Billie O'Dwyer

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Musings on Coming Out, Part 1 | Billie O’Dwyer

Musings on Coming Out, Part 1


March 05, 2024

I’m still but a little sister in the trans community, but a year after I “finished” coming out I thought I would document the experience a little, how I feel it went, and what I might do differently had I the chance. Hearing a variety of voices is important, and though my story is far from unique (or even that interesting), I hope that if anyone questioning their gender stumbles across it that it shines another light on the experience of grappling with being trans. ❤️

Setting the scene

Possibly the most important part of any coming out story is the moment you allow yourself to say the words to yourself and mean it. Many queer people struggle with even this initial first step due to internalised trans and/or homophobia, and years-to-decades of repression. For my part, I had been uncomfortable with my assigned gender and body since I had been a teenager, and struggled to relate to many of my contemporaries at school from an even younger age. The earliest memory I have of being told to not behave like such a girl was at school, aged 5, when I had burst into tears during a roleplay in class. Later that day I was teased mercilessly by my peers for this lapse in masculinity, and I learned that men don’t show their feelings.

When I was a little older my sister had a book called The Toilet of Doom in which the male protagonist (Jiggy) swaps bodies with one of his best friends (Angie), who just happens to be a girl. All sorts of hilarity and hijinks ensue, and ultimately they get swapped back. I read and reread this book, finding myself fascinated by the segment during which the Jiggy has Angie’s body. That the story remained the same and they were ultimately able to switch back every time was a source of constant disappointment to me. I don’t remember thinking anything specific of that, and perhaps I just associated it with the usual sense of loss one feels when finishing a beloved story. I adored that book, though the lesson I learned was that genderbending was apparently not something that “normal” people want.

I had many aborted attempts at exploring my gender expression during my early twenties. I would try out feminine clothing, hair, and makeup until it all became too much for me. I would purge any accumulated paraphernalia and put that part of my brain back in a locked box, apparently dealt with. Probably 90-95% of this exploration was a solo endeavour, and the few times I did engage with my identity with another person, it was quickly shut down for one reason or another. I was petrified of the word “transgender” and thought of myself as a cross-dresser, or perhaps someone with a very particular set of kinks: there was a significant sexual dimension to my process of self-discovery. It wasn’t until much later that I would learn that this is a very common experience amongst trans people. At the time I learned that the safest place to express any of this most intimate desire was in a sexual context.

A magic button

There are a wealth of communities on the Internet dedicated to helping questioning trans people identify what they’re feeling and find an answer to the question “could I be transgender?” During my mid-twenties I found a couple of such groups and very cautiously dipped my toes in, desperate for self-understanding. I understand now that I was in fact looking for permission to transition. For someone to tell me that I was allowed to do this, and maybe to say it would all work out in the end. For something to overwrite that early lesson that I had learned about a change of gender being undesirable for any “normal” person. However I found myself looking for any excuse to not engage with my feelings. “Transgender” was a label that filled me with dread, and any possible difference between my experience and those that I was reading about was just another desperate tick in the “not trans” box.

One of the simplest tools in the arsenal of the emergent trans individual is The Button Test. Not a psychological or diagnostic tool, but a thought experiment designed to prompt the taker into thinking properly about what their assigned gender means to them, and how they would feel about changing it. It boils down to this set of six questions (paraphrased from Erin’s article linked above. Seriously go and read that, it’s excellent.):

  1. You are given a magic button to press. If you press it, you will become physically female. All of your family and friends will have always remembered you this way and you will have no social impacts to your life for making this decision. Once you press the button, it will disappear forever. Do you press the button?
  2. Another button appears. Instead of changing your physical form, this one would alter your mind so that you no longer wish to be female. You will forget about the button and it will disappear forever. Do you press the button?
  3. You are stranded on a desert island which has everything you need on it to live in relative comfort. Several suitcases wash ashore with all kinds of different clothes, makeup, etc. How do you present yourself knowing nobody will ever be around to see you ever again?
  4. A lifetime supply of hormones washes on shore with full instructions on how to safely use them. Do you take the hormones?
  5. Suppose I told you this test was perfect, and it said that you are 100% transgender. How would that make you feel?
  6. What if I told you the test said you are NOT transgender, how would that make you feel?

I first came across these questions in 2018. I was in a period of change in my life, having just moved into a shared house with a bunch of people I had never met before. Hot off a breakup, I was feeling pretty rubbish and I turned as I so often did to thoughts of becoming a woman as an escape. And for the first time, I tried to properly engage with the idea of being trans. However I came to reason that I couldn’t possibly be trans: I didn’t feel dysphoria. I was just depressed and exhausted all the time. But that was just life being a bit challenging for the last few years. Nothing gender related at all.

During that time I came across a website: Turn Me Into A Girl. Was this it? Was this my Toilet of Doom? Had I found The Magic Button from question one? I eagerly followed the link, clicked the button, and… nothing. I wasn’t transformed. I was still just me. Nothing in my brain changed, nothing in my body changed. The words on the screen said I was now a girl, but I didn’t feel any differently. The only feeling I had was bitter disappointment, that I had not been transformed as I hoped. But for just a second my hopes had been raised to a glorious peak. In disgust and frustration, I closed that browser tab, and every other browser tab I had open pertaining to my gender. I got rid of my feminine clothes and nail polish. I purged, and put all of those complicated feelings back inside their box, now labelled “impossible.”

It might seem ridiculous to you, dear reader, to hope for some kind of magical transformation to occur by clicking a button on the Internet. This is, after all, the real world, that’s not how it works. Years later though, it’s not ridiculous to me that I felt that way. Even then I had an idea of what transition would require, and the effort that it would take. I was desperate for a solution that would allow me to circumvent all of that effort and energy, and allow me to emerge fully transitioned. I was afraid of losing family, friends, maybe even myself. I was afraid that the results of a “normal” transition would render me even further from desirable than I then felt. Had those specific feelings been clearer to me back then, I might have come out to myself much much sooner.

You are stranded on a desert island

The world conspired to shut itself away for a few months in 2020, and I revelled in the emptiness of my calendar and the relative solitude of working remotely. That first lockdown was undeniably a good experience for me. I spent a lot of time learning and writing new songs, burning through a backlog of games and books, playing roleplaying games online. I had virtual nights at the pub with friends that I hadn’t seen since long before the pandemic. In short, I was loving it. The vast majority of the pressure of the outside world just melted away, and I was left to my own devices.

In the early days and weeks of lockdown there was all sorts of advice going around the Internet suggesting that everyone should “exit lockdown better then they entered it.” Try though I might to ignore the toxicity of that idea, it left a distinct impression on me. This was an opportunity for growth and for change, one that would never come up again. And so the disquiet about my gender returned, and I found myself gradually returning to those online haunts where I had talked to other trans people about their experiences. Now I was seeing people stating that lockdown had helped them figure out that they’re trans, and that they were using the pandemic to transition privately, hoping to reenter the world as their true selves. For me it was still just impossible though. I couldn’t hope to transform (I was terrified of the word “transition”) into a woman. That’s not how the world worked. Yet I found myself returning to the Button again and again, frustrated and saddened by its complete dearth of magical powers, unable to comprehend why it was making me sad. I simply forced the emotions away: men don’t show their feelings after all.

But the box in my mind wouldn’t close any more. I couldn’t stop the thoughts from manifesting, and my once brilliant ability to compartmentalise was compromised. The drugs and alcohol I had once used so regularly to distract from all of my fear, uncertainty, and doubt were no longer as accessible to me as they had been thanks to the pandemic. And so with precious little else to do on this desert island I spent more and more time learning about transition and the lived experience of transgender people, old and young. And I learned what dysphoria truly was, and all of the different ways it can manifest. And even though the box was well and truly open now, the great big “impossible” label was still present as well. I continued to be miserable.

Resistence is futile

In April of 2021 I was experimenting with meditation. I had spent several months alongside my then partner testing out different activities and hobbies to each try and gain a little mental peace, and this was the latest in a long line of different month-long trials. In truth I don’t think I ever really got the hang of letting my mind go blank. However I did find myself benefiting from having a dedicated space and time in which to sit with my thoughts, something which an increasingly less locked-down world was reducing my opportunity for as bands and hobbies began to reassert their demands. I was taking 20-30 minutes every day to sit and simply be.

As I said, I struggled to let my mind go blank, so instead I let my thoughts proceed unhindered. My imagination wandered all over, but there was one particular theme that I kept coming back to: gender. And this time I explored it from an almost third person perspective, like a curious researcher rather than an intronaut into my own experience of the world. I entertained different possibilities for exploring more feminine presentations in ways that felt safe. Being in bands provided excellent opportunities for being a little more feminine, behind the plausible deniability of it being part of the stage show. Suddenly the thought of transition seemed a lot less difficult, given the relative security of using the eccentricities associated with being a musician to mask what I was actually doing. The fact that an unexpectedly large proportion of the artists and creators whose work I admired had all come out as transgender within the past year (with an almost startling level of coordination) was very prominent in my mind as well, and no doubt factored into why the question of my gender was rearing its head again.

For no particular occasion or reason, my partner, my housemates, and I got high one Friday evening. Perhaps it was for want of anything better to do. It’s hard to remember the specifics of that (or any) evening through the haze of marijuana, but I do recall that my gender wasn’t even remotely at the forefront of my mind that night. I don’t remember sensing an impending paradigm shift, and I certainly didn’t plan to come out that evening, to myself or anyone else. But, lying in bed with my partner and coming down from yet another weed high, my mind was racing. I will write another time about the less than soporific effects that weed often had on my mind, but this was certainly one of those times. My thoughts were loud and echoing inside my skull. The comings out of those subjects of my admiration were reverberating around my head. The thoughts I had been exploring in meditation were all coming together. It all began to coalesce and well up inside me.

And in the arms of my partner, lying under warm lamplight and with Tim Minchin) softly playing in the background, I cried. For what felt like the first time in my life, I sobbed and cried. The feelings were too much for me to contain any longer, and whether or not that damn box said “impossible,” “possible,” or anything else, the single, loaded word that the box contained was clear to me at last as something that I had to engage with. Through the tears and to a very concerned partner, I finally said the word that I had been terrified of for such a long time.