I knew he was depressed before I knew that he wanted to be a woman. All the signs were there; low motivation, negativity, few plans for the future. That's the last sentence where I use the male pronoun, by the way. When she came out to us, it was kind of exciting. It was, at least, something to talk about. As gossip goes, a friend who comes out as transgender seemingly out of nowhere provides a lot of fodder. There are endless questions: does she want us to switch pronouns? does she have a new name? when is she starting hormone therapy? what about the surgery? does she want to sleep with guys or girls?
But when your transgender friend is also depressed, the answer to most of those questions is "Meh." She felt she was too male-presenting to bother switching pronouns until hormone therapy could begin. And if she had to keep on seeming male, the beard might as well stay because she looked better with it. And who knows when she could afford the drugs? No job, you know?
But there are charities that help, right? Have you looked into the charities? You can get this fixed, like, fast, I bet, if you really want to.
But the answer was still "Meh."
And despite my own battles with depression, despite knowing first-hand how impossible everything seems when you feel like you're inconveniencing the world by being alive, that's where I stopped being a good friend. I had made my way through shock, gleeful acceptance, curiosity, and then, just as fast, I arrived at doubt.
What if she isn't transgender? What if this just a sick kind of psychological feat devised to cripple her forever so she never has to get over her depression?
So much of what you see in the popular culture of transgender women revolves around the cultural definition of femininity; you hear the stories about boys who liked to play dress-up and have long hair. You don't hear about boys who wanted to play war games but didn't want to have a penis.
I also wondered if her long period of being single after getting dumped by some dancer had lead her to feel like the only way she would be with a woman again was if she herself became one. I hadn't ever known her in a relationship, but she struck me as the type to be unhealthily worshipful.
Eventually, she shaved her beard. She grew out her hair. This fall, some three years after coming out to most of her close friends and family, she made it Facebook-official. She told everyone she was trans and changed her name. It had been a while since we had talked about her female name, and the old one was atrocious. Truly atrocious. A very "grrrls are magickal!!" kind of name. The one she picked in the end, I thought, was better. At least, that's what I thought for about ten seconds. Then her cool earthy femme name —"Lark" for the purposes of this blog—immediately started to irritate me. I wanted to slap her and tell her to stop idealizing women. And to stop idealizing herself. Because I had never seen any signs that she herself was going to be a breezy soulful artiste with laughter like bells on the wind, you know? If I knew her at all, she was probably going to be less Audrey, more Katharine. God love her. But who am I to say? Maybe I didn't know her at all. Maybe buried under all the depression was Audrey Hepburn + Dungeons & Dragons.
In December, we got a chance to talk. I asked our mutual friend ahead of time if he thought it would be good for Lark if our conversation formed the basis of a post for The Powder Room.
"I think it will be really good for him," he said.
It ended up, I fear, being better for me.
K: Do you feel you would regret having a sex change in the future?
L: Only if I got sub-par treatment. But only for the low quality of treatment—not for getting it done. It's a combination of finances and depression which hamstring my emotions towards seeking out proper care. I don't know how much it costs or how I would get the funds.
K: Does your county have resources for people with depression and whatever else just to start?
L: I am not aware of anything for my issues. My experience has been that many people don't regard depression as a very real problem. So I get brushed off and don't pursue it—I give up easy, I know it.
K: You have been unemployed for four years and telling people about being transgender for three years. So, three years of no treatment, no work, being sad—that sounds pretty serious to me. How long do you have to feel this way for it to be serious?
L: I don't know. I admit I did give up awhile ago in some ways, but . . . All my attempts have resulted in "Well, go into the conversation to get a figure." Which is a catch 22.
K: Are there some parts of the country where it is easier?
L: I don't know, I am kind of rooted in place so I haven't looked afield.
K: You were saying for you its mostly physical. You feel gender-neutral?
L: There's physical and emotional. From an emotional standpoint, I have always felt neutral so that's not as big an issue. But my body feels wrong and *that's* the issue. Some people do feel both needs and want to "pink it up" if you will.
[I would *like* to say that this is all she ever needed to say to me; her body feels wrong. Done deal. It all makes sense now! But I've lived most of my life feeling like a beautiful woman stuck in an ugly woman's body, so while I can empathize with the feeling that your body isn't the Real You, it took me all the way to "male privilege" to stop saying "But! But! But!" in my head.]
K: Seriously, you need to take care of your hair! You did start by shaving off your beard and growing out your hair. But you're not dressing as a woman and not changing your speech. Anything else you are doing to sort of physically manifest?
L: I only dress as a woman in private, not public. I'm afraid of hostile interactions, even violent ones.
[My friend is afraid of getting the shit kicked out of her. Can't go there. Too scary. Let's talk about clothes, shall we?]
K: What do you wear by yourself?
L: Falsies. Actual ones cost money, so I made my own. It's a bra weighted with water balloons and a cloth attachment. I looked a bit up online.
K: So you are willing to look up online how to stuff your bra better but not how to get better mental health? You're invested in the tits and not in the brain. That's such a guy thing.
[Death stare. Richly deserved.]
K: Sorry. Sort of. I mean, I am sort of amused by it, but I am sorry if that's painful.
L: It's not just about having nice bouncy breasts or something. It's that they feel right.
K: No, I do get that. I find my own. You know. Comforting. Soothing. I like them.
[All women deserve boobs if they want them. It's a human rights issue. Oh right—I actually believe this is a human rights issue. Why am I being SUCH AN ASSHOLE?]
K: Are you worried about how much of your life is spent in limbo? What is that like?
L: Its that constant feeling of being trapped between a rock and a hard place, with a lack of agency conspiring to make me feel helpless. And this niggling suspicion that I am trapped and have no one to blame but myself. It's like there is this accrued feeling helplessness that has trapped me in place. And I am watching as more and more of my life slips by and I am stuck, not going anywhere. I don't know what I need to change and do in the rest of my life to start moving. I have tried a lot of things but none of them have gotten under what has fundamentally locked me into place. And some part of me is that worthless lazy person (that I say I am) . . . and I am just doomed.
K: What would a good life look like to you?
L: Well I would love it had I been born right, but where I am now . . . getting treatment and a good doctor. A normal life with a decent paying job. Maybe a girlfriend, a place of my own.
K: One of the things I wondered about—and I feel like an asshole for saying this, but what the hell—but I wonder if one of the things holding you back is that you are afraid of not being a "pretty enough" woman. [Translation: I am looking for a reason to get offended; tread carefully, my friend.]
L: It's more the interim—during the transition before it's complete and being a mark in public. Being shived in a Baltimore restaurant or stomped wherever.
[This is totally and completely not about you, Karen. Why are you being this way?]
K: There are some things about your personality which I read as very 'male'. Certain aspects of your personality seem to benefit from male privilege. [Like an hour ago when you talked right over me and I tried to turn your hair into snakes with my eyes but I failed because it turns out I do not have magic.]
L: Well one can't spend 25 years as a male and not have parts of it rub off. And there is divergence. I know women with masculine personality attributes and men who are extremely feminine. My personality is me, I don't need to change who I am to fit what someone thinks I should be—but my body does feel wrong to me, and that is the much bigger issue because that is the aspect of it which torments me and is a problem. I am at peace with who I am emotionally, but it's the physical conflict which is tearing at me. If you haven't been there you don't truly know.
K: I think about my own experience of growing up as a fat girl and being treated differently—like I am not a woman at all—and I worry for you and what will happen once you transition or people treat you like you're nothing and you have no right to speak. I wonder if you are adequately prepared.
L: I know it's coming. I'm sure I wont handle it well, but I am going to have to handle it one way or the other. But I can't hide forever. It is killing me.
[We're back to scary things. Let's talk about OUR HAIR.]
K: So earlier, when I was doing your hair—
L: That was fun.
K: Was it?
L: I love it.
K: One of the many things you missed was the joy of another girl's mother doing your hair—your own mother doesn't care; she just goes for it, rips away at your head, yanking SO hard—
L: She's put up with your crap for years!
K: It made me wonder if you asked your mom to do mother-daughter things with you? Do you have that kind of relationship?
L: I don't know. We are close but not super close. We never did many activities together.
K: I wonder what would happen if you reached out and tried more.
L: Her schedule is always full and she is tired.
K: Have you used online tools to see what you would look like as woman? does it matter to you that much?
L: A little but not greatly.
K: Your name choices are like an idealized feminine. What was so wrong with being a Katie?
L: I do not know anyone named Lark. I know many Katies. I mean, what would you think if I was like, "Hi, I'm going to be Karen now?"
K: Oh, that's weird. But why not roll the dice and go with whatever your parents would have named you as a girl?
L: I don't remember what it was, but it wasn't a good one.
[Of all the things Lark said, this is the thing that blew my mind the most. How do you not know what your name would have been if you'd been born the other gender? How is this not a part of the story you tell yourself? Like, I'm Karen-that-could-have-been-Chad-and-was-almost-Lana and I can't imagine not knowing this about myself. Who are these people that never asked their parents what other names they liked? Do you have a super-human love of your own name? Seriously. Tell me in the comments. Oh! Afterwards, Lark told me her almost-name, and while she's right that it's not great, it's also seemed to serve some of my other friends well. So basically Lark is putting on airs, being all hoity-toity? Kidding. I have no point here. All I have is a clinging to the patriarchal tradition that says we must all suffer the names our parents gave us and not doing so is cutting in the line of unearned privilege.]
K: What do you want to talk about?
L: One thing that has been on my mind lately, with regards to being transgender, is how much they try to define you based on one facet of who you are. I mean, yes I am transgender, but that's not all that I am. Instantly, people ask, "Why aren't you like this or that, why don't you like this lacy dress?" Single facets of people are not the whole picture, so I would like to see that more acknowledged.
K: Am I the only one of your female friends who wants to help you look more girlish?
L: One other, but you are better at it. You're much more girlish than her, she is one of those "more like a guy" in interests people.
K: When I was doing your hair I was hoping that you had someone better at it than me helping you. I felt like I was making you in my own image and I am no L. Ron Hubbard playing god here—I don't know how to help you be the girl version of you, I only know how to make you the girl version of me.
L: You can support me, that's good enough. And you have.
K: Do you have any questions for me, like what it's like to have a vagina? [Here I claimed not to get distracted by my vagina but then went on talking about vaginas for another paragraph.]
L: Do you know how to hide really dark hair when you have really pale skin?
K: No, it's a problem. I get random chin hair or moles and I get embarrassed. I don't know how to hide it. I just try not to have sex with people who would care. I also recently gave up shaving my legs because I was doing it to meet some beauty standard that men don't have to meet, so I said forget it. If somebody can't be bothered to love me with hairy legs, it's not even worth it.
L: I actually, when shaving my legs, have trouble with the back of ankles/Achilles tendon. Dry skin makes it skip.
K: It depends on where in the leg and how your bones meet your skin. I know a lot of women apply moisturizer out of the shower as the shower takes moisture out of your skin. Before and after for a better shave. I actually have the most trouble with a fresh razor. Most advice people will give you says the opposite is true, that you will cut yourself more with a dull razor. Your beauty regime has to be custom tailored to your needs, I guess. The flexible re-usable razors are generally better.
K: What did you look up when you first realized you were transgender?
L: I looked at clothing, local treatment options, surgeries, breast forms. I didn't know much before then about how a bra is sized and how things are cut and worn.
K: What are breast forms?
L: They are like prosthetic breasts. There are many options for filling out a bra. You can have a realistic bust for about $80.
K: That's affordable. You could get those.
L: Well, I could ask for them. But I need a straightening iron for Christmas already.
K: I would rather have tits between the two.
The thing I take away from our conversation, reading over the notes a month later, is that it's a lot harder to read about her fears for her safety than I thought it would be. Your depression affects your friendships more than your gender, I think—so, to my mind, that has always been her "real" problem, the thing that needs to get "fixed" first. Because how will our lives be different after she transitions? She might take longer changing into dry clothes after we get out of the hot-tub (one-pieces are so hard to get off), but probably we're still just going to sit around drinking Scotch and doing stupid thought experiments. If she were less depressed, maybe she'd have a job and she could be the one buying the Scotch!
But when I stopped and really considered that she's afraid attempting to become more herself might get her killed, it's a whole lot harder to be certain that I have any kind of insight into her inner workings. I'm depressed and I'm scared for her, too. Part of me wants to turn to Google, to be armed with the facts—to know her statistical odds of getting stabbed as she transitions—to smugly say, "The risks are overblown! This is what you can do to minimize your chances of getting hurt!" But the other part of me thinks that's just as irresponsible. She isn't the problem.
I wish I could fix the whole world first, so she could get the body she deserves without any dangers at all. I guess she does, too—and welcome back aboard the Depression Express.