The Man in the Mirror

I searched the internet for a comprehensive list of things I’d need before flying to San Francisco for the beginning of the last phase of my transition – phalloplasty. I found one in a Facebook group after watching so many YouTube videos that I almost talked myself out of even doing it. It’s the way I cope with anxiety- plan for every single catastrophe known to man and mentally rehearse the moves through them.

Over and over and over.

I ordered $100 worth of bandages, and assorted ointments, bought 3 extra large pairs of sweatpants. It said I needed things I hadn’t heard of which conflicted with things other lists recommended, so I researched every ointment. The last thing on the list was “1 cheap hand mirror.”

I expected this. I would need to see places I don’t normally look. Places that, in their current configuration, were the source of much pain. Pain I couldn’t really describe except for to describe what would not be painful.

And I was no stranger to the feminist movement to use hand mirrors to examine one’s own vagina, to take control, to look at what was patriarchal taboo, to own one’s own healthcare. One of my friends even used to deliver sperm in a cooler to women so they could self inseminate. In theory, I was down.

In practice though…

I got pregnant when I was 19. At the time I was thrilled because I was underweight, and for the prior 5 years I’d erased myself, vagina included, by obscuring traces of me behind a fog of vodka, weed and whatever else I could get my hands on. At 18 I was a connoisseur of Maalox flavors and was working on a beauty of an ulcer. I figured my body had stopped even trying. Finding out I was pregnant was like hearing it say, “not yet motherfucker.” I was not as ruined as I felt.

It was complicated.

I could rewrite history and say I knew I was a man and being pregnant was torture, but that would be a lie. What I knew then, without having met a trans person or even copping to my attraction to women in addition to my then boyfriend, was that pregnancy gave me legitimacy. It justified my existence. It was also surreal. It felt like it was happening to someone else and I was watching that person – with those parts- do something normal.

Holding a hand mirror down there was absolutely out of the question. I was separate from that body. I wouldn’t be looking at myself.

Now though, a mirror made sense. I was going to look at *myself.* I put it off. It was a minor detail. There were $10 models at Target, even more expensive at Walgreens. It was a toss off, and I had already spent a metric shit ton of money on every other part of this surgery, so I went to the dollar store and bought one along with a 10 foot charger for my phone and miscellaneous nothings. I walked out having spent $11 dollars total. That was what I thought would be the least of my worries.

I started transitioning when my son was 10. My partner was going through menopause. I simultaneously went through puberty with my son and menopause with my partner. We all bumped blindly through our changes. We figured it out.

Of course there were layers and years and mistakes. I was (am) an imperfect parent. I only saw my son every other weekend and every Wednesday. His dad was infinitely more stable, which was why I loved him in the first place.

In the short bursts of time we had together I tried to cram all of my love into his heart. When I started to transition I told him I would always be his mother. He could call me whatever he wanted. My voice deepened, my hair changed, then fell out. I started growing a beard. When I had my top surgery I explained it to him. Nothing would change, I said. And really, between us, it didn’t.

For the past 10 years I have been quietly screaming, though. My relationship with my body degenerated to the point where now, pretty sober and reasonably successful, I could not ignore the disconnect anymore. Forget hand mirrors, I couldn’t even let someone else look at me without hours of agony.

I told my now 25 year old married son that I was having this surgery in a conversation over the phone. He was grieving the loss of his daughter, and after an hour or so of sharing and crying about that, I told him I was thinking about this. We made a deal that we would both make decisions – he would decide on a plan for his life and I would make a plan for mine. We’d meet again same time next year for a summit to see if we were more fucked up or less.

So I micromanaged. I planned and plotted. I prepared. And here I was, post-op, propped on pillows in a hospital bed in San Francisco. My arm was bandaged, my leg was bandaged. I had two catheters, one coming out of a hole in my abdomen. But I was happy. I wanted to look at myself.

In some dark, drugged recess of my mind I remembered the plastic hand mirror. Kris (now my wife) had forgotten to bring it to the hospital. I was undeterred. We improvised with her phone. We scooted, angled, tilted until I could see myself.

There I was. My genitals looked approximate to what I needed to see, stitches and swelling aside. But there, where I had been afraid to look before, where I had refused to let anyone come near, was a landscape of closed incisions, and stitches, red an irritated, but healthy. They already hinted at what they would look like.

I felt like a black hole had formed in my bed and was sucking me through the floor. Grief. Powerful and sudden. Unexpected. Indescribable.

Not regret.

Grief. Mourning.

I started to cry. Kris tried to comfort an inconsolable me. I could not describe what was painful except to describe what wasn’t painful.

I stayed awake trying to pinpoint it. My lost girl? Yes, sort of. My lost mission? Yes, mission accomplished, sort of.

Then I thought of my son. Yes. It was there somewhere. The grief of weekend drop offs at the mall, the trips in snowstorms to see him, the birthday parties with Superman cakes, the first step he took, the nights in the hospital holding his wrecked and grieving body over the body of his own lost girl.


I can say with conviction that grief is complicated and it is so tangled with love that neither can exist without the other. Regret is for mistakes. I regret a lot. This grief that I’m feeling is tangled in love. I grieve the loss of the one thing that physically made me his mom. I grieve for all the ways I could never be a mom in the way moms usually are.

I grieve the loss of the connection with my sisters and mother, girlfriends and wife.

I mourn for the little boy who had to wait 45 years for this.

But as a friend said as we talked about how everything that has ever been still is, every time there ever was or will be exists now – this physical part exists. It is a layer upon which motherhood and sisterhood was planted. Though it isn’t visible now, it still exists in the form of all that it created.

My son and his wife moved a few states away and started over. His plan is in motion and it’s a good one. Between skin grafts, bathing debacles and catheter woes, I’m growing into myself. My plan is in motion and it’s a good one.

I still, as I write this, grieve. I will probably grieve infinitely because I love that way too.

Regret? No. That is for mistakes.

The hand mirror is still in a drawer for now, though.


In the Forever That You Are Gone

A poem I wrote for Transgender Remembrance Day 2015


In the forever that you are gone
No secrets will pass your lips
Your hand will not find mine and we will not share a joke.

In the empty sudden silence without your voice
I won’t wonder how to interrupt your story
I won’t not want to hear it again

You won’t have a point of view
Your favorites will become mundane
There will be no surprises.

You will not see what happened because you were here
And what is lost because you are not.

My foot will find your absence and I will fall into it
You will not catch me.

You will not soothe me
I will find no comfort in you.

In the forever that you are gone
I will know you by the balance of my hand on the steering wheel
The glance at a passing stranger
The drawing of the shade in the night
The yawning expanse of my reach to you

Layers of time will bury you
Generations of dust will gather you to the earth
The sky will swallow you whole

I will carry you into forever in the breath that I take to say your name.

1. – An essay I read at the Trans Spectrum Conference, St. Louis 11/6/2015

Today, at the invitation of a good friend, I pulled on my big boy pants and read an excerpt from a book I’m working on in front of a couple hundred people at the Trans Spectrum Conference at University of Missouri at St. Louis.  It felt pretty good to air out some of what I’m doing even if it’s unfinished.  So- I’ll air it out a little more.  Here it is – a random part of a random chapter in what will be a book about a random trans man.


The shoulders of my suit jacket were too small by an inch, and the sleeves hugged my armpits. If I crowded my plate like I usually do, the cuffs of my dress shirt stuck out in a betrayal of the civilized and citified version of me I was trying to give to the book editors sprinkled around the table with me and the others from the bookstore. My knee bounced and I checked the cloth napkin on my lap every few seconds to be sure I wouldn’t have to lean out of my seat to pick it up if it fell. I was sure the suit jacket would pinch off the blood supply to my arms and head leaving me a gasping, purple puddle on the carpeted floor of the exclusive steak house that the executives from Simon & Schuster had selected, and my charade as a dignified small business owner visiting New York City on business would come to an excruciating end.

I kept thinking of my first office job – a call center in Mascoutah, IL where I took phone calls from smokers of Carlton cigarettes who had saved enough upcs to send off for a prize in the Carlton Collection. My job was to make sure the gift they selected from the Carlton Catalog got to them. For the first time in my life, I could sit down to work. I called my girlfriend that first week on the job to tell her I had to stay late, you know, for a business meeting. That job would eventually come to an end not long after I took a phone call from someone holding their finger over the hole in their neck spoke through a voice box to ask how their duffel bag could have gone missing.

The invitation to lunch wasn’t something you could turn down, and when I thought of Steak House, I thought of all you can eat buffets and buttery rolls. My brain still defaulted to the Ponderosa dessert bar with soft serve dispenser even though I knew to expect hushed and meticulous service while seated among confusing silverware.

It was a large table, and I was isolated at the end with stylish and important women flanking me, chatting amongst themselves about important books while I watched to see what size bite and at which interval I should eat.

“Did you grow up in St. Louis?” I looked past the olive oil decanter at the immaculately manicured hand holding the glass of water, no ice. When my eyes met hers, she smiled and said, “I’ve been there once, I think.”

“Oh, no.” I said. I brought the napkin to my mouth and crossed my ankles under my chair. I silently scolded myself for using the napkin before the end of the meal. Nobody else wiped their mouths between bites. “Uh, no.” I continued. “I grew up in a small town in Illinois.” The three women nearest me paused in their conversation and waited. I took a drink of my water.

“Effingham.” I said. “It’s in the middle of Illinois where two interstates and two railroad lines meet.” Heads tilted in polite but tired permission to go on. “So it’s a crossroads.” Sweat trickled down my side, and I knew there would be a lake of sweat marking the back of my shirt. I was grateful for the jacket. “Our high school mascot was a heart.” I continued. “There was even a costume.”

When I give directions to Effingham, I tell people to drive east from St. Louis until you can’t find good music on the radio or cell phone reception. Then you’re there. If I need to reference a visual clue, I used to use the intersections of interstates 57/70. Now I use the hulking metal cross next to I70 on the way into town. I chattered on, trying to fill in the silence.
“Effingham? That sounds like a curse word.” Manicure smiled.

“It is.” I said and leaned for the first time on the back of my chair. We can laugh at this, I thought. We relaxed into conversation about hometowns. Each of these women paused before taking the next small bite of salad and momentarily visited their own memories of home and escape.

“My family is all still there.” I had relaxed too much. Awl and thayr had slipped in where all and there was supposed to be. I stiffened and sat up straighter.

“Oh, so you don’t see them much anymore?” The woman next to me asked. I forced my gaze to meet hers. Her mascara was flawless. Each eyelash was perfectly formed and feathered. I looked in vain for the usual midday clump in the corner or slight smear beneath the eyelid, but I couldn’t find anything to connect her to the girls I watched practicing with Maybeline in the bathroom mirror in junior high. Just flawless beauty with a seductive whisper of empathy.

I pulled at my pant leg under the tablecloth, a reflexive tug to cover up my Hanes work socks with the stretched out heel bunched up over the back of my slip-on shoes. My partner Kris and fellow booksellers were engrossed in debates with their dining companions about the publishing industry and literature, relaxed and easy. They verbally danced around each other in a seemingly choreographed small talk quickstep while I could only manage an adolescent nod from the school dance punch bowl.

I wanted to be interesting. I wanted to keep the waning attention of these women sending half their salads back to be wrapped to go.

“It’s a complicated story.” I began. “I was poor. We were poor. There was no college dream or expectation.” It was so easy to slip into my familiar hero myth where I overcome an early childhood in a trailer on a dirt road to emerge as a college educated bookstore owner.

“And then there was the transition,” I said. “I transitioned from female to male when I was 30.” My attempt at a conversational waltz had become a hurried fireman’s carry to the finish line. “My son was 10 and my partner was 50, so I went through puberty and menopause at the same time – with them.”

The three women leaned closer in. They glanced at each other and subtly,-so subtly that I wouldn’t have noticed if I didn’t look for it every time I come out to someone- looked for the woman hidden away inside my male body.

I knew I had won back the room. I had told my story. I had condensed it down to its minor heroics and scandal and had caricaturized the mundane. We all agreed that I could never have survived there in that town, as if smallness is sinister and population multiplies intelligence.

But that’s only part of the story. It’s only the part that makes me look strong for running away. It’s not the part that calls me back there every month or so, sometimes less, to weedy backyards and broke down swing sets, empty streets and a full Wal-Mart, no-time-for-bullshit-stares and an extra paper plate in case you do show up.

And I keep showing up.

Alongside the oiled roads in the summertime, foxtails grow in the ditches between the road and the soybean fields. There are no cars, and the sound of an oiled bicycle chain rides with you next to that ditch and those foxtails, and the smell of a hog farm heats in the sun, and a bee sting on your ankle aches under a dirty sweat. There is the big sky and a lone tree waving from the field so far away you’re not sure you see it at all.

That tree, a beacon wrinkling in the waves of heat between you and it, calls you in and makes you set out across that field, uncertain if time stops at the edge of it. And you don’t know if it’s your future forming itself or your past folding back in on you, swallowing you whole under the swell. You just lay down your bicycle and start walking toward the tree.

An Open Letter to Pride St. Louis

Dear Pride St. Louis Board,

First, thank you for the hard work you did this year and every year to produce PrideFest and the Pride Parade.  I know from producing 200 author events per year, pulling off something like this is a LOT of work and the chances that you will make someone unhappy are 100%.

Some unhappiness is part of the gig. Lack of communication and other surprises make tempers flare in high stress situations.  Most of us who manage these events know how to handle this.  Personally, I’ve had books thrown at my head (an unfortunate baseball event some years ago) and emails and phone messages from people who didn’t feel heard or respected for one reason or another. Usually it can all be resolved with some work.

I’m writing today in hopes that my unhappiness (and the hurt feelings and anger of the group I was with) can be resolved.  Let me tell you what happened.

Metro Trans Umbrella Group (MTUG) registered to march in the parade.  In keeping with its mission as an umbrella group, other groups such as the Gender Foundation and Queer People of Color (QPOC) joined in our entry, making 2015 include the largest transgender and gender queer presence I can remember in two decades of attending PrideFest.  It was really remarkable.

In the weeks leading up to the parade we all discussed what message we wanted to convey, and the consensus was clear.  We wanted to honor all of the trans people, many of whom are people of color, who came before us – who paved the way with their reputations, careers and lives.

As you know, people aren’t just gay.  They aren’t just lesbian. They aren’t just transgender. They aren’t just intersex. They aren’t just bisexual. They aren’t just anything.  We are all many things, and our struggles sometimes come at us from many angles.  We wanted to honor that by opening our arms and hearts wide and talking about gender, race and class in our entry.

After all, the theme this year was “Color Our World.”

So we set up on the parade route – all of us in many ages, all of us in many genders, all of us in many races with our signs and our pain and our celebration – ready to walk down the street in our home town in front of our families and friends, in front of you, and speak clearly.  We were excited to be a part of the march.

When our group set up we were asked what we were “doing.”  Our Black Lives Matter signs were nervously noted. The black people in our group were monitored by the same police officers who had maced them in other contexts. There were no plans to stop the parade, but one police officer approached a member of our group and pleaded with him not to stop the parade. Another person asked for a heads up from MTUG president, Sayer Johnson, about anything we might do to disrupt the parade. Other friends approached me asking about an action.

Our presence made people uneasy.  That feeling, unfortunately, is an everyday occurrence.  It’s one of the thousands of paper cuts that ruin a good day for every transgender person and every person of color in America.  It’s not a feeling I was prepared for in a parade celebrating diversity.

We had gotten there early enough for a good spot in the staging area and waited patiently.  We knew it would take a while to get the parade underway.  There were four lanes and entrants from each lane were being fed into the parade. Those around us were being allowed through and we were told to stay still.  People behind us who had arrived after us were steered around us.  People directly behind us in our lane were steered around us to the parade entrance.  We waited. Finally, near the very end of the 2 ½ hour parade – at the back of the proverbial bus –  we were allowed to proceed.

We marched, some of us coming out for our very first time, some of us celebrating, some of us protesting, all of us relevant, all of us important.

The respect and support from the crowd was exhilarating. I teared up.  Everyone needs a several block long standing ovation in their lives.

But when we got to the judges’ booth we were met with sarcasm.  Our Black Lives Matter message was met with a very loud “All Lives Matter” retort from the emcee.  If you need more information about why that’s problematic, I will explain.   When we replied “Black Lives Matter” the emcee sarcastically read our signs, “Oh, Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter. Um yeah, I get it.” I thought I was being too sensitive when I heard this passing by but later, when I watched the video we have of the exchange, I realized I had heard her correctly.  The one time we stopped in the parade was here, for a few seconds of silence. It was barely noticed.

One of the best ways to crush someone’s spirit is to ignore or laugh at them. Insurance companies and politicians do it all the time. It works beautifully.  It’s how gay men died for decades of AIDS before someone took them seriously.  It’s how black citizens were denied the vote for decades.  It has no place in our queer community.

Our entry was a celebration, a tribute and a protest.  It was meant to remind everyone of the beautiful complexity of our humanity, and that this complexity was the beginning of the LGBT Pride 46 years ago when a group of trans people who looked a lot like us decided to fight instead of hide at Stonewall.

I am someone who recognizes the work we need to do and celebrates the work we’ve already done. I love that our queer movement has become a celebration, but I know that there are still reasons to rise up.  I want to celebrate millions of happily married gay couples, and I want to work even harder for the rest of us who are still here fighting for our lives.

What can you do to make this right?  You can believe me.  You can believe us.  We are only telling our truth.

Best Wishes and Happy Pride,

Jarek Steele

Co-Owner, Left Bank Books

Supporter of Metro Trans Umbrella Group

Hail Mary Passes

There are a few things Kris and I can’t talk about, not because she can’t talk about them – Kris can and will talk about anything – but because I don’t seem to be able to.  Kris filibusters. Into the yawning acres of my frequent silence, she throws words, buckets full, truckloads full of words. She pins hopes and dreams on those words and tosses them at me, sometimes hurls them at me, hoping and dreaming that I will catch one of her hail mary passes in the end zone, while I make the yard by yard plays sometimes gaining, sometimes losing ground.

In the 13 years we’ve been together we’ve settled into this dynamic. I settle for yardage. She throws for the touchdown. “You are eloquent in your despair,” she says. And I suppose I am.

We seem to navigate money, parenting and home repair better than most.  Balloons, fingernails and injured animals are on my list of taboo subjects.  I will flat out leave the room. In the last few years, my transition has become a taboo subject. Not its existence, but the continuing journey of it.

The final piece, at the 30 yard mark, 3rd down, are the surgeries required to build a functioning male organ. It’s painful for me to even type this paragraph about it, so full of shame, guilt and fear am I.

My struggle with this part of my body is so personal, so individual, so bitterly lonely that it is dangerous. It renders me silent. And yet, as a couple, partnered in every way, intimate to our cores, this piece is shared territory. We have to navigate around it to stay connected.

In a perfect world, I would simply make an appointment, have the surgeries and heal. Life would move on, the giant wall would be gone and we wouldn’t spend the rest of our lives with the sacrifices that would require. We would still have our house, our pets, our bookstore and our dignity. I would feel whole in my body, and we wouldn’t have to avoid the subject.

It isn’t a perfect world, and while I’m trying to come to terms with a punt, Kris is still trying the hail mary pass. “The money,” I say. “We have to make a plan,” she says. “We can’t even repair the kitchen,” I say. “We make choices,” she says.  It’s breathtaking, her strange optimism, her single focus on my well being. If the roles were reversed, I hope I would do the same.

But the roles aren’t reversed, and here I am trying to fit into an ill-fitting body so those good things about our life, and there are just so many good things, don’t disappear on my account. Today I wondered how I would feel if she just gave up and let it go like I’ve been trying to do and realized with a shock (and more guilt) that I was depending on her hope.  I was looking at it from way down here in the end zone by myself hoping that she would, once again lob it high into the sky and I would see it hang there in the air somewhere between her and me and be grateful that she trusted me again to catch it.

Gender in Motion

dogsI rubbed a knot out of my bulldog’s back tonight.  All the while I soothed him and told him what a good and handsome boy he was.  My other dog is no fool and wanted in on the affection extravaganza.  She too heard what a good and clever girl she is as I scratched her belly. And I like to think the three of us there on the fur speckled rug loved each other. I don’t think either of them would have noticed if I called them good and attractive beasts without the gender assignment. They are blissfully ignorant of everything but the touch of my fingers along their spines and the tone of my voice when it’s cookie time. But I am not ignorant of their genders. I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t refer to their pets in some gender or another – humans assign gender to name the objects of our affection.  I have a beloved teddy bear in my closet with no clear markers whatsoever, but even when I refer to putting Snoozie Bear on a shelf I say I put him away.

Transition, then, is dangerous territory. The soft cheek of the woman thickens into the bristled cheek of the man. The deep timbre of the man’s voice ascends with effort into the voice of the woman. And somewhere in the middle, when narrow hips betray the lilting voice, when the hint of a breast confuses the cut of the shirt, we become a puzzle to solve, a question to answer, a questionable past and a dangerous future – to many, we become an object to observe. Objects are easy to throw away.

Our gender does not make us human, but denying our gender strips us of our humanity. So what do we do with that awkward in between place, that gender in motion?

Consider the actor I passed a month ago. His heels dug into the carpet in the lobby just after the show. His weight, his fatigued center of gravity, pulled him backward until the pointed red leather spike heeled boots, slanted forward from the heels of his feet, six inches off the floor, to the tips of his toes, folded awkwardly into the tips of the boots, made dents in the delicate pattern of the rug. His dark hair and beard collected the sweat from dancing and his pants breathed carnal humidity.

I paused there a few feet away from him and we looked at each other for just a second – me in my jeans and dress shirt, scars from breast removal and hysterectomy hidden beneath, him in his tight leather and spike heels sweaty and spent and perfect in his articulate inexactness.

What if we pass each other like this in brief moments of recognition and realize we are at our most human, and we are beautiful?

Letter to a Young Transperson

transphotoDear Me in Past Tense,

There you are, kneeling by the cardboard Barbie house dad made between jobs. You there, picking up the washrag upholstered furniture, aspiring to the talent to make a miniature couch out of packing foam, there are a few things I should tell you.

The first one you already know. That girl sitting next to you pulling the homemade plaid pants off of Barbie in favor of the cowboy dress is not only your sister, but your absolute best friend. You will be tempted to think you are in danger of losing her, but you shouldn’t. She is permanent.

The rest isn’t so clear.  It won’t ever be.  It doesn’t have to be.

You will feel like you are playing by a set of rules no one explained to you – sort of like kindergarten, when you couldn’t make the right handed scissors cut paper. You will correct yourself when someone mentions dressing up and you think of a suit and tie. You will pretend to assume skirt and blouse and then watch what your sisters wear and imitate them. You will – even after you’ve transitioned, gone bald and grown a beard – wish you were prettier. Nobody else will wish you were prettier.

You will, before and after you transition, spend hours trying to be handsome instead. You didn’t need to try that hard. Nobody else wished you were more handsome.

You will adore your sisters and female friends. You will respect and admire women more than you can articulate. You will wonder if a lack of admiration and respect for yourself guided your feeling that you were a man instead.  You will hear others express that sentiment.  It will stay with you. You will feel conflicted. All of your worry will not be necessary. You can be loyal to your female history. It will make you a better man.

You will, at different times in your life, love men and women. You will, at different times in your life, wonder if your gender will change too and you will regret transitioning. None of this matters. You won’t regret it.

None of your ex-girlfriends will be surprised when you tell them you are transitioning. You will find this hilarious.  You will wonder why they didn’t say something before. They will wonder why you didn’t.

Your transition is yours. You will be alone in it. This will feel both freeing and terrifying. You will feel lost, yet you will be expected to explain where you are. You will pretend to know where you are, and this will sometimes help.

You will feel guilty for inflicting your transition on those around you. You will use doctors you don’t trust in order to lighten the financial load on your partner. They will betray you, and you will learn that your partner just wanted you to be safe and happy. This will finally make it possible for you to trust her.

You will simultaneously go through menopause and puberty as your partner goes through menopause and your son goes through puberty. This will seem strangely normal.

You will feel invisible. You are not.

The Barbie house will stay in that house when you move. In your memory, it will remain there forever in the space between the stairs and the door to the attic. No one will have thrown it away.


Me in Present Tense