A little boy runs. He jumps into mud puddles, catches frogs, climbs trees. He plays outdoors ‘til mom calls him to come in for dinner. His brothers, mom, dad all sit at the table. “Let’s say grace.” Growing up in the South and out in the country, I felt a lot of joy, happiness and safety. No worries, no cares; I simply had to go to school, do my homework, and play. I grew up with brothers and I saw myself just like them. 

It’s summertime. I’m 11 years old and we’re all getting ready to go on our annual, family vacation to the lake. All 25 or so aunts, grandparents, cousins, everyone. I wake up so excited — it’s my favorite time of year: staying up late, eating delicious food, boating, tubing, jumping off the pier, 30-foot-high rope swings, spending time with my family. And then the confusion hits me: I’ve started my period. For the first time in my young life, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of sadness. I’d spend my vacation sitting on the pier, watching my family swim and ski. It felt like things would never be the same — and that feeling lasted every single month ’til I started T, 20 years later. Constant reminders. 

When my mom tried to dress me, do my hair, I’d scream bloody murder. I didn’t want pigtails or dresses; I’d tell her they itched. I tried to fit into what my body was becoming, but everything was changing way too fast. Breasts, hips, shaving. I couldn’t play the sports I wanted to play. I wanted karate and my mom signed me up for piano lessons. She put me in pageants and I tried out to be a cheerleader — because that’s what girls do, right? It’s what my friends were doing, anyway. I felt like a fish out of water, none of it came naturally to me, and I continued to “borrow” my brother’s clothes even though they were two sizes too big. There’s a picture of me from that vacation at the lake with my family — a picture of me sitting on the pier, watching everyone — and my face emits pure sadness. I can see it so clearly. I strived so hard to fit into this mold of what I thought was right, versus wrong, because of religious reasons and the family I grew up in. You did things a certain way. I remember walking down a dirt road with my best friend one day, on our way to her house. I said to her: “I wish I was a boy.” She agreed and said, “yeah, they have it so easy.” So I assumed all girls wanted to be boys. 

I’d always felt so uncomfortable introducing myself to people — my old name was so feminine. At one point, my best friend in high school started calling me by a nickname: Chris. It felt natural and not awkward (finally) … but that drove my mom crazy. (Even today, as a 41-year-old man, I told my mom I was writing this, and on the phone, she called me “________” about 5 times. I know she loves me. She’s there for me; I just don’t know what part of my parents can’t call me Reef or “he” or “him.”) 

But how I got here … there just wasn’t a clear path. It’s been an experiment. For a while, I lived vicariously through other people, watching hours and hours of YouTubes videos of other trans guys before I ever took my first shot. Learning. Going through therapy. Wanting to but being scared. Scared of all the things I could lose … but ultimately I had to choose myself. Cool thing is, people were more accepting than I thought. 

When I first started transitioning, I felt like an imposter. I mean, I enjoyed it and I felt happier — I was having fun. I’d hear my voice crack and I’d laugh. I liked the feeling of putting on muscles so fast, chest hair, facial hair. But I felt like I was lying to people or trying to fool someone. Nine years later and I still feel a little out of place in the men’s bathroom, almost as if I’m not I’m supposed to be there. But I push through that because I want to be there. I push through because it makes it easier every time I do. I step out of my comfort zone. And even though I lived as a “woman” for 32 years, and even though I know certain things about my body that others don’t, I feel better in a men’s bathroom than I do in a woman’s bathroom. I still hate giving myself my shot — it’s another reminder that I wasn’t born into the right anatomy. Maybe it’s part of my process, but I don’t always feel 100% male. But, again, I’m more comfortable in this body, and I think that eventually having my hysterectomy will push me even closer to finding that inner peace. I’m not as shy about the body I live in anymore. I like my beard. I like that I feel stronger. And I feel proud. 

Because, really, the ultimate goal is: You gotta be who you be. You’re the only one who has to live this life and you’re the one who has to walk in your own shoes; it’s what makes life worth living. And now that I’m more comfortable and I like how I feel, masculine, I can take things slower. I get to just coast. I wanted to write this so younger people realize: you’re not alone. It’s all possible. It can be traumatic to grow up not knowing what’s going on with you when you don’t have the knowledge or the words. And for me, writing this has been another stage in the healing process.