Becoming my authentic self
Identifying my true gender has been a journey decades in the making
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth installment of “The Transchick Chronicles,” an on-going series of essays written by newly-out transgender journalist Stephanie Haskins, as she chronicles her transition. Parts one and two can be found here. Parts three and four can be found here.
BY STEPHANIE HASKINS
Pieces and parts.
Boy parts, girl parts.
Male pieces, female pieces.
Nature vs nurture. Born queer. Made queer.
How many fucking times have we heard this vacuous bullshit: If a young boy is overly close to his mother and distant from his father, he could likely grow up to be gay or queer? Interestingly, I’ve yet to hear how all of that works for girls. Wonder why?
How much is one’s gender or sexuality influenced by unfortunate family dynamics, and is it actually reducible to some sort of an almost-conscious decision-making progress?
That sexual preferences or gender incongruity are driven by individual choice?
Or unfortunate circumstance?
Personally, I most definitely land on the side of nature. I was born queer, and transgender, and that is THAT. I had no choice.
Look, I’m not a research scientist who studies the pathologies of sexual and gender dynamics. I’m a transgender person who’s been aware of my queer identity most of my life. All I can speak to is my life as I lived it.
Or didn’t live it.
At any rate, I turned out to be me, and my story is mine alone. I’m not much concerned about the unending debate of nature vs. nurture.
Believe what you will. Twist it and roll it and shape it as you must. I can see some merit to both sides.
BUT…I believe I was formed as a trans person in utero, and while I’m sure all of the subsequent events in my life after I was emptied out from my mother had a great deal to do with the development of my persona, I know in my heart that there was NO way I would have ever have turned out to be a straight male or a cisgender person.
No matter what.
* * *
I was raised by parents who never, EVER should have had children—NEVER. They simply didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to pull it off. Both were selfish, self-centered, emotionally distant, my-way-or-the-highway kind of people who had kids because post-war culture said they should, and because their friends were all having kids.
But having kids and raising kids don’t always converge. With my parents, it was like one of them was driving on the 1-10 in Los Angeles, and the other was hauling ass on the 280 outside of San Francisco. Completely disconnected.
I had almost no nurturing. From them, anyway. As I write this, I honestly can’t remember a time in my first 21 years when I got any honest, spontaneous, joyous affection from either one of them. I am NOT fucking kidding. My brother didn’t get much either, although he was closer to being the boy they could be proud of. And work with.
Could a lifetime of negative reinforcement have impacted my sexuality or gender identification? I just don’t see it. I was an unhappy, confused kid, but a large part of my unhappiness was because I just had no sense of me.
Stephanie (then Steven) Haskins as a toddler.
While I was seen as something of a parental victory on the one hand, because I was smart and did well at school, I still didn’t fit into any of their stereotypes of what a boy should be. I was awful at organized sports, because I was scrawny and underdeveloped and uncoordinated. I hated bugs and snakes and bees. Yet I loved, ostensibly, more feminine things—like art and music and drawing and reading.
Of course, to further conflict the issue, I did love climbing trees and riding my bike and challenging myself to prove to myself that, as a designated male, I was as good as any other little penis-packers were.
I spent hours in front of the television watching talk show hosts like Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Merv Griffin, David Frost, and Dick Cavett—allowing myself to be transported away from my boring, mundane boy life in rural Minnesota. And I fell in love with the sophisticated cultures I saw on TV—of glamorous, far-off places like Chicago, New York City, or London. I wanted to be a famous painter or a fabulous celebrity. I longed for a better life where I didn’t feel odd. And strange. And alone.
Or second rate.
As I look at back at my life now, it would seem that I was born to be different. I simply had no role models capable of nudging me toward an authentic male identity–assuming that would have been possible.
Which I just don’t believe. I just don’t. And in my heart of hearts, I simply can’t accept that anything my parents (or anyone else, for that matter) could have said or done in the first decade of my life would have changed the fact that I was NEVER going to develop into a happy, unquestioning, fully socialized human male person.
Maleness just always seemed to be unattainable for me. It was simply impossible. I did not know how to be it, perform it, or understand it.
I really wanted to. But I didn’t know how. And in a lot of respects, I never cared—other than I so badly wanted to be totally straight. And eventually, I came to understand I never would be.
Gender identity—for me—simply did not happen the way our culture says it should. And I do believe—with all my heart—that I was NEVER meant to be a man.
The little affirmation and support I had pretty much convinced me that as a natal male, I was going to be an abject failure. I was an atypical, unusual, vaguely unhappy kid who morphed from being a cute-ish pre-adolescent boy into a NOT very cute teen who literally wanted absolutely no part of growing into manhood—at all.
I hated the hair on my body and my face, I hated how my voice sounded, I loathed what I saw in the mirror. I despised what I perceived to be my incipient homosexuality, which I then considered to be yet ANOTHER failure I had to deal with. On a whole different level.
Not only did I not consider myself to be an authentic male, but I couldn’t even be a properly normal misfit and be attracted to girls. It seemed I was powerless over my body, my sense of self, my soul, my dick, my future, my dysfunctional parents, or my life as a kid who, as I saw it, belonged nowhere and never would. I was a completely incompetent owner of X and Y chromosomes.
And then, my world, such as it was, fell even further apart. My father took a job that moved me and my family from my small midwestern town to the state capitol of California.
As I said, being a teenager certainly did me no favors. Being uprooted to finish growing up halfway across the country damn near killed me. The Peter Pan pimple festival I had become initially had a REALLY tough time surviving the suburbs of Sacramento. Teens in California were tougher, more sophisticated, and grew up faster than their counterparts in Minnesota. I had to learn how to cope in a quick hurry.
Haskins’ high school graduation photo, at age 17.
I remember sitting in my room one night considering my options as a 17-year-old, and finally coming to understand that however I felt sexually, and no matter how uncomfortable I was with my awkward, faux-gendered male body, I had to get on board with society’s demands and become the straight-acting, totally-in-the-closet, cisgender male I needed to be, in order to survive in the queer-hating world.
Again, let me state definitively that my variant sexuality was, and is, NOT connected to my gender otherness. However, I didn’t understand that to be the case back then. I simply assumed the fact that I was an unwilling gay kid drove my restlessness as a male gendered person.
I assumed my sexuality drove my gender identity. Gay = gender confusion, right? At least that’s what some homophobes try to claim.
But, um, no.
Problem is, no one at that time knew what it was to be a transgender person.
Back to my 17-year old bedroom epiphany. I vowed in that moment that I would never allow myself to be myself, to be this somewhat effeminate, always uncomfortable young man. If I was actually gay, I told myself, I would hide it at all costs and somehow learn to out-macho the straightest of the straight around me. I would teach myself how to be male. To be a man.
And yes, I did indeed try to pray away the gay. If I could control my sexuality, I thought, then I could control my sense of being a male. Or NOT being a male.
I wish I could have studied with Lee Strasberg and learned about method acting, because that was surely what I attempted to do to live my life. I fought so fucking hard to occupy the space of this male person I knew I had to become.
To survive. I spent thousands and thousands of hours trying to re-form and then to accept the body I despised. Even though I never really understood WHY I hated it.
* * *
I was born a physical being whose components were almost totally useless to me. As I touched on in parts one and two of The Transchick Chronicles, I especially disliked my penis. It didn’t look right to me and it didn’t work right.
Part of my sense of my penis is that, for some fucking reason, my parents chose NOT to circumcise me right after I was born. I asked them why—several times over the years while I was growing up—and neither one of them could answer me other than “it wasn’t being done at the time.” I have no way to verify if this is true or not, All I know is that most boys my age were circumcised. I mean like almost 100 percent. In my subsequent adolescent PE classes, I noticed in the locker room that there were never more than one or two other unfortunate boys who were uncut.
Making matters worse, my younger brother was circumcised as well. As was my father. So, my sad little dick was truly an outlier.
My mother probably read in some magazine that circumcision wasn’t trending at the time, so, “well, then—not for MY son.”
And, “Besides, he’ll never know the difference!”
Or, “Besides, what’s the difference, anyway?”
I guess ma and pa figured I’d never notice.
But I DID notice. As I said, almost every other American baby boy born “at the time” had been cut—their penile foreskins neatly trimmed and tucked.
Again, I saw hundreds and hundreds of them in the showers from the seventh grade to high school graduation.
Being a very queer kid, I was mostly delighted.
And almost every goddamned one of them was circumcised.
I mean, JESUS was circumcised! (Being Jewish and all, I’m assuming.)
But not ME.
For those of you who’ve never hauled around a dick that was uncircumcised (much less one that was unwanted), you’ll just never understand how much I disdained that dopey little thing. How ashamed I was of it. All the time.
I always thought it resembled a little snake. A cobra, when it stood at attention.
Uncircumcised penises have what’s called a foreskin which, under the very best of circumstances, can be rolled down over the head of the penis. That little hood of skin is also fabulously sensitive, which makes self-pleasuring really easy. And sexual contact with another body later on could be one of the most wonderful experiences we human males can imagine.
Easy peasy. Happy squeezy.
Yet another miserable memory I have is of me sitting in a bathtub with one or the other of my parents trying to show me how to retract my foreskin in order to clean it. I didn’t want to do it. It hurt. A lot. My foreskin was very tight. Later in life I determined that I suffered from phimosis, a condition in which a very tight foreskin indeed results in painful retraction.
So, after I was able to take a bath alone, I didn’t even bother. If mumsy and popsy asked if I’s brushed my teeth and cleaned my penis, I’d always just lie and reassure them that I was indeed doing my due-dick diligence.
Luckily, my parents were too busy fighting with each other and being pissed at my brother and me for our endless transgressions that my overly-tight, uncircumcised little dick eventually became a forgotten, non-issue.
And again, as the years rolled by, I came to pretty much despise that goddamned thing. Despise my penis? Yes. Certainly. Absolutely. But the rest of me too. Every square inch of me.
A logical question would be, “OK, Stephanie, what if your parents HAD allowed you to be circumcised? Would you STILL have hated your dick? ”
Yes. Yes, I would have.
My uncircumcised penis was certainly an embarrassment when I was growing up, and I absolutely didn’t like having it dangling between my legs, but even after it was remodeled I STILL didn’t want it or like it.
Haskins’ college graduation photo, at age 21.
That’s right, when I finally did get circumcised—at the ripe ol’ age of 21—the simple little procedure for baby boys became a major surgery for me, with a two-month recovery time.
In the immediate aftermath of the procedure, my penis turned a cool black color. Then purple. Then blue. For weeks.
Four months passed before I could take a shower without screaming in pain when the water hit the head of my surgically traumatized cock.
At least I no longer had to worry about all the assorted bladder and urinary tract infections I had when I was a kid.
But I still hated it.
Interestingly, the battle over circumcision has raised its strange little head (bad pun!) in recent years. The sense that some parents now have is that circumcision is actually genital mutilation, and that it should be left up to the respective penis-owners.
That sounds so enlightened!
* * *
I just never felt, what I assumed, other boys felt. What they felt like.
I didn’t understand them, they didn’t seem to understand me, and as a result, I didn’t much like being around them.
Most of the time I just felt a lot more comfortable being alone—or around females. I especially loved older women. I liked their style. Their sometimes wicked senses of humor. I wanted to be their pal.
Girls my age were more difficult to engage, but we usually connected fairly quickly—non-sexually of course—because I thought they were just more interesting to hang out with. They were usually equally disdainful of most of the boy stuff that I couldn’t have cared less about. Like building stuff. Or figuring out how cars work. Or sports. They did stuff I liked to do—like cooking. And looking at cute guys.
Being a boy or a man meant being “tough.” An example: My dear old dad was always quick on the draw when it came to whipping off his belt and smacking my brother and me around. And whipping my back and legs until they bled.
“This hurts me more than it does you, Stevie!” he’d proclaim, a Pall Mall cigarette dangling from his lips as his right arm rose and fell, his belt slapping against my ass and legs and lower back. Over and over. Yeah, right, pops. I’m sure it freaking hurt you more.
That sort of every day violence—which continues in our male dominated culture today—repulsed me. The more I saw it, and experienced it, the less I wanted to be a part of any male sensibility that allowed that sort of abuse to exist.
But again, keep in mind: What to do about the overwhelming sense that one simply doesn’t belong in the body one is in? What to do about my male exterior that’s had to negotiate so many unfortunate missteps and pitfalls since childhood and adolescence, because my fierce, stubborn, secret spirit (female soul?) just didn’t want to be part of it?
I think for most transgender people, it’s not just a matter of having the wrong equipment, it’s a matter of having to deal with a whole set of sensibilities that we just don’t freaking get at first, nor WANT to get. Look, maybe that’s just me—but I don’t think so.
There’s a wonderfully funny and heartbreakingly sad exchange in Mart Crowley’s iconic 1968 play about a group of gay friends who get together at a birthday party, The Boys in the Band, where one particularly snarky character hisses to another young gay man, “Who ARE you? Who WERE you? Whom do you hope to BE?”
I laugh every time I hear those lines.
And then I just want to sob.
So, what to do about all of this anxiety, this incongruence, this overwhelming depression that we transgender people (and the world of psychotherapy) label gender dysphoria?
That’s where the concept of physically realigning our bodies comes into play.
As I write this, science cannot rip the souls out of our wretched, inappropriate bodies and drop them into new ones. Just can’t.
And so, many of us choose to change our physical presentations—as much as we can—that we are so unfortunately stuck with.
And in. Especially IN.
(Above) In July 2021, Haskins underwent facial feminization surgery that involved a brow reduction, jaw reconstruction and a rhinoplasty, among other procedures. (Below) Haskins as she looks in August 2021.
MTF people often get facial feminization, breast augmentation, and a vaginoplasty to help us finally anchor our anxious and restless souls to our once-male physical beings.
Our bodies are reframed to resemble whom we know we truly are. In my case, a female person. My anguished and incongruent soul that I’ve been hauling around for years can finally reside in a body that I should have been assigned at birth.
Many female to male trans people also choose to have surgeries as well. They often have full mastectomies to eliminate their breasts, because most trans men simply despise them. Some FTM people often to choose to have hysterectomies and have neo-phalluses surgically created—equally the miracle for them that vaginoplasty is for people like me.
One of my dearest friends in the world is trans masculine (a male person who was assigned female at birth) who has no desire (at the moment) to change anything more than his breasts, which he’s had removed. He talks about perhaps, MAYBE, getting pregnant someday. Or not. He would make an amazing mother, and an amazing father.
Regardless, he is also the finest, best MAN I have ever known. Because he embodies all of the qualities that so many cisgender men feel to be unnecessary, superfluous and, of course, way too feminine. Like kindness, gentleness, softness and decency. I haven’t encountered a lot of straight, cis dudes in my recent life who understand that masculinity is not just a function of their genitalia—that humanity can actually play a part in their lives.
My friend isn’t interested in having a penis. At least right now. But I DO know trans masculine people who choose to have neo-phalluses created for them, and can finally present and live as whom they have dreamed of becoming. The incredibly complex surgical procedures that create neo-penises have become incredibly sophisticated and equally affirming as vaginoplasty.
* * *
We are endlessly complicated people, we trans folk. No one else completely gets us other than other transgender people.
The years I spent hating myself, and the husk I was assigned, seem—in some ways—so incredibly sad, and wasted, as I look back on them. Certainly it’s been enormously stressful and terrifying and painful in many respects—and sometimes just awful…
But still. On a whole other level, it’s been the best life I could have managed under the circumstances.
That I was given the emotional elasticity to finally understand the REAL me in me is the fucking, bloody miracle that’s worth celebrating for the rest of my life. It just is.
So, yet again, I’m convinced that I was born to be who I am. A trans woman. All of my past life experiences and muscle memories I inherited from my parents and a thousand prior generations shaped me and formed me, and I had absolutely no choice about it. Simply put: Mine is a soul that got stuck where it shouldn’t have gone. My gender, sexuality, being—all constitute the WHAT and WHO of Stephanie.
The WHY and HOW of Stephanie are what I’m still trying to figure out. Stay tuned.
Stephanie Haskins is hard at work on the next chapters of “The Transchick Chronicles,” and we’ll bring them to you when they’re ready. Sign up for our e-newsletter here to be alerted when they’re published. Stephanie is a Board member of The Reporters Inc. and you can read more about her on our Team page. She can be reached at .
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