I hang my hat in two very disparate camps: the world of the military/law enforcement and the world of writers. The two intersect sometimes, but not nearly as much as I’d like, and it’s been regrettably necessary for me to maintain multiple circles of friends that don’t overlap much.
Recently, one of my writer friends taught me something.
He lives far away. We have one of those friendships where we catch up in person once or twice a year, sitting in some trendy brasserie and filling one another in on our lives, feeling as if no time has passed at all. We trade emails in the interim, and lean on one another for support over the phone reliably enough that when either of us sees the other’s number over caller ID, we know there’s a crisis. It’s a valuable friendship, one that’s seen me through multiple personal hells, kept me on the straight and narrow when I was so blind with grief and terror that I couldn’t see a way ahead. The friendship finally reached the stage where I felt like he was one of the people I considered “in my circle.” I’m loyal as a dog, and once you’re in that particular circle, you always are, come hell or high water. That lends a sense of permanence to a person. He had crystalized in my mind. He was, to me, who he was.
And then, one day, he sent me an email and told me that he had once been female.
I won’t lie. I spent a solid 5 minutes reading and rereading and asking the computer monitor if this was some kind of a fucking joke. But it wasn’t. He had changed his gender, and wanted me to know.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “You want to identify as a guy, I treat you as a guy. Hell, if you hadn’t said anything, I would never ever ever have known.” I don’t talk about my sex life much, and I don’t tend to ask people about theirs. I knew he and I had different interests, and that was enough. What he did in the privacy of his bedroom was his business. He said that it was important to him to feel like he could truly be himself with his friends. He didn’t want this to be a secret.
That made sense. After a few minutes, I swallowed the new information, digested it. “Whatever,” I concluded. “You’re my friend and I love you. You want to be a guy. You’re a guy. That’s that.”
And it was.
Of course, there was curiosity. I’d never had a close transgendered friend before. I had questions. What had caused him to make the change? What was the experience like? How had people reacted? His family? His friends? How did he have sex? Date? Change in a locker room? What bathroom did he use? And because he was my friend, he answered them patiently, kindly, specifically. This was followed by some lengthy conversations on what it meant to be a man, in which I had my assumptions challenged, my horizons broadened.
As the months passed, I chewed on the idea, found that the seed of surprise and curiosity had sprouted into something else. As our friendship continued in its familiar grove, regular conversations about work, art and ambition, friends in common, the kind of mundane checking in that stands in for the more direct statement “I care about you and your life,” I finally came to grips with the flower that seed had blossomed into.
If there is a thing in this world I admire, it is grit. “Grit” is like the Arabic “wasta,” Russian “krisha,” or Heinlein’s “grok,” words that have a definition, but a landscape of meanings. The word is an acquired taste, it takes a long time to truly plumb its meaning.
Grit is courage. It is tenacity. It is suicidal bravery. It is fastening your teeth on an objective and not letting go even when it recedes so quickly that the wind begins to strip your skin. It is single-mindedness. It is commitment.
For me, gender has always been an immutable thing. It is like a mountain, or the wind. It simply is. I am happy to be a male. I have no desire to change it, but it also occurs to me that I have never, not even for an instant, even considered the possibility of changing it, anymore than I would consider the possibility of breathing underwater without the aid of any gear.
Our genders are chosen before we leave the womb. From the moment we take our first breaths, our gender identity is reinforced by everyone and everything around us. Our shape, our size, even the arrangement of our internal organs speak of a single side of the aisle, of a way that we simply are.
My friend looked at that rock solid reality, in all its immutable, monolithic certainty, and decided, fuck that. He didn’t like it.
So he changed it.
At first, those around him downtalked his interest, ignored it, tried to dismiss it. As he persisted, the resistance grew, until he endured threats, curses, accusations. Those he loved turned their backs on him, those who didn’t know him threatened his life. Everyone told him he was a fool. That he was crazy. He was female. You might as well try to put out the sun.
I imagined the onslaught. I imagined how he must have felt, doubting himself, wondering if the accusers were right, that he was insane, that he was going to do irreversible damage to himself to no effect, that he could never change who he was.
I imagined him digging deep, staring all that in the eye, resistance that would have crushed me in an instant, and saying, “Get out of my way.”
He is a man now, physically, emotionally, intellectually. He has a good job, a solid circle of friends. He has an active love life. His family has, at long last, embraced him. The entire world treats him as he is: a man. His transformation is as complete as it can be. He is a man in every way I can possibly think of.
And more, he is a man with grit. He is a man with steel. He is a man who stares in the face of the greatest obstacles the world can offer, shrugs, and rolls up his sleeves.
He is the kind of man I strive to be.
Every single thing I value my life seemed utterly beyond my reach until the moment I had it. A scrawny nerd could never become an officer. A failed writer could never get a book deal.
My friend reminded me that life is completely made up, that nothing is inevitable, that the only rules are the ones we make for ourselves.
There will come a time in your life when you will want to do something. Something incredible. Something impossible. You will want to do it with the core of your being. Your soul will vibrate with the rightness of the act. People around you won’t understand. They’ll dismiss you. They’ll insult you. They’ll threaten you.
Do it anyway.