Transitioning early in life: Alicia's story

[I’ve changed her name to protect her privacy]

Editor's note:

Alicia sent this in 2007. She transitioned in her early 20s after dealing with an unsupportive family, a marriage and an honorable military discharge.

After checking in at again and reading some of the young transition stories, I wanted to offer an account of my experiences and reflect on them in hopes that someone else out there finds encouragement and hope from this.

In many ways, I'm still transitioning; however I feel that the beauty of life is that we're all in transition, perpetually. For me, the milestones I've achieved in the last few years have changed me forever. I look forward to accomplishing even more goals in the next few years.

I didn't actually start my gender transition until October 2005. I was married, a parent, and had served less than half of my six year tenure in the military, and all at 21 years old. One night, I couldn't sleep so I tossed and turned for hours. Finally, I woke my wife up and told her that I felt I needed to 'become a woman,' to which she replied, "Okay honey, let's talk about it in the morning."

I brought it up again the next morning, and she acted completely nonplussed by it, though she did express that her love for me had dwindled. We discussed options for the future of our relationship, and ultimately, she moved out and took our daughter with her, back to our hometown. I was still enlisted in the military, so moving with them was not an option; but after nearly three years of a painful marriage, I didn't have much fight left in me. I sent her and my daughter ahead on a plane, packed nearly all of our collected belongings into a rental truck and drove them from my home to her mother's in her hometown.

Backing up a bit, I'd always fought with this sense of being incomplete, as though I was just a puppet in a play or a shade of a person, someone who only existed to serve and help other people. I grew up with a mother who was oppressed and emotionally beat down by my father and a little brother who was physically beat by him, so I never really had a chance to notice that I identified myself as female more than I identified with being male. Instead, I wrapped myself up in studies because I didn't want to upset or disappoint my father. I grew up to be quite neurotic in that atmosphere, but only because I didn't know any better.

When I was in junior high, I moved to a different school. I lived 40 miles away from the school, so I didn't really hang out with anyone outside of classes; I did, however, meet a few kids involved in the hacker scene of the mid nineties. I developed a keen interest in computers and electronics and began to study operating systems, programming, and a bunch of other extraordinarily technical and boring texts; I spent so much time studying that I literally had no time for anything else. I stayed up all night on the internet, applying techniques and participating in wargames with various friends in various circles, eventually getting into trouble with a local internet provider which drew attention to me by my dad, resulting in numerous restrictions and effectively, an early end to my future as an illicit computer hacker. However, the skills I built during this time in my life pay my bills today.

As I started high school, my grades dropped and I became even more detached and disassociated from my family. I would stay up all night studying and researching anything and everything I could, while sleeping through class every day. I found sometime during that timeframe and began to identify with some of the stories I read on the site, but I felt wrong for that. I finally learned that my parents' view of the world was not the only view of the world, and that I didn't have to live the same way they lived, but I still wasn't quite able to let go of the prejudices and fear with which I grew up.

Halfway through high school, I took the ACT test and scored a 33 out of 36. This surprised almost all of my teachers, who took me for a quiet, mediocre student. Suddenly I was forced to enroll in honors and AP classes instead of the enriched classes that I'd signed up for on my own; the school guidance counselor and a band of caring teachers saw to that. Suddenly I was no longer cruising along below the radar; I'd set a higher standard for myself with my test scores, and my teachers weren't about to let me slack. My focus shifted more and more towards school and less towards home (at least as much as possible).

When I was 16, I moved in with my grandmother in the town where I went to school. I was suddenly insulated from my parents' abuse and neglect and able to thrive for the first time in my life. I stayed in a spare bedroom at her house that had a big mirror and a closet full of her old clothes, and for some reason I felt the urge to try on some of them. I was utterly embarassed and not quite sure what motivated me, but I didn't want to get caught so I only did this two or three times. Boy did I look silly. =P I was depressed and unhappy with myself; I felt completely out of control and aimless.

I applied for a scholarship to attend a well-known technical university, and was granted a $10,000/semester scholarship on the merit of my ACT scores. However, that wasn't enough money to attend. My father berated me severely and told me that I was wrong for thinking I was better than the rest of our family for trying to go to some 'yankee school up north.' I gave up on going to college at that point, but due to the efforts of a stubborn, concerned parent of a friend at the time, I applied for and was awarded a full ride to attend a state university in the south.

So I finally graduated and went off to college, but that only lasted a semester. I was really depressed and drank a lot and finally decided that rather than waste all the money I was being given on someone like myself who didn't want to be there that I would leave school and let someone more deserving have the scholarship. I crashed with a friend who lived in my hometown for a few weeks while I cleared my head. It was during this time that I ran into a girl who knew me in high school and crushed on me big. I was a virgin and didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life (and at that point, I didn't care at all), so I decided to just ask her out. Things moved quickly with us; we had sex, I took her home to meet my family, my dad asked if we were going to get married, I asked her to marry me, she said yes, we got an apartment, and I joined the military to pay for our future together. I was practically suicidal at this point. I was also only 19 years old.

The military changed me. Right off the bat I started feeling this sense of responsibility and purpose that I hadn't felt before, and when my ex finally got to move with me after my training, we didn't click anymore. Suddenly she was a stranger. We made a few misguided attempts to steer things in a positive direction, but it was all pretty pointless. Two people playing tug-of-war cannot both win, and in marriage, if one of you loses, you both lose. Eventually we decided to have a kid together, thinking we could pour our love and devotion into her and it would make everything right. I was still struggling with this repressed sense of wrongness and unhappiness, and nothing I could do would fix it.

Our daughter was born in 2004. She is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. Of all the transformations I've ever experienced, nothing in my life has ever changed me so much so quickly; suddenly I had a reason for everything. Suddenly, no matter what I thought or felt, I had someone who needed me 24/7. I've never felt so thankful and happy for anything in my whole life as when I held her in my arms and she was able to reach her little hand up and touch my face. She smiled and laughed so much; I used to laugh and sing with her every chance I'd get. I miss her very much.

Her mother, however, suffered severe post-partum depression and wound up becoming very self-destructive; she stopped working, stopped moving practically, and started only eating fast food. I'd argue that it was bad and I would refuse to buy it, but we'd only end up shouting and fighting, until I ended up crying and going out to get her food. Again, this turned into some sort of weird abusive relationship, and I didn't know how to stand up for myself.

I wound up going to survival school in August of 2005, and my experiences there brought me closer to the heart and essence of myself than I'd ever been willing to look. I aged a lot during that time, and when I came back everyone said I was different. I knew I was different too, but I understood that it was something I couldn't express to them; I had developed the resolve and the understanding and the willingness to survive, regardless of the odds and regardless of the difficulty. That was why, in October of that year, I finally was able to come to grips with my repressed discomfort with being male. I told myself that if I was to be the best parent for my daughter that I could ever be, I had to be the truest, most honest person that I could be. I had to live on the outside in tune with my heart on the inside. The question then was, how am I going to get there?

I remembered your web site from when I was in high school; I searched the web for it and found it. I started searching for people in my area that I could reach out and get to know, and I started planning my transition. I visited a therapist, and I came out to my family and friends right away. I knew it was going to take years to get everything going and normalized, but I also knew that because of the stress and strain of my marriage and the pending separation from my daughter, I couldn't put this off forever.

So, the biggest hurdle at the time, other than coming out to my family which you can surmise went not so well (I am currently dead to them), was how to safely get out of the military without getting into trouble. I was a linguist, part of a critically manned career field during a time when desert deployments were guaranteed once you finished all your training requirements. I knew about the don't ask, don't tell policy and knew from my experience that the military treated homosexuals harshly; I was under the impression that I would be treated even worse by the military if they knew I intended to transition gender. I suspected I would be labelled crazy and given a medical discharge of some sort, so I consulted with whatever legal advice I could find to come up with a plan. I had purchased hormones over the internet and had been self-medicating with them for about six months; I had noticable breast development and was concerned about being punished for self-medicating. I came out to my unit leader as being homosexual, and the military initiated discharge proceedings.

A lot had already happened by this point; I came up out of an abusive household, afraid to exist and think for myself, to become someone who, though fearful of what was ahead, had the courage to take the first steps. I'd had my daughter taken from me (and consequently a chunk of my soul torn out), and I'd had my family turn on me completely and support her in order to get close to my daughter. I didn't know what I was going to do and where I was going to do from there, but I was determined to fight.

My unit leader asked me if I'd ever seen this program on tv about people who feel like they were the wrong gender, about how something happens in the womb or something and they develop physical characteristics that aren't in line with their brains. I told him that I wanted to be honest with him, and I poured my heart out. I told him what I was doing and why I was claiming to be homosexual instead. I told him how I felt and who I identified as inside. I told him, truthfully, that I felt like I couldn't be a whole person for the military or for myself or especially for my daughter unless I went down this road, and he listened to me. After I was done, he told me that he appreciated my honesty and pointed to a picture of his grandfather, one of the first black men to serve as an officer in the military. He talked to me about how difficult it is to live up to your dreams, but that those who do are the true heroes in this world. He encouraged me a lot and helped ensure that my discharge went smoothly and without consequence. I received an honorable discharge due to homosexual admission, and on that day this sergeant escorted me off the base and gave me one final salute. From that moment on I lived full time as myself.

During the final months of my military tenure I got involved with the local goth community, and through my new connections there I wound up applying for a job at a local network security firm. I typed a letter up myself explaining that I'm transitioning from male to female, that I go by my current name and live as a woman but that my legal gender is male and my legal name is different. I included links to handouts from the Human Rights Campaign and offered to answer any questions that they had, candidly and honestly. They were very respectful and professional in their dealings with me, and I wound up being hired based solely on my experience and qualifications.

I had a separate meeting/interview with the founder of the company and the steering committee in which we discussed my background and my gender, and specifically, my bathroom arrangements. They all expressed support of me, but they requested that I use the publicly accessible restroom on the first floor to avoid conflict with existing employees. I agreed at the time because I was working nights, and I knew that because I was the only female employee working nights, I would still use the restroom on the floor in which I worked. However, after three months I was promoted and switched to days. I began going down to the first floor every time I had to use the restroom until one day a female coworker asked me why I didn't just use the restroom on the third floor. When I explained the situation she laughed and said it was absurd; she said that she knew of no one there who saw me as anything other than a female coworker and that I should just defy the rule. Instead, though, I went right to the executives who set this up and asked if we could revisit my restroom arrangements. She said that she'd run it by the rest of the committee and let me know what they said. The next day, I could legitimately use the women's room on the same floor as my office.

I've worked at this company for over a year now; my overall focus has shifted so much in this time frame. My whole mindset has changed as well; I've become a much different person. I've had two promotions in the past year, and I've made connections on a professional level that I'll carry with me for a long long time. I am not only living as a woman, but I'm a successful, happy, confident woman with bright hopes for the future. I'm a systems, network, and security engineer by trade, an electro/industrial dj in my spare time, and a proud and open lesbian. A few things are left undone, however; I'm still not in touch with my daughter. Time will heal these wounds, and I haven't given up hope. I am still working to save and visit her when I can. She will be three years old in just four days now.

I have a loving and supportive circle of friends; mostly post-transition friends, as only one or two of my former friends stood by me. I'm in a wonderful long-term relationship with an aspiring chef with wonderful taste and the quirkiest attitude ever, and I love her to death.

I don't know, it seems like I lost focus or the point of what I was writing about a long time ago. This turned into a narration of my life as I see it from where I stand right now. Maybe I wrote this for me, too. Transitioning gender has been challenging, but it hasn't been the hardest challenge I've ever faced; for that reason I guess my account is just one oddball of a statistical anomaly. For me, it was easy to tell my family. It was easy to tell my friends. It was hard for me to realize that there was probably an easier way to undertake it all, but I've always been one to learn the hard way. I pushed through and poured so much heart and soul into this because I felt like it was my last shot at existence, my one lifeline. I grabbed hold and pulled myself through even when I felt like my heart was completely broken. I have my friends to thank for that, and I'm also thankful for and the stories that I've read from other people who have fought as hard as I have.

So, here are some things I might have done differently, in retrospect:

I would have never let anybody, even my parents, make me feel small and insignificant. If I had a chance to tell every kid how wonderful and important they are and how much potential they have to do something beautiful, I would.

I would not live in fear of disappointing others. Instead, I would run with my ideas and create and invent whatever I could imagine, as I dreamed of it.

In terms of gender transition in the military, I would come out to my first sergeant prior to starting hormones, and I would officially come out as a transsexual woman and not as a homosexual man. This one's kind of iffy, as it depends on the political climate and the nature of the command in which you serve. However, I would make sure I found someone in power, a leader, to confide in and look to for advice because it's too heavy a burden to bear alone. Reading other people's anecdotes leads me to believe I was mislead in thinking that I would be labelled crazy; it looks like I could have gotten the VA to pay for some of my transition costs. Chalk one up to ignorance.

If I could give any advice to others in my shoes, I'd say the following:

I can't stress enough how important it was for me to find friends I could talk to and relate to, even if they weren't necessarily transgender or queer; I'm absolutely queer enough that anyone who's not tolerant of my lifestyle wouldn't get very far with me. Have confidence, be proud of who you are, love yourself, and understand that 99% of transition is taking a mental leap; the physical part will fall into place. If you learn to be proud of who you are and confident no matter what, you will be able to succeed at anything. Go to the library and try to find the children's book "The Little Engine that Could" by Watty Piper, and read it until you've taken it to heart. Develop a never give up attitude and have some spunk! Remember that the transition you're currently undergoing is not the last transition you'll ever face; the challenge you're currently facing is not the last challenge you'll ever win. Remember that there's life beyond our gender struggles, waiting for us to live it. It's all around us, and it goes on concurrently no matter what we're fighting with at the time. If you get overwhelmed, lean on a friend for support.

Send me your thoughts, links, and advice!

If you transitioned in your teens or twenties and have any advice you'd like to share, please contact me , and I'll give it a permanent (and anonymous) home.