I remember, six months ago, feeling charged with an energy unlike any I’d felt before: real potential, tangible and mine. I held in my hands one tablet of spironolactone, one capsule of progesterone, and two tablets of estradiol, my first doses of the three medications that comprise my prescription for hormone replacement therapy.
How long had I known I was a woman? For as long as I’ve known anything. How long had I known about the treatment? Since I was 14 years old and looked it up on a school computer. I had been waiting for a long time. I made a little ceremony out of taking the pills for the first time, taking each pill individually, washing them down with water like an old lady takes wine following her Communion wafer. I felt relieved. At the same time, I felt absolutely nothing.
But it’s good that I started with relief, because for a long time that was all I had. Until my nipples started to ache. Until my hair began to grow back. Until I settled on a name. Until I asked my friends and family to begin calling me by that name. Relief. Something was happening. I was taking my medicine, and my medicine was going to work. Invisible. Silent. Steadfast. I had relief where I’ve so often had nothing.
I’ve been trying to think of the right metaphor to describe this experience — the way I can and can’t see real, tangible changes in my body, my mood, my place in the world; the way I have faith in the process and am exasperated by it, because from where I’m standing it will never end. The word transition implies that I started out as one thing and am becoming another, and that at the end of transition lies actualization. But I’m not so sure.
Recently a young adult author, in coming out as trans, used the butterfly metaphor as a means of explaining why he wasn’t going to start using she/her pronouns: “You wouldn’t call a butterfly a butterfly until it had hatched.” I read that and winced. Understood it, but winced. I marked the similarities between myself and this author, noted the differences, and found myself reading, over and over again, the sentence about the butterfly. I want to occupy it. I want to use it. I want to see what happens.
First, I want to do away with the notion that I was ever a caterpillar. A lot of my experience is defined by being trans—hiding it, acknowledging it, acting on it—but I’m thinking of the caterpillar as a machine and not a state of being, a living automaton chewing through leaf after leaf after leaf until it finally comes to rest. A caterpillar has purpose, and that purpose is to become something else. I am not becoming. I have always been. At five, playing Sonic the Hedgehog. At eight, watching the World Wrestling Federation. As a teenager, attending an all-male Catholic high school. In pictures where I am wearing a suit. In my one-time aspiration to be a priest. In every relationship I’ve ever fostered. When I was bald. When I had a beard. When I spent a year coming out as a gay man. I don’t like to think of any of this as simply part of the process. I don’t like to think of this as a process at all. Doing so, to be honest, hurts. If I say that I’ve put a lot of work into becoming a woman, then I also have to say that I’ve put in a lot of work against it. The only thing I chew through is myself.
Still, I catch myself talking about how things will be when I can pass. When, not if. When, not maybe never. I spend more time than I should looking in the mirror. Sometimes I’m applying makeup. Sometimes I’m observing patches of growth on my scalp, each new hair so blonde it’s practically translucent. Sometimes I’m obsessing over the places where my beard is coming in, as yet untreated in my sessions with the electrolycist. Sometimes I’m practicing the vocal function exercises that are supposed to make it easier for me to raise the pitch of my voice. The butterfly model of trans womanhood, at least when I apply it to myself, suggests that when I have mastered these things, I will be free.
I know already that this isn’t true. How many YouTube videos have I watched in which an absolutely gorgeous trans woman admits to being clocked in public? Enough that it’s hardly surprising when the same happens to me at a concert, at a bar, or when there is somebody else in the bathroom I am trying to use. When people notice me in a dress or ask me two or three times for my name because Colette can’t be what they heard, they plant their confusion or shame (often both) in me, and I’m the one left carrying it. It’s worse when a friend calls me by my old name or misgenders me or gets hung up trying to say “Colette” in reference to me, because they actually feel bad about it and I am a mirror for what, I imagine, is a profound regret: To know a person and to have your tongue fail them must feel awful.
I have always been a woman, but that never stopped me from dreaming of becoming one. I think this is why I am drawn to the butterfly, and the idea of something traditionally ugly becoming something traditionally beautiful. But just as I was never a caterpillar, I’ll never be a butterfly. Never mind a person’s ability to clock me as trans—this is about a destination, and whether or not that’s what my womanhood is. If I become a woman, if it is agreeable to most that I achieve womanhood, where does that leave me for all those years that I tried and failed? Should I forget them? Will I be allowed to forget?
Is this a suitable reward? And for what am I being rewarded? At present, I’d like to live without the notion of before or after. There is only the space I occupy now, the time I occupy now, something I’d call during if I could. But since time is a metaphor that will fail as surely as my body will, I’ll settle for chrysalis. The space between caterpillar and butterfly. A state of constant change. Chrysalis seems right to me, because with it I can say “I have always been a woman” while also saying “My position in the world is changing” or “My body is changing” or “My connection to the word ‘woman’ is changing,” all of which are true at once. My aching nipples, for instance, signaled breast development, the onset of the secondary sex characteristics that I’d spent puberty actually praying for. I bought bras on the Internet after a few weeks of anguishing over my size. I found out how stupid every teen-boy protagonist is in movies showing them fumbling with the band and its simple hook-and-eye enclosure.
I love my breasts. One morning I pressed one, and a clear, sticky liquid leaked out of my nipple. I pressed the other one, and it was the same thing. When you start typing “clear nipple” into Google, the algorithm suggests “discharge,” which, yes, of course this is. WebMD, Mayo Clinic, all the usual suspects: “Color isn’t usually helpful in deciding if the discharge is normal or abnormal.” Type in “MTF lactation,” and the first site that comes up is written in a lavender Comic Sans and includes pictures of fetish porn where, yes, trans women lactate. Reddit threads cover the topic. Yahoo! Answers, too.
I felt confident about it. I bragged about it. I showed my closest friends what my breasts could do as if I had learned a magic trick, and unless my cis friends had been pregnant or had some other reason to lactate themselves, that’s what my boobs were: magic. When I mentioned it to my endocrinologist and showed him, however, he had something else to say: “It might be nothing, or it might be cancer.” He said it’d be unlucky on a cosmic scale, having boobs for two months and having cancer, but ordered another blood test just to be sure. Like the others I was there for already, none of them were covered by my health insurance. I worried. I really, really worried. Not so much about breast cancer, but about being thrown into the deep end of womanhood, medically speaking. My doctor mentioned mammograms and biopsies and the other options we’d have to explore if my prolactin levels were off the charts, and it seemed unfair. I’d been taking estrogen for just two months. I was five months in when I got the all-clear. My doctor said, “Oh, well, plenty of trans women lactate, I don’t know what you were worried about” as if experiencing it for myself was no big thing.
I have, of course, done my fair share of reading on the subject of transitioning. Beyond web forums and websites and old standbys like the TS Road Map, there were books by Janet Mock, Kate Bornstein, and Julia Serano. There was Twitter, with its mix of known and unknown trans girls, and the small network I’d carved out of women who’ve been doing this much longer than me. I go to these books with questions, I go to my friends with questions, but I don’t always find answers for them, or I don’t always feel comfortable asking them of friends. I recently had the most pleasurable orgasm of my life, but I didn’t ejaculate. Is this something I ask a friend about? Is this a thing I trust to web forums? Should I worry? Should I enjoy it?
I want to know what this change means, what that change means, what other changes I can expect. More often than not, they mean nothing. They’re observations that I can make about myself, things I can write down in my journal: Cried during cheesy fatherhood scene in Ant-Man, noticed the way a person smells—really smells—for the first time, saw my real name in print. They matter, but they matter to me and me alone. Are they any less important than my developing hips or the way I’m slowly learning to speak? Not to me. I mention them because they are mine. Because no one can experience them for me.
I am trying to remember the last time I saw a cocoon in the wild, but I can’t. I have a friend whose mother raises butterflies as a hobby. When I visited recently, I saw a number of cocoons in a breath mints display box, sticky and resolute against the clear cellophane of their artificial environment, a state and space from which they would eventually be free. This is what transition feels like to me, and this is why the chrysalis is the one piece of the caterpillar-into-butterfly metaphor that makes sense. I’m alone in this endeavor, but anybody who wants to can look in on me and see the progress I’ve made.
Sometimes a person notes the cocoon and says that, for someone who’s been on HRT for six months, I don’t look that different. Sometimes a person will catch a glimpse of me on a piece of documentation and wonder why I don’t look like that person at all. My identity is a mystery to some. For others, everything has finally clicked into place. My cocoon is public, fragile; a person could pry it open if they wished. I wonder what they’d see if they did.