The Gender Journey

Testosterone doesn’t make the man, but it sure doesn’t hurt

(Shelby Criswell)

“So Jess, tell me about your gender journey.”

I’d never heard that term before, and filed “Gender Journey” away as an excellent future band name before saying, “I know I’m supposed to believe that I was born in the wrong body, but that doesn’t actually feel true to me. I feel like I was born into the body that was supposed to come to this place, and anything I do from here on out is about becoming more of who I’ve always been, not turning into someone else.”

In 2007, medically transitioning as a transgender man meant having to see a therapist who could confirm that you were actually transgender before you could then see a doctor (if you could find one who would work with trans people), then paying out of pocket for testosterone at pharmacies that scrutinized your ID and were reluctant to give you the syringes and needles you needed. All this happened while I was still being called ma’am in waiting rooms, having friends and family stress their concerns about permanently altering my body and scouring blogs and message boards with increasing desperation to find something, anything, that would reflect my own experience. Nothing about the process was easy or fast. It was overall pretty dehumanizing.

The therapist I sat in front of was known in Houston for working with trans people, and I hoped she’d give me the validation I’d been seeking for years. After I answered her gender journey question, she took a pause.

“You don’t feel like you were born in the wrong body?”

I repeated that I didn’t. She shook her head.

“You don’t meet the criteria for a transgender person.”

I left without the letter and I thought, “I must not be trans,” because here was this therapist who was supposed to know what she was talking about. Like a good 22-year-old millennial, I was conditioned to believe that other’s perceptions of me were more valid than my own.

Two years later, back in Santa Fe, I joined a drag troupe, met some trans folks and after months of me asking not so subtle questions about the doctor they saw to get testosterone, one of my friends said, “you know you could just go see her yourself, right?”


I waited in a generic exam room in the same doctor’s office I’d visited as a child. And when the doctor walked in I blurted out, “I was born in the wrong body!” I still didn’t actually think I was born wrong. I was born transgender, and I’d come to think of testosterone like my glasses—something I needed so I didn’t have to spend every day squinting at my reflection to try and see myself more clearly. I guess I said the magic words, though, because I left with an order for lab work and a follow-up appointment where we would figure out my dosage. A month later, I had a prescription.

I got my first shot of testosterone during a 10-minute break in the basement of the Starbucks on West San Francisco street where I worked. I’d watched dozens of Youtube videos on how to self-administer an intramuscular injection, but the idea of sticking a needle into my own body still felt way beyond my skill set, so I asked a coworker for moral support. After trying and hesitating over and over, she said, “Oh come on,” grabbed the syringe from me and plunged it into my thigh. The whole experience was anticlimactic and far less glamorous than my drama queen self had imagined, but as I headed back to pulling espresso shots for tourists, I felt a shift. Even though it would take weeks for any actual physical changes to begin, for the first time I felt like I could actually feel myself in my body.

The first change was my voice. My regular customers started asking if I was sick or had allergies. Shouting out “Grande nonfat latte!” while my voice cracked was only slightly mortifying. I was in music school, and because testosterone lengthens and thickens vocal chords, the notes I’d always known how to access suddenly didn’t exist. I stumbled through singing lessons with increasing frustration. My body mass shifted and I surprised myself by easily doing a pull-up. My once bright red hair started to darken and sprout on my chin and neck. Puberty is awful and awkward, and going through it a second time in my 20s was a fascinating combination of near-constant embarrassment and a sort of settling into myself that made all of those incongruent pieces of me finally make sense.

Even now, years later, the journey continues. I’ve never wanted to pass as a cisgender man, though it happens, and is too often coupled with comments like “I never would have known you weren’t a real man!” Beyond being a seriously patronizing thing to say, it misses the point entirely. I was a man well before I started injecting hormones—before I grew a patchy beard, before my hairline receded, before people started really seeing me—and testosterone helped me move through the world as a version of myself that I could live with, but it didn’t define my gender.

It’s been 15 years since that first shot, and I still can’t give them to myself. I’ve relied on housemates, friends, neighbors, partners, coworkers and a pilates instructor. The list of people who have stuck needles in my thigh and ass is not short, and every one of those shots has added up to a life and a body that feels like home. Testosterone moved me toward joy and possibility in a world that is afraid of joy and possibility. Without it, I still would have been a transgender man, just a deeply unhappy one. Maybe even one who’d have to start a band called Gender Journey.

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