The first time I went out in public in “women’s clothing” was in 2015, in Burbank, California.
I put “women’s clothing” in quotes because although I’m aware our clothing is socially accepted as gendered, I don’t think it should be. Clothing is clothing, and people should be able to wear whatever they feel comfortable in. Standing on my soapbox, however, is not what this post is about.
At the time, I had no concept that I was trans. I had a mental block, as I had never met a person who was transgender, and held a series of beliefs about what it means to be trans that were simply false. Firstly, I thought that trans people felt that they “were born into the wrong body.” That’s true for some people, but I don’t think it’s the majority. It’s certainly not true for me. In fact, since coming out as trans, I’ve loved and appreciated my body more than I ever have before at any time in my life (but that’s a story for another time). Next, I believed that in order to be “actually trans,” you needed to have surgery. As I wasn’t interested in having any sort of surgery, there was some sort of protective wall in my brain that stopped me from even having the thought, “I might be trans.”
And in 2015, I decided to pick out a dress, a pair of heels, and some jewelry, and I was going to go out on the town. During broad daylight. The reasons why I decided to do this are complicated, and questioning my own motivations is one of the reasons it took me so long to finally admit that I am trans.
Some of you may know this, and some of you may not, but for almost the entirety of 2015, I was in a cult. It’s not a big fancy one that you’ve heard of. It’s not a cult that’s going to have an in-depth documentary appear on Netflix or HBO. It was a small cult that was just getting started. We were known to one another as AJR, which were the initials of our fearless leader. He presented himself as a casting director, but in truth was simply a con man with a plan for eventual greatness. He was a big proponent of “new thought,” which is the spiritual movement where if you believe something hard enough, it will magically happen for you. I think he thought that if he could convince us that he was a casting director, and guide us to the right point in life, he would eventually be everything that he had always presented himself as.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t a very good cult leader, and the cult fell apart not long after it began. Probably because he started the sexual abuse too early in the cycle, before he got us to stop fully trusting one another. Victims talked, and the cult split. This was his third or fourth attempt to start a cult that I was able to find out about. He tried different techniques each time, sometimes only recruiting males, sometimes pretending to be a photographer or a former professional model. And always, the cult fell apart when he started sexually abusing the men.
I was one of those men.
(Or so I thought at the time)
AJ was a very flawed man, and definitely an abuser, but he was also charismatic as hell, and just manipulative enough to be a magnet for actors with daddy issues (guilty). That’s not to say everyone in the cult had daddy issues, but for those who did, he was able to dig his claws in and really fuck with you.
One of the things he stressed most frequently was the need to conquer your fears by intentionally participating in activities that scare you. On some level, this is good advice, so nobody questioned his motivations, and everyone wanted to please him. So we went about attempting to conquer all our fears, so that we could become the best versions of ourselves, so that we could become movie stars.
As I grew up in a very traditional Catholic household, I had a lot of unconscious fears surrounding “being perceived as gay” or “people thinking I’m too feminine.” I over-corrected most of the time, and presented as a sort of stereotype of a cis- White male.
In one of our weekly “classes”, AJ talked about how the most successful actors are the ones who push boundaries; the ones who dare to play transgender characters, or take risks like “putting on weight” or “being ugly.” With modern eyes, I recognize that it is neither daring nor risky to pretend to have lived a struggle you do not understand—it’s insulting.
I heard about a study about White authors who write books about “The Black Experience”, and how those White authors reported feeling closer and better connected to Black people after doing the thought exercise. At the same time, Black people who read the book felt even more disconnected from the author than they had before reading their work. My takeaway was that no matter how much research you do, you can’t just conjure up a complete life experience, and you’re likely to alienate the very people you’re trying to connect with.
So anyway, Eddie Redmayne was up for best actor for pretending to be a trans woman in The Danish Girl. Personally, I think it was a mediocre performance in a worse movie that was guilty of exactly the type of misdirected connection attempt in that study about White authors. And when I sat down in the theater to watch The Danish Girl, I left feeling exactly the same way. Alienated.
So AJ was praising Eddie Redmayne’s bravery for daring to pretend to be a woman for a few months (how did he manage it? Lo!, the complexities of women!).
I tease Eddie Redmayne so hard because as a 24-year-old, I was equally guilty of everything he was doing in taking that role. As the enterprising young actor that I was, I decided that I wanted this major Hollywood casting director to think of me as brave and daring. Because that might help my chances in being cast in something. Because I was brave, damn it, and now I would be able to prove it!
I asked one of the girls in the cult if she would help me thrift for a cute outfit to wear to class, and if she’d get up early to help me do my hair and makeup. She was honored, and I remember being slightly confused as to why. Looking back, I think she may have been a bit more aware of my inner self than I was, and was excited to help me on a journey that I didn’t even know I was on.
The day in question, I definitely wanted AJ’s approval. I know that. When I went to class (which took place in his 2-car garage in the house he was renting in Burbank, paid for by his husband’s Dave & Buster’s manager salary), the first thing I did was try to find him to show him what I had done. I said my (probably fairly curt) hellos to my classmates, but ultimately I was there for one reason.
The first thing he said to me when he saw me was, “I should have known it would be you.”
And I felt like I had won. Like he was saying, “Out of everyone in my class, I should have known that you would be the one brave enough to pass my test.” Of course, it also meant, “We all see how much feminine energy you carry around all the time; this fits perfectly.”
And maybe it meant something else, too. It’s hard to tell with cult leaders, because even though they seem like they’re always being fully honest with you, there comes a point when you realize they’ve always been utterly full of shit.
After class I wanted to go out in public. I wanted to see and feel how people would react. I wanted to really “face my fear.” So a couple of my girlfriends and I went to a burger place (I wasn’t vegan yet, either) and hung out.
And…………. I had a terrible experience.
If you’ve never seen me, I am a large person. 6’0″, with extremely broad shoulders and a frame suitable for bodybuilding. I was at my absolute skinniest, which still put me at around 180lbs. None of this means that I “can’t be a woman,” or that I’m “trapped in a man’s body,” but it does mean, that no matter what I wear or how hard I try, there is almost no person who doesn’t immediately perceive me as male.
And in this particular burger shop on this particular day, people were not pleased to see “a man in a dress.” Every person did a double take, and my friends told me that whenever I wasn’t looking, they were all staring at me with disgust.
I stopped feeling “brave,” and started to feel scared. Ashamed. Unworthy.
And I hung up my dress and I never put it on again until 2020.
When I was finally capable of admitting that AJ was sexually abusing me, I left the cult. Over the next few years, I learned a lot more about what it means to be transgender, and I met more people who are transgender, and I began to understand that a lot of those feelings that I’d felt growing up, and the feelings that I still felt inside but kept hidden away, and the way that I wanted to be perceived, all ultimately tied together in a way that looked remarkably similar to the experiences of other trans people.
And yet, I still doubted myself.
What if the only reason I think I’m trans is because I wanted to impress the man who raped me?
What if the only reason I think I’m a woman is because I was raped? That’s deeply misogynistic.
What if I’m still just looking for attention and I can’t tell the difference between my true feelings and a potential path to my goals?
These feelings and questions swirled together, and because they were so deeply linked to a time in my life where I had been traumatized, it took me a lot longer than it should have to slow down long enough to legitimately consider their answers. I couldn’t see myself as a woman without feeling like a fraud, and I couldn’t work through those feelings without hitting an emotional brick wall where my abuser lived.
On some level, my experiences in that cult jump started the engine of the car on the road to my personal development, and then laid out a spike strip.
Here I am. It’s 2020, and the world feels like it’s ending, and that, I guess, was all I really needed to push aside all the BS that doesn’t matter and focus on me, and what I want, and what would make me happy. And even though I still have fear (imagine that! the cult didn’t magically cure my fear!), I also have hope. Maybe for the first time.
PS! Thanks for reading! This post was inspired by Jupiter Stone. I can’t remember what question she asked to make me tell this story, but I told it to her at dinner and she was like, “you should probably write a blog about that.” So, if you liked it, head over to @iamjupiterstone on IG and thank her.
Also, check out my podcast BROADS YOU SHOULD KNOW, about amazing and noteworthy (and usually overlooked) women from history. Or, if you don’t want to hear about badass and powerful women for some reason but you like watching television, I do a podcast with Jupiter Stone called SKYE AND STONE DO TELEVISION. We’ve covered Euphoria, Watchmen, and Lovecraft Country so far. I promise, we’re not only doing HBO shows on purpose, but the shows we’ve been most excited to cover in the past 15 months have all been on HBO!