When I put a call out for guest blogs, some stunning pieces came my way and there were a couple that made me cry. This essay by AJ Power is one of them. AJ tells her journey to becoming the woman she is with such strength and vulnerability that I am just absolutely blown away.
I had two contradictory reactions to this piece. The first was that I wanted to publish it because I couldn’t completely relate – as a cis woman who has benefited by entire life from cis privilege, I will never completely what a trans woman goes through. However, on a different level, I felt I did understand it. As a trauma survivor, my body has always known what I need, what I can handle and what I cannot, and if a situation is right or wrong. It was learning to listen to it that was the tricky bit. In that regard, at least, I related to AJ’s essay very deeply. I am absolutely thrilled to be able to share this beautiful piece with you all.
It started with losing my virginity. You could argue for something earlier: myriad stomach issues through my childhood, anxiety attacks I couldn’t recognize as such (much less explain to my parents), or any number of little things I’d only later realize pointed to my being trans. But it’s one thing to dissect signs and symptoms with the benefit of hindsight, and another to get a blaring wake-up call on a chilly October night when you’re as excited as you’ve ever been.
Aubrey was a better person to ‘lose it’ with than I could have dreamed. Vastly too cool for me, sure, but I was not looking that particular gift horse in the mouth. My roommate was out partying, we were both happy, healthy, and sober, and I was about to fall head over heels. Everything was perfect. Except, well, for one horrifying cliché….
I couldn’t get it up.
No matter what I tried (and oh did I try) it was just not happening. I didn’t understand. Yes, I was nervous, and yes, on some level I believed that it happened to a lot of guys maybe even all guys at some point or other—but at that moment there was nothing but shame and betrayal. Aubrey actually handled everything great, but that didn’t stop me from sobbing in the shower the next morning, or from going to student health to try and dig up some reason, any physical reason that this was happening to me.
When my wife and I have sex now, I do think back to those days sometimes. Days when I thought I was a guy. When I thought that only penetrative sex was “real” sex. When I somehow drew a line between Real Dysphoria(TM) and how much I hated seeing myself in the mirror. It feels like another life, like that was a different person, an unexpected and unwanted detour when somebody else was borrowing my body. But now that I have the steering wheel again, I’m not totally sure how to drive stick (pun intended). So much about me has changed, both physically and deeper than that. I have the same parts, but not the same.
And I don’t quite know what this body wants.
When Aubrey and I finally did end up having intercourse I was elated. It took nearly a year, and I was at least a littl bit bothered by that, but we’d fallen in love in that time. We’d grown into each other, trusting, caring, knowing. She was the only person I’d ever told about my depression. About my high school prom, where I mostly thought about killing myself and felt better than I had in months. About how desperately lonely I could get.
I still had trouble performing sometimes. I figured it was an anxious sort of feedback loop—worrying about worrying and ending up just as nervous as I’d been the first time the issue had cropped up. But I’d made my peace with it, I thought. We were happy. Problem solved.
Lest I make this into a pity party, I love sex. Touching and being touched, desiring and being desired—it’s amazing and beautiful. The journey is fantastic. The destination, on the other hand….
It’s not that I can’t orgasm. Give me five minutes with my vibrator and, well. But no matter how well things seem to be going with another person, it remains out of reach. Sometimes I think it’s just that it’s so much easier to forget what body parts I actually have when it’s just me. When I can have the barrier of pajamas, panties, or pornography to keep that knowledge shunted off to the side of my conscious mind. As opposed to the unmistakable fact of skin or lips wrapping around me. The fact that there’s something to wrap around at all. Other times I wonder if, despite the intervening years, the hormones, and the anti anxiety medication, I’m just still too much in my own head when it comes to sex, and I need to learn to shut my brain off and enjoy the moment.
In most situations, the anxiety takes hold because I’m desperately afraid of disappointing someone or letting them down. But even when there’s little-to-no risk of that, it’s tough to reassure myself. Because no matter how anyone else feels, the one I so often let down is me.
I wanted to scream at myself to just shut up for once in my life. I had Lauren in my bed. Lauren, who I’d gotten involved with way too quickly after Aubrey. Way too quickly after Lauren’s last breakup too. I was having trouble performing again. We’d both been drinking a little—just enough to relax, at least in theory.
My body just wouldn’t listen to me. Again. I was so sick of it, and I just wanted both of us to have a good time. I told myself to focus on her before I gave any thought to myself. Her body. The way it moved. The way it felt. I tried to shut out everything that was complicated or difficult, or…me.
I didn’t give much thought to the fact that when I masturbated, or even when I had sex, I rarely (if ever) pictured myself in the scene. It was like I was so focused on the woman in front of me, that I was barely a presence, even in my own fantasies. That night, I tried to switch. To focus just on Lauren, and then to enjoy the moment as myself. I wasn’t over Aubrey, and I figured that that was why I was so disconnected from myself. But the truth was, part of it felt good and right, and part of it didn’t. That was the last time I ever had penetrative sex.
The strangest part of the dysphoria I still have is that I don’t hate my body. Even the things I wish were different, I don’t hate. They just don’t feel entirely like me. I know that mental health issues are a process, but I feel like I’m past a lot of hating myself too. I can feel happy, proud, beautiful in ways I never would have been able to a few years ago. There’s just this one part of me. This last question that’s more confusing than anything. What am I supposed to do with you?
It wasn’t long ago at all now that I was lying in a hotel bed on my wedding night, feeling like I’d just seen the face of god. My wife had just driven me completely out of my mind for what seemed like forever, and when she asked me if I’d climaxed, I had to say I didn’t know. I didn’t feel like I’d had that release, but how else to describe how it had felt? Was this another part of me changing? But for once, I didn’t think about it too hard.
The truth is, my body knows me. In every fantasy that I thought I wasn’t an actor in, in every time I got lost in the curves of someone else’s body when I had no love for my own, my body was trying to tell me something. That the need and want I was feeling weren’t just about loving women, but about being one. Like calling to like. The shape of me on the inside trying to find something that would fit around it and make it home.
There’s something magic in learning to feel like yourself, at home in your own person. I felt it when I bought my first dress. I felt it when I started liking the woman I saw in the mirror. And I felt it the first time I fell in love, and the last. It’s a soft sigh and an intake of breath, a sense of “Oh, so that’s how it can be.”
I always thought that when my body misbehaved it was because something was wrong (or that it was just being an asshole), but even with the things I have yet to figure out, I know it’s not about right and wrong, or a problem to be fixed.
It’s about the fact that I’m not finished yet. I still have more to do, to grow, to change.
And if my body has taught me anything, it’s that change is good.
AJ Power is a 28-year-old trans writer and editor. When not writing, she can usually be found watching movies in bed or reading…probably also in bed. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her wife. She tweets as @write_errant.