Content Warning: mention of suicide, mental illness, & internalized transphobia
When most people think of OCD, they think of repetitive, compulsive actions- rituals- undertaken to neutralize irrational worry. There’s less awareness of Pure O, a form of OCD in which these rituals are mostly, if not entirely, mental. For example, checking to see whether one is sexually aroused, then interpreting any physical sensation as proof of arousal.
I can’t say whether the right-wing demonization of queer and trans people as perverts and child molesters ultimately determined the content of my OCD obsessions. There are many straight cis people like British journalist and memoirist Rose Bretecher who have had debilitating POCD, or pedophilia OCD, which is similar to harm OCD in that a person is consumed by the fear of hurting others.
When I dropped out of Princeton University in 2008, I had been suicidal for half a decade. If I saw any child, whether a baby or an adolescent, I would have a panic attack, so I tried to stay inside my dorm and avoid anything off-campus. I had trouble sleeping and eating. I was failing all my classes.
In high school, I’d periodically gather my cache of Tylenol and rubbing alcohol to reassure myself. I daydreamed about wandering into the snowy Michigan woods at night, stuffing myself full of pills and lying down by a tree. I’d put out matches on my arms, believing myself deserving of punishment, then judged myself for being an emo cliché. I held pillows over my face (I felt like I was made wrong, a thing that deserved to be smothered) but always chickened out, always came up for air. My mom would kill herself if I died, I knew, and so I couldn’t.
When she drove to Princeton, New Jersey to pick me up and take me home, I smashed a wine glass against a table, on purpose, in the middle of an expensive Italian restaurant, enraged I think by the debt compelling me to stay alive. My mother, though raised on the North Shore of Chicago, has worked her whole life, often multiple jobs, in food service positions that have left her with fallen arches, a high risk for blood clots, sciatica and knees that will need to be replaced this summer. She never finished college because she had to take care of her own mother. I think she was wondering how her impeccably polite and people-pleasing Ivy League daughter, whose accomplishments she bragged about while bartending parties for rich women in Kenilworth, had been replaced by this petulant, disgruntled monster with no gratitude for sacrifice. But honestly, I don’t remember smashing the wine glass so much as I remember her telling me about it, because all I wanted at that point in my life was to be unconscious enough for the pain to go away.
I have a distinct memory of being twelve or thirteen and listening to David Sedaris read an essay about feeling nervous around little boys, not because he was attracted to them but because of the stigma toward gay men. This was on the Walkman my grandmother had given me, my grandmother who I adored and who agreed with my father (a dead-beat, though I don’t hold him entirely culpable for his low level of functioning, his inability to provide care without devolving into rage) that gay people were mentally ill and employers had reason to discriminate against them.
Their homophobia was casual, garden-variety. Neither would be rude to a queer person to their face, except the child they didn’t know was queer. Both my father and grandmother were socially liberal; they tolerated queerness with forbearing distaste so long as it wasn’t “flamboyant” or “shoved in their face.” I’d realized by then that I was more attracted to women than men, but resolved to only date men, to make my life easier by killing the wildness inside me. My mom, though heterosexually identified and not consciously gender non-conforming, was a woman as big as a man who had to work harder than a man to make up for what my father couldn’t or wouldn’t provide. I knew she wanted me to someday meet a nice man like her classmates from New Trier (the high school Mean Girls was based off of) had. She didn’t want me to have to struggle.
Blockbuster still existed then. I rented Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped and murdered in Wyoming in 1993. My heart beat in my whole body while watching it. This movie was the only representation of trans-masculine experience available to me growing up. My early sexual fantasies were vague on particulars but I always pictured myself in the male role, another inconvenience that, like my attraction to women, I thought I could suppress. I developed mental rituals to overwrite the “wrong” sexual thoughts (ones that involved fucking women and having a male body) with the “right” sexual thoughts (which is confusing these days because as a trans guy being vaginally penetrated, especially by cis men, is no longer something I’m “supposed” to enjoy, although I very much do.)
The possibility Brandon Teena represented- the pureness of that freedom, like wind rushing on skin, before it was snuffed out- stirred something in me, but I couldn’t be trans. I just couldn’t. It seemed too improbable, too outlandish. Being trans was a story someone else told while holding a flashlight up to their chin in the dark, but actually being the story yourself. Everyone thinking you were a freak, but acting polite about it. I was the one who felt bad and acted polite, not the freak. Who could know what they felt, these strange people who mutilated their bodies? Of course, I knew exactly what it was like to experience phantom body parts without being an amputee.
Despite or perhaps because of my rationalizations and internalized transphobia, living inside my skin felt humiliating. At school, the boys called me a faggot (somehow, mysteriously, affirming my gender even then, perhaps because eleven-year-old me was in the habit of wearing a red beret with a single clip-on earring and singing loudly to myself in the hallway). The popular girls mock-flirted with me just to laugh at how red my face got. Being a boy without a penis, though I wouldn’t have articulated it that way at the time, felt like something to be ashamed of.
One night a friend of my mom’s came over to dinner with her small children. What if I was a pedophile? I thought, then why would I have that thought if I wasn’t? These thoughts multiplied into a solid mass, an alarm that never stopped ringing. Sometimes it was like the thoughts had a face. They were a voice inside me, relentlessly judgmental and cruel. I processed each of them as data, rather than thoughts; as meaningful, rather than random. Those next five years I hardly felt alive. I truly believed I was evil, that I held the essence of evil inside me. I wondered if I was possessed by demons. The pain rendered me absent, so that people in my life always commented that I seemed to be “in my own world.” My erratic and inconsiderate behavior alienated many.
Now that I am twenty-eight, I have been on Luvox, an SSRI specifically tailored to OCD, for seven years. In 2010 I was able to return to Princeton; in 2015 I finished graduate school. Though mental illness has undoubtedly impacted my academic performance, I am higher-functioning than before. Knowing that you’re not a pedophile unsurprisingly improves one’s quality of life. I’m out as a non-binary trans guy attracted to people of all genders. However much progress I’ve made, rhetoric like that of our new assistant secretary of health and human services Charmaine Yoest- who has referred to trans people as “crazy” “creatures,” told parents they should worry about having trans people around their children and dismissed health care for trans people as a “joke”- still has the power to hurt me.
Besides the massive advantage of growing up in a tax district like the North Shore, I presented as a feminine woman for most of my life and dated cis men. Some trans people would say I’m not really trans because I’ve socially but not medically transitioned. Dysphoria, like anything else, is a spectrum. People suffer from it to varying degrees, often concerning different parts of their body. While most trans guys have severe top dysphoria, I think my breasts are pretty cute. Growing up, I actually felt ashamed of how small they were, because I thought their size made me less attractive to men. Phalloplasty, or more colloquially, dick surgery, is not a solution to my fairly intense genital dysphoria, both because of cost and because science is not yet at a point where I’d be comfortable with the process or results. My life as a bisexual man who looks like a femme lesbian (I don’t make a very convincing butch) may be existentially strange, but this surreal sensation isn’t the hell other trans people describe, not exactly; it’s more like purgatory, or a really trippy, disconcerting dream. Like walking on a fractured ankle that only hurts if you focus on it, that might set wrong if you tried to fix it.
Since losing my job as an adjunct professor at a Big Ten university, I’ve been struggling to find full-time employment and living with my mother. When I broached the subject of starting a low dose of testosterone, more with the goal of seeing whether it relieves my anxiety and depression than of transforming into a bearded beefcake who posts his #gains on Instagram (an ideal which seems so impossible to reach anyway), my mother brought up the trans women she’d seen performing at a friend’s burlesque show, who “looked weird.” This is her way, of course, of saying that they didn’t look like cis women. “I would not hire them,” she continued. “I just want you to be employable.” She doesn’t want me to “ruin” my life.
When she says we don’t have an extra thirty dollars a month for testosterone between us, it’s not a lie. I’ve tried confronting her regarding trans-misogyny, but she grows defensive, as if her unexamined prejudice towards trans people who aren’t her son, trans women in particular, shouldn’t matter. She’s supporting me as I tutor part-time and search for jobs. Campaigning for hormones I’m not even certain I want indeed seems selfish.
Because I am read as a cis woman, no one polices me for using the women’s bathroom. If I go to the gynecologist or the doctor’s office I can use the legal name I haven’t changed and be treated with dignity and respect. My license and passport photos more or less match my current appearance, so I can travel unencumbered. I am not gawked at or harassed or a target of violence. When the right-wing invokes the rhetorical bogeymonster of the trans bathroom predator, they are invariably demonizing trans women and femmes. Celebrated cis feminists like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are not asked to weigh in on whether trans-masculine people have been socialized female or possess male privilege, as many of us do after a year or two on testosterone. Straight cis men, it seems, neither want to fuck trans men nor kill us, so we’re mostly left alone. Since this January one trans man and ten trans women, all people of color, have been murdered. A shockingly high percentage of people seem to believe that “panic,” i.e. uncomfortable feelings occasioned by encountering the other, is sufficient reason to take a life.
I have a pink, pleasantly round face and a sweetly girlish voice, so the world is mostly kind albeit often condescending to me, which is another way of saying I benefit from white cis female privilege. Still when I think back to my early attempts at making sense of myself, of the way I experienced sexuality and related or didn’t relate to my body below the waist, I don’t remember having the thought I’m supposed to be a boy but rather the thought that I was somehow a threat, a monster. I tell people I don’t want a family because children can be annoying and exhausting, but that’s only partially true. Though I haven’t suffered from intrusive thoughts about children in years, being around them still triggers anxiety. During the twelve sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy my mother was able to afford for me seven years ago, my therapist used exposure techniques similar to treatment for phobias. During one session, we sat by the kid’s pool at the local water park for an hour and I tried not to hyperventilate.
I have parsed apart my OCD and myself enough to know that I would never prey upon another person, nor desire to, but I sometimes feel that my very existence as a trans person is inappropriate. I get too nervous to wear a packing penis in public places, even though no one can see it, because I’ve internalized the idea that my gender is disgusting, an affront to common decency. Shame accumulates upon a body, hunches it inward, estranges it from its inhabitant, causing the teeth to grind at night, the jaw to clench.
Maybe in a different world my OCD would have centered on fears of contagion or blasphemy, and though I would still struggle as a parent, I’d feel like having a family was an option. Maybe those obsessions would still have led to intense suicidal ideation, academic failure and personal derailment. But also, maybe in a world without transphobia, I’d have had more space in my brain for schoolwork. Maybe I’d speak another language. Maybe I’d be more financially stable by now. At least I wouldn’t have to wonder whether writing and publishing essays about gender identity and mental illness, doing work that’s important to me, negatively impacts my employment prospects.
Some of my teaching reviews from my former students, who were all outwardly respectful when I asked them to call me Jason, might still say that I was erratic, at times underprepared, or politically biased, but not that I centered the “irrelevant” reading materials and lectures around my own sexuality and gender identity because, in 2017, I assigned several essays written by queer and trans authors then led discussions on their writing. The idea of me openly being me, of asking students and colleagues to use my correct name and pronouns, wouldn’t be radical or controversial. Maybe I wouldn’t have the wide hips no amount of hormones can change, the vocal inflections that turn the ends of statements into questions, the years of self-loathing and denial to undo. Sometimes we don’t need bigots to yell slurs at us. Sometimes the slurs just seem to be there, at a subliminal level, in our own minds, and we hurl them at ourselves.
I’m glad I felt indebted to my mom to stay alive.