Being True to Yourself

After years of hoarding women’s clothes next to the skateboard in the back of his closet, there comes a point when a man can’t deny that he is different. My best friend, Greg, reached that point last summer.

Photos by Elena Kibasova

No better way to face the truth than to tell it to your best friend. Greg did so in a small coffee shop—a place common for awkward first dates, quick business meetings, and laptop fanatics. That day, it was a place of coming out. We sat down on two comfy couch chairs, with cups of steaming lattes, and Greg did one of the scariest things of his life.

“You know when I said I feel like I’m a girl trapped inside of a guy’s body?” he asked nervously, “Well it’s not that far off.” My confused look and a questioning laugh were answered with, “I think I’m transgender.”

My views of transgender people up to that point consisted of gay men wanting to be women and drag queens, so it was hard to understand how my once boyfriend, now best friend, could fit into that category.

As an open-minded person, I have to admit that I was still beside myself. Actually, I felt as though I was having an out-of-body experience. After the shock wore off, my 20/20 hindsight set in. I flashed back to our dating days, when I constantly had to reassure others (and sometimes myself) that Greg wasn’t gay.

“In a relationship, I wanted to play the feminine role, and that was a big factor in why people assumed I was gay. People also would make fun of the fact that I’d wear girl’s pants, occasionally wear makeup, and I’d enjoy reading magazines like Cosmo or Glamour,” Greg recalls. “I knew I wasn’t gay, but it was kind of hard for me to discern what I was, because it was hard to deal with such a foreign emotion. At that time, it was a general draw toward femininity.”

Greg is exactly what every teenage boy used to joke about being back in high school—a lesbian trapped in a man’s body.

It started with small steps, as most new journeys do. The next week, we headed to an Uptown wig shop to pick up some locks to cover Greg’s short haircut. For years, he kept trying to grow out his hair, and I’d tell him it looked horrible. Not until this point did I understand why it mattered so much. From long brunette cuts to short blonde bobs, it took us an hour to find a decent wig. The $80 wig was made of real brunette hair, cut to shoulder length, and had a wavy texture. It hit right below Greg’s chiseled jaw, just long enough to cover it up.

Next came a true closet makeover. Greg pulled what he calls his “girly” clothes out from hiding, giving them a prominent display among the monotonous stripes and Polos. He laid out his sisters’ makeup that he’d been hoarding, and spent hours in front of the mirror practicing putting it on.

“People often refer to putting on makeup as putting a mask on. For me, putting on makeup was like taking a mask off, and revealing more of myself,” Greg says, with a dab of pink lip-gloss on his lips. “Whenever I see a beautiful woman, it’s an overwhelming and nagging reminder of how I’d like to be.”

Being a grown man, of course, is a big disadvantage if you want to become a woman, because you are—in essence—the complete opposite of what you want to be. But Greg has a few things on his side. He’s only 23 years old, so gravity hasn’t hit his face hard yet. He weighs in at about 160 pounds on any given day, and carries a skinny build. He lacks a predisposition to thick body hair. Though he’s 6”1”, and has a deep voice, he is not discouraged.

“Hell, if Sarah Jessica Parker can pull off a woman, so can I,” Greg chuckles.

Small steps led to the first big step of Greg’s somewhat openly transgender life. Hand-in-hand, the two of us girls hit the Gay 90’s for a test run. We’d been there before, but only as man and woman. The bouncer looked at the goateed man on Greg’s driver’s license, lifted an eyebrow at the smooth-faced woman standing before him, and let us in. Inside, my friend was no longer a scrawny boyish Greg, but instead, a thin, beautiful woman named Ellie.

“It felt like a good temporary release of my anxieties,” Greg describes his first time going out in public as a woman. “The Gay 90’s environment is kind of a symbol of everything that is really queer in Minnesota, and, consequently, the safest environment for me to go out. If someone sees a transgendered person there, it’s more so the norm. It feels good to not feel like a freak there.”

According to Scott Bartell, a social worker who specializes in therapy with the GLBT community, people often have a hard time dealing with something that disturbs their foundation of what they believe to be true.

“Gender is such a scary, magical thing to most people. It’s something so ordained by God that they feel anything they don’t recognize or understand—anything that wasn’t true when they were a kid—isn’t true. So, it’s pretty scary when someone comes in and…turns it upside down,” Bartell states.

Being friends with Greg—now Ellie—for eight years makes understanding easier, but for her Catholic family of eight siblings, it might be a far stretch. Out of five sisters, Ellie first revealed the truth to the sister she was closest to. There were questions and tears, but mostly a lot of questions.

“Does that mean you’re gay?” Ellie’s sister wondered, as I once did myself.

“I’ve never really been attracted to the male body. In fact, I feel a kind of repulsion to the male anatomy—hence, why I want to be a girl—though being gay would probably make my life a lot easier, because I’d be a stereotypical woman liking men,” Ellie told his sister, as Greg did me that summer.

“Is that like a drag queen?” Ellie’s sister asked.

“Transgender people are just trying to fit into the female stereotype. My goal is to look like a normal, casual girl whom you really wouldn’t give an odd glance to,” Ellie replied. “I just want to be normal. I’m not trying to be gawked at, or make a statement. I am just trying to fit in to what I view as beautiful.”

A few small steps are left in the journey. The rest will be large leaps of faith. Ellie has yet to tell the rest of her family. She has a purse full of decisions to contemplate.

“Will my family still love me after I tell them? Will I ever be able to find a girlfriend? Will this hinder me getting a job in the future? Will I ever be able to look the way I want to look, and when will I be able to afford the procedures necessary to get there? At this point, I’m not really sure about any of it,” Ellie muses.

The big steps in transitioning often can be daunting: Trying to freeze sperm in order to have biological children one day; taking hormones and being approved for sexual reassignment surgery; and saving up anywhere between $20,000 and $60,000 for facial feminization surgery.

Greg and Ellie continue to battle with their identity, trying to fight the discrepancy between what is and what should be.

“It’s like living with a scar. You can learn to accept it, learn to ignore it when you look in the mirror, but you still know it’s there. But no matter how many years passed, you still feel uncomfortable with it. Except for me, my scar is all over my frickin’ body,” Ellie explains.

At the same time, I continue to try to accept that someday, my best boy friend will be my best girl friend. I can admit, though, it has been a hard mental journey.

Bartel notes, “If I just know somebody at work, and they announce they are transitioning, then that’s probably easy to take in. But when it gets to be my best friend that I’ve always known, that’s a little tougher, because suddenly, [I think], ‘Do I still have that person? Am I losing the person? Am I losing the relationship?’

“Well, usually, friends can figure out that no, they are not. They can understand that a physical change doesn’t mean they’ve lost the person, and if they’re thoughtful enough about it, they might even understand that the problem is that they didn’t know the whole person before, and now they are getting to know the whole person, and so, it’s a wonderful thing.”

Together, we’re trying to move forward, knowing that there will be a lot of trial and error along the way, and a lot of decisions to make.

My best friend admits, “There really are no for-sures or exacts in how my future is going to go, but there are exacts when it comes to my gender identity. There’s just no way of getting around the fact that the big difference between me and a typical man is my lack of enthusiasm about my penis.”

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