The day I stopped being a woman, it was too hot to think. I was in an abandoned house on Twenty-First Street in Chicago, where I’d been squatting for the last few weeks. The house had no electricity, no air conditioning, no plumbing, no shower. When the afternoon heat got to be unbearable, I would grab a gallon jug of ice cold spring water, purchased with food stamps from the store on the corner, and go out on the back porch. Beneath the white hot sun I'd raise the jug above my head and flip it over. The cold water gurgled out, cascading down my face, shoulders, and back, splattering against the wood porch. I never toweled off afterwards, just let the water drip from the ends of my hair, my fingers, my nose. I’d walk around the house like that, barefoot, shivering and dripping, until the heat warmed the water and it evaporated into the heavy, humid air. The water only stayed cold a few minutes, but it was so necessary, each frigid shower affording a brief moment of clarity in the sticky hot brain-melting miasma of the blistering Chicago summer.
In the corner by the window I kept a little kerosene stove. At the beginning of each month, when my food stamps re-upped, I’d cook all kinds of things. I’d buy imported cheeses, ham, and spinach, and make omelets. Towards the end of the month, when my EBT ran out, I ate mostly hard-boiled eggs.
The day I stopped being a woman was a hard-boiled egg kind of day. My ex-boyfriend, Adac, lounged on the couch, half-conscious, shirt off, arm bent, elbow resting over his eyes to block out the sun. Adac, the vampire. The hungry ghost. It hadn’t always been like this. Deep down, he was sensitive and sweet. If he’d been able to limit himself to weed and beer, things could have turned out okay. As it was, he would disappear for days at a time, shooting up meth with fucked up rich faggots in Boystown, then stumble back into the squat at odd hours, emaciated, red-eyed, unshaven, depleted. He’d sleep for a couple of days then wake up famished, irritable, shouting curses and moaning for food.
The day I stopped being a woman, Adac lifted his elbow from his eyes. He blinked them open partway, wincing at the light coming in through the window.
“Woman,” he croaked, pointing at the cookstove. “Make me an egg.”
I don’t know what came over me. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was mania. Maybe I was just plain fed up with his shit. Whatever it was, something took hold of me. Filled with sudden rage, I plucked an egg from the carton and sped to the couch. I held out my arm, positioning the egg directly above his face. His eyes widened.
“Don’t you dare,” he snarled.
I squeezed as hard I could.
* * *
When I was a woman, few things terrified me more than the idea of becoming a man. Detransition seemed like the ultimate failure. To renounce one’s renunciation – of masculinity, of normalcy, of traditional social categories of belonging and being – seemed woefully, painfully weak. Detransition was rarely discussed in trans circles, and when it was, it was treated as a joke, an embarrassment, a sign of weakness, or even betrayal. There was an unspoken trust among trans women, a deep sense of spiritual camaraderie borne from the psychic pain we all shared. As trans women, we were in the trenches together. It was us against the world. Everywhere we looked, we saw war. We were bound together by that. In a way, it was how we made sense of ourselves, how we defined ourselves as a group. To leave the circle by detransitioning meant betraying that sacred trust, that holy bond of sisterhood forged in flame. The idea was unthinkable, and nearly unmentionable.
“Well,” my friend Ruth once said. “If this new job doesn’t work out, I can always detransition and go back to Wisconsin to live with my mom.”
I remember us both laughing heartily at that. It was funny because of how pathetic it sounded. Pathetic, and far-fetched. We both knew there was no way she would go back to being a man. At the time, I thought there was no way I would, either. I knew I was a woman. Even if I’d somehow lost that conviction – which, again, seemed impossible – I never could have gone through with detransitioning. My pride would not have allowed it.
If you’re going to transition, you have to be brave. Brave enough to face a world where people might look at you and see something ridiculous. You have to be willing to be perceived as a clown, or worse. You have to stand up to people who refuse to accept your truth. Harder still, you have to stand up to the part of you that doesn’t accept it. You have to confront the voice in the back of your head telling you it’s stupid, that you’re wrong, that it’ll be too hard, that the pain of living openly will outweigh the benefits. You have to stand up and proclaim, loudly, to yourself, to your family, to everyone you’ve ever known, “This is me! It’s who I am! This is my decision, and it is not negotiable.”
Imagine you’ve done all that. Imagine knowing it was the right decision. Knowing that you are harmonizing your body with your mind, and your spirit. Becoming the person you’re supposed to be. Imagine coming out as trans, changing your name, growing out your hair, learning makeup. Going to the doctor to get hormones that will alter your physical appearance and the chemical structures of your body. Imagine living as a woman, becoming immersed in trans culture, leaving behind old relationships and communities, forgetting about the people in your life who don’t “get” it.
Imagine you’ve done all that. Now imagine changing your mind.
Back then, it was inconceivable. The mere thought of it was ghastly. The idea of leaving behind my newfound community was bad enough. Still worse was the notion of admitting I might have been wrong. So I didn’t admit it. I didn’t believe it, either. I pushed those thoughts down and forgot about them. It was easy enough to do. In spite of any lingering doubts, I believed that deep down, on the spirit level, I was a woman. And wasn’t I? Everywhere I went, men fawned over me. I was catcalled on the street every day. All of my friends saw me as a woman. I had dreams of becoming an actress, a model, an artist’s muse. I wanted to be Candy Darling, Juliana Huxtable, Hari Nef. I wanted it all: new tits, a nose job, laser hair removal, a new forehead. I hadn’t decided if I wanted genital surgery or not. Once I started doing sex work, the idea of losing my primary moneymaker grew less and less appealing. But the point still stands: I was a woman. If there were any lingering doubts in my mind, I attributed them to my own internalized transphobia, my absorption of society’s rules. Those thoughts were mere obstacles in my transition journey, to be tamped down and papered over with affirmations about self-discovery and becoming.
Some of the men I met while I was Mabel seemed aware of the discomfort that detransition could provoke in trans women. There was one guy in particular, a guy by the name of Leo. He used to come around when I lived at my friend H’s house in Queens. He had a nice body and cute tattoos of Pokémon and Dragon Ball. He would sometimes bring me pizza from Little Caesar’s or a Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee. He was fun to hang out with but he always overstayed his welcome. Sometimes he spent the night without asking. I’d look over at my floor mat and he’d already be snoring, splayed out dramatically, limbs pointing in all directions. He smoked all my weed and never had any money to contribute. He talked about meth obsessively, even when I told him I was trying to quit. Later I found out he had a girlfriend. He only came around when they were fighting and the girlfriend had kicked him out.
“I knew a girl who detransitioned,” Leo told me once. He liked to tell me about all his conquests, other trans women he’d known and had sex with. I think he thought it would impress me, or make me jealous, or both. This time, though, his boasting seemed more targeted. Malicious, somehow, like he was trying to bait me.
“Yeah,” he said. “She ran off with some trans guy and got him pregnant. Now she – I mean he – now he’s just a dude with big knockers who teaches high school math in New Mexico. Anything can happen. You never know.”
He winked at me and grinned as he said this. The implication was clear: It could happen to anyone. It could even happen to you.
In the days that followed, I kept imagining myself as the person in Leo’s story. A weird, freakish man with giant breasts, standing at a chalkboard, facing a classroom full of hostile teenagers. I couldn’t imagine a worse fate. I decided Leo was just making it up. He wanted to mess with me, to get in my head. Detransitioners weren’t real, I told myself. They were like Bigfoot, Loch Ness, spoken about but never sighted, laughed at but not believed in. Detransition was a monstrous thing, a sick, perverted fantasy. No one would ever put themselves through that. There was just no way.
I often felt, in the early months of my transition, that I was learning an ethos as much as I was learning how to be a woman. This is true of any community: once you join, you learn which behaviors and beliefs are acceptable, and which are not, who belongs to the tribe, and who doesn’t. In the circles I ran in, there were some pretty clear lines. Trans people who medically transitioned (ie, took hormones, surgically altered their bodies, etc.) were the most legit. Nonbinary people, “queers,” and woke gays and lesbians came next. Cross-dressers, fetishists, drag queens: they were out on the fringes, the far reaches of the trans galaxy. Detransitioners? They belonged to an entirely different universe. A fictional universe, according to my philosophy. And that philosophy remained unchallenged until almost a year into my transition, when I met my first real-life, flesh-and-blood detransitioner.
I was living in Logan Square, Chicago, in a crowded two-and-a-half-bedroom apartment with my friends Stevie and Ruth. It was the beginning of summer, and it was starting to get hot. I decided I needed an air conditioner, but I didn’t want to pay full price for a new one. So I posted an ad on the Chicago Queer Exchange Facebook group: ISO AC, used/cheap (or free!). A few days later, I stood at the top of our building’s front stairs and watched as a tall, lanky man lugged a window unit up and into our apartment. I held the door open as he stumbled across the threshold, and guided him into my bedroom. He plopped the AC down on my mattress, and stood there for a moment, sweating and catching his breath.
“Do you want a glass of water?” I asked, just to be polite.
“Sure,” the man said.
I led him to the kitchen and he sat at the table unbidden. I handed him his water and he drank half the glass in one gulp. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out six crisp twenty dollar bills. He fanned them out in front of me, then stacked them neatly and held out the pile.
“I have a little extra cash right now,” he said, by way of explanation. “I figured you could use it more than me.”
I stared at the money, racking my brain. What did he want? Nobody just gives away money. Did he think I was going to suck his dick?
“Uh…thanks,” I said, pocketing the bills. As soon as I did so, the man started talking.
“I did it all,” he said. “The whole thing! The hotel rooms, the drugs. I was even a cam girl. My name was TS Zephyr. I know, I know. You can’t really picture it now. But man, I was hot. Made good money, too.”
I stared at him, trying to grasp the meaning of his words. Was he telling me he used to be trans? Subtly, I examined his body and face. His long brown hair reached far past his shoulders. I snuck a peek at his chest, looking for any unusual protrusions. I didn’t see anything. His shirt was baggy, though, and it was hard to tell what might be underneath.
Meanwhile, the man continued his monologue. He droned on and on. He must have talked for forty-five minutes. He told me about his medical issues, how there was a problem with his spine or his heart or something. How he stopped taking his estrogen because it interacted with another medication he had to take. How finally, he’d just decided to give the whole thing up. It was all more trouble than it was worth, he said. Now he worked a job in IT. Made low six figures. He had just purchased a condo, which had central air, hence the spare window unit. No one at his job had any idea about his transgender past. His girlfriend didn’t know, either. He felt conflicted about it, he said, but he knew this was ultimately what was best. He still felt like he was trans, but it had all just gotten to be too much. As he spoke, I realized this was what the money had been for, and the free air conditioner. He needed someone to talk to, and he didn’t have anyone else. He was paying me to be his gender counselor, his therapist. His personal confidante.
Or was it something else? How could I be sure he was even telling the truth?
After the man left, I got to thinking. A lot of people have gender-related fetishes and fantasies. Male cross-dressers, for instance. Autogynephilia. Could this man have been one of those types? Maybe he just wanted to tell me about his TS fantasy. Maybe he got off on stuff like that. Or maybe he was trans, secretly, but too afraid to actually transition. People like that are a dime a dozen. They used to message me on Grindr every day, asking for make-up tips, advice about hormones, help with finding guys. I was never kind to people like that. I thought they were annoying. If they wanted to pay for my time, that was one thing. But I wasn’t just going to sit there giving free transition advice to every single person on the planet. The man who brought me the air conditioner could have been a person like that, I thought. Maybe he knew I would never talk to him if I knew what he actually wanted. The maneuver with the AC and the cash seemed perfectly calculated to sidestep any concerns I might have had about his motives.
My mind raced from possibility to possibility. Even then, when detransition was staring me in the face, it was easier to imagine that this person was a liar rather than a legitimate detransitioner. In retrospect, though, I do believe him. I’ve since met or heard stories about many people who feel like they’re the wrong gender, but who, after living as openly trans for a period of time, found that it was too stressful or too painful, and went back to living as their original gender. One of the main characters in Torrey Peters’ bestselling 2021 novel Detransition, Baby, is just such a detransitioner, which speaks to how common this narrative, and the phenomenon behind it, have become.
Maybe the man wanted me to tell him it was worth it. That he should re-transition. That trans life could be fulfilling, that he would be happier living as his true self. Or maybe he just raced home and jacked off to the thought of me and him dressing up together. Either way, I was discomfited. I didn’t want to have to consider ideas like that, or interact with those sorts of people. Because the truth is, detransition is as jarring and upsetting to some trans people as transition can be for non-trans people. It was for me. And it was, too, for some of my trans friends when I eventually detransitioned. A lot of people I considered family never spoke to me again. I remember my friend Joy breaking down in tears when I asked her to stop calling me Mabel.
“I don’t see you as a man,” she said, weeping. “I see you as a woman.”
There was a poignant sense of loss in her words, as if she were mourning the death of a friend rather than comprehending a shift in my personal identity – poignant because of how closely it mirrored the sense of loss my own family felt when I decided to transition from male to female and began living as Mabel. I’ve also had trans friends tell me that they still believe I’m a woman, in spite of the fact that I’ve been living openly as a man for more than five years.
And frankly, there is some truth to that sentiment. Certain elements of my personality are decidedly feminine. I will never fit neatly into any socially prescribed standard of masculinity. I mean, come on. I’m a drag queen, for heaven’s sake. I am deeply, hopelessly obsessed with the performance of femininity. It’s only natural that my trans friends would see and recognize that part of me. And it is difficult to live as trans. Earlier I said that when I was living as Mabel, I believed that deep down, on the spirit level, I was a woman. Even if I still believed that, there’s a not insignificant chance I would have detransitioned anyway. The psychic pain of being a trans woman took an enormous toll on me, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Time and again, I’ve read about studies that show how living openly can improve the mental health of trans people. While I have no doubt this is true for many, it was diametrically opposed to my own experience. I was never in my life more depressed, more anxious, more absolutely mental than I was when I was Mabel. I destroyed more relationships in those two years than in the entirety of the rest of my life combined. My problems with alcohol and “softer” club drugs exploded into hardcore meth addiction. Believing I’d never get hired for any conventional jobs, I pushed myself into survival sex work. By the end of the Mabel years, I was homeless, HIV positive, squatting in abandoned houses and sleeping in parks. I’m not “blaming” being trans for my problems. I take full responsibility for the choices I made. But I internalized certain habits of mind when I was Mabel, habits so thoroughly corrosive to the psyche and spirit that it’s a wonder I managed to escape with my life at all. Like the idea that the world hated me, for instance. That everyone everywhere wanted me to die. That if someone on the street happened to glance at me sideways, this was somehow evidence of a vast genocidal conspiracy against me.
The truth is, it was only within my suicidal vortex of narcissism and self-loathing that any of these ideas were true. I now understand that the world is, and always has been, largely indifferent to me. And that’s a good thing! The vast majority of people don’t care how I live my life. And if they do, to paraphrase RuPaul, it’s really none of my business.
Moreover, the world doesn’t see anyone how they really are. People are severely limited in their understanding, and their ability to empathize with others. Even more than that, most people simply don’t care. Yes, there is an incredibly virulent, vile, cruel, anti-trans contingent among the right-wing chattering class and the second wave feminists. But I believe, as with so many culture war topics du jour, that the extreme voices are the ones that get amplified the most. If you spend all your time in echo chambers like Twitter, you’ll have a dramatically distorted view of what most people actually believe. Wake up to the real world, and you may be surprised to find that the vast majority of people just want to live their own lives, and couldn’t care less how you live yours.
If I hadn’t quit being Mabel, I have no doubt that my destructive habits of mind would have killed me. It took some seriously harsh lessons before I realized that the war I saw everywhere, was, at its most fundamental level, my own war, a war against myself. Like Lana Del Rey said, I had a war in my mind. If there’s one piece of advice I would give my younger self, it would be this: don’t get involved in unwinnable battles. At a certain point, you have to set aside the struggle and put yourself first. You have to deal with the world that’s in front of you, not some fantasy. If you spend all your time dreaming about a world that doesn’t exist, you’ll always be disappointed when the real world comes up short.
A lot of people ask me if I regret having transitioned. Part of me wishes I could say yes. I’ve seen regretful detransitioners scooped up by right-wing media eager to use them as pawns in the culture war. I could do that, I’ve thought. I could do the podcast circuit, give an interview to Fox News. Hustle up some of that anti-woke Peter Thiel money. Make a Substack. I see that path laid out before me, and there’s a part of me that would love to take it.
But the truth is, I don’t regret transitioning. I don’t regret any of it. When I decided to transition, I had no idea who I was. I was lost. I clung to my identity as a trans woman like it was a life raft in the wake of the Titanic. Ultimately, being Mabel was the wrong thing for me. But I never would have gotten to the right thing without her. Without first being Mabel, I never would have figured out who I really am. I now see my detransition not as a reversal of transition, but as a continuation of it. I see transition and detransition as similar, both stages in the gradual process of creative becoming that led me to the person I am today.
Even the term “detransition” seems wrong. I haven’t gone backwards. There was no reversal. I’m not the person I was before I transitioned. I’m not even the person I was yesterday! Everything in the universe is in a perpetual state of flux. Change is the only stable truth of our cosmos. Like Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes. Earlier I said I don’t see myself as a woman. But I’m also not sure I see myself as a man. The reality is, I just don’t care that much anymore. My sense of self isn’t tethered to superficial concepts like gender. I care less and less about what I “am,” and more and more about what I do. The work that I put into myself, the words I write on the page, the music I create, the joy I elicit in others through my work. I especially don’t care about trying to manage other people’s perceptions of me. That’s a losing game no matter how you play it.
Human beings are not bodies who have souls. We are souls who – ever so briefly! – have bodies. On the deepest level, we are spirit, each of us struggling to exist within the clumsy limitations of our temporary physical home. Once we see those parameters clearly, and accept them, we can leave perpetual mental war behind us, and begin to live in grace, in beauty, in joy.
That’s one thing I can say about Mabel. She always lived beautifully. For the rest of my life, I’ll be teaching myself how to sustain that beauty in everything I do, how to keep the best parts of Mabel alive within me, while leaving behind the parts that wanted me dead.
* * *
The day I stopped being a woman, I wiped my hand against my shorts, rubbing off the remains of the egg I’d squeezed over Adac. I tucked my long, matted hair beneath a baseball cap and went outside. I barely knew where I was going, I just knew I had to walk, and before I knew it, I was standing in front of a barbershop. I pushed the door open and went inside. The barber was an older Mexican man who spoke very little English. I showed him all the money I had: eleven crumpled one-dollar bills. He nodded and gestured to the chair. When I sat down and removed my hat, all the matted, tangled hair fell down around my shoulders. The barber’s eyes widened.
“You want all?” he said.
“Todo,” I replied, snipping my fingers like scissors.
As clumps of Mabel's hair tumbled to the floor, I felt an immeasurable weight lifted not just from my head, but from my mind as well. All my anxiety and fear just melted away. Like magic. Like magic.
I can just be me now, I thought. Now I can just be me.