Hannah Simpson, 30, Harlem, New York
I consider gender identity to be akin to handedness. You know, you ask someone to write their name with their non-dominant hand, and it just doesn’t work. When you ask, “How did you know that wasn’t working?” They’ll say, “I just knew.”
At a certain point, early in life — maybe by age 5 — we know whether we are right- or left-handed, even if we don't have the vocabulary for it. Handedness happens to have an uneven distribution in people — I don’t know the numbers exactly, but the majority of people are right-handed, some left-handed, and there are also ambidextrous people and a spectrum of people who fall in between.
For many years, people thought that being left-handed was wrong (the word “sinister” comes from the Latin for “left”) and being right-handed was good. They'd try to change people, systematically in public schools, as recently as our grandparents’ generation. Sooner or later, people came to their senses and realized there is no “correct” handedness. While I happen to be mostly right-handed, I can appreciate the concept that others might be left-handed — without having to experience that precise feeling or preference myself. No analogy is perfect, but I think the same general concept applies to being gay or trans.
I was first drawn to wearing women's clothing as a toddler, and that carried through elementary school and beyond. Mostly, I’d wear what I had access to: my little sister's wardrobe. Her clothing was usually too small for me, and I probably stretched out or ruined many of her nicer things. At some point when we were pre-teens, I think my sister caught on — so I started asking her to buy stuff specifically for me. I kept dressing up like that, through high school, in secret. In college, though, I started wearing women’s clothes in public.
My world opened up a lot when I saw one of those daytime talk shows, with Geraldo Rivera or Sally Jessy or something, with transgender people on the episode. That was enough to know I wasn't alone. But, the problem was twofold: First, I thought I'd grow out of it; and second, I was completely afraid. I was afraid of taking the most elaborate and beautiful creation in the universe, the human body, and saying, ‘I am going to make a few edits.’ Even if I did decide to do something about my gender, I was afraid I'd be sent to another school — where I'd start living as a female, presumably. Or, I was afraid my whole family would have to move in order to give me a fresh start. I was determined not to uproot all of them from their lives just because of who I was.
Growing up, I had a very strict "tradition" of never taking pictures of myself in female attire. It was unthinkable, because someone would inevitably see those photos. Near where I lived, the local camera shop even had a kitschy conveyor belt that would move all the photos, one by one, across the counter window and drop them into the envelope for you to collect. My siblings and I used to wait for what felt like forever to see ours go across. So, there was no way in hell I was ever taking pictures of myself in women's clothing.
Today, though, I'd love nothing more than to have a whole album of photos like that — to see this little girl growing up in the shadows. But, the photos simply don't exist. At first, even when I dressed as a woman in public, it took awhile for me to feel comfortable taking pictures. Now, decades later, it’s easy; I probably post three to five selfies per week on Facebook. So, that can be my new tradition.
At some point before I legally changed my name, I went to a dentist appointment. I gave them my insurance information and explained that my name is Hannah, but the insurance was under this other name. They asked, "Oh, is he your husband?" assuming I might have been on a husband’s insurance — a reasonable possibility. I told them the truth. But, if this happens again, I think I’ll say, “No, this guy and I never got married. We were just domestic partners — occupying the same space for a few years.”
I don't like the word “passing,” because it implies there is an inherent deception in who and what I am. I do not “pass” for a woman; I am a woman. My driver's license says “F,” for female. It does not say how long I have been female, that I was not always female, or whether (or for how long) I plan to remain a female.
Another word I don't love is “transition.” I consider it myopic, because it only relates to what people see of the process from the outside. To me, this is not a transition — it’s more of an evolution. I am the same me I have always been. If anything, I am showing more of my true self than I ever did. I didn't change my gender; my gender changed me.