I first considered the possibility that I might be transgender during a foggy church morning in 2014. Somewhere between the third and sixth time I had to sit down during services, an idea sparked into my head – what if I’m actually a woman?
Like most trans women, I grappled with that question at the time. I was slowly distancing myself from my LGBT community, fearing that the movement was incapable of addressing serious questions I had on womanhood and my own gender identity. I knew from the start that if I transitioned, I would do so as an outsider – and that would be spitting in the face of the communities I once called home.
But I didn’t have a choice. The feelings of dysphoria and depression that I dealt with in my “male” body were overwhelming – I would have to transition one way or another. Being a woman is something you can only delay for so long before you have to take the first steps forward.
When I first came out with my preferred name, Anastasia, most of my friends were extremely supportive. I wasn’t that surprised. My semi-private Facebook post followed in the wake of Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover, so trans issues were on everyone’s mind. But coming out about gender dysphoria is weird. It can feel less like a celebration of your gender and more like a distress signal. Amongst all the people saying that I was so brave for being myself, I felt nauseous. Transitioning is a process, a difficult one at that, and I wondered how many of my friends were going to walk alongside me for the journey.
Around the same time, I stumbled across a Twine by Christine Love called Even Cowgirls Bleed. The game follows an unnamed city girl traveling to San Francisco — she wants to give up her “lonely winters” to become a cowgirl in the Wild West. Love’s story is unique in that the player advances by hovering over linking words, firing the main character’s revolver with often unforeseen consequences.
Like most of Love’s work, Even Cowgirls Bleed openly deals with queer sexuality. The game features a lesbian hook-up between the main character and a more calloused, experienced cowgirl that hits on her in a bar. But the game ends on a somber note, as the one-night stand unravels amidst the player’s gunfire, and the main character takes her own life.
Love purposefully keeps Even Cowgirls Bleed ambiguous. She notes on Kill Screen that the game was based on an experience she had with another woman in real life, which left her with insomnia for several nights in a row. But Love’s game is not just an autobiographical story – it’s also a metaphorical one. So when I finally had the opportunity to play Even Cowgirls Bleed, I began filling in the gaps with my own experiences as a transgender woman. As I played, I ended up assembling a picture of power and rebellion, sexual liberation and isolation, experimentation, and marginalization. I saw a protagonist attempting to fit into a community that she wasn’t supposed to join.
Like most of my friends, I fell in love with the LGBT community by accident. It began appearing on my Tumblr dashboard sometime between high school and college, and it grew on me – first slowly, then all at once. By the time I hit college, I couldn’t help but gobble up queer theory, reading everything from novels to blog posts, articles to infographics, thinkpieces to academic research. I like to think that Love’s protagonist is in a similar place when she envisions her life out West. Throughout Even Cowgirls Bleed, she invests a large amount of energy towards going west. She seems to worship San Francisco from afar, viewing the city as a saving grace where she can finally overcome her depression and loneliness.
But Love doesn’t paint San Francisco as a lesbian utopia. Instead, she looks at queer life as hierarchical, split between experienced community members and newcomers. She cuts this distinction rather well when the main character kicks open the saloon door and meets her love interest, “a real cowgirl”: “Commanding, curvy, and a slight hint of harshness betrayed by her eyes lets you know that she’s the kind of woman who could very easily hurt you,” the narrator says. “And gosh, do you ever want her to.”
I’m familiar with that fantasy of control. When I stumbled into my LGBT community in college, I wanted someone to look me over the same way, and tell me what was right and wrong with my life. But vulnerable people aren’t the only ones who flock to safe spaces. Just as I wanted to be told what to think at one time, I knew a lot of community leaders who wanted to do the thinking for me.
It’s still easy to figure out who these people are. From the department chair at a women’s college to a large social media following on Twitter and Tumblr, these leaders tend to gravitate towards positions of power. They know all the answers to society’s problems. They often promise support in exchange for compliance with their beliefs. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – power is necessary in order to push for change and maintain a stable community. But control can be a very dangerous tool. In the wrong hands, it can be used to silence other trans women, and ignore the ways in which our lives contrast with one another.
There can be a lot of anxiety during the pre-transitioning stage of a trans woman’s life. For me, coming to terms with my gender dysphoria meant grappling with years of repressed emotions.
My childhood began to make sense – I understood why I could never fit in with boys, why all my close friends were women, why I felt so much disgust with the dark hair that grew on my arms and legs. The first time I shaved my body, I felt a relief so intense I could hardly stand. Shaving my body hair didn’t end my depression; it was only one small step out of many. Learning how to alleviate dysphoria means radically changing the way I think about myself, what I look like in the mirror, and how I interact with others every day. For the first time in years, I’m taking control of my own life – and it’s absolutely overwhelming to deal with. I feel very vulnerable at times. Things are changing so quickly.
It’s easy to see how power dynamics can develop surrounding pre-transitioning. Young trans women taking their very first steps look to support groups for answers about themselves. We put our faith into these communities, hoping they can help us understand our gender identity. But the queer community isn’t always able to address or talk about the problems we face in everyday life. When I tried reaching out to my LGBT spaces on campus, I found very few trans women to confide in. Most queer organizations were led by cisgender men and women.
As a result, the basic steps of transitioning remained a mystery to me for years. No one could explain how to increase the range and tone of my voice, how to receive HRT, or how to shop for women’s clothing on a shoestring budget. I had to figure those steps out on my own, without any guidance.
Trans issues require a lot of listening and understanding in order to be discussed. So when a queer community like the one I was part of positions itself and its members as advocates for trans women, but doesn’t actually have any transitioners in their ranks, they end up speaking over or for trans women. They can distort our everyday lives, turning us into victims of institutions, instead of individuals attempting to correct our bodies. For example, when Caitlyn Jenner first came out, the LGBT allies I knew wrote endlessly about how much they loved and supported her. But very few cisgender men and women I knew really took the time to understand what transitioning often means for transgender women.
I had to teach my friends in the queer community about gender dysphoria. I had to tell them about the changes that take place with hormone replacement therapy. I had to demonstrate how my gender identity was something I was born with – and that my male body was inherently affecting my daily functioning as a woman. Over time, I realized that the queer community sometimes flattens trans women into one plane of existence, without discussing the various experiences that transgender women have during transitioning. When I went to safe space training as part of an intersectional feminist group at Rutgers University, there was an enormous emphasis on honoring trans people’s pronouns. But there was no discussion on the day-to-day experiences of passing, the individual struggles with feminizing our voices, the financial concerns that get in the way with receiving medical treatment for gender dysphoria. For a pre-transitioner, these are all major issues in transitioning. But for a queer ally running a safe space meeting, too often it’s just secondary information.
I’ve grown disgusted with some of the ways in which the queer spaces I’ve been part of talk about trans identification. Allies describe trans life in structural terms, like “institutionalized oppression” and “systematic transphobia.” My queer communities were obsessed with the social and cultural issues surrounding trans women, yet the movement itself rarely discusses the real and personal experiences that a trans woman goes through while transitioning.
If I sound a bit harsh, it’s for good reason. Many people gravitate towards LGBT spaces for support during transitioning. If leaders of these spaces want to tell others how to look at the world – how to talk about it, how to think about it, how to behave in it – then they need to have our best intentions at heart. There’s no use calling a place “safe” unless we can openly and honestly criticize the ways in which the community responds to trans issues. Anything less than that is downright harmful.
In certain ways, Even Cowgirls Bleed reminds me of my strained relationship with the queer community. Like a young pre-transitioner, Love’s protagonist is vulnerable and optimistic, gravitating towards experienced community members for guidance. But when she enters her hook-up’s bedroom, she rebels. She draws her gun and shoots a snow globe of San Francisco, shattering it. The older cowgirl backs away, visibly upset by the main character’s actions. The player doesn’t realize it at first, but they’ve gone ahead and ruined the one-night stand. They’ve destroyed an extremely personal vision of the real cowgirl’s San Francisco.
Like that image of San Francisco, the image many have of the queer community is constructed. It’s enticing – seductive, even – but it’s simply not true. Speaking loudly on social media and signal-boosting ideas doesn’t necessarily help people. Community fellowship and understanding is what really saves lives. In the age of “safe spaces” and online activism, too often adhering to popular beliefs is the focus, instead of providing any meaningful physical or psychological support for the marginalized. There’s such an enormous focus on saying and thinking “the right things” that young transitioners rarely receive the help they need.
At the end of Even Cowgirls Bleed, the main character shoots herself and bleeds to death. She blames her “slender well-meaning city girl fingers” for ruining her opportunity to live in the West. She scolds herself, thinking that she’s a poser, “a dumb city bitch” pretending to be a real cowgirl.
I thought the same at first when I began transitioning. By turning my back on the queer community, I thought I was jeopardizing the only opportunity I had for support while transitioning. It took me a long time to realize that I was grappling with support structures that were fundamentally broken. It was only after I had distanced myself that I began meeting trans women who legitimately cared about my well-being.
Like most trans women, my transitioning is messy. I’m not on hormones, I’m not officially out, and I haven’t changed my legal name yet. At Rutgers, my professors will still know me by my birth name. I will still sign all my paperwork under my legal name. Anastasia will not be on my diploma.
These are sad things to think about. If coming out can feel like a distress signal, then transitioning is jumping ship into the cold water. Without the support of a large and informed queer community, I sometimes feel like a drifter without a raft. Where do I go from here?
I think that’s part of the reason why I gravitated toward Even Cowgirls Bleed. In the game I was forced to figure it out and pick up the pieces on my own, learning to move on. Just like in real life.
Love’s protagonist kills herself in the end. Her suicide in the game is inescapable. But I chose to end my story differently – I dropped my gun, I changed my name, and I went back to the city. It hurts to do it, but in the end, nothing is easy when you’re going through transitioning.
Anastasia Valens is a freelance writer and games critic. She regularly writes for Gamemoir’s Opinions and Commentary section, and has also contributed pieces on gaming to FemHype. She can be reached on Twitter as @SpaceDoctorPhD.