As I trudged forward in line onto the metro platform, I could see my train finally pulling into the station. I could feel my tired legs crying out beneath me, trying to tell me they could only stand for so much longer.
It was July 22, 2017. I had just left day two of the FYF music festival, and my feet were tired and blistered from hours of standing and waiting to get a good spot to see Frank Ocean. I’m a massive fan of his music, and even though my legs were killing me; in that blissful moment I couldn’t have cared less. I stumbled out of the festival grounds at the end of his set in a euphoric daze, feeling moved by an artistic experience unlike anything I had ever seen. I had never felt that way before. I haven’t quite felt the same since.
After standing in line for what felt like an eternity, the doors to the Metro blue line train finally opened and I collapsed in a heap in the nearest empty seat. As I took a long, deep breath and my legs finally got a chance to rest, all I could think about was the profound emotional experience I had just had, and the images and sounds still swirling in my brain. Lots of people go to a concert and call their experience “life-changing” as a way to hyperbolize just how much they enjoyed it, but to say his performance that night and my reaction to it was life-changing would almost be an understatement, as I think that night was the true beginning of my long overdue journey to self acceptance.
As I arrived home, still wearing my red and white Frank Ocean headband, my body was exhausted, but my mind was racing and alive; unable to sleep. I stayed up late that night watching the videos I took of the performance, re-reading old Frank Ocean interviews that I loved, and before long I was down an internet rabbit-hole that led me to Frank Ocean’s famous tumblr letter that he posted in 2012 to come out to the world about his sexuality. I had already read the letter before, but the incredible performance I had just seen drew me to re-read it, and on that warm July night I saw it with completely new eyes. For the very first time in my life, as I read the opening lines of the letter, “Whoever you are… wherever you are… I’m starting to realize we’re a lot alike.”, I realized that Frank Ocean was talking to me.
Released shortly after his second album Channel Orange leaked on to the internet in 2012, the letter Frank Ocean published to tumblr about his sexuality was “intended to fill the thank you’s section in my album credits, but with all the rumors going around I figured it’d be good to clarify…”. In the letter, Frank describes in vivid detail the summer when he first fell in love with a man, and the heartbreak he experienced when his love was not reciprocated by his lover. Instead of of simply giving a statement in which he just announced “I am bisexual”, the letter’s personal, emotional form allowed Frank to take authorship of his own story, and allowed him to share something much more intimate and meaningful than simply announcing which arbitrary label best defines his experiences. By taking the deep heartbreak he experienced as a man in the closet about his sexuality and expressing it the way he did, Frank helped so many queer people realize that they were less alone in the world than they felt like they might be. The way Frank so simply and yet so profoundly describes what it was like to be a man coming to grips with these intense feelings that conflicted with society’s expectations of how men are supposed to behave is something as powerful and moving as any piece of music he’s ever written, and on that night in July it was affecting me in ways I couldn’t yet articulate or fully understand.
I wish I could say that the very day I saw Frank Ocean in 2017 and re-read the letter was the day my life changed forever, that the next day I told my friends and family and started living my life truthfully, but as any LGBTQ person can probably tell you, the journey to self acceptance very rarely happens overnight. I was still deathly afraid to acknowledge the truth inside me to anyone else, or even to myself, and the years after that night in July were still plagued with doubts and fear about ever coming out to the world. The walls that I had built up internally to prevent those feelings from ever being let out were still too strong to be broken down in one night. But as I think back to reading that letter and how it made me feel, I think that moment was when the feelings I had been suppressing for so long started to grow louder.
I didn’t realize this the first time I read Frank’s letter, or the second, or the third. But reading the letter today, the main reason it strikes such a deep emotional chord with me is because for my entire life, I have been in denial about my gender identity and the fact that I am a woman. And as I read the beautiful language he uses to describe the pain he experienced living in the closet, I saw nearly infinite parallels with my life-long struggle with my gender identity.
Before I knew what what it meant to be transgender, before I knew or accepted that coming out as trans was even a possibility for me, there was always some part of me that longed for the life I could possibly live if I had been born a woman. But when you are assigned the identity of male at birth and you discover this feeling inside you from such a young age, you quickly learn to bury these emotions deep inside yourself as a misguided survival mechanism for this cruel world. I began to build up a wall to divide myself into pieces: in private, I would allow myself to think about and experiment with femininity, but I kept those experiments a secret to myself alone. I spent my years of college and high school never once allowing myself to seriously consider coming out as trans, it felt completely impossible to me. I was living my life as a man, assuming that fact of my existence was impossible to change and denying how unhappy I was with it. Not because I didn’t want to be a woman, but because the world had told me I shouldn’t want to, that I would be treated badly for wanting to, that I was too manly to ever be seen as a woman and so I shouldn’t even consider it. So for many years, many more years than I should have, I swallowed those feelings inside me. But that technique can only be so effective for so long. As Frank put it: “I struggled to master myself and my emotions. I wasn’t always successful”.
After years of putting it off and pushing it away, thinking “maybe there will be a place way down the road where I’ll deal with it”; I ran out of time to procrastinate. I had graduated high school, graduated college, and moved back to LA, seemingly all set to start my adult life. But there was a problem: I was stuck. At a time when I was supposed to have my entire life in front of me as a canvas of infinite possibility, I was incapable of imagining any future for myself, and falling into a spiral of self-loathing and depression. I was trapped in a limbo between the life I had been living up to that point and the unknown of the life I was supposed to start planning for myself, and I suddenly realized how unhappy I was with both my past and my future. With no motivation to continue my life as a man and a lot of free time on my hands, I was forced to question why I had become such a passive observer in my life, why I no longer wanted to see friends I cared about, why I was too afraid to pursue career goals I was once passionate about. Why I was so desperate to not be in charge of my own destiny. And then, I finally realized what I was running from...
“I realized too much, too quickly. Imagine being thrown from a plane”
The day it really, fully hit me that I am a transgender woman was complicated, because it was something I have known about on some level for my entire life, but yet I had been denying it for so long that it still took me completely by surprise to finally accept to myself that it was true. It was like I had been holding all the pieces of the puzzle for many years but refused to put them together because of what I knew it would mean if I ever did. Even though I was still afraid, the dead end I found myself at forced me to finally accept what I had always known deep down. After years and years of hiding behind the wall I had built, it suddenly collapsed. As it came down, an entire lifetime of bottled emotions rushed in like a tidal wave, nearly drowning me at first. I no longer had to use my imagination to understand what Frank must have felt like when he had his realization: just like him I was thrown from the plane and was free-falling without a parachute.
I have never felt more alone in my entire life than the last day before I finally told someone that I was trans for the first time. I spent my entire life trying to compartmentalize my identity, performing masculinity in public while keeping my true feelings and desires locked away in a box, only to be opened when no one else is around. That kind of secrecy breeds self-isolation and depression, and I suddenly realized that for my entire adult life I had been keeping the real me locked away inside my room while my body went through my life as a man on autopilot. I had been merely observing a life I should be living with joy and passion, and I was suddenly becoming aware of just how much I had been depriving myself and for how long. It’s a heartbreaking thing to realize suddenly that you’ve been suffering for much longer than you even realized, that you’ve been carrying a great weight for so long without even knowing it was there. And in those first uncertain days where it was just me alone with that realization, I felt completely crushed by that heaviness. I cried and cried and cried: for a life I missed out on, for the lies I had told myself, for the self-loathing my silence had taught me. As I’m sure is the case for many trans people, eventually that weight just becomes too much to bear, and the desperation to escape that horrible feeling overpowers the fear that’s been holding you back for so long. I suddenly had nothing left to lose.
Even though coming out to my family and friends immediately lifted an incredible weight off of my chest, the last year of my life has still been incredibly difficult, with the pandemic and other outside stressors adding to an already difficult process of navigating my transition into womanhood in a world that is unfortunately still incredibly hostile towards trans people for simply existing. The year has been one marked by catastrophic loss and suffering in so many communities, including one in my own: the tragic loss of a personal hero of mine, the groundbreaking trans musician Sophie, who died just a few weeks ago in a freak accident at 34 years old.
Sophie’s importance to both the future of music and the future of trans life in this world cannot be overstated: she not only changed the world with her incredible art, but she also changed it by choosing bravely to let us into her world and her private life in order to become a positive example for trans people. She wanted to help us see that we could be popstars like her, that we could be whoever we wanted to be. She helped us imagine a future where transgender and gender non-conforming people could be free and safe from the evils that threaten our existence and keep so many of us in hiding. And even though her world feels like a far off dream sometimes, it is one worth fighting for. It’s so crushing that Sophie is no longer with us, but the truth is she is still here. She is present in the art that her work will inspire others to create. She still exists in every trans person like me who was inspired by her, she exists in all of the beautiful things we are going to become.
In her music video for the song “It’s Okay To Cry”, where she appeared on camera for the first time, Sophie’s first public act as a woman was an incredibly intimate and vulnerable expression of love, inviting us her shoulder to cry on rather than asking us to weep for her. Like the Frank Ocean letter, the music video served as so, so much more than just a simple coming out announcement for prying eyes wondering about her gender. She took the coming out process, which is an unfortunate and awkward byproduct of living in a society that treats being cisgender as the accepted norm, and turrns it into a beautiful, liberating piece of art. She elevated what could otherwise just be a PR statement and turned it into something emotional and empathetic, offering solace and love to those who might still be struggling to realize that “your inside is your best side”. What Sophie gave to us in her tragically short time on this earth is something I will be forever grateful for, and now more than ever I feel obligated to take advantage of the life I have been blessed to live and live it as my true self.
It was awful to have to go through such a difficult low point in order to break through to the other side, but the immense pain I experienced when I hit rock bottom ended up being the push I needed to finally share what I was going through. In his letter, Frank says that “before writing this I’d told some people my story. I’m sure they kept me alive”, and the same could not be more true for me. If I had not been lucky enough to know the amazing, loving, understanding people in my life who embraced me first, I would not have the courage to write this today, and I’m forever thankful to them for what they’ve given me in their friendship and their love. As I told each of them my story, their open-armed embraces helped erase the fear and darkness I’d been letting fester inside me, and for the first time in years I began to feel at peace knowing I wasn’t alone like I thought I was. Especially being embraced by my transfemme sisters, I finally understood that my suffering was not my own, that it wasn’t my fault, and that it wasn’t permanent. I knew my journey was only just beginning, and I knew I had a lot of hard work still ahead of me, but for the first time in a while there was a light at the end of the tunnel that I could actually see.
As Frank so eloquently put it:
“I was never alone, as much as it felt like it. As much as I still do sometimes. I never was. I don’t think I ever could be.”
So much like Frank and Sophie, I decided that instead of running away from who I was, I was finally going to tell my story to the world. I took the feelings I long believed that I would keep inside me forever and take with me to my grave, and turned them into something that expresses my truth, that finally gives me authorship of my own story, and allows me to share that freedom with others who might need it too. I hope others out there who have struggled with gender identity or something similar will see a part of themselves in my story. It can be a very lonely experience being alive, and an even more lonely one when there’s something inside you that you feel too afraid to express out loud. But I’m not afraid anymore, and I’ve never felt less alone and more alive than I do today.
After so many years of waiting, I’ve finally begun my journey towards womanhood, towards becoming the version of myself that has always been inside me. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most rewarding. Today I am in a much healthier, happier place than I was when I was still trying to convince myself I was a man, and every step I take makes me more sure that this is the life I was truly meant to live. Life is precious, too precious to be wasted trying to be someone you’re not.
So thank you. Thank you all for everything good. I feel like a free woman. If I listen closely… I can hear the sky falling too.