RUTH

Cambridge, MA

*Ruth has since changed her name since the time of this interview.

 

What are your pronouns?

That depends where I am. Right here, right now, my pronouns are “they/them/theirs.” But I find that I live a lot of my life in a space where binary gender is compulsory; where everyone is pressed into the gender binary, whether or not we actually identify with it. To whatever extent we fit into it, we’re pressed in on one side or the other. Never both, never neither. So in those spaces – for example the office where I work, where there are men’s rooms and women’s rooms, and I don’t want to confuse people more than I have to, or I just want to make things easy for myself and for everyone else – in those spaces my pronouns are “she/her/hers.”

Where do you work?

I develop software. I’d rather not be more specific.

Do you have any hobbies or special interests / what do you do for fun?

I like to go camping. I like to spin fire. I also spin things like hula hoop and poi. I ride my bicycle as much as possible, and I climb mountains sometimes. I climbed Mt. Chocorua [in New Hampshire] a few weeks ago.

How do you handle the issue of pronouns and being gendered when interacting with strangers / mixed company / etc?

I find that most people in straight spaces – spaces where asking and offering pronouns is not normal etiquette – in straight spaces where people just have to guess at my pronouns, most people guess “she/her.” And I let that stand. I accept that. I would actually prefer “they/them,” but for a lot of reasons – comfort, safety, convenience – I let people call me “she/her” in most places. If I’m in a space where people ask my pronouns, then I will offer “they/them” because in that kind of space, I expect that people will be familiar with [that], and that it won’t cause trouble.

Have you had difficulties with changing your name and the way it affects you moving through the world, being recognized how you want, or being mis-gendered?

Yeah, I have. So my legal name is now Andi, and people have called me [that] for a very long time. That’s because my birth certificate says Andrew. And some people, when they transition – many people, I would say more than half – take a different name, a name very different from the name they had used previously, to try to distance themselves, to reinvent themselves. I certainly went through some changes when I transitioned, but I actually wanted people to understand that I was the same person. So I did not change my name, I didn’t even change the spelling of it. It’s A-n-d-i, and I had been spelling it that way for a very long time, which I think is the more feminine spelling as compared to A-n-d-y you usually see for Andrew. I went about 20 years not writing down “Andi” because I was afraid of people knowing.

I applied for a name change last year in 2015 and the Suffolk County Courthouse actually took a very long time to process my paperwork. There were some unforeseen complications, forms that I was supposed to fill out that never got mailed to me, and all told it took about 11 months before I received the official documents that the court had granted my name change. Then I had to go around to different offices afterwards. Social Security, RMV – I still don’t have an updated passport, I’m working on that – and certain accounts, I had to update my bank, my different insurances, all these different offices that you have to inform. And there are some accounts I have that are really not cooperating with me changing my name. My PayPal account, for example, still says Andrew because they want me to fax a copy of my court-ordered name change, and I don’t have a fax machine. I’m sure I could dig one up, but it’s just more trouble than it’s worth. So my PayPal still says Andrew, and sometimes I use PayPal to send money to people. So when I send money to friends of mine, if they didn’t already know my old name, they do now.

What word(s) would you use to describe your identity?

I knew that “man” didn’t fit me when I was a teenager. Before I was 25, I had heard the word “genderqueer.” I had read it online somewhere, and I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s me. Genderqueer.” But I didn’t know anyone else, so I mostly kept it to myself. And just like now, when people meet me, they usually guess “she/her,” and back then when people met me they usually guessed “he/him.” And I didn’t correct them for most of the same reasons. I knew that gender didn’t feel right to me though, from pretty young. “Genderqueer” was the first word I came across that I identified with to that extent. Since then I’ve encountered the words “non-binary,” “transwoman,” and “transfeminine,” and I would say that I identify with all of those.

Are there ways that you dress / act / speak / etc. to specifically make a statement to others about your identity? Why?

I would say that I dress, act, and speak in ways that are pretty natural for me nowadays. It’s more that I’ve shed the old habits of dress, action, and speech that I used to put on to pass as a man. Because I wasn’t, but I knew that that was the default of how people would read me – as a man – and I knew, more or less consciously, that deviance from the expected norms of manhood would be punished. I would say that the pitch and cadence of my voice are in the back of my mind at all times, to some extent. For example, the louder I talk the lower my voice goes. It doesn’t stay the same pitch as the volume increases, and I know that if I scream, people are more likely to read me as trans. People are more likely to question, and that can get people into trouble.

Ways I dress? I wear skirts and dresses sometimes because I like them, and always have, but I wear jeans and T-shirts sometimes too. I think that in the U.S. in 2016 there’s a lot of space for someone who is understood as a woman as I am. So there’s a lot of space for me to wear jeans and T-shirts and slacks and collared shirts, or skirts and dresses and blouses. There’s just a lot of flexibility in clothing.

There is kind of an aesthetic that in some crowds is associated with androgyny or non-binary identities – identities that aren’t grounded in gender – but sometimes they bother me, because sometimes they do feel a lot more masculine than feminine on the whole. I would say that our cultural concept of androgyny is finding its stride. Our culture has not developed that concept to the extent that we have developed concepts of masculinity and femininity. And I feel that, like so many emerging concepts, masculinity is kind of treated as the default, and I’d rather not.

I do things because I want to that are traditionally coded as feminine. Sometimes I get a manicure. I wear my hair long. But I also do a lot of actions that are typically coded more masculine, like camping, biking, working with my hands, and being very technical.

How early on did you know or suspect that you did not identify within the binary?

I should’ve known when I was about 13. I was in denial to a greater or lesser extent until I was 29. In my dreams, I’ve always been feminine since I’ve had a concept of what it is to be feminine. I distinctly remember a dream I had when I was 13 where I was wearing a ball gown, and I was dancing with a man in a tuxedo. That was a sign. There were a lot of those signs over the years, and I was in a lot of denial. I was not just living a double life in terms of going out in drag on the weekends and dressing like a man during the week. I was also living a double internal life, where on the one hand I fantasized about these things – I wanted them, I plotted and schemed and bargained with myself how I could possibly ever live that way, how I could reconcile these desires – and on the other hand also internalized a lot of shame, also told myself that that could never be more than fantasy, that I had to repress it. So I should’ve known when I was a young teenager, and to some extent I did. A friend of mine from college came out as a transgender woman recently, within the last year, and I have been out for a few years now. But we were talking about gender in college, and she mentioned to me, “Oh I’m glad you finally came out, I remember when we were in college, and you told me that you were trans,” and I told her, “I don’t remember telling you that.” Apparently when I was younger, I would get drunk and tell people that I was trans and not remember.

Do you think anything about the way you were raised or where you grew up affected how you drew conclusions about your identity?

Absolutely it did. I was raised Catholic first, and then my mother brought us to a Protestant church later. She was raised Catholic her whole life. I grew up around my mother and her parents, and my mother told me a lot as a child and an adolescent, “Oh, you’re just too pretty.” And it wasn’t in admiration, it was in criticism. It was, “You’re too pretty. You shouldn’t be so pretty.” I internalized that to a large extent. I don’t remember my grandmother doing that as much. She died when I was 17. She had been there through my whole childhood, most of my adolescence. A couple years ago, [my mother] had a jacket that looked nice on her, and she told me, “Oh, I have to get rid of it, it makes me looks too butch,” and I said, “It looks great. It’s warm and you already paid for it. You don’t have to get rid of it,” and she said, “Yeah, I guess that’s Grammy talking,” meaning her mother. So I don’t know all the details there, but I get the impression that my mother’s Catholic upbringing instilled strong gender norms in her, and she passed a lot of that on to me.

I grew up in a small-ish town, and a lot of my friends from that town stopped being my friends when I came out. I knew to some extent that that was going to happen. I think that held me back for a long time. I was afraid I would lose all my friends, and I think that was a justified fear. Fortunately, by the time I came out, I had moved to the city, and I had friends in Boston and Cambridge and Somerville. This place is just a lot more friendly to gender-nonconformists than where I grew up, and I think that getting out of there was really important for me.

Can you give any examples of misconceptions people have about those who identify outside the binary? Have you personally dealt with them?

“There is no such thing as trans men.” That’s a very common misconception. People hear “transgender” and they think of the concept that I might describe as “transgender woman.” It never occurs to them that there might also be assigned-female-at-birth people who identify as men. I personally have not had to deal with that particular misconception, but the concepts that I might describe with the terms, “transgender woman,” “transsexual woman,” “cross-dresser,” “drag queen,” “gender-nonconforming man,” “feminine non-binary person” – a lot of people have the misconception that all of those terms mean more or less the same thing. If they even know those terms at all, they use them interchangeably. And so I’ve absolutely had to deal with that. People who think I’m a cross-dresser, which at one time I did identify with that label, so I get it. I get where the confusion comes from. Because I didn’t know how I fit into all that for a long time, and I’m still figuring it out.

And those words are still in flux, their meanings are evolving, they’re all fairly new terms. Not new in the sense of, invented this year, but invented within the last hundred [years]. So people are working out what they mean, and just where the lines are drawn, if there are lines between those terms at all. Certainly in common use there are. I would not, today, call myself a cross-dresser or a drag queen, but I think the misconception is there. That anyone who’s assigned-male-at-birth like me and who presents female, or looks like a woman, or tries to look like a woman, like I do – the misconception is that we’re all essentially the same sort of people, that we all do it for the same reasons.

Here’s a good one: when I came out as a trans woman to my family – because I wasn’t going to get into all the vagaries of how gender is bullshit and I don’t identify with it at all – I just told my family, “I am a transgender woman.” And my sister’s husband’s mother hangs out with my mother a lot, and my sister’s mother-in-law said, “So that means he’s just really gay, right?” So that happened. People think that trans women are just really gay men.

In your own words, how would you explain that gender identity is different from sexual orientation?

I would say that sexual orientation, as we usually define it, has two basic questions: are you attracted to men, and are you attracted to women? And between those two yes-no questions, there’s four combinations. So depending on if the person you’re asking is a man or a woman, then being attracted to men is gay, being attracted to women is straight, being attracted to both is bisexual, being attracted to neither is asexual, and reverse gay and straight if the person you’re asking is a woman.

But if you’re asking a person who is doesn’t identify with the gender binary in the first place, what does it even mean to be straight? What does it mean to be attracted to the opposite sex? What does it mean to be attracted to the same sex or gender, if you believe that those terms, sex and gender, are both too imprecise, are both too varied and analogue, not discreet? By which I mean, some things are discreet like the different positions that a digital clock could be in. It could be at 12:00 or 12:01, but a digital clock can’t be at 12:01 and a half. An analogue clock can be. An analogue clock can be anywhere on that circle. And I think that both gender and sex work more like analogue than digital.

And so, if my gender and my sex are unique, then what would it mean to be attracted to someone of the same sex or gender, if no one is the same sex or gender as me? I am a non-binary trans woman. I’ve dated other non-binary people. I’ve dated non-binary trans men and non-binary trans women. And I’ve dated other sorts of people, cis men, cis women, and what does it even mean to have a sexual orientation if you don’t buy into gender in the first place? I would say that gender identity is necessary for sexual orientation to have meaning in the first place. But they are, beyond that, independent. There are plenty of people who do identify as women, and are attracted to women, and so they have a sexual orientation which doesn’t make them not women, it doesn’t make the people they’re attracted to not women. It’s a separate category.

How do you feel represented in media and society at large?

A lot of media want to have trans women and some non-binary people in their productions, but very few of them are actually produced by us. And there are plenty of examples that are – there’s the Wachowski siblings, who are now both out as trans women, they weren’t when they made their biggest release, The Matrix, but there’s them… There’s the punk band Against Me! fronted by Laura Jane Grace, and there’s Her Story, which I believe has trans people on the writing and production teams. Maybe the best example is a show like Transparent that did not originally have trans people in its writing and production staff and later gained [them]. I feel like to most of the world, Jeffrey Tambor’s character Maura is supposed to represent me, but Maura the character is supposed to be a transgender woman, and she’s being played by Jeffrey Tambor, who is a cisgender man. That doesn’t make any sense to me. And it doesn’t matter how many trans writers they bring on staff in later seasons, they’ve already cast [him] as Maura. They’re already stuck with a man playing a trans woman, and I think that ties into the misconceptions we talked about earlier. I think Jared Leto and Jeffrey Tambor playing women is a big part of the problem. I would much rather see movies and shows like Transamerica and Always Sunny in Philadelphia where women play trans women. Ideally, trans women would play trans women. What a concept! Like Laverne Cox on Orange Is the New Black. But if you’re going to have cisgender people portraying us, you could at least get a woman to play a woman.

As far as non-binary people represented, it’s much worse. Ruby Rose, again from Orange Is the New Black, is openly genderqueer or gender fluid, I’m not sure exactly what they’ve said about their identity, but that’s someone. And Miley Cyrus has actually made some remarks to the effect that she doesn’t identify with gender but, as far as I know, still uses “she/her” pronouns. Prince, for most of his career, made statements like, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I’m something you will never understand,” but still used “he/him” pronouns. So I feel like there are a handful of examples of non-binary people, but the American popular consciousness, pop culture, is very much one of those straight spaces I mentioned earlier where everyone is pressed into binary gender whether we identify with it or not. So Miley Cyrus and Prince can both say that they don’t identify with maleness or femaleness, but at the end of the day we still refer to Miley as “she/her” because she was assigned-female-at-birth, and those are the pronouns we’ve always used for her, and we still refer to Prince as “he/him” for similar reasons.

What improvements would you like to see happen in and outside of your community?

Some efforts I am working on, have been working on lately, want to get working on… Rape culture sucks. And it’s a real thing. And people don’t respect consent, people don’t respect bodily autonomy, people don’t necessarily have good concepts of what these things even are in the first place to respect them.

So I am part of ongoing efforts to have these conversations, to educate people, to provide the resources for people to educate themselves, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. To confront people who are comfortable with the status quo of rape culture and make them think about the consequences of these actions. I have participated in trainings and talks and I’m co-hosting one next month, and that spans a lot of my communities. My burner communities, my queer communities, my techie communities. I would say that both my queer community and my burner community take it seriously and make a lot of noise about how this is a problem and we have to address it, and my queer community does a better job of actually addressing it. My burner community makes a lot of noise about wanting to address it and doesn’t take as many concrete actions. The tech community has an even more fundamental problem where a lot of us just don’t even admit it’s a problem. And it doesn’t just manifest as people having their bodily autonomy violated, people being sexually abused – it manifests in sexual harassment at work, sexual harassment at technical conferences and such, and outside of work.

Other things that are important to me: hunger and homelessness. The allocation of resources in late-stage capitalism. We’re doing it wrong. We have lots of food. We have lots of food going to waste. We have lots of people going hungry. How do we have both of those problems? I have participated in efforts with some organizations that try to fix both of those problems: take food that would go to waste and redistribute it to people who would go hungry. We actually have a slogan in Food Not Bombs that is, “Solidarity Not Charity,” because unlike some other groups who do similar things – and this is not to knock them, groups who participate in charity, if they’re getting the job done, [are] great – but that’s not the approach we take. We don’t see it as charity. We don’t see it as giving of ourselves to the less fortunate, we see it as a problem within our own community.

Many of us have been homeless, many of us have had food insecurity, have gone to food banks or dumpster diving, and we are intimately aware of these issues and trying to address them within our own communities. The people we serve are our own neighbors. We don’t ask if you’re homeless or not, we don’t ask if you can afford food or not, we give food to everyone because food is a human right. So that’s an issue I care about in my communities.

Environmentalism. I’m less active in that fight but I’m certainly concerned about it. I try to encourage bicycling; I try to bicycle every chance I get. I still drive. I’m trying to reduce my carbon footprint. I’m trying to provide resources to make it feasible for everyone because I don’t think that putting the burden on individuals to reduce our environmental impact is a long-term solution. I think that that kind of approach is not bad, but ultimately there are some people who will choose not to participate, kind of selfishly, and I don’t think we can rely on everyone to “opt in” to environmentally sustainable solutions. So that’s important to me too.

Could you tell me about an experience or moment in your life that was very impactful for you? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.

So, a few years ago I was still presenting more or less male. Feminine male, but more or less male. At that time people were still guessing my pronouns as “he/him” and I let that happen. I was going by Andi, but at work I was going by Andrew, and something had to give but I didn’t know it yet. I was single and dating, and I was on some dating websites, and I met this guy Steve, and I liked him… We didn’t date for too long, a week or two, he lived in New Hampshire so it was a couple hour drive for [us to see each other] but we made it happen a few times in those weeks. He broke up with me by text message, which is kind of shitty to do, ever. But I get it, because it was a couple hour drive to actually see each other in person, and it was the longest text message he’d ever sent me by far. In it, he talked about what kind of man he was, and what kind of man he wanted in his life, and what kind of man I was, and what kind of man he thought I needed in my life, and what kind of man I could be, and what kind of man he wanted to be, and man this, and man that, and man man man man. I was pretty upset and stomping around my apartment, and I was re-reading his text message again and I fell on my knees between my living room and kitchen and I threw my head back – it was so melodramatic – and screamed, “And he still thinks I’m a fucking man!” And that was the day I could not live in denial anymore. The day when I vocalized how much I’d been denying, how much I had been letting slide, how much I had been letting people believe about me.

Could you give me an example of something difficult that occurred in your life how you dealt with it? It can be in regards to your identity, or not.

Yeah, one of the times I went to a thrift store and picked up some women’s shirts and blouses and slacks and what have you – it wasn’t even especially feminine stuff, there were no dresses, but it was from the women’s section. I was heading for the dressing room which was near the register, and I think I would’ve had to get a tag to go into the dressing room, I’m not sure, I definitely would’ve had to show the cashier to buy the articles. This was after the break-up text from Steve, so I knew that something had to change. I was presenting femme-ish, I was wearing makeup, but still not on HRT and still wearing my old masculine clothes, and I felt like I still looked very much like a man. And I was heading for the changing room with an armload of clothes from the women’s section, and I dropped them on the floor and ran from the store back to my car and got in and locked the doors and cried for about five minutes. Then I pulled myself together, and I went back in, and the pile was right where I’d left it. So I went in the changing room and some of the clothes fit, I bought them, and I still have some of them. I still like wearing at least one of those shirts that I bought that day. And I remember that day every time I wear it.

 

Who in your life do you feel you can trust or depend on?

I can trust and depend on a lot of people. I’m really lucky in that way. A lot of my queer family; some people I’ve dated in the past; some people I’m just close to. I have a girlfriend who is trans herself and non-binary – she’s my girlfriend in the sense that that’s how people read us, but really we’re just two people being excessively queer to each other. I have a boyfriend who does identify as a man, and I feel like I can rely on either of them and trust them. I am going to Firefly in a week, and I’m going with a theme camp, and I don’t know everyone in the camp, but I certainly feel like I can rely on and trust a lot of people in my camp. It really does mean something when you camp together, cook together, eat together, when you safety each other during fire spinning. When I light things on fire and spin them, I always have someone holding a fire blanket in case anything goes wrong, and often times I’m holding the blanket for someone else who’s spinning fire. And that creates a certain kind of bond that I haven’t really experienced with anything else. Maybe other people experience it in similar situations, somewhere there’s legitimate danger that you could die and someone’s keeping you alive. If I can trust my campmates, many of whom are also fire spinners, to keep me alive when I’m spinning fire, and they can trust me to keep them alive when they’re spinning fire, we can trust each other with anything I guess.

How has your identity played a role in your relationships, romantic or otherwise?

I was single when I made a lot of my changes; when I asked people to stop calling me Andrew ever; when I changed how I dress. When I made those changes, I was single. And you know, I certainly didn’t want to be single, I’ve always felt more comfortable having one or more partners, but as compared to a lot of other people’s experiences, I think that did make a lot of things easier for me. I think a lot of people deal with a lot of heartache if they’re in one or more relationships and their gender identity or their gender expression or what they tell people about their gender identity [changes] outwardly – it can force other people to think about who they are. My boyfriend identifies as straight. He’s attracted to me as a woman. And that actually causes some amount of difficulty, because I’m a woman only in the sense of, if I have to be one or the other, then “woman” is much closer to my identity than “man.” And so, I worry sometimes. Is he attracted to me, or is he attracted to some simplified version of me, some pigeon-holed version of me? But if he had known me before, when I was dating gay men, when I was using “he/him” pronouns, when I was letting people think I was a man, then the man I’m dating now definitely wouldn’t have dated me then. He’s not attracted to people he sees as men, he’s attracted to people he sees as women.

So that complicates things. I’ve dated other people who are exclusively attracted to people they see as men. You know, if I had been dating someone like that when I changed my presentation and pronouns and everything, that would’ve been a problem. And I know some people try to work through it, some people seem to work through it successfully, and good for them. I’ve never had to deal with that particular difficulty.

Are you able to find adequate medical care?

There are a lot of elements to transgender medical care. There’s hormones themselves, obviously, there’s surgery, but there’s also just generalized medical care. There’s a thing that we sardonically call “trans broken arm syndrome,” where you go the doctor and maybe the emergency room with some set of symptoms and they either already have your medical history in your chart, or they ask you for it upon admission, and they try to tie everything back to your transgender status. Like, “Oh, you’re tired because you’re depressed, because you’re dysphoric, because you’re transgender.” Six degrees of transgender. “Oh, you’ve got an upset stomach because your body’s adjusting to hormones, which you’re taking because you’re transgender.” They try to tie everything back to it.

 

There are real documented cases of this delaying or even preventing medical care. There was a high-profile case out of Pakistan a couple months ago where a transgender woman was shot and brought to the E.R. There was a significant delay in her care, in finding her a bed, because they couldn’t decide whether to put her in a men’s ward or a women’s ward, and she died of her injuries.

I have not experienced anything that horrendous. I have had doctors who were insensitive – I had a doctor just a couple months ago write a back-to-work note wherein he referred to me as Andrew, which by then was not my legal name, and I had told him years earlier not to call me Andrew and that my name was Andi. But he wrote a back-to-work note wherein he called me Andrew and he referred to me with the pronoun “he.” And this was just a couple months ago. That was upsetting, distressing, but didn’t directly impact my medical care negatively. I did find another doctor after that. And so in that sense it impacts continuity of care. It’s harder for my new doctor to treat me, because they haven’t been treating me for years and years. They don’t have my medical history. And I had to switch doctors because the old one was at best, trans-ignorant, and at worst, transphobic. I really can’t say. Boston is one of the best places in the world as far as I know for hormone treatment. I see an endocrinologist who is on the cutting edge of the endocrinology science for transgender patients. He’s publishing, he’s in both popular science and academic science journals all the time. So I’m really lucky in that sense.

Surgery is quite a bit more of a hassle. It has been for me. And I guess that’s another misconception. The general public has a misconception that there is a singular “The Surgery.” There is no “The Surgery.” There are many surgeries that people have related to transition. It’s widely reported that Caitlyn Jenner had her trachea shaved – more commonly known as an “Adam’s apple.” People who are assigned-male-at-birth often have a more prominent Adam’s apple and some of us choose to have it shaved down to appear less masculine. That’s a surgery. Some of us get breast implants just like a cisgender woman might. Some of us actually get a surgery where they open up your throat and adjust your vocal chords, change the pitch of your voice, which has a pretty high rate of complications.

 

And then of course there’s the salacious one that the general public is usually talking about when they say “The Surgery.” I call it bottom surgery. That’s probably one of the more common terms within the trans community. Bottom surgery; genital reconstructive surgery; gender confirmation surgery. The old terms might be sexual reassignment surgery, or sex change surgery. Basically none of us say that anymore. There are a lot of reasons for that. I personally don’t like the implication that the surgery itself is what changes your sex. [As if] until you have “The Surgery” you’re really your old sex, and then after “The Surgery” you are your new sex. It doesn’t work that way. [“Sex”] is another word that doesn’t have a unified meaning, it’s not true that everyone understands it to mean the same thing, so I understand that some people will always think that I will always be male. I don’t agree, but I get it, because the word “sex” doesn’t have a unified meaning in the first place. If you’re using a definition of “sex” that makes “sex change” possible, then I think that “sex change” must be a process, not an event.

I guess that’s one of the biggest misconceptions, now that I think of it, that sex change is abrupt. That one day you’re a man and the next day you’re a woman. No. I think that the media creates that misconception, reinforces it. 

I think that Caitlyn Jenner is perhaps the latest and greatest example of it, where for a long time she was still presenting male, still using her old name, still using male pronouns, and then had a grand coming out, and since then has been unequivocally Caitlyn. And for most of us, it’s more of a process than that. I think that the standard narrative of the abrupt change, I think that that was intentionally crafted in her case. She’s a media personality, and she sells stories.

As far as surgery? Yes. I’ve had difficulty finding appropriate surgery. There’s not just one “The Surgery” that trans people want, [or] that trans women want.

How has your view of yourself changed since you were younger?

In so many ways. I guess one of the biggest changes is that I can assert my own concept of self.

I feel like my life is my responsibility. I’m the one who has to live with all the consequences. Sure, my choices have some consequences for some other people, but I’m the only one who has to live with all of the consequences of all of my choices. And I feel like when I was younger, I lived much more for other people, for fitting in, for meeting other people’s expectations. I still live to meet expectations, but now they’re my own. I feel like since I was young, I have pushed myself to explore the things that I actually want to be in my life. My activism, my fire-spinning, my mountain climbing, my computer programming, my gender expression and identity; I feel like the biggest change is that there’s actual content to me, and not just how I’m trying to fit myself into a specific situation, what I’m trying to reflect back.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I mean, it’s easy to say I’d tell myself to transition, right? But I don’t know, I think if I were 13 and starting puberty and starting to have concepts of masculine and feminine and starting to picture myself feminine and starting to “cross-dress” in secret – at the time that’s what it felt like – if I was 13 and Future Me had come to me and said, “Hey, you’re really a feminine person who will eventually be presenting a feminine personality to the world. The world will read you as a woman. That’s how you will fit into the straight world. So you may as well transition now. You may as well get it out of the way.” I feel like if someone had actually told me that, that would’ve been counter-productive. I feel like I kind of knew that, actually, and I went into denial and that’s exactly what I would’ve done. So it’s not that I didn’t know that, it’s not that I needed someone to tell me that, it’s that what I really needed was someone to listen to me, take me seriously, tell me, “What you want for yourself, how you see yourself, who you want to be in the world, these things matter. And you shouldn’t invest so much of yourself in pleasing everyone else and meeting everyone else’s expectations and following trails that have already been blazed. ‘Cause that’s a sucker’s game. You should feel empowered to make your own decisions, whatever those might be.” That’s what I really needed to hear.

What are your concerns for the future?

Sea levels are rising. Global temperatures are rising. We’re running out of petroleum reserves. Our population keeps growing, and though we produce plenty of food to keep up with it, we keep concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer hands. More and more people live further and further below the average standard of living. And I guess social justice issues continue to be problems. We keep taking some number of steps forward and some number of steps backward, and I hope it is a march forward overall. I think it is, I think that we as a people are less racist than we were 200 years ago, I think we are less racist than we were 50 years ago, I hope we’re less racist than we were 10 years ago. But this is still a problem, and I’m afraid that it will always be a problem. I don’t know how to best apply my efforts to work at it. But I’m gonna try anyway. I worry about these things in the general sense. I worry that I see a backlash against trans people and gender-nonconformists now that we are more visible – we absolutely are more visible now than we were five or ten years ago, and more people are aware of us – and I think it brings more of the hate and fear to the surface. I’m afraid that that backlash will intensify. Personally, I’m afraid that I’ll never retire. I’m afraid that I will, like many of my relatives, die before the age of 65, or if I do live longer than that, I’m afraid that Social Security will be bankrupt and my savings will be meager and I’ll have to keep working.

What do you look forward to in the future?

Spinning more fire. Camping more. Maybe I will get to retire one day. Maybe I’ll still be spinning fire in retirement. Like I said, I have a couple partners right now, and I look forward to connecting more deeply with each of them, and other important people in their lives. Getting to know my girlfriend’s family more and her other partners more. I’ve actually never met my boyfriend’s family, he lives in Quebec. Like I said earlier, I do not have an up-to-date passport, so I’m working on getting [it] up-to-date, and when it is, then I’m going to travel to Quebec. And I can meet more of the important people in his life. I look forward to that. I hope to make progress on the social issues that I’ve been working on and will continue to work on.

What have been the important frustrations in your life, and the most important successes?

Big setbacks, big defeats? I dropped out of grad school. That was pretty distressing. I went for three semesters for a program in mathematics at Northeastern, and I was the first one in my family to graduate from college, let alone go to grad school, so my family encouraged me as best they could, but they could only give so much support because they didn’t know what the hell I was doing. So they gave me words of encouragement to go back to grad school, but they couldn’t really give me any constructive advice.

And what I really wish I had known was that selecting the right school, the right program, is a very big deal. It’s not just like, Oh, you like math, so go study math at any grad school. No. Math is actually a really broad range of subjects, and different programs will have faculty specialized in different subject areas of mathematics. The faculty at the school I studied at: very good at what they do, but what they do is not necessarily what I wanted to do. I never found my stride in three semesters of studying there. I never felt like I was really understanding anything. I was completing assignments, I was getting fine grades, but I never really felt the “a-ha” moments that were so common in grade school and undergrad; where something would click and I would come to understand something. That was such a satisfying feeling, and I literally never got that in grad school. So I didn’t stick with it. And that was really sad to walk away after three semesters with no degree, nothing substantive to show for it.

Most important success – graduating from college with Honors. Coming out was something I struggled with for much longer than I realized. I wanted it for much longer than I admitted to myself, so I guess that’s a kind of triumph, that I finally did it. My life has been largely incremental. I’d say I’m decent at fire-spinning, I’m decent at my job, and if I had come from nothing to where I’m at now, I would say that those are big accomplishments, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like I started out spinning things not on fire and hitting myself a lot, and not really making patterns, and over time I learned a couple patterns and hit myself less; and gradual progress at everything.

Do you have a philosophy of life? What’s your best piece of advice?

I don’t have a concise pithy philosophy of life. I find meaning in absurdity. I find meaning in the meaninglessness and arbitrariness of it all. It’s really interesting to me how humans are so good at finding patterns, even when there’s no pattern there to find. We’ll find one. We’ll make one. And I think none of us knows as much as we claim to, I think we think we understand a lot more than we do. I guess that’s my philosophy of life. It’s better to know that you don’t know. But my one piece of advice is: don’t panic.