I was leaving femininity behind, grateful to have an example like my grandpa to grow toward.
When I started hormone replacement therapy last October, I wanted a lower voice, bigger shoulders, an androgynous waist-to-hip ratio, maybe a beard. I wanted to look like someone you’d call sir. Most importantly, I wanted a sense of finally being at home in my body.
I realized a couple of years ago that I am trans, the non-binary kind. I’d been dancing around, coming up with many other explanations for why I didn’t wear my body well. Maybe I had an eating disorder or was coping with PTSD. Maybe I just needed to exercise more, try meditation, say daily affirmations to my body. I tried these things and they made the problem manageable, but it never went away. I realized that, for me, self-acceptance looked like moving forward with physical transition. Hormonal changes were permanent, visible, and obvious; they ensured that I would never be able to go back to hiding, even if I wanted to.
But I was afraid of those changes, too. The night before my first in-clinic injection, I lay awake. My brain ran through a reel of all the negative experiences I’d had with men. Although every human is capable of producing both estrogen and testosterone, I associated testosterone with the rage, lust, greed, and entitlement of toxic masculinity. Testosterone is the hormone of desire. I feared losing control of myself: if that desire was aroused, could I trust myself? I didn’t know how my desire would manifest when my hormones changed, or how it would impact the way I navigated the world. Would I become a predator? Would I make other people feel afraid?
In my mind, masculinity was linked with lack. Men were greedy because they were deprived of intimacy and pleasure, the rich experiences women share with one another. Grown men didn’t cuddle. They didn’t laugh until they cried, or eat an entire bag of caramels because their feelings were hurt. They didn’t know the balm of hearing their friends say “you are so lovable” when their hearts were aching. A man’s role was to take power, control his emotions, and tell everyone else what to do. To me, trading estrogen for testosterone meant agreeing to live behind a thick, unbreakable pane of glass, separated: both policing the rest of the world and unable to enjoy it for yourself.
My father was like that. He watched, without touching. He was not snuggly; sitting on his lap was like balancing on a stack of firewood. I thought real men were like him, and that testosterone was the thing that made him so hard. He never seemed to need anything outside himself, but he also seemed so lonely. Simply acknowledging my identity cut me off from so many of the people I loved when they didn’t accept what I told them. I wasn’t sure I could handle any more isolation.
The morning of my first shot, I headed to the clinic, not really listening to the radio. I’d done the drive dozens of times and it was easy to let my mind wander. I tried to reassure myself that if I didn’t feel right, I could discontinue the medicine. As much as I feared changing my body, I feared not changing even more. And, after all, discomfort was part of the deal.
The rites of passage for men, as far as I could tell, were all about pain. I studied men, starting from a very early age, back when people still asked me if I was a girl or a boy. I had listened carefully to the men I dated or befriended and learned about the secret codes of masculinity. I watched my dad go to work every day in a crisp Navy uniform, service ribbons and insignias in tight rows on his chest, looking every inch a hero.
But masculinity was messy, too. I learned on the playground that if you wanted to be a man, you had to throw and land a punch. Manly men got their noses broken in bar fights. As I got older, the boys I’d tackled at recess started to show me interesting scars. My high school boyfriend was the first to get a stupid tattoo: his own initial. The men I knew after him inked themselves with the logos of a favorite sports team, or symbols that evoked their heritage. Many of those same male friends played football, even the grunge punks. They joined the military or failed to enlist because they had flat feet. (They never recovered from this.)
I spent most of my early life imitating those men and boys, sleeping with them, keeping their secrets, and finding new ways to out-do them. I hammered myself against life like a fist against drywall. I drank too much, fought, yelled, slept around, and drove too fast. I got dumb tattoos, then got them covered them up with more dumb tattoos. The things I said and did would have been acceptable if I’d been a boy. But I was not a boy, I was just a weirdo, afraid to be vulnerable, collecting data on an alien species that fascinated and repelled me.
Although I’d lived as “one of the boys,” my relationships with testosterone-dominant humans were confusing. I had a few positive male or masculine role models, such as my high school journalism teacher, my best friend Will, Mr. Rogers, and my grandfather, who once carried me on his shoulders and let me eat all our popcorn instead of making me share. But even the kindest men mostly seemed to fear ever seeming weak. Nothing was soft or sweet. Even love was not about pleasure: courtship was hunting, invading, conquering.
A boyfriend asked me once, “Do you view life as a battle?”
Of course I said yes. There was no other way to see it.
I spent most of my early life imitating those men and boys, sleeping with them, keeping their secrets, and finding new ways to out-do them.
I parked in the side lot by the doctor’s office and sat there for a minute, listening to the engine tick. I looked at my hands on the steering wheel, at 10 and 2, exactly like my dad taught me. I hadn’t told him I was going through with HRT. I loved him, but I knew I couldn’t trust him to understand or support me.
The summer before, we’d gotten into a terrible fight. It was about the way another family member treated my son; then it ended up being about everything, ever. My dad used all his old tricks, leaning over me and clenching his jaw in a way that suggested he would have liked to punch me. Instead of hitting, his words got short and hard. He wanted to win. He wanted to make me feel small. It was so bad that my brain stopped recording the things we said to each other.
My mother, who watched without intervening, tried to soothe me. She kept saying, “He never understood you.” The next day, we apologized to each other, but it didn’t change anything. We were both too stubborn.
I was too stubborn to back down then, and too stubborn to change my mind now. I opened my car door. The sounds of the world rushed in. Rain spattered me, beading on my glasses. I understood my dad well enough to know what I inherited from him. Like him, I was bossy, critical of myself, judgmental of others, and uncompromising, with ideals so high that they were impossible to fulfill. We were both mission-driven and struggled to forgive others. I knew how unhealthy those personality traits could be. I was afraid that testosterone would make them even worse, making me hard and sharp, making me into a weapon.
The first injection hurt like hell. In the exam room, I pulled my pants down and let a nurse inject testosterone into my thigh. I couldn’t look. The needle felt big, its gauge taking a punch of out of my skin. I felt the dart stab through each layer, going deeper, crunching through the fat and piercing the meaty quadricep underneath. The medication was as thick as sap. I didn’t mean to, but I yelped.
“That was girly,” I muttered.
The nurse dropped the used syringe into the sharps container on the wall. She said the next one would be easier. “I’m surprised you didn’t have someone to hold your hand,” she said. “Most people bring a friend. The first shot is a big deal.”
I didn’t have anyone to bring with me—or at least, not anyone I was willing to be that vulnerable in front of. I lost many important relationships when I came out: my best friend, my fiancé, and my parents. My dog still liked me, but she wasn’t allowed in the clinic.
In one month, at a full weekly dosage of testosterone, my estrogen levels plummeted to zero, my period stopped, and my voice cracked. I experienced intense and unexpected cravings for chocolate and cigarettes. I quit smoking ages ago, and I’ve never had a sweet tooth, but testosterone flipped the switch. Suddenly, I couldn’t stop buying chocolate. I got a candy jar and filled it with bite-sized Mr. Goodbars and dark Hershey’s and ate them like medicine. Two a day, twice a day, as needed. I couldn’t go a day without chocolate. I hid candy in my coat pockets, just in case.
Chocolate and cigarettes were one side effect of HRT. The other was the extreme softness I found in myself. I expected to become even tougher, shedding my emotions like a winter coat. In fact, the opposite was true.
Transitioning didn’t turn me into my father, though we still had plenty in common. I was intense and too hard on myself, with an overdeveloped sense of what was honorable or good. To my surprise, testosterone made me more like his father.
My grandpa was one of the best men in my life, and he was also a great lover of chocolate and cigarettes. He started smoking and eating candy when he served in World War II under General Patton. The GIs got chocolate bars and free cigarettes in their rations. They could be traded for all sorts of things.
The GIs got free cigarettes, any brand, as many as they wanted. Six weeks into T, I bought my first pack of cigarettes in years. When I lit up, I smelled my grandpa in the woody tobacco, which reminded me of his library and the jacket he wore to church. The wartime appetites he brought home from Germany were part of his makeup. As I continued to change, I noticed that they were becoming part of mine as well. My grandpa quit smoking in the 1960s, but he didn’t give up wanting to. I remember that when I was little and sat on his lap, my grandpa still reached for the soft pack of Camels he used to keep in his shirt pocket. It was a physical tic that didn’t fade.
Transitioning didn’t turn me into my father; testosterone made me more like his father.
He was one of two adult men who held and hugged me when I was growing up. I knew what it felt like to be hit by men, punched, raped, shoved, wrestled to the ground. I had few experiences of gentle masculine touch that wasn’t an immediate prelude to sex. Masculinity and sweetness weren’t usually synonymous, in my experience. My grandpa was the exception to this rule. He was not a yeller or a hitter, and he had a lifelong sweet tooth. In fact, he couldn’t turn down sugar. He snuck candy bars all the time and usually had a stash, hidden from my grandma, who was always trying to keep his blood sugar down.
Another memory: I take my grandpa to the grocery store and he slips two Hershey’s bars into the cart, although he’s not supposed to eat them. He says, “Don’t tell Mama.” He eats the first candy bar in the car, licking chocolate shavings from his fingers like a little kid. At home, he hides the other one up high, by the cabinet in the kitchen where he kept his pistol from the war. We sit in the living room and he tells me a few stories about killing Nazis during the occupation. He saved his sugar and butter ration and gave it to a German family, who included him at their family table.
He said that, in exchange for chocolate, there were German girls who would go in the hayloft with you: “Don’t tell Mama.” Before I leave, he slips me a twenty.
I thought of my grandpa often in the first few weeks of HRT. He’d faded into the grey woods of dementia, then passed away right before my thirtieth birthday. I had no idea if he would understand my gender or my need to adjust my physical self. But I was confident that he would love me, and stick with me through the rites of passage I was taking, one at a time. I was leaving femininity behind, grateful to have an example like my grandpa to grow toward. He was patient and easygoing, endlessly supportive, and a selfless leader who was generous with his heart, time, and wallet. In every way, he embodied good citizenship. He was, without a doubt, a Good Man.
The cigarettes and chocolate I took every day, like medicine, felt like the two avenues of pleasure that are permitted to men. They were daily indulgences that are both sweet and crude, like the men I’ve loved. A solitary cigarette, the symbol of industry, was the punctuation on my work day. Chocolate, dark as mud, kept me going between cups of coffee.
I didn’t understand how important treats would become, when I needed to reward myself for sticking through another tough week or standing up to someone who belittled me. I didn’t realize how badly masculine people need sweetness, too. Or how administering it to myself, in tiny doses, would satisfy me, make me feel safe, and connect me to the man who showed me how to be the best and kindest version of myself.
C. R. Foster is a queer, nonbinary trans writer from Portland, Oregon. Their critically acclaimed short story collection Shine of the Ever is available from Interlude Press.