On this day 1 year ago, I came out as a trans woman everywhere. After coming out at work, I changed my name and posted on social media, pushed an update to and published a blog post on this website, and then I held my breath and waited. It was the scariest moment of my life.
It was really nice, watching all the supportive and affirming comments come in. Reconnecting, at times, with people who had drifted out of my life. And y’all didn’t stop—you kept commenting on my Instagram selfies, sending me affirming messages … truly, I feel loved and supported. I have picked my communities well.
Has it been a struggle at times? Of course. Transitioning is not easy, even when you are wrapped in support like I am, and transitioning during a pandemic has brought its share of challenges, some of which I’ll discuss here. But as my blog posts over the past year have sought to emphasize, on the whole my transition has been a joyous experience, one that has made me happier and lifted me up even while I have been stressed and overwhelmed by teaching during a pandemic.
I love who I am now. I love whom I’m becoming.
In addition to this post, I recorded a 2-part episode for my podcast with my best friend. Here’s Part 1:
and here’s Part 2 (where I answer questions submitted by some of you):
You can subscribe to We Just Like to Talk in your favourite podcast app and hear more from us every so often!
I’ve danced around telling the actual story of my epiphany for the past year. Truth is, I wanted to wait and give myself time to process everything before I enshrine it in writing. I mentioned bits and pieces in my post about choosing my name, where I talked about my sleepless night, as well as my post about why masculinity isn’t for me.
But it’s time to tell this story. I do not owe anyone an explanation regarding why I’m transgender, but I want people to understand that the stereotypical “I always knew I was born in the wrong body” narrative our society holds about trans people does not apply to all (and perhaps not even most) trans people. You can live the first 30 (in my case), 40, 50 years of your life convinced you’re cisgender and come to this realization much later than the young trans children and teens our media obsesses over.
What it really comes down to: my epiphany was not a eureka moment so much as the moment I gave myself permission to see myself as trans, and even more significantly, to consider that living as a woman would make me happier. When I granted myself this simple kindness, an entirely new life unfolded in front of me. My epiphany was that, if I chose, I could reach out and embrace that life. It wasn’t about how I wanted to dress or behave but rather how I wanted to live and be perceived: I was a woman, and I wanted others to see me as a woman and relate to me in that way.
To give you a concrete example: most of my life, I was always embraced as an honourary girl by my predominantly female friend groups. Sitting at the lunch table in the staffroom with female colleagues, my nose in a book to hold myself ever-so-slightly aloof, yet privy and welcome to participate in matters often deemed “girl talk,” I realized that I didn’t want to be treated like one of the girls; I wanted to be one of the girls.
This distinction is so, so important, because it is why I am transgender—and more importantly, why I decided to transition. Not all trans people choose to transition. Some don’t feel safe. Some don’t feel that transition is necessary for their trans identity. For non-binary people, the entire idea of transition is problematic because our society doesn’t always see non-binariness (and that sucks!). For me, the experience has been very binary, very much “I have been told I am a man my entire life, but I am a woman and now want to live as such.”
Sometimes trans people shy away from using that word—want—because it implies being trans is a lifestyle choice. It’s an understandable defence mechanism that has developed after decades of medical gatekeepers basically forcing us to meet certain criteria before they will facilitate medical and legal aspects of our transition. You had to very carefully articulate your experience the way that a cis person wanted you to, and if you didn’t, then no hormones or whatever for you. Depending on where you are in the world, this might still be the case.
But if we strip away cisgender expectations about the trans experience, then there is no shame in this word, and I will use it freely: I want to be a woman. Looking back now in hindsight, and if I am being honest with myself, this longing has existed long before last year—it was just that last year finally pushed me over the edge from wanting to accepting that this was the best path for me.
Further reading: For more on this idea of gender desire, check out this amazing post by Amanda Roman. A friend shared it with me after I came out, and it was very helpful for me.
The More Things Change
Sometime around 2014, 2015, I started to publicly identify (particularly on Twitter) as asexual and aromantic. This wasn’t really “coming out” in my mind, because everyone in my life pretty much knew I was these things, even if they didn’t know those words. I sought community with fellow ace and aro people on Twitter, and I found it. I talked more openly about it, used those labels in front of friends, family, even colleagues and students. Yet “coming out” as ace is very different from coming out as trans. While both identities are marginalized, my asexuality is fairly invisible at the best of times. Now that I have begun to transition, my transness is front-and-centre in my life.
As a result, coming out as trans was scary despite the overwhelming support I had received and continue to receive. It wasn’t that I was afraid of people turning their backs on me or not accepting me. My friends and family are awesome. Nevertheless, I knew I was embarking on a struggle. I knew that no matter how supportive people were, society by its very nature would not make things easy for me as a trans women. And I was worried that my relationships would be tested, just like change tests anyone’s relationships, even when it is positive change and met with support.
If you are a cis person looking for advice on how to be a trans ally … listen. Really listen, I mean. Every trans person’s journey is different, and you will never fully understand it. But be there to listen, and your trans friend or child or parent will tell you what they need.
The second piece of advice I will give is this: show up. When I started my transition, I needed reassurance, but I also needed people to show up for me. By this I mean that I needed cis people to be in my corner as I began to navigate the complicated world of being trans in our society. For example, one of my friends and colleagues took me for my first shopping trip to openly buy—and try on—women’s clothing. I could not have done that for myself at that time, because I looked so masculine still, lacked confidence, and—let’s be real—I didn’t yet have any idea what I was doing, fashion-wise. Shopping in person for clothing is a daunting experience for trans people, and having a cis woman whom I knew would back me up if I was harassed, who would step up for me if I needed her to, was valuable to me.
(During this shopping trip, by the way, I stepped out of the change room at one point to show my friend an outfit. A little girl who was no more than 4 or 5 walked past with her mom, and she looked at me and said, “I like your dress,” and my heart swelled so much. Children don’t care about your gender expression, fam. Children don’t hate until they learn it.)
As my transition progressed, perhaps the most striking thing I noticed was how much things didn’t change. Yes, I had a new name and new pronouns, but my colleagues talked to me just the same as they had before (except now we also talked about my outfits, yeah!). Transition for me has not been about becoming a different person. It has been about finding the person I have always been under layers of defences I mistook for social awkwardness and aloofness. If I seem more sociable, more outwardly expressive, more outgoing to you, it isn’t because of the hormones and isn’t that I have suddenly become more extroverted—but it’s because the happiness that used to live deep down inside me is now able to shine outwards for all to see.
And then we locked down.
The pandemic has spurred a great deal of introspection among people, and a lot of people have decided to change pronouns, etc., during this time. I’ve joked sometimes that, years from now, when I tell people I transitioned in 2020, I’m going to have to clarify that I started prior to the pandemic! Nevertheless, the pandemic has obviously affected my transition—I’ve blogged about that before. Since that post, I managed to start hormone replacement therapy, and I also got my name legally changed—for me, two very important steps in my transition. I’ve also built quite the wardrobe, and in September I had a chance to start wearing it more often to school, even if we weren’t fully open.
For all my successes during this time, the fact remains that the pandemic has delayed aspects of my social transition that I consider important and affirming. I can’t wait until I can go outside without a mask so all of you can see my wonderful smile in person. I can’t wait to go to events and interact with people, especially people I’ve never met before, as a woman and figure out what that means for me. Often we talk about going back to normal (or at least to a “new normal”), but this is not possible for me. Whatever happens as the pandemic recedes, my new normal is going to be very different from the old one—for the better.
The pandemic has also posed interesting challenges for coming out. Whereas before I might have bumped into acquaintances and old friends who aren’t on social media, and thus been able to demonstrate to them the new me, that isn’t really happening now. To this day there are some people in my life with whom I seldom have contact, so I’m genuinely unsure if they’ve learned about my transition from anyone. It’s a weird feeling, and it gets weirder the longer this lockdown-induced limbo lasts.
On the whole, my transition has proceeded very quickly even with a pandemic raging around me, and I call that a win. On the other hand, as long as this situation continues, I’m going to feel stuck.
A few months ago, a friend was discussing her experiences with impostor syndrome. She asked me, “Have you ever felt like an impostor?” I paused for a second and then deadpanned, “Every day since I started transitioning.” Because it’s true.
Trans people can’t win when it comes to gender expression. If I dress too femininely, embrace dresses and heels, I am conforming to stereotypes (and often still misgendered). If I dress more masculinely or androgynously, I just appear to be a man full stop. (Non-binary people have it even worse, especially non-binary people who like traditionally femme or masc looks.) My appearance should not govern how you gender me—you should ask me for my pronouns if you’re not sure, and treat me accordingly, instead of making assumptions. Yet in so many ways it does. Despite holding a health card proclaiming me “Kara Doreen Rose Babcock,” technicians at the bloodwork clinic this past Friday saw my very masculine-looking photo, ignored the barrettes in my hair and purse on my arm, and referred to me as “he” while trying to find my paperwork. It was careless, and it hurt.
I vacillate between seeing the real me in the mirror for the first time in my life, loving the selfies I’m sharing with all of you on Instagram … and feeling cut to the quick by the thoughtless gendering of others. It’s easy enough to tell myself I should suck it up and not let it get to me—and maybe, over time, that will happen. For now though, one year in? It still cuts every time.
The solution, though, might not be what you expect. Sometimes we talk about trans people “passing,” which basically means that people mistake us as a cisgender person. I don’t care about that; I am happy to be visibly trans. The solution to impostor syndrome is not to erase transness so that we all “fit in” but rather to stop treating transness like an exception or aberration. Stop assuming that cisgender is the norm.
Of course, we have a long way to go on this one. Until then, I welcome your affirmations and the subtle ways in which you treat me like the gender I am. It matters so much more than you might think.
The Path Ahead
What’s in store next for my transition? What do I want for year 2, or 3, or beyond?
I’m looking forward to things settling down, to be honest. Coming out was a whirlwind, and it has taken me, let alone those closest to me, a while to get used to everything. Don’t get me wrong, I by no means want to rush through any part of my transition. I want to cherish all of it. Yet one day this will be behind me, and I will simply be Kara. I will always talk and write about being trans, but I am not just trans, and I have so much more to say on other subjects. But for now, being trans consumes my thoughts every hour of every day—more so because our society makes it a big deal, as I said in the previous section, rather than any doubts on my part.
Transitioning in our society takes courage and determination, two things I have always had; it also requires one to be assertive, something I have struggled with. No longer. In January 2020 I realized life was too short not to live it the way I want, even if that way has risks and challenges, even if finding a bra that fits is almost as hard as solving peace in the Middle East, even if it means people getting my pronouns wrong. I knew going in that this process would not be easy, but I’m doing it anyway.
What I have learned in this past year is that I want to and must be fearless, not just in my transition but in my life ahead. It’s really hard to put this into words, but my decision to transition has freed me of something in myself that was holding back my growth in general. I am doing things, like launching my own reviews website, or another podcast, that I never would have done if I hadn’t given myself permission to come out as a woman. This is the most surprising part of my transition and what excites me about the path ahead: I don’t know what’s coming next.
But I’m Kara, and I’m thriving. I’m free now to take on these new challenges and live my life on my terms, no one else’s. Because now I am fearless.