I was walking home from school when I saw her -- a beautiful, young mother waiting for the bus. I took her deep into my imagination, remembering each and every detail -- the red lipstick, the auburn hair, the form-fitting sweater. I thought about her most often when I went to bed. I'd close my eyes and see her smile and the simple, feminine way she brushed aside a wisp of hair.
But I wasn't fantasizing about being with her -- not even close. I wanted to be her.
Never mind that the world saw me as an 8-year-old boy. I spent my nights plotting and planning, "When I'm 18; when I'm 21 ... " Even 40 years later, I still see her in my mind like it was yesterday. All I wanted my whole life was to be like her -- to be like "them" -- but I was trapped in a miserable boy's body and clothing and lost in a fake world in which I could only smile in my dreams.
My reality became an acting performance, and even though I spent my teens praying to God that my schoolmates would let me off the bus without calling me "pussy" or "faggot." Most of the time, my performance passed the critics. I tried to convince myself that my being transgender was just this warped thought that entered my mind when I was a child, and if I just prayed enough or steeled my mind, I could beat it out of my system.
I fell in love with an attractive woman who offered me the instant family I needed in order to fit in. I thought it would make me whole and bring me peace. I wanted to play a "dude" better than anyone else; I worked days in construction and spent my nights drinking beers on my stoop. My parents and siblings stopped asking, "Why no girlfriend?"
I thought I had it all figured out: I had the minivan and the sports car. I had a house in the suburbs of Philly, and my beautiful wife and I took anniversary trips to places like the Bahamas. In reality, I was full of fear, shame and weakness. I was especially full of guilt. Whenever I fought with my (now ex-) wife, I'd sit in the car later and think about how it was all my fault and it all stemmed from my "sickness." Even when my kids struggled in school, I thought that it was because somehow they sensed that I was transgender.
It's strange to think about how sad and confused I was back then since I am so proud of who I am now. At the time, my inner demon told me, "Do you really think you can pull it off at your age? Just settle. Keep your hair short. Play a role. Let loose on the weekends." I sure listened to that last bit and drowned my true self in a sea of substance abuse. Five years ago, that voice said, "You're 43. You'll end up some kind of unemployed, shunned freak. Man up. You made this life, so live it."
That's when something else woke up inside me and stomped the s*&! out of that voice. I wasn't going to let that voice slowly kill me anymore. I started seeing a therapist and began venturing out. First it was gay bars, then late night stops at convenience stores and finally at shopping malls far away.
It took a couple of years, but I started feeling comfortable around people I knew. I would come home to my apartment building in my tie and walk right back out in skinny jeans, boots and makeup, smiling and waving to my neighbors as I left. And you know what? They smiled back, and it made me realize that even on a small scale, I was changing hearts and opening minds. Soon, it wasn’t even enough to just be out as a woman -- I knew I had to be a woman who was strong, confident and productive.
I went back to school and spent my evenings in classes with people half my age. I befriended incredible people with beautiful stories I never would have known in my past life. I grew in every way. That’s not to say it was easy -- for myself, or for my family. The suburban, blue-collar neighborhood I lived in wasn’t exactly used to housing transgender people and even my pharmacist couldn’t look me in the eye. Even when I thought I was at my most confident and empowered, something could knock me down, like when a coworker whispered to me that I needed a haircut: “I’m saying this because I care.”
I knew I had one place left where people had to get to know the real me: my office. You can read more about that here, but let’s just say it has a happy ending. I will never be that little girl in the pink dress or that 20-something woman that has the whole world ahead of her, but you can bet that I’m that well-adjusted middle-aged woman I used to only hold in my imagination.
Now, people see me smiling all the time and ask, "Why are you so happy?" My smile comes from being able to be me. I don't need the new car, expensive vacation or fancy handbag to be happy. I'm happy being just me. If you're still struggling to find your smile -- it's there.
Start listening to the voice you're ignoring and find the peace you crave.