eyes of many people, from genetics to luck to age to being physically unable or financially unable to access hormone therapy or even surgery. But it's also a shit 'goal' or 'dream' to feel pressed upon you for another reason which I want to discuss.

When I first began to transition, or even think about transitioning, I had this built-in fear of never looking feminine enough. Of never being attractive (to myself, or potential partners). Of HRT either not being an option for me or not really 'working', and forever feeling like I was some kind of strange outsider, frequently mis-gendered and harassed.

I still get it occasionally - I think that will take a long time to subside. Every time you get heckled for visibly being trans, or some person flatly states that "you will always be an [assigned gender] to me", it's hard not to lose a bit of confidence, no matter how confident you begin.

But something began to happen over the last few months, partly watching my own body change and partly meeting many new and awesome trans people. I began to realise that there was something not just interesting, but fucking beautiful and unique about the trans people I was meeting.

I don't just mean being warm, wonderful people, either, although I'm sure that's a factor. I mean being them fucking hot. (Note: I'm going to use a few comments specific to my own experience as a trans woman in the remainder of this post, but the same can clearly be true for a much wider variety of people than just trans women.)

It's easy (and often cathartic) to moan about the damage years of unwanted testosterone poisoning did to your body, leaving you with a taller frame with wider shoulders than you'd like or any number of other very specific things that your genetics just might bestow on you going through a puberty you didn't want or feel comfortable enduring. And, frankly, and a puberty that changes your body into something you feel deeply uncomfortable with can be a horribly traumatic experience, so it's no wonder we want to reverse as much of that 'damage' as possible.

And yet, I keep finding that the trans people I meet have features unique to the combination of hormones they've had throughout their life, and it can look really damn good for them. I understand, absolutely, why it can be distressing seeing those features on yourself, but I've slowly come to appreciate some of mine, as well as admiring them in others. I don't see so many of my more masculine features as a bad thing any more.

I rather like, despite identifying as female, the kind of amazingly beautiful androgyny I can sometimes see glimmers of with the right combination of subtle makeup and clothes.

It's not just a trans thing, either. There are plenty of actresses whose 'trademark' is something about them that's slightly un-feminine. A husky voice, broad shoulders, a 'handsome' look (now there's a fun semi-loaded term). That's a start, but it's certainly not even close to enough.

It makes me wish the obsession we as a culture have on fitting neatly into perfectly binary gender presentations would just die off. The more people of all gender identities who start playing with this and getting everyone used to the varied spectrum of aesthetics that are possible, the better.

And if it lessens the number of grotty fucks calling out slurs at people who look slightly non-cis on the street, so much the better. Because the idea of that diminishing anyone's ability to enjoy the way they look is just revolting.

It'd be great to reach the point where trans people found that, if anything, the social pressure was to accentuate the features that make them 'look' trans, rather than loathe them.

Revel in your body, no matter what you look like.

(Oh, and also? More men should use eyeliner. Seriously.)

So, I want to talk a little about privilege. One of the things I keep getting reminded of is that I have lost a lot of privilege by transitioning. As it was crassly put to me, "you're a diversity two-fer now! A trans lesbian!" Erm. Yes. Thanks.

But despite this, I still suffer from something quite a few of my friends understand very well - guilt over my privilege. Because the simple fact is privilege isn't something simple algorithm of your background, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and one or two other things. There's a huge variety of things that contribute, and none of them are simple or easy to quantify. So I still constantly feel like I need to be very, very grateful for the privilege I have.

Firstly, I'm white in a white-dominated western country. One where, despite a long ways to go, we have a lot of freedom and a lot of things working for us. We have medicare, for instance.

Which brings me to the main point of this blog - hormone replacement therapy and transitioning.

I live in a society and have enough education that, while it took me a while to admit it, I was able to figure out my gender identity and decide to transition.

I have a family that was accepting and enormously supportive.

I live in a place where I was able to easily get access to hormone replacement therapy. I was able to do it without enormous gatekeeping standing in my way. I was able to afford it. I am lucky enough not to have any conditions that prevented me from doing it.

And then there's more genetics. I am lucky enough to already look very feminine, and have found HRT really agrees with me. I am already beginning to finally like the way I look and feel, which is something not everyone gets to experience.

I have been assaulted, although I was not hurt and do not suffer from PTSD as a result.

On another note, I do not suffer from depression, nor any anxiety beyond what gender dysphoria can produce.

In short, I have absolute fuckload of privilege, even if it's less than the royal-flush-of-privilege that I had before I came out.

Which is why I still get that horrible feeling of guilt. Knowing people have it worse than me - especially other trans people trying to do the same thing I am, but with more challenges and difficulties in their path than I've had so far.

But guilt isn't helpful, even if checking your privilege is. It's something I keep reminding myself. Feeling guilty over privilege can lead to bad mental places, no matter how much or little privilege you have. It's easy to slip into a place where you take that guilt a step further and say, "my troubles don't matter".

You dismiss your own difficulties and problems as somehow not worth it. This is a nasty thing to do to yourself, as we can really only judge our difficulties and problems against what we are used to, and how equipped we are to deal with them.

For some people in different situations, going through what I've gone through would have been too much. But this as much a reflection of my privilege as anything else, that I have been able to do work through so many of them.

So I have to keep reminding myself - it's bad to decide you're some perfect, amazing, strong person for overcoming difficulties, but it's equally bad to dismiss what you're going through, or fall into traps of feeling that "it's nothing" and that your problems are somehow "not worthy".

I have a combination of advantages and disadvantages in my life, like anyone, and it's important to recognise both of these, be thankful and conscious of what I have, but also be aware of the things I have to face.

Feeling comfortable with the existence of my challenges and problems is important - and asking for help is always okay, whether that help is people to go out of my way to help me move house at short notice, or a housemate to sit with me while I break down crying for an hour on my birthday.

This post will cover my third month of HRT, which was when my body just went OH HEY GIRL-HORMONES! and began changing so fast it made my head spin. (Kinda literally. For a while I lost my balance easily, probably due to getting used to my body weighing / balancing differently in a short time.)

Early on in the third month, I began to shave hair from my torso. It seems weird to explain this, but I still suffered under the misconception that shaving made hair grow back thicker/faster. My endocrinologist had explained this was an urban legend with no basis in science. It may SEEM it, but it just wasn't true. He suggested I shave rather than wax, as waxing could result in hair growing back at an angle which would make future efforts at hair electrolysis difficult.

Even though I was sure I'd not be able to afford electrolysis (I'd decided on laser) I figured I'd stick to his advice anyway.

I was pretty blown away by how much of a difference shaving made. I mean, I knew it would but realising just how feminine my torso looked now was extremely exciting.

Then, on day 63, I shaved my legs for the first time.

Took an hour. Fuck that was frustrating the first time, and I keep finding tiny bits I missed.

BUT OH GOD THEY FEEL GOOD. Slipping between clean sheets with shaved legs is one of the most lovely experiences I've had in a long while. Small tactile things matter, motherfucker!

More to the point, I suddenly feel comfortable in dresses in a way I didn’t before. My body is making me feel less and less uncomfortable every day now.

On Day 64, I wrote:

Put on some activewear half-length shorts I’ve worn for months now. First time in a month.

It’s official - my thighs and arse are getting fatter. I barely fit in them now.

This was particularly surprising to me as since December, I had lost 4.5kg. That's a HUGE weight drop considering my diet and lifestyle hadn't changed. But hormones were REALLY doing their thing.

It almost all came off my middle, so fast that it only made my breast development seem more pronounced. I went from a the pot-belly of a largely-unfit nerd to actually having the beginnings of a waist.

So finding that fat was even subtly increasing on some parts of my body was a bit strange.

On about day 70, I did something else new:

I had someone blast a frickin' laser at my head.

I ran into a friend on the way to this session, told him what he was doing, and he helpfully suggested I duck the laser. Traditionally, this would have been very wise, but I didn't duck in the end.

I was incredibly nervous about laser. So much so that I had pushed it back. I probably should have begun even before HRT, but I kept hearing horror stories from friends about how painful it was.

Rationally, I knew that my face has never been sensitive (dry-shaving was never a problem) and that discussing laser hair removal on sensitive skin like your under-arms or legs is quite different to your face.

But I still had trouble sleeping the night before.

As it turns out, the first session was fast and quite painless, apart from the soft part of skin under my jaw. That stung a bit.

When I finally winced at one point, the tech asked, "Do you want me to slow down?"

"Do you want to slow down?" seemed to have become a recurring sentence in my life.

"No," I told her. Why would I want to draw it out?

In the end, she was impressed at how I'd reacted to it, and charged me less per session than she'd quoted, "because I can do it so fast with you".

No complaints from me.

Now, laser hair removal isn't magical. It isn't always effective, you need to do it every month for some time, and right after doing it hair actually seems MORE prominent than before. You can't shave until the redness from the laser-blasting goes down, and even then my hair seemed darker.

But within a few days, it began to just... lighten. I didn't notice hair falling out, but it clearly did. As the laser tech had directed, I was voiding the sun and wearing sunblock on my face when I went out. Within a week, it was tougher to notice stubble if I'd shaved recently.

Perhaps partly as a result of this, on day 76, something entirely new happened.

For context, at this point when I left the house I was actually wearing predominantly women's clothes - men's t-shirts hung off my too loosely thanks to weight coming off my middle, so I began to wear baby-doll t-shirts most of the time. In fact, the only male clothes I wore with any frequency were cargo pants.

But from my perspective, given what my body shape was, it was a pretty androgynous look.

(In fact: fun trivia, if you have small breasts flattened with a crop top and have little to no stomach fat any more, you actually just look like a pretty chiselled guy. I had one person ask if I'd been working out.)

I was at a bar with friends for a game developer meet-up.

I went to buy us some drinks, and lined up at the bar with a girl I didn't know.

The bartender wasn't someone I knew at this place, and he walked up and smiled, addressing the girl and I.

"What can I get for you ladies?"

I did a hopefully-subtle double-take and when the other girl gestured that I was first, ordered our drinks, going back to my friends in a state of semi-shock.

"I just got correctly gendered by a stranger," I explained.

I don't think I'd realised how big a moment this would be, but it made me feel absolutely amazing. Nothing had ever felt so 'right' - it was one thing having friends address me with the right gender pronoun, and it was another for someone to get it right without being told.

I was on cloud nine the rest of the night.

So, I wanted to talk about something a bit different today, and it's not something I've discussed publicly before. It is, I think, related to gender dysphoria, but that's just me psycho-analysing myself and I could be wrong as easily as write. It's a specific phobia of mine, and how I increasingly feel it ties to the last twenty years of my life.

If you don't know what it is, Body Horror is defined by wikipedia as (oh god, I just used that sentence, kill me now) horror fiction in which the horror is principally derived from the graphic destruction or degeneration of the body. If that still doesn't fully make sense, think any early films by Cronenberg (The Fly being the most popular example), but if that still doesn't help you, you can find body horror examples in a lot of different sci-fi/horror. Like That Scene from Looper.

In my case it goes a step beyond that, and since I was a teenager I can remember being horrified of the idea of bodies changing.

I don't know if it had to do with puberty doing things to my body that made me absolutely hate myself, or just the general disgust and discomfort with my body that remained afterwards.

Either way, I always had difficulty watching supernatural horror, because in so many of them, some degree of body horror became a thing. Even someone screaming / reacting to having limbs cut off or similar can be quite disturbing for me.

Which brings me to HRT. For me, accepting that it was something I needed to do came flying in the face of also being more or less one of my greatest fears.

The only thing that helped me actually make all the appointments and begin was knowing that the end result would make me happier and actually be comfortable with my body. But getting there was terrifying.

It meant I was basically incapable of sleeping before various appointments. It meant I spent days working up to even reading about HRT in the first place. It meant when the side-effects started happening in the first month, I was constantly having to calm myself down. I kept checking the enormous list of symptoms I could expect, triple-checking that everything I was feeling / experiencing was 'normal' and 'okay'.

Then they settled down, and I began to feel much better about it - until my body actually started noticeably changing.

I kept finding myself torn between excitement that my face was feminising & my chest softening, and my body just 'feeling' different, not being sure how much was in my head.

Being given a choice by my endocrinologist at every point helped. Every two months he'd ask if I wanted to slow down, and even taking the 'no way' choice each time I felt like I had some semblance of control, despite the feeling early on that I really didn't. I just had to take the pills and hope I liked the results.

(I am seriously tempted to write some kind of really squicky body horror script now I've experienced some of it first-hand. I feel it might be cathartic.)

It also helped to remember that it was my actions that defined when this began for me. It wasn't like puberty, where I had no say and suddenly my body was doing horrifying things that made me feel impossibly gross and like a hostage in my own body.

I feel better about it now. I really do. Seeing my body change, but into something I increasingly love, feel comfortable in and want to care for ended up being the complete reverse of what I feared - and I am starting to feel my deep fear of body change / body horror slipping away at the same time.

But the weeks leading up to starting and that first month or two were far tougher for me than I let on. I only wish I'd felt comfortable talking about it earlier.

So now, partly as catharsis, I'm finally starting to watch Hannibal - a show I had stopped watching quite quickly years ago due to some very confronting material.

And I feel good.

This will cover my second month of HRT, from uncomfortable side-effects of month one to coming out at the end of month two.

As before, it's pulled from my personal journal. It'll mostly cover physical changes any psychological stuff associated with it.

Day 36:

I'm often concerned I'm imagining changes. Like, I have read and re-read what kind of body changes I can expect and roughly when, and when you are looking for something it's easy to be caught by false-positives.

So I've been weighing and measuring myself - particularly my chest and stomach. For the last week if I moved faster than a walk I noticed feeling my chest move a bit. That a slight over-bust measurement change of about three-quarters of an inch was pretty good evidence I wasn't imaging this. It kinda surprises me because I thought breast development wouldn't happen until a bit later. I guess it's luck of genetics and the high dosage I've started on?

Either way, I am clearly feminising and it's fucking awesome.

Not everything was about physical changes, though. I was increasingly getting very emotional, and while at first it was a bit disconcerting, on day 38 I wrote this:

At first, I found how emotional I was feeling very, very frustrating. Scary. Difficult.

But now… I’m comfortable with it. When I watch a movie and something just moves me so much, in a way it didn’t before. The cold detachment has begun to feel like it’s gone.

I don’t even know how much of it is me going through an emotional time with transitioning and how much is actual hormonal stuff. But I don’t care.

I feel like I’m waking up after being in a long, very broken nightmare.

The next few weeks were difficult for me. My personal life was getting increasingly tough, at the same time as I was feeling more emotional, crying at the drop of a hat over often-insignificant things like "we're almost out of tooth-paste".

On top of this, I had decided on a date to come out. I knew we were attending GX Australia, a diversity-positive games convention, to show off our video game. While I was still presenting pretty androgynously and intended to for a while, I knew I'd feel deeply uncomfortable attending while still being quiet about what I was going to. So I'd begun planning to come out right near the end of February, a while before the expo.

I also planned my coming-out day to be the day after my second visit to my endocrinologist and psychologist. On some level I was still worried that there was something off with my blood-work and I'd get in there to be told something like "sorry, your body is reacting badly and we have to cancel HRT entirely". I knew this was entirely unlikely as I'd never even heard of that happening, but by this point the idea of not doing HRT was so horrifying that it still gnawed at me.

Either way, it was a mental focus of mine and so the day after my endo and psych visit made the most sense. It'd give me a chance to talk about coming out with someone who isn't a friend, too, which was helpful.

But meanwhile, the biggest day to day problems were growing on my chest, and much faster than I'd expected.

There's an early stage of breast development where your actual breast tissue (the glands) grow, but fat redistribution hasn't happened yet. It's that "teen girl bump" stage. It's awkward because for me it meant I was frequently paranoid someone would think I just looked weird, and on top of that - it's sore as all fuck.

It also meant I was at the stage where people hugging me hello was often very uncomfortable. Well-meaning people would give me a big bear hug, especially if they were a close friend who already knew I was transitioning. Ow.

I had taken to wearing tight sports crops beneath my t-shirts for comfort, and to flatten my chest a bit for when I didn't feel comfortable presenting in any way femme.

At my endocrinologist's appointment, he gave me what'd be the first of a few choices. He noted that I had a lot of breast tissue. This wasn't a bad thing, just an idle observation. Something about my genetics.

He also said the large amount of muscle mass loss from my upper arms and shoulders was a very good sign - something I'd noticed nowhere near as much as my sore-as-fuck breasts and facial changes.

He did comment on those, though. So, oestrogen softens your skin and begins the process of subtle shifting of subcutaneous fat around your face. It 'softens', and begins to look more feminine.

He also noted that my body had naturally dropped my testosterone levels. I began with low T levels for a male, but after nearly two months on high levels of oestrogen, my T levels were about low-to-medium for a woman. This was a very good thing, he said.

So he gave me a choice: I could remain on 6mg/day of oestrogen and just keep changing more slowly, or he could start me on progesterone and an androgen-blocker to lower what little T levels I still had.

He explained that progesterone was the hormone mostly responsible for fat redistribution and nipple development. Basically - take it slow or go faster.

That was no real choice there for me. I was still presenting androgynously most of the time, but I didn't want to stay in this odd 'half way' place for any longer than I had to.

So the next day I began taking 5mg of Provera every day, and a disgusting gone-off-mint-tasting fucker of a pill called Spiractin (the androgen blocker). I had gotten used to swallowing small pills all the time, but Spiractin was something else. Not only were they actually pretty big compared to what I was used to, but the taste was so bad they often triggered my gag reflex. It was all I could manage to avoid coughing them back up as they went near the back of my mouth. Iiiick.

But I slowly got used to them.

Then came coming-out day, which was day 57 of HRT, I think.

I had been nervous leading up to it. But a week before, Jordan from a local and very popular geek band Axis of Awesome had come out as trans - with a fucking spectacular video. This helped immensely. "She can do it with a video. I just have to post some text."

But still, on the day I was absolutely terrified. I knew I was doing this in a way a little 'different' to most people I knew - the fact that I rarely presented feminine and was actually coming out after starting HRT rather than before seemed to be less common than I expected. But then, everyone's experience transitioning is personal and different.

Nothing is 'normal'.

My amazing friend Nel agreed to be with me the day I came out.

She came over, we had chocolate and tequila, and some time around midday, I put this blog post live, changed my name to Elissa on twitter, and posted a link to my coming-out post on my old Facebook account, tagging a new account I'd made.

I decided for a number of reasons I would make a new Facebook account. Among the many reasons (including not wanting to have an FB history - and photo history - that extended back into my pre-transition years) was forcing friends to make the active choice to continue interacting with me. If they were uncomfortable with me transitioning, I knew there'd be a chance they'd just quietly not add my new account.

I put everything live and sat on my balcony with Nel, so nervous I could barely function.

But it all went amazingly well. I cried as I got more supportive messages than I'd even hoped to get.

But the biggest thing was not having to pretend everything was business-as-usual. I could tweet about HRT, about my gender identity, about everything. I felt like I wasn't hiding any more.

Then, a few days later I wrote:

There’s no doubt about it any more. I have breasts. Actual breasts, and cleavage when I put my top on with a crop top. They're small, but they're there already.

I’m so fucking excited.