Understanding what I was going through felt like a problem of language. How do you explain something as ineffable as dysphoria? For other nebulous affects, we have familiar metaphors and clichés (stabbing pain, heart-wrenching grief). I was caught in a loop of trying to match the discomfort I felt in my body to insufficient language, logic hitching each time they failed to line up.
Nevada didn’t give me the language for this. It showed me that I didn’t need it.
That same weekend of the breakup, I was sitting in my bedroom in Alabama. I had Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” on repeat on the Spotify account my ex still used, and I could not stop reading. At seemingly every new page, I laughed with the pleasure of recognition.
Maria doesn’t fit any of the trans narratives I’d absorbed through popular culture. Even the few out trans people I knew in college seemed to have figured it out as soon as they were away from their homes and high schools. But Maria disdains the need for certainty, for proving you’re “Really Trans” because you’ve always known you were. “She’d known that Those Kinds of People were out there somewhere, but it felt like there was nothing but us normal people in here,” she reflects early on. “This is what everybody thinks.” Instead of knowing that she was “Really Trans,” she just feels weird. Out of place, disembodied, trying to escape her male privilege and “disappear into [herself].” Maria exists in a zone of negation—not what she feels (dysphoria, “like a woman,” etc.), but what she doesn’t feel (social comfort, bodily comfort, “normal”). Absences that could be swallowed by a heading like “dysphoria” but instead are allowed to remain nebulous, nonspecific. The dominant trans narratives were all about knowing, about having always known, about certainty; here was a work that acknowledged the insufficiency of those narratives. Feeling all that doubt doesn’t make you less trans. Transition needn’t be a straight line.
Of course, Maria’s not the only other trans person—fictional or otherwise—who’s ever felt all these things, but she was the first I’d seen. She was reflecting my feelings back at me, giving me a framework for my reluctance to take up space, the difficulty I felt in groups of dudes, my constant apologizing. Rather than trying to match my experience of the world to domesticating language, I had the shape of Maria’s life, and the shape of mine, and the unignorable correspondences between them. The book offered me not a content, but a form. I recognized these feelings more than any clinical or forum-post definition of dysphoria or dissociation, but the actual, life-changing moment for me came more than two-thirds of the way through the book: “If you’re trans you’re trans and if you’re obsessed with whether you might be trans you probably are trans.”
There it was.
The next week, when my friend visited, we sat by the Black Warrior River talking late into the night. As we walked back to my apartment, they said, “You know, I always feel weird calling you a dude.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m probably not going to get a better segue than that.” And then I came out.
It is spring 2022, and I am twenty-nine years old—the same age as Maria—and have started introducing myself to strangers as Katherine. I have been on hormones for eight months. I am drafting an email coming out, for a second time, to my parents. The last time I did this, when I came out as nonbinary almost exactly a year prior, the email subject line was “~*~surprise~*~” and the body of the email was maybe 150 words. This time, it is more than two thousand. Toward the end, I recommend they read Nevada. “It’s being reissued by FSG tomorrow,” I write. Wow, what great timing.
I avoid rereading books that I deeply love. If they don’t hit me the same way a second time, it can cheapen that original read: This is what I was so obsessed with? I’ve recommended this to how many people? Far better to come back to something you had mixed feelings about and find it suddenly revelatory than to risk deflating all your youthful epiphanies. This is doubly true for Nevada. Most books do not change your life; I’m not sure any are capable of changing your life twice.
Still, with the reissue coming out, I cannot resist revisiting Binnie’s work. At the end of May, while talking about what we’re reading, a friend texts me, I’m just waiting for that Nevada re-release lol.
I’m so curious how it’ll be, I write back. Been almost 3 years. And, uh, a number of changes.
The friend is one of the countless people I have foisted the book onto. I am incapable of being objective about it, I tell people. It’s so important to me I literally do not know how it is for anyone else.
I use my lunch break to go buy a copy of the reissue. I have to ask at the info desk because it’s been sequestered upstairs in the LGBT section; I’m indignant that they only ordered two copies, thankful that I get the last one. It is a shocking orange much like the original printing, a repetition with changes.
Before the end of the day, I text a photo of a section to that same friend: “It’s like she’s just watching herself, thinking, hey you stupid boy-looking girl, why aren’t you having any feelings?” love this book so gd much, I say.
For all my fears it might not live up, within twenty pages I realize that rereading it is better, in its way, than the destabilizing shock of that first read. It is a homecoming. To come back and find both a reminder of why I loved it and new ways to love it too. With any book, this is a gamble; with Nevada, it paid off more than I could hope.
“You can’t help but wonder what people see when they look at you,” Maria muses. “Androgrynous fag? To be real that’s a look she tried for when she first started transitioning.” She worries that lighting a woman’s cigarette could be a patriarchal act, feels like she’s getting away with something when strangers call her “Miss.” Feelings and fears that are utterly common and yet still that pleasant thrill: Yeah, that is what it’s like.
In Alabama, you need a therapist’s letter to get access to hormones. My ex-boyfriend had gone through this process, though I’d only caught the tail end of it. You should go ahead and make an appointment at the gender clinic, he texts. Since the waitlists are so long. He and I would stop speaking around the same time I stopped trying to get on HRT.
It’s October 2019 and I pick my clothes carefully before therapy: not too cold yet for the pair of shorts, a slouchy black shirt. I paint my nails maroon. I want to be believed when I say that I am trans. My therapist is a nice middle-aged woman who has never worked with trans people before. You do not get to choose your therapist at this counseling center; you just get luck of the draw. I explain the situation to her; I dredge up childhood memories that dubiously support my claim of womanhood. The bracelet-maker I’d asked for for Christmas when I was three. The lesbian I briefly dated in college. Every person I’d been close friends with when I was seventeen also turning out to be trans.
She nods, writes something on her pad of paper. She asks questions and listens to my answers. And when the subject comes back around to the letter of support I need, she says, “Right. I don’t want to be a barrier to you.” And then we’ll do the exact same thing the next week.
One week she excitedly tells me she has news. “Another therapist who’s worked with more trans clients told me there’s a service that will write it for you,” she says. “I’ll get the info.”
Next week: “Sorry, a misunderstanding,” she tells me. I know I can go to the Planned Parenthood in Nashville, four hours away, to get hormones without a letter. How much this would cost is unclear.
“But you would have been fine with someone else writing the letter,” I say to my therapist. “So does that mean you’ll write it?”
“I’m just not comfortable doing so. Not yet.”
To come back and find both a reminder of why I loved it and new ways to love it too.
All through these months, I am reading every book I can find by a trans writer. I read Casey Plett’s Little Fish and T. Fleischmann’s Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through and Davey Davis’s The Earthquake Room. I read Zefyr Lisowski’s Blood Box. I read Torrey Peters’s Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones. At the time, what sticks with me is how many of these books are about deeply unhappy people. How badly, I think, am I going to fuck up my life?
I am trying to do voice training while my roommate is out. I watch videos of trans women with beautiful voices talking about how to reshape your throat. I sound like someone hit Mickey Mouse in the solar plexus. I memorize “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins—the closeted gay priest who wrote some of the most sonically dense poetry in the English language. “It is the blight man was born for,” I recite in my fucked-up Mickey Mouse voice. “It is Margaret you mourn for.”
Besides my therapist, the only people I talk with about any of this are my ex and the friend I came out to. They are both sympathetic, but neither lives in the town I do. The idea of going to a trans support group fills me with dread. If anyone even said, “Hey, I notice you’ve been experimenting with gender, what’s that about?” I would armadillo myself into a ball and roll into the nearest gutter.
I ask my ex to call me by a different name. He gladly does this when we text; through no fault of his, I feel like I’m being humored. Obviously, I’m not a girl; look at me. Listen to me.
I keep seeking a second version of the clarity that Nevada offered. I read a lot of good books, but I do not find it anywhere else.
Can I really do this? I think. Is this really a choice that you can just make?
In Nevada, when Maria asks James H. point-blank if he’s trans, this disruption is not well-received. She offers a ton of information about her own life and missteps, which he recognizes as “exactly all of his own shit.” But he feels pressured by this information. He can’t imagine even being honest with his girlfriend about wanting to watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch without it leading to conversations about his gender identity. He ends up checking out of the conversation when he realizes it doesn’t matter who Maria thinks he is; he isn’t trans, or if he is, he isn’t transitioning anytime soon. The book ends with him headed home in his girlfriend’s car, trying to “turn his body inconsequential enough” to have sex with her. It sucks! It feels bad!
“What if,” Binnie writes in the reissue’s afterword, “while you were still unaware/in denial about being trans, some trans woman fairy godmother had shown up and . . . tried to convince you. Would that have made you come out sooner?”
It is winter 2019, and I am at my parents’ house for Christmas. I am rereading Torrey Peters’s Infect Your Friends and Loved Ones. I am still wondering if I can change who I am. In Peters’s novella, a trans woman and her partner break up because of her transition. I’m at the start of what will be the longest period of being single in my adult life and wary—will transition make me harder to love? “Of course trans girls all love and fuck each other,” another chapter reads. “Who else will?”
I am obsessing over my failed attempts at voice training, about makeup I’ve never touched. My therapist says that she won’t write the support letter for me unless I get a full psychological screening, which costs around three hundred dollars. “We just want to make sure that there are no other underlying issues,” she says. I try to disguise my anger, the fact I am barely breathing.
“So what if it comes back,” I ask, “and says I don’t have gender dysphoria?” I do not need some psych grad student deciding if I’m trans enough. I need hormones so I can figure out what the fuck I actually want.
“How would you feel about that?” she asks.
“I wouldn’t care.”
We hang up. I never speak to her again. I think about all the things that feel impossible, all crowding around me in my tiny childhood bedroom. I cannot imagine always striving to be a certain way, feel a certain way, and the disappointment that would come from never reaching it. I think about the misogyny and transphobia suffered by all the women in the books I read. Maybe I could be a woman; maybe I could learn all those things. But if I don’t have to, why should I? Did I want womanhood—with all the trouble and loss of control that would entail—or did I just not like being a man? All I could say for sure was what I didn’t want. That’s one problem with understanding yourself through negation: You can focus all your energy on what you’re moving away from instead of what you want to move toward.
I text my friend, the one I first came out to: I think I might just be non-binary. And that’s that, for almost two years.
How exactly I came to be on hormones isn’t interesting. What’s important is the support I got from friends who made the same choice around that time. What’s important is the strength of the trans and queer community in the city I now live in. What’s important is that I live in a state that, despite many retrograde policies, will—at time of writing—give you hormones without a therapist’s support. I sometimes cry in my doctor’s office because I am so lucky to have things so easy.
You need community. Even Maria, for all her misanthropy, has her trans best friend, Piranha, whom she can turn to when she and her girlfriend break up, who understands intimately what she’s going through. When I hang out with trans friends, I don’t have to worry about things like how my voice sounds or covering the shadow of stubble left on my upper lip by the last round of laser. I know they’ll see me as I am. I know they’ll offer solidarity through all the bad things, that we can worry together how far the state will erode our rights and celebrate all the good—this wild and beautiful set of weirdos. Books aren’t a substitute for that, though they offer their own solaces.
I have plenty of bad days. I still think, How bad do I want to fuck up my life? But I read new work by Torrey Peters and Casey Plett and flip back through their books I read during that claustrophobic, terrified fall. Those books don’t read any happier to me now, but all the emotional strife those trans characters go through—it makes me feel better. The mistreatment, the doubt, the anxious disruption of it all. Yeah, I think, that is what it’s like.
The trick of Nevada is that it is both completely singular and totally ordinary. Though political conditions for trans people are getting more dire at an alarming rate, we do, at least, have more trans books all the time. Work from incredible writers like Shola von Reinhold, Alison Rumfitt, Isle McElroy, Jackie Ess, Hazel Jane Plante, John Elizabeth Stintzi—too many more to list. Writers whose work I love and find deeply meaningful, but none of which hits me the way that Nevada did and still does.
The trick of Nevada is that it replicates a kind of literary love that I haven’t felt since I was a teenager. The thrill of discovering The Catcher in the Rye or On the Road for the first time and feeling that you, you fucked-up child, are experiencing things that other people have experienced too. That people have put these feelings into words, and you can live inside their head for a little bit. Your world is suddenly a little less lonely. As with many emotions, that intensity can fade as you get older. But rereading Nevada this June, I couldn’t believe how exactly I still felt it was speaking to me—directly to me, as though it knew my name.
Like any sort of love, this is a matter of timing, of coincidence, of being in the right frame of mind to meet it, receive it. I had two near misses with Nevada before I finally read it: once when a trans coworker at a bookstore espoused her love for it, once when a book club I was in selected it as their next pick the week before I left town. Both times were well before I had the nebulous gender feelings that would eventually plague me, that would be almost, but not quite, resolved by that first reading. I worry, I wonder, sometimes, what would have happened if I had found it earlier. If I would have still identified with it at all. And what it might have taken, when I was trapped in indecision later, to get out.
It’s tempting to wish things had gone a different way. It’s easy to imagine them being worse—having never worked through gender stuff. There are thousands of people who have an easier time figuring it out; there are god knows how many who never do. Nevada didn’t solve that for me; nothing was going to, much as I wanted some silver bullet that would put my indecision to eternal rest. But it offered solace, solidarity, and it continues to do so—more than anything else I’ve ever read.