The Last Woman & Me

Excerpts from the forthcoming book  “The Last Woman & Me.” 

AN EXCEPT from Chapter Five 

Rule 1: The words of others don’t define me; they only define those that speak them. Being transgender, I provoke a reaction from people often; supportive, inquisitive, and/or combative. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “Life is a series of lessons that must be lived to be understood,” and the same holds true for being transgender: onlookers can appreciate the heat, but never understand the fire without walking through it.  

My greatest challenge as a trans woman wasn’t in the mainstream, but rather navigating the transgender sub groups: each (especially transsexuals and cross dressers) had their own ideas on what being trans meant. What many failed to realize is that while we might all walk a common road, our experiences — before, during, and after, as well as the destinations sought and/or reached — are unique to each of us. Those common experiences doesn’t make any of us an expert on anything — except how it makes each of us feel, individually. No more, no less.

You’d think that with the mainstream so quick to generalize marginalized groups, that we in the LGBT would avoid that. Yet I had an ongoing debate with a late-life transsexual that thought cross dressers and drag queens should modify their behavior and words because it reflected badly on ‘her.’ And my gay friends would often ask me “why do you want to be someone else?”

Perhaps creating my own preconceived labeled boxes was a two-edged sword — while they did serve as a beacon of light for lost souls in search of a safe harbor of like-minded individuals for some, they divided, isolated and confused others.

Most people saw me a man in a dress,  conflicted an wanting to be a woman.  They seldom realized that my conflict wasn’t a confusion about myself, it was that others couldn’t — or wouldn’t — accept or tolerate it. They had an expectation of who I was supposed to be, the role I was supposed to play.  

I wasn’t one of those early-life transsexuals that  you see on TV talk shows and read about in the newspapers. Those that knew from early childhood that they were in the wrong body. When I was a kid I only knew that I was compelled to dress in my sister’s clothes. It was something I got great pleasure from, but was equally ashamed of. I saw it and believed it to be a fetish, not an identity conflict.

I grew up as a very athletic guy, making my path through the dense forest of gender dyphoria more difficult. I could imitate a guy well, but didn’t think like one. In the locker room(s) with my sports teammates, I’d laugh along with their jokes, but rarely got what they all thought was so funny: it didn’t resonate with me.  

Fast-forward a few decades, and in 2000 a girl I was dating told me that “you process information differently than any man I’ve ever known.”  It was a profound statement that would take a few more years to materialize clearly. 

I came ‘out’ that year (2000) and started to mingle with other cross dressers, but just like those earlier years in the locker room,  their words didn’t resonate for me.  They seemed content to cross dress because ‘it felt good,’ with no other exploration required, which was fine — to each their own. But their words didn’t speak my feelings. Once again I was surrounded by people that looked like me, but weren’t of me.

Without any guidelines, I began to pay close attention to how I interacted with people — and they with me — in my varying stages of evolving gender presentation — in the mainstream, gay and transgender communities.  I tore down the walls I had built in that closet so many years ago that were erected to protect my secret identity. But now I was ‘out’ of the closet so there was no secret to protect. And as they tumbled down I tried to unlearn what I had so readily accepted during childhood (about stereotypical gender, sexuality) about the world, and my place in it.

Unlike many other transgender people, I didn’t come out to expand and frolic about in my transgenderedness. For me it wasn’t a gift. The need to cross dress had always arrived without warning, filling my senses and gripping me so tightly that I could hardly breathe, suffocating me into submission. Then it receded without fanfare. In its aftermath, seeing myself in the mirror — dressed as a girl — left me embarrassed, disgusted and wondering “what’s wrong with me?”

Before I had come ‘out’ I had become a liar and manipulator of the truth in an on-going attempt to deflect anyone from discovering my dark little secret.  

One day I realized I could no longer endure being “damaged goods.” So, I decided to ‘cure’ myself.  I would explore the depths of my soul — without any fear of what I may find — to discover the source of what I considered to be a compulsive behavior, and then once and for all, I’d eradicate or exercise it from within me.

But my ‘search’ had quickly evolved into me living a girl’s life; I was confident, spontaneous, a bit zany, as I exploded onto the NYC scene like an whirling dervish — extroverted, out, unapologetic, happy and content. I became a party girl, formed the Girls Club, became a NYC columnist doing interviews, reviews and commentary while becoming immersed in parties and events. Suddenly this “girl” had a career. 

Any dressing compulsion I had — or sexual gratification it inspired — had long since evaporated. I was content to simply “be” me — Brianna –, regardless of whether that meant out with people, or alone with myself reading a book.

Interestingly, the ‘conflict’ of living two lives, withe one a dark secret, ceased to be one. Life flowed easily through me, taking me on a its current.  The search challenged me to open my mind and avoid delusions. To see things as they were and not as I wanted them to be:  I wasn’t a girl,  I was a trans-girl at best. I was O.K. with that.

The ripple effect of that openness however led me to revisit my views and observations of various religions, history, metaphysics, and the elusive clue as to ‘why we are here’ that prompted a self-awareness I’d never before possessed.  

Buddha said that “Nothing is for certain and everything is subject to change.” Well, actually I wrote that, but it was his idea. This, along with the Confucian notion that life is chaos, but becomes easier when you stop trying to control the uncontrollable universe,  I adopted as a mantra for self-growth. I became an inner world traveler with no destination, and without any predispositions ; I was free to experience whatever came my way in its raw form.

Like an unbiased journalist on permanent assignment, I approached this new journey of gender with fresh eyes. Through the fog of ideas and reality, I investigated and wrote about many topics; love, lust and validation; becoming a woman; the definition of normal; gender, sex and orientation; my experience with hormones, dating,  surviving the gay bar, and more. I attended countless events, reviewed shows, and interviewed many trans-celebrities, and through these and other interactions, was able to glean insights into my ongoing exploration of Self and gender.

Biology seemed to be an element to my condition. I wasn’t sure that any of these feelings I was having made me a woman, or even a transsexual for that matter: if I was a transsexual, why didn’t I feel like a girl displaced in a male body at an early age, rather than just excited at dress up? But if I wasn’t, then why was I so comfortable living as a woman now, and why did male sex partners feel more instinctively natural for me?

Onlookers quickly surmised that I was gay and in denial  However, fear played no part: for a time I identified as gay, openly. When I reversed back to living as a male, I quickly came to realize that while I loved hanging out with gay friends, I wasn’t one. During that time, my return to living male wasn’t a ‘purge’ (that many transgender people experience), but rather a conscious exploration — armed with the new knowledge I’d accrued during the previous three years.  But realizing I wasn’t gay, brought me full circle: what was I, a transsexual in remission?

When I look back, with the clarity that only time can provide, I summarize my trans journey to date like this:

My life changed forever on that first day when I stepped into those dainty shoes that gracefully extended the arch of my foot. A feeling washed through me that would thereafter tease and confuse me for decades to come.

With each new tear of joy I cried — devoid of the pretense that manhood often dictates –, I shed the heavy armor I’d worn so long, to release in me the raw emotions that had been previously only for the viewing, protected or imprisoned behind some glass wall — through which I could see but not touch,  imagine, but not feel,  — and life suddenly breathed before me.  

I had emerged from behind the mask of a life not truly mine, yet inadvertently one of my own design, to stand naked before the world, refreshed and unafraid. I was confronted with the truth of me as only I could know it — while others could only look on with bemused wonderment, concern or disdain.

In every life there is a defining moment when you have to look in the mirror and ask yourself Who Am I? And whether asked by a biological male who identifies as female; a child with an artistic spirit but expected to be an accountant;  a girl who identifies as a  girl, though unlike the one her mom envisions in fancy dresses and makeup, it is a universal question that all humans must face.

Whether it’s  conscious self awareness, subconscious self-fulfilling destiny, outside intervention, or by accident that we arrive at the question — and regardless of political affiliation, race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity –, the one constant of the human condition is that failure to express outwardly that which we feel internally, creates personal conflict and thwarts personal growth and happiness.  

So is the reflection each of us sees in the mirror really who we are, or is it merely the taxi that carries us around? Gender, like life, is fluid. Once you know you’re transgender, you can’t suddenly un-know it. All that is left is to decide what to do, or not do, about it.  

My road got easier the day I understood what compelled me to pursue a girls life, and at the same time I stopped worrying about what other people thought; passing wasn’t a concern, which was good because I rarely did.  

By 2001 I was traveling to work on the subway three days a week without incident. I felt no need to explain myself, nor dictate what anyone thought. There was no box to put me in, nor did anyone seem intent to try. I was simply me, no validation required.  

My friend Gloria and I were ascending the 63rd St. subway escalator when she turned to me and said “You’re very androgynous today, you should make up your mind — because you’re  confusing the tourists.” I told her to revisit Rule 1.  

I dealt with inquires, questions, remarks — friendly or abusive –, with a smile, almost daily.  I educated when I could, and moved on when I couldn’t.  I found that in most cases, being comfortable in my own skin seemed to disarm most of those that encountered me.  And humor was always a good tool

While I still didn’t seeing being transgender as gift, I did, now, see the the exploration that being transgender inspired as one, and learned much more about myself than initially intended.    

I am is a son, a brother/sister, a father, a friend, a lover, a stranger, a poet, a writer, a musician, a traveler, an explorer. I’m defined by the ever-evolving thoughts and beliefs I have, the deeds I perform, and the life I live — not the clothes I wear.  Transgender is not the person I am, it is just the term that describes the condition I have.



Brianna Nicole Austin