gender reflections

Written: 2022-07-04 to 2022-07-04
by Naomi Liu

I haven’t touched this site in a while.

That’s a lie, I’ve been refactoring the backend a lot and writing a bunch of draft posts, that never end up being good enough for me to put on the main section. There are some exciting things in the works but life has been absolutely hectic.

This post is going to be pretty personal, so be warned if you’re here for code. There’s talk of mental health, self-harm, depersonalisation, and trauma.


prelude: a story of some weird kid

The last year as a whole has probably been the most eventful solar rotation of my entire life - I’ve succeeded plenty, failed even more, and cried more times than I care to admit. I moved to the city, which is nice. I became a professional software un-fucker-upper, which is even nicer. Things have moved at a breakneck pace to the point where a whole year flew by without me even noticing it.

Today’s a pretty special day, for reasons I haven’t really made public outside of Twitter - exactly 365 days ago, I started transitioning. That is, I started HRT on July 4, 2021. I was so nervous at the time that I didn’t even realize it was USA day, but that’s fine. I’d rather celebrate myself than a theocratic empire I don’t even live in.

I had inklings about my gender identity my whole life, but always brushed it away. Even though I grew up in metro Vancouver, my area had major small-town bumfuck-nowhere vibes, especially in people’s attitudes. Growing up as a second-generation immigrant in a Chinese household didn’t help either. There were times when my parents straight-up asked me if I was trans (in terminology that was not nearly as nice), but I always denied it. And why wouldn’t I? The idea of transgender identity being a normal, widespread phenotypic expression in humans wasn’t a concept I had real exposure to until much later. Trans people were a caricature in media, a passing joke, a punchline. That couldn’t be me, I was normal. I couldn’t be a part of that group.

Sure, I was different. I was diagnosed with ADHD in 2019, and for a while that was the retroactive explanation I gave for all of those incidents where I felt completely isolated from the people in my peer groups. Times where I didn’t feel like I belonged with my friends who were out playing sports and training in martial arts. I just wanted to sit inside and fuck around on the computer, or fixate on fiction. Escapism was more enticing than the outside world, because of the freedom it afforded me. There are no expectations in a book, just the story and the interpretations that bounce around in your head. Nobody’s personally interrogating you about your weird mannerisms or your stimming habits.

Nothing really felt right, or honest for that matter. It always felt like I had some sort of vague secret that I was hiding from everybody. What secret? I couldn’t even tell you. But I felt like I had to walk on eggshells in every interaction, cram myself into a box so my parents and friends would stop questioning me about it. I should have pieced it together years ago, honestly. There are many, many suppressed memories that have only recently popped back into my head, memories of sneaking around, of letting out bits of gender expression away from the watchful eyes of cisnormative expectations.

When I was 7 (I think?), I remember seeing a guy outside tie their sweater around their waist. Kid me was ecstatic at this new knowledge, because it looked like he was wearing a skirt. Yeah. And it was a dude doing this, which meant I could do it too. Wow, a way for me to look like I was wearing a dress without actually wearing one. I grabbed this collared shirt and tied it around my hips, and got way too excited looking at myself in the mirror. I went to bed wearing that sweater-skirt-thing that night. Nobody questioned me about it.

This didn’t stop, even after becoming an adult. I was a decade older and more aware of things, but this didn’t translate to self-awareness. I cocooned myself in a weird sense of self-righteousness to cope with things. I was taller, wider, and frankly, abnormally muscular for somebody that doesn’t work out. I was infallible, far above than everyone else around me. Why wouldn’t I be? I knew I wasn’t like others, and the only explanation I could accept was that I was just better. I had a huge ego and acted like a stuck-up asshole. Still, I felt like shit all the time. At that point, I had graduated high school, and that vague sense of unease had graduated into full-blown guilt.

That’s the best way to put it - I felt guilty. Sure, I kinda liked my body? Why would I want anything else? I had big arms, and an even bigger ego. I was proud of who I was, and thankful to my parents for everything they gave me. Acknowledging discomfort would be spitting on those gifts and everything they’ve worked for. I didn’t want to bring shame to them, so I took it all upon myself and locked it away. I felt like a fucking ogre sometimes, but that’s okay if you’re a dude. I was a fridge, but at least I owned it.

I now consider this mindset, at least in my case, to be a form of self-harm. There’s no way I had any femininity, not when I looked like that. So, the closer I got to this abstract persona, this meat-puppet male model skinsuit, the further I ran from this indeterminate unease. It’s self-defeatism in the rawest sense. I was setting myself up to fail at femme presentation from day one, because to confront that would be to throw away every piece I thought I knew about myself. Cliche, I know. I basically stopped trying in terms of clothing or appearance. It didn’t matter, because guys don’t care.

These thoughts never went away. Clearly, since I have C cups now. If anything, they came back and hit me worse, the harder I tried to push them down. It was like trying to knock over a standing punching bag. Every ounce of force I threw, was reflected back toward me. Relationships were hard, because I felt like I was lying to every person I dated. They thought they were with $DEADNAME, the fuccboi asian chad I liked to think I was. I was incredulous that people would want to date me at all. What were they seeing that I wasn’t?


if you’re questioning, you probably have your answer already

It came to a head in March of 2019. I was laying awake at 3am, thinking about life. Thinking deeper than usual. Reflecting on where I was going, all that pseudo-intellectual stuff. Until I thought too deep. Deep enough to the point where every one of these suppressed memories hit me all at once, like a fucking truck. I had vaguely associated the word “trans” with these emotions for years, but never let myself confront it. Until that point, when I truly asked myself for the first time in my life, “am I trans?”.

I started panicking, hyperventilating, paralyzed by terror. This was the first panic attack I ever had, out of complete nowhere. There was no way. No fucking way. Oh god. Every transphobic wojak drawing, every “man in a dress” depiction plastered across the internet by bigoted neckbeards to sow brainworms in the marginalized, those were all me. I hated myself. I hated this realization. My life was over. My parents would disown me. Everything I had worked for would come crashing down, and I would just be another laughingstock. A stubbly creep that people would cross the street to avoid.

No way. I had to know right then and there whether I was trans or not. I looked online, for others in the same position. Throwing a question out to complete strangers that would be better directed inward, no matter how painful it was to confront.

I called a trans hotline. One for people going through times of crisis. I felt guilty for using resources like this. I wasn’t part of their target demographic. I wasn’t self-harming, or actively planning suicide. But I figured this would be the best place to seek advice, from somebody who knew more than I did.

Nobody answered.

I was fuming. Not at the organization, but at the situation. What if I was having an immediate emergency? How many people have been left hanging during the darkest periods of their lives? (Side note, this is painfully common among LGBTQ+ helplines due to high call volumes, and inadequate funding/volunteers. Please consider donating resources and time if you can, I’ll leave some links in the footnotes.1)

I was so mad that I stopped panicking altogether, and fell asleep. I felt drained the next day from everything I had gone through, but when I woke up, I had my answer.


even if you know, people won’t like it

The next few months were spent planning - planning how I would break this to my girlfriend at the time, to my parents, to my sister, to the rest of my family, to every friend I had.

I came out to my girlfriend in August, then my parents in September of that year. Almost half a year after my near-breakdown, I finally started taking steps toward transition. I called the local community health clinic to try and get an appointment, and they cited me a wait time of 8 months. That was unacceptable to me.2 I called around for a while, and eventually got to the point where I went to a walk-in clinic to ask in person.

Actually, it was more fucked than that. I had an appointment with an ADHD clinic, since my usual walk-in physician wanted to confirm my diagnosis after I moved back from Ontario and started seeing him. I figured since this was a specialist centre, they would be able to at least refer me to an endocrinologist. At the end of the appointment, I told the specialist I was trans, and the first thing she asked me was “are you crossdressing?”. The way she asked it, her sudden shift in tone, the ice in her voice after I made my queerness known, made me feel disgusting. Like she was a psychologist at a correctional institution dealing with a pervert in stolen lingerie. It’s not about clothes.

My parents had the same reaction. One of the first things my mom said was, “so you want to wear bras?”. Fuck that. I’m not even wearing one right now.

I was pissed. So I tried again with my walk-in doctor, and his reaction was funnier. He said, “oh ok, so you want to do the transgender?”

Yes Andy, I wanted to do the transgender. That’s literally all I wanted my entire life.

This was around January of 2021. He referred me to Trans Care BC, and I had an appointment set with a clinician in a month who specialised in trans care. She was fantastic. We talked about my history with my gender identity, whether I had begun any social transition (I hadn’t), and she gave me a lot of reassurance about the path I was starting to go down. I was just thankful to finally be dealing with a doctor who actually knows about this stuff. Another referral to an endocrinologist, and I had my prescription in hand by March.


the only people who accept it are people who know themselves

That’s right, March of 2021. I don’t know why, but I was terrified to take that last step and actually start the process for real. That little slip of paper sat in my drawer for 4 months before I decided to stop being a lazy piece of shit and start living my life. Part of me was afraid that I would go to the pharmacy to pick it up, and they would announce it to the entire store, like “Ok Mr. $DEADNAME, here’s your estrogen!”. They actually did end up doing that, but whatever. Don’t go to London Drugs.

I made friends with another trans girl around that time, and she helped give me that final nudge to go fill that prescription. It was just a simple reassurance and some company at the drugstore, but I’m eternally thankful to her. I probably would have held it off even longer if she hadn’t been there.

Hormones didn’t really feel all that different at first. They started me on a low dose, but I definitely started to see some changes around 2-3 months in. I bought my place in August and moved in, so I was finally able to switch out my wardrobe and start collecting cute pieces. Learning how to do makeup felt like a necessity, so I added that to my endless list of hobbies too.

Makeup is fucking HARD, by the way. At this point I do it like 2-3 times a month max, but I like how I look with or without it. It was an even bigger hassle at first, because I had this idea in my head that my femininity was tied to it. I would spend an hour following a video tutorial, and do a decent job at first. Then I would fuck up with my eyeliner, and everything would fall apart. I looked in the mirror and all I saw was a clown. My reflection would shift, and the person in front of me would morph into that nightmarish figure that I wanted to avoid. That brainworm caricature of a man in a dress, smeared eyeliner wings, stubble poking through caked foundation.

This is dysphoria.

Incidents like this put me off of makeup for a few weeks. I reached out to a transmasc friend who I’ve known for years for advice, since he’s a literal god at it. I asked him, “How the FUCK do I do makeup?”. I was crying when I wrote that. What he told me still rings in my head from time to time - “Makeup is literally coloured paste we apply to look inhuman”. It made a lot of sense. I was associating a literal consumer product with my own identity. Playing right into the hands of those corporate bastards at Maybelline HQ. He told me to try doing it terribly on purpose, in order to get used to my face at extremes. To silence that uncanny-valley instinct and look at it from a more objective point to view. This helped me take makeup a lot less seriously, and start having fun with the process. I didn’t end up doing anything too wild, since any look I did would end up terrible anyway. But the reassurance helped me a lot, in separating the performativity of gender expression from the integral nature of gender identity.

And yes, he hates doing eyeliner too. I think everybody does.

Transition is a constant learning process. Cis people have the luxury of time, the blessing of having their awkward learning phases coincide with an extended phase in their lives where things don’t really matter. There are no responsibilities to uphold, no professional image to maintain. No git logs to retroactively update. No established identity to overwrite. Trans people have to speedrun their second puberty, since the discomfort of being a beginner is amplified in visiblity. Nobody notices a cis person. They’re just living their lives. So are we, but people’s perceptions zoom in on deviations from the norm. You can present as feminine as you want, but people only notice the stray hairs on your chin. The bar is set way higher for us, and it’s exhausting at times. Everybody makes awkward fashion decisions; it’s a learning process not unlike figuring out a new instrument or sport. But nobody’s going around taking pictures of bad golfers to share on image boards. Nobody is pointing fingers at novice guitarists and blaming them for society’s decline.


things go downhill

They upped my hormone dosage around October of 2021. My levels were looking good, so it was time to go all-in. My estradiol got tripled to 6mg/day, and my spironolactone got doubled to 200mg/day.

I felt the side-effects of spiro HARD. My brain was basically a pile of mush for months. It was hard to code, or get anything productive done at all. That’s partially why this site hasn’t been updated in a while.

It was around this time that my parents found some of my old hormone bottles in my old room, and the fallout was BAD. I mentioned that my mom didn’t have a great reaction when I first came out to them - they basically asked me at the time to keep my identity a secret from the rest of the family. This is why I waited so desperately to move out before starting to present femme full-time. All my fears about making my parents ashamed basically came true. It didn’t matter to them how I felt, or that I was probably going to end up killing myself in a few years if I had to keep living that charade. They were more worried about how they would come across to everyone. How my queerness made them look bad. How it reflected poorly on them as parents, for raising a boy so poorly that he failed as a male entirely.

In between me coming out and that moment, we didn’t talk about transition once. They probably felt that by ignoring the issue, it would disappear. That my coming-out to them was on a random impulse, just a weird, isolated moment.

If you're going to do this, I am going to have to seriously reconsider being your mom.

That text devastated me. Even retyping it here, my heart still sinks having to recall that moment. This was the lowest point in my transition. I still wasn’t out at work or to my cis friends, so my only real support network were other trans people. Even while feeling so isolated and withdrawn, I still thought I had my family as a safety net of support if worse came to worst. It was incredibly lonely and invalidating to basically be disowned. Especially since, all things given, they should have been proud of where I was. I was making more than both of them at 23. I was out on my own, independent, driven, and self-sufficient. Living my own life. I wasn’t doing it for them, of course. But I had achieved most of my medium-term goals. I was finally an engineer. I had confronted that nagging unease that plagued every decision I had made in my life and accepted who I was. I was doing something I loved, AS somebody I loved. It was a pyrrhic victory.

I had some dark thoughts every once in a while.

Part of me would wonder sometimes, if I were better off dead. If my family would rather have a dead relative than a gay one. If I was even good enough to deserve love from others. Whether I deserved happiness and success.

I still hadn’t picked a name yet. So the identity crisis was exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t really have an identity. I was still $DEADNAME to most people in my life, the government, and the outside world. Things felt gradually more and more insular, like the walls of my circle of comfort were slowly caving in. Choking me in a claustrophobic embrace.

Around then, I started seeing someone, and my life started to pick up a little bit. She was also a trans girl - this was the first queer relationship I had ever been in, and the sense of community and kinship was intoxicating. I embraced the idea that I deserved tenderness, irrespective of who I was. Plus, we were hot. That felt fucking awesome to acknowledge.

That experience taught me a lot about my sexuality. It was honestly hard to believe she was trans too. The contrast between our bodies was stark, demarcated by a year of hormones. I wasn’t jealous, though. I didn’t give a single fuck about assigned gender at birth, because all I saw was a creative, sharp, and stunning person. I stopped thinking about myself in terms of my AGAB too, because the reality of the situation was obvious. It was a lesbian relationship. T4T dating is incredibly affirming, and it makes complete sense why trans people are so drawn to each other. Stand users attract other stand users. The transition process is deeply personal, and it forces you to face yourself in the most raw, unfiltered way possible. There is no analogue for cis people. You have to uproot your entire sense of being, and cherry-pick the parts that truly matter and make you, you. Everything else goes into the trash. You’re doing a refactor over a codebase that has accumulated decades of cruft. It’s only natural to seek out someone with that shared pain, similar rejections, that same ability to address themselves in a completely honest manner.

I spent Christmas with her family. I felt like I had found another safety net to replace the one that I had thrown away by choosing to head down this path. My parents and I were on bad terms still. That sense of rejection had turned into resentment, that something as trivial as my outward appearance could make them lash out so harshly.

We broke up shortly after New Years, and I was right back to where I was in October. Cut off again from a community. I didn’t talk to anyone for a while. My routine was the same, day by day. Wake up. Work. Finish work. Lie down on the couch. Stare at the ceiling. Eat dinner. Sleep. Goto Wake up.

That continued for a while, that fugue state of self-despair and non-productivity. I could barely let out a peep, let alone write a line of code. I thought I had completely lost any drive or sense of purpose. It wasn’t the breakup that was hurting me, it was the isolation. I felt like the only person in my own little bubble. At one point I didn’t even go outside for a few weeks.

I had always thought of myself as a pretty creative person. Somebody with the drive to express impossibly dense and profound levels of ideas with little effort. Once, I signed up last-minute to give a presentation on programming language design to an unfamiliar audience. The night before the talk, I wrote an interactive Lisp interpreter from scratch for a demo, the source code of which doubled as my presentation slides. These 1000 lines, not including my presentation script, took me 3 hours. I didn’t need to consult any references beyond the data structures I was using; it all came together naturally. And it worked without a hitch. This felt great to accomplish at the time.

The person I used to be, carried loads of self-hate. Sure. But I still knew what I was capable of. I hadn’t reached that state of flow in half a year, and I thought I had thrown that integral part of myself away with the rest of my old identity.

I felt useless.


:s/down/up/g

It was mid-February now. My mood was weird at this point. I knew that if I didn’t take charge of things, I would keep slipping. I set a goal for myself, to gradually start coming out to people. It started with 1 or 2 people per week, and everybody took it well. My sister was the first person to find out. I was terrified, because of how my parents reacted. Thank fuck zoomers are more open-minded.

I picked my name around this point. Honestly, I had liked the name Naomi for years, and I always thought it’d be a nice name for a daughter. Too bad, I stole it. The gradual rollout of Me 2.0 had started to accelerate, and eventually I had told every one of my past friends. People that I didn’t interacted with in ages. People whose potential reactions were completely opaque to me. I didn’t get a single bad one.

Sure, there were some stupid questions. I got about 20 of the same “when did this start?”, and “wow, how did you realize”. I was glad to answer them, because at least I wasn’t being accosted or berated. They just wanted to know how to act around me moving forward. They respected me, even if they didn’t understand. I didn’t lose any more community from this, thank fuck.

I decided it was time to take that big step, and come out at work. People were great too. I got a ton of positive reactions and good sentiments, and it felt great in that moment to finally be present as myself. The CEO herself chimed in to congratulate me on taking this step. HR gave me a new email within 5 minutes. I was proud, of both who I was and that I finally stopped putting this off.

It wasn’t all perfect, though. Before I came out, I changed my display name on Slack and my avatar too. Most people figured out who the person behind this mysterious personal speech was, easy enough. All my usernames on my other work accounts remained the same. We had a company all-hands that week, and I chimed in at some point. The CEO responded to me by deadnaming me in rapid succession. She must have said it at least 10 times in a row.

Don’t deadname trans people. Even now, I get really upset seeing it written or mentioned anywhere.

I guess she didn’t connect the dots between my post and who I was? Everybody in the meeting froze in shock, HR included. It later turned out that she thought I was one of the contractors or interns. Shit. I tried to make my identity as clear as possible, but clearly I didn’t do enough. That moment ruined my mood for the next little while. She apologized still.

My productivity was still in the toilet at this point, and not for any real justifiable reason. My emotional state was at a low point, but not in any dramatic or painful sense. I felt numb. Maybe deep down, I saw coming out as a last-hurrah sort of deal. That if I were to do something drastic, I wanted to be addressed by my proper name at least once. I wanted to experience ordinary life as myself. Just to know what it was like. Then I could go happily.

By March, I left my job. Things had gotten to a point where I didn’t feel that I could continue on. I had failed myself, my coworkers, and everyone around me. Actually, that third clause is redundant. I was just on my own now. I didn’t feel like I was good enough for anything or anyone. I was burnt out from pulling late nights, trying to catch up on technical debt from earlier nighttime sprints. It was a cycle of stress and hurt. I dreaded going into work and facing my coworkers, deeply intelligent people who I respected. Who I let down.

I laid in bed for 2 days straight, only getting up to fulfill minimum survival needs. My cat had food and water. I had food and water. Nothing else mattered, really. This felt safe. Nobody would look down on me if I was hiding under my blankets. I belonged here and here alone.

Being a lazy piece of shit got boring quick, so I willed myself back out of my room after a while.


addendum: egg.sh

If you’ve read this far, I guess I’ll include SOME code in this essay. During those months I spent at home, waiting for a hormone readiness assessment, I wrote this shell script as a little reassurance to myself about the path I was going down. Having pride for the first time in my life felt good. I still run it every once in a while, and it never fails to make me smile.

I’m happy where my life is now. c:

#!/bin/bash

for c in 75 212 231 212 75; do
 tput setab "$c"
 printf '%55s\n%55s\n%55s\n'
done

  1. LGBT Crisis Hotlines:
    Note that some organizations may dispatch emergency services. Trans Lifeline does not.
    If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you are not alone.
    - Trans Lifeline - Canada: (877) 330-6366, USA: (877) 565-8860
    - Other hotlines
    ↩︎

  2. Another side note, the wait time to access gender-affirming health care is up to 5 years in countries like the UK and Sweden. This is intentional, and the government is complicit in any and all deaths that occur as a result.↩︎