Transition, Year One

I sat at my computer on September 16th, staring at the email I’d spent the last week composing. I read over it again as so many feelings washed over me. I was anxious, but excited. My hand hovered over the send button. This was an email I couldn’t take back. I reread the email one final time, took a deep breath, closed my eyes and hit “send.” It was done.

Last year, I transitioned to living as a woman full time when I emailed the staff at my then employer and announced that I would become Elise Nicole Shaffer.

A few months prior, I informed my friends. And, a week or so after that, I told my mom and brother. My mom said she “just wanted me to be happy” and my brother gave the always classic, “You better be sure. There’s no going back. I’ll have your back either way.”

Since the day I sent that email, It’s been a wonderful, painful, happy, heart-wrenching year.

In many ways, the transition is the best thing I’ve ever done. It was an incredible gift to myself. I got to finally be the person I’d been hiding from the world. But in another way, it led to the hardest year of my life. I’ve had to confront a lot of questions about my identity and self. I’ve had to deal with various people in my life not understanding my situation. And I’ve had to do it all while the world falls apart around me.

My transition at work went more or less smoothly. I received dozens of emails, and slack DMs of support. When I showed up the following Monday as Elise, people were kind. I made it through the first day and went home. That night I had a call with my therapist and cried.

Following my transition, I had a few tough months. In my head, I thought the transition would be this kind of switch, “flip this for happiness.” But, it wasn’t that easy. Though I’d struggled with my gender identity for decades, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional toll transition would take on me.

Over the next few months, I confronted a lot of emotions. About two weeks after the transition, I broke down in front with my therapist about how I’d like to take it all back.

While I’d gone out “in girl mode” prior to the transition, I felt this strong pressure to fit in and be stereotypically female. However, thirty years of presenting as masculine were fighting down that pressure. I had hoped that the transition would help me deal with these two conflicting people in my head. But, I found that I was fighting the same battle from the other side now. Whereas I’d been suppressing the woman inside me for my entire life, I now felt like I was trying to fight free of the man I’d been.

I saw a tweet that was such a big “It Me!” moment. I wasn’t able to find it, but the gist of the tweet was that queer people who come out in adulthood have a lifetime of being this whole other person that they have to fight with. So coming out, and being who you really are, becomes a process of unlearning the facade you’ve built for the world and trying to discover who you really are. And that was my mental state for the next several months.

To compound matters, my work life was getting stressful. Our Tech Lead had moved on to another team and in the interim, I was acting as a quasi Tech Lead. This meant that I was filling a lot of the tasks of our previous Tech Lead in addition to my normal duties.

Adding to that stress, we were working on some pretty stressful projects. One of which, was not well received by customers or our support staff. One customer in particular, nearly took me to my breaking point. By December, I was emotionally exhausted.

I knew I had to make a change.

Sometimes, I want to be invisible.

I said the transition went smoothly, and it did. But, that doesn’t mean there were no bumps. My colleagues were really accepting and worked hard to get my pronouns right. In fact, I’d measure that my colleagues overcorrected in the other direction.

For most of my life, I’ve used the word “guys” to refer to groups of people. Although I’ve worked in recent years to change my vocabulary to use more inclusive alternatives like “y’all,” I still mess up sometimes and say “Hey guys.” So, I understand that it’s not easy to change your entire speech pattern at the drop of a hat.

In a meeting during the first week of my transition, my new boss asked me to stay behind. He apologized for addressing the group as “guys” and assured me he was trying to watch his language (my words, not his. This was a year ago, I don’t remember the exact wording). I hadn’t even noticed. A few days later a coworker on another team pulled me aside to make the same apology. And several weeks into my transition, one recruiter pulled me aside during a happy hour to make the same apology.

I don’t like feeling as though I’m a burden on other people. I’ve worked on this a bit in therapy, but I still struggle hard on it. These employees were all trying to be accommodating and conscious of how their language might affect me. But, I felt like I was being a burden. Sometimes, I want to be invisible. To not have my transness be front and center and on display. To not be reminded that I don’t pass.

For some nonbinary folks this might seem offensive. They would view the use of the word “guys” as excluding them. There are people who look at the original slip up as transgressive, whereas I looked at the constant apologies as excluding me. I viewed them as calling attention to how I wasn’t like everyone else.

Back to making a change. I was not in a position to do an unpaid sabbatical. I needed to find another job. That’s when I got an email for a remote Senior Software Engineering position and decided to apply.

I had a great interviewing experience, and eventually got the job. The interview process and that job aren’t that important for this story. What’s important is that for the first time, I was introduced to a new team as Elise. All of the awkward readjustments my former colleagues were trying to make didn’t happen here. Everyone only knew me by Elise and it was easy to slot right into the team as myself. I started in February.

My new team was great. They were kind and thoughtful and a joy to work with. But, I soon realized that I was the only woman engineer(trans or cis) on the team. This was something that started as a curious observation, but became very apparent to me over a few weeks. For my entire life, I had a false sense of belonging. My whiteness and my maleness let me fit in. But at this new company, I was ever aware of how little everyone looked like me.

This was also the first time that I had to deal with the complexities of not having my legal name change sorted. Booking flights and hotels, dealing with health insurance and I-9 verification all made me acutely aware of how awkward going by one name while having a separate legal name can be.

I made plans to get my name change processed quickly. And, I bet you know what’s coming next.

“Do I need to change my name?”

That’s right, The ‘Rona! By March, COVID-19 had taken hold of America. Cities were shut down and all nonessential services were closed. I was laid off and needed to search for a new job. But, my name change still hadn’t gone through. And because of the closures, I wasn’t sure when it would.

I began the months long process of interviewing. Interviewing is tough on its own and I meant to write up how I felt about this latest round of interviews. But generally, looking for work after being laid off was a slog. It was interview after interview, made worse by not going by my legal name. It became a conversation with every potential employer. Once again, my transness was front and center for everyone to see.

The job search was difficult. I once again became emotionally exhausted. And the constant questioning of if I’d run into problems with my name started to turn into a quiet question in my mind: “Do I need to change my name?”

I skipped over something because it didn’t fit into the flow above, but my relationship with my mother has been challenging at times throughout my life. I’ve thought about blogging about it, but it’s really hard to do so without feeling like I’m airing dirty laundry in public. So when I came out to her, it wasn’t really a brilliant acceptance of who I am. And, it wasn’t a rejection of who I am either. It just kind of happened.

For the last year, I’ve had pretty regular conversations with my mother. She misses me. She loves me. She wants to know when I’m going to visit. But throughout that year, she has seldom used the correct pronouns. Asking if my brother, “wants to say hello to his brother.” Or, she’s used the wrong name. It’s been really hard for me.

So this backdrop of constantly having name conversations and my mother’s inability to get my name right led me to thinking about whether the name change is even important. After all, a year on, I haven’t completed it.

Changing my name was a big symbol for me. I have trans friends who picked their names based on a relationship or something important to them. It’s a name they identify with. But for me, it was about wanting to mark this important change in my life. It was meant to be a symbol of this wonderful gift I was giving to myself. I picked it by making a list of names I liked and picking three that went together and sounded pretty. And, maybe that’s enough.

But, I’ve also started to notice that I feel a certain identity to my old name. It’s who I was for thirty-three years. As I’ve worked on unlearning my facade and piecing together who I am, I wonder if parts of who I am are embodied in my old name. Then, I wonder if keeping my old name undoes everything I’ve accomplished in the last year.

I feel, for the first time, authentically me.

I’ve been at my new company for a few months now. I like the team and have made some new friends. I’m not the only trans person so I feel a sense of belonging. But, I’ve also been incredibly isolated over the last several months.

Quarantine has made my transition even harder. I’ve had days where I’m very depressed and don’t feel like putting in any effort. Time seems to move simultaneously too slow and too fast.

I’m writing this section the morning after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s passing. I don’t know if I’ll go back to write a better transition(pun intended) into it. It’s hard to look at the world right now and feel any kind of optimism for the future. I’m scared. My friends are scared. We’ve seen four years of things getting worse for us.

Trans lives are anathema to Trump’s regime. The HHS ruling from a few months ago scared me. Watching him ban trans people from the military scared me. And knowing that his new court pick will be an extremely religious conservative who will decide against trans people, scares me.

I talk to some of my cis friends, and they don’t understand why I’m so scared. They can’t possibly understand it. Trump’s America is not an America that will let me live as who I am.

My mother voted for Trump. She might vote for him again. I feel a deep betrayal from that. I feel a deep betrayal from my country. At the same time, I feel—for the first time—authentically me. I’m not hiding who I am. I don’t have to put on a facade for the world.

I started writing this blog with the intention of crafting an uplifting story. I wanted to talk about my experience in a way that would be a little inspiring. But, I can’t talk about the first year of my transition without discussing how I feel right now. This election is crucially important to me. I’ve had some inconveniences and some great personal moments this year. But, I’m sitting here writing this and I don’t feel safe.

While this blog is a reflection on that year, it’s also a reflection on me as I am today. It’s a bit meandering and covers a lot because that’s where I am as I reflect on all this. I’m sorry for the sharp left turn into Depressionville that I took in this section. But, there’s a lot to unpack from my first year of transition.

Transition is a journey. That email I sent a year ago wasn’t the end, but the beginning. I’ve learned a lot. There are so many things I left out. For every struggle I’ve outlined here, I’ve also had beautiful moments of self-acceptance. I probably could have highlighted more of those. But as I wrap this blog up, I think it would be dishonest to pretend it’s been easy. It’s been quite a year. I just hope that things get better.


Endnote: I didn’t use any names in this blog post because I didn’t really want to call anyone out. I respect a lot of the people I’m talking about(not Trump obviously; fuck that asshole) and I don’t want my comments to be misconstrued. I really wanted to highlight what the experience has been like for me. To discuss my struggles both internal and external. And to highlight some of the good things that happened.