Excerpt from Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man
The last image you might have of me is from about 10 plus years ago when I was working as a gay and lesbian activist. At that time, I was also writing books (first Family Outing and next End of Innocence). Then I more or less disappeared.
In my first book, Family Outing, I described the events that led to a life-changing moment when I discovered that I was attracted to girls instead of boys, and drew the logical conclusion that I was a lesbian. Family Outing also included my mom's side of the story, how she'd had intuitive hunches since I was very young that I might not grow up to be just like her and that I might, indeed, be gay. In that way, Family Outing was also a coming out guide; I felt compelled to share my story—not to shock people with a tell-all memoir but rather to reach out to other gay people and their families who were trying to overcome the many challenges of coming out, hoping that they might benefit from my struggle and experience.
Just as I was finishing Family Outing, my dad died in a freak skiing accident. I pulled myself together for a couple of years, began writing End of Innocence, which was my attempt to make sense of my early music career, its precipitous demise and my passionate relationship with an older woman. Tragically, Joan died of cancer, after less than two years of powerful love and intense involvement.
These personal losses triggered a gradual but extreme downward spiral in my life that ultimately led me to develop an addiction to prescription painkillers—the only way I found at the time to take the edge o??? the searing pain inside of me. Though it was a slow progression over many years, my addiction to prescription opiates made it impossible to continue working, and, in fact, I barely made it through writing End of Innocence.
But when I disappeared, drugs and grief were not the only reasons.
The truth is that something very deep inside of me was slowly coming to the surface. Through the pain and sorrow of the loss of both Joan and then my dad; through the frustration and disappointment of my failed music career; through the haze of my dependence on prescription drugs, I began to realize a truth about myself that was so frightening that I became completely paralyzed. In turn, I became so disgusted with my inability to stand up for myself that I retreated further into drugs and the smallest circle of friends and family I could manage.
This truth that was slowly emerging had a hazy beginning. Since I was a child, I'd been aware of a part of me that did not fit. At first, I thought this sense of not fitting in was about me being gay. But as time went on, and I tried different ways of "being a lesbian"—from lipstick to stone butch—I had to admit to myself that the "something" nagging at me was a lot more complicated than just my sexual orientation. Even when I was active in the gay community, I never felt completely at ease. There was something else about me that didn't make sense, something that was much more profound and a lot more threatening. And it took me years to put my finger on what about me felt so disturbing.
I can remember going to Washington, D.C., while my father was still alive, for the reintroduction to Congress of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. After his congressional session, my dad took me onto the floor of Congress. I remember thinking at that moment how cool it would be to run for office one day. I began to envision my own career in politics and how proud I'd be to serve my country. But then it occurred to me that I'd have to be called a "congresswoman"—and that one word just stopped me short.
I got a little closer to understanding what was going on with me during my first attempt at sobriety. I recall being at an all-lesbian barbecue with some new friends. At the time, I was involved with a woman who was very social (as well as sober) and I was doing my best to expand my own social life, after being so withdrawn. Newly clearheaded, I still found myself two steps removed from the group, observing their interactions, listening to their stories and not as engaged as I could have been. And it occurred to me that day: I am not like any of these women. I'm not a femme lesbian; I'm not a jock lesbian; I'm not even a stone butch, despite my mannish shoes and clothing. I had tried on all these quintessential lesbian identities, but none of them had ever really fit. "No," I thought to myself. "I'm something other, something entirely different."
Over time, it began to dawn on me that though embodied as a female, I was not a woman at all. That despite my breasts, my curves and my female genitalia, inside, I identified as a man. This meant, of course, that I was transgender, literally a man living in a woman's body. I have always felt more comfortable wearing boys'and men's clothes. Without a doubt, as a child I thought of myself as a boy. But the process of coming to terms with the reality that I am in fact transgender was horrific. It upended my entire life.
Most of us grow up with the expectation that the way we view ourselves and experience ourselves will eventually make sense. As young children and adolescents, we muddle along, helped and sometimes hindered by those who raise and care for us. We reach adulthood with varying degrees of self-understanding, hoping that a road map to a happy life will emerge. This process of figuring out our lives is never without challenges to overcome, wrong turns, successes and failures. But when something as basic as the physical body doesn't match the internal view we have in our minds, then there is a searing division within the self. And when the sex of the brain and the sex of the body clash, then the only treatment is some form of transition to the other gender. Without this treatment, in my opinion, lives are never fully lived. In many cases, they are shortened by suicide or self-destructive lifestyles.
It would take me almost 10 more years before I truly understood the significance of my gender dysphoria, a clinical description that gets to the disconnection between how the body presents its sex and how the brain experiences its sex. In essence, when these two are different (the brain feels itself to be a man but the body is a woman's, and vice versa), the confusion and discomfort is so deep, so disturbing, that most of us try anything to either deny our true feelings or otherwise avoid dealing with ourselves.
Like everyone else on this planet, I grew up in a society of rigid gender roles and had the same distance and lack of understanding about what being transgender really means. I, too, thought it was weird to be transgender. So for years, I fought that secret lurking within me with thoughts such as "Trans people aren't 'normal'— how could they be?" Historically we have been a culture that accepts very little gender variance. Look at our discomfort with feminine men and, to a slightly lesser extent, masculine women. We have plenty of derogatory labels for people who don't fit into our society's strict notions of masculine and feminine: sissy, queen, fairy, butch, dyke and tomboy, to name a few.
The actual clinical term to define being transgender in the DSM IV (the diagnostic manual used by physicians and psychologists) is "gender identity disorder," which still carries with it a certain degree of pathology, not to mention negative connotations. This labeling, this constrained understanding of what it means to be transgender, is only one of many reasons why making the decision to transition is a difficult and often painful conclusion for anyone to reach. Transitioning often leads to loss of jobs, friends, spouses and family members. And even when relationships aren't severed, they are often pushed almost to breaking points. Before I made my decision to start the process, I was terrified about how all of the people I was close to would handle and feel about my transition. I also had to contend with the fact that, unlike most individuals who transition relatively privately, because I was a public figure with famous parents, my transition would have to take place in front of the whole world. This reality added a pressure to my decision to transition that for years completely incapacitated me.
I was blindsided by the full realization that I'm transgender. I felt completely helpless and paralyzed with fear—at an emotional ground zero. Finally summoning the courage to act on the essential truth about myself was a deep, dark and often ugly struggle. I had to relive moments of shame, embarrassment and pain. And yet, though the struggle to start my transition was as frightening and challenging as climbing Mount Everest, I have written this book to show and share with the world something even more remarkable: Ever since my first dose of testosterone, I have never felt so whole, so complete, so happy in my life. And this triumph is what Transition is all about.
Chaz opens up to Oprah