I was about five years old the first time I wore a dress. Bored and eager for companionship with the girls who lived across the street, I gamely agreed to toss on a frilly, black-sequined monstrosity—the sort of thing you’d dress a baby princess’s corpse in for her untimely funeral. After hearing their shrieks of laughter, I certainly wanted to die. Running away, uncomfortably aware of how pleasant the dress felt around my hips, I resolved that this would be my most carefully guarded secret, never to be shared with anyone.
Not long after this adventure, my parents noticed something different about me: I was becoming a bully. After multiple incidents of fighting, I was caught in the coat closet with a henchman shoving a classmate back and forth. Steaming with fury, my father made a rare visit to the school to take me home. On the car ride home, he gave me an ultimatum: explain myself, tell him why I was acting out—or he’d give me a spanking I’d never forget.
The problem was, I had no idea why I’d been doing the things I did. Terrified and ashamed, I sat in silence the entire ride and received a thorough lashing with Dad’s leather, buffalo-nickel-studded belt when we got home—a beating that, true to his word, still makes me cringe today. It completely destroyed what little emotional communication I shared with my father, and we never spoke of that day again.
By the time I figured out why I’d acted so aggressively, my father was dead, and I would never get to share with him the truth: I was transgender—a girl who didn’t understand how to be herself; a girl who tried to perform masculinity for safety in the only ways she knew how, through violence and aggression; a girl who would grow into a woman who knew the power of anger and how to wield it.
* * *
Despite not actually wanting to be a boy, I spent my middle school years desperately trying to figure out how to be one. Bands like Weezer and Green Day, fronted by sensitive but angry boys who railed against everything from the Iraq War to the injustice of getting rejected by cute girls, became my fascination. I read Batman comics and their myriad stories of one man’s eternal fury, turned to noble ends in the war on crime. Somewhere therein lay the answer, I was sure; I just needed to put together the pieces to find the kind of masculinity I needed to perform.
I wasn’t just trying to be a boy for myself, though; I learned to replicate masculinity for safety. At recess, boys who I considered friends would often steal some possession of mine (usually a lunch box) and play a rousing game of keep-away. I quickly learned that while tears and pleading only exacerbated the problem, a performative display of fury backed up by physical aggression would halt the bullying for a few weeks. One weekend, a boy stole my bike for several hours as a joke. That Monday after class, I chased him through the churchyard near our school and tackled him to the ground. My safety was assured for months. This was the learned language of boys.
By the end of high school, I’d figured out how to ape the kind of masculinity I thought I could live with: a soft-hearted punk boy who just happened to harbor a top-secret crossdressing fetish. I scampered off to college and immediately began writing editorials for one of the student newspapers, based entirely on what made me angry that particular week: the Israel-Palestine conflict, misconduct by the school administration, Bristol Palin—everything was up for grabs if it sufficiently stoked my ire. I wrote with passion, fire, and very little self-reflection or research, burying myself instead in the theatrics I thought were essential to my “quirky nerd boy” personality; the administrative council became the “Dark Council,” with our president “in her ivory tower” meting out unjust punishments. I was, to put it mildly, A Lot to Deal With.
During this time, my father passed away after a long battle with brain cancer. I sat with him in his last hours, the two of us alone with the lights off in his cold and sterile hospice room, once again unable to find the right words. I couldn’t even cry. Emotionally illiterate and wracked with guilt and shame, I turned my anger inward. Someone like me would never experience the happiness I wanted. I didn’t deserve it. Instead, I bottled everything up (just like I knew men were supposed to do), graduated from college, and started writing professionally.
Eventually, though, I came to a tipping point. After an extended stretch of unemployment left me with ample time to contemplate my feelings, I had to face up to reality: my depression and emotional self-harm were just symptoms of my larger problem—I wasn’t a boy, I didn’t want to live as one, and the only way forward for me was to transition.
Mere weeks after I took my first estrogen pill, a transgender woman named Kathy Sal was followed home and beaten so badly she had to be hospitalized. Not long after, a man who lived on my block followed me to the door of my own building and watched until I entered my apartment. I bought a canister of mace on Amazon the next day. All of a sudden, the symptoms of misogyny and patriarchy I’d once thought of only in academic terms were far too real.
My anger throbbed, and for once, I knew where to put it. Finally, I had a cause beyond aimless self-loathing and liberal talking points: I would return to essay writing and skewer the forces of misogyny and transphobia wherever they flapped their tongues. I emailed an old editor friend of my father’s, who eagerly took me up on my pitch for a weekly column about transgender life and politics, which I wrote for a year after beginning hormones.
My early essays, unfortunately, were still reflections of that “boy” I had been in college, who I was trying with limited success to leave behind. My words were thunderous, needlessly combative and unkind—when a band behaved rudely to my friends at a set in the Bowery, I penned an extra edition of the column to call them “generically wimpy.” But it wasn’t just strangers who became targets. After a heated exchange about tone policing on Facebook, a cisgender friend continued to push my buttons through text; I responded by writing an entire essay called “How to Be an Ally,” using him as an example of what not to do.
Finally, two of my best friends (one, my recent ex; the other, a mutual friend who’d taken me shopping for my first dress at H&M) had had enough—but they expressed that in a more helpful way than I had ever considered possible. They invited me over for dinner, poured some wine, and bantered with me for a while, setting me at ease. When the meal was prepared, they looked me in the eyes and told me we needed to talk. “We love you,” they said. “But we feel like we can’t talk to you anymore without becoming fodder for your next column.”
I was shocked and distraught, but I couldn’t deny the truth of their words. I found myself crying for one of the first times in years (a definite sign they had gotten through to me, but also that my estrogen was finally doing its job). How could I not have noticed the callousness in my writing? Wasn’t I doing this to help people? My anger may have been an effective communication tool, but wielded recklessly, it was hurting and repelling those I cared about. I had been so used to channeling every negative emotion into anger that I had almost missed the opportunity to leave that life behind. My transition didn’t need to be a simply physical one; while the hormones reshaped my body, I could unlearn the harmful socialization of my youth and become a kinder, more understanding woman.
* * *
By calling me in (rather than out, as I had been doing to others) that night, more than three years ago, my friends helped recenter me in a way for which I can never properly thank them. Although it would be a lie to say I no longer struggle with self-hatred or lashing out, I’m not ruled by those manifestations of anger anymore. But I don’t have to be ruled by an emotion to recognize its practical use.
Late one night, early in my transition, I was walking from a friend’s place toward the last bus home. Thankfully, it’s a short ride, and I wouldn’t have to wait long. The streets of Brooklyn were mostly quiet, but as I strolled briskly down the block, I passed a man accosting a woman by a storefront, yelling “you can’t” repeatedly as she attempted to escape. My first instinct was to not get involved and keep walking; by now I’d learned exactly how dangerous men can be for people like me. But they’re dangerous for people like her, too.
My bus was approaching. I couldn’t make out much of their conversation, but rising above everything else, I heard her voice say, “No.”
To hell with the bus. I backtracked quickly.
“Excuse me, is he bothering you?” I asked.
“Yes,” she sobbed. Please, said her eyes.
The man turned his attention to me, told me to back off, that it was fine.
I didn’t, because it wasn’t. I sized him up; he was slightly taller than me, but skinnier, and my approach had knocked him off balance. I stepped between them, wondering how quickly I could get the mace out of my purse if I needed it.
“Let her go home,” I snapped. His protests meant nothing to me. I felt like I had been training my whole life for this moment. I could tell he was drunk, that he wasn’t ready to throw down; his bluster was a bluff, only powerful enough to intimidate one woman—not two, and certainly not one who knows how to hold herself, how to match his anger and not blink. I empathized with her terror, but that night, I did not share it. When I looked into his eyes, it was with all the fury and contempt I felt for the men who forced me to learn their ways and pretend to be one of them.
I ordered him again to let her go, and she and I stepped away together. Her apartment was only a few blocks away, so I walked her home. We talked like new girlfriends, gushing over how much we loved Brooklyn, glad to have found one another in this vast city. We parted ways, and I flagged down a taxi with the joy of solidarity ringing in my heart.
Deep in the fires of sisterhood, I was reborn.
There are multiple ways to speak truth to power, whether penning an essay or shouting down a misogynist; both benefit from strategically implemented anger. As a confused trans child, I used my anger as both armor and camouflage—after all, the best defense is a good offense, and lashing out at people seemed like a good way to keep myself from being hurt more deeply than I already had been. But that night, standing between another woman and her abuser, my anger afforded me no protection. I was perhaps more open and exposed than I had ever been in my life, yet I found I didn’t need the kind of protection my old anger had afforded me. Instead, I was finding another way to live my most passionate truth.
Trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), or women who don’t believe trans women are really women, would give you a far more chilling interpretation: my propensity for anger and even violence marks me as irrevocably male, a colonizer of women’s spaces who has never truly been—and never will be—female.
TERFs believe that because trans women are not often raised as girls, our socialization alienates us from “true” womanhood. I’ll admit that on the surface, it seems like they have a point. Repressing a transfeminine identity can hold back emotional development in areas that are culturally constructed as “female,” such as the expression of grief or anxiety, in favor of “male” expressions such as channeling those emotions into anger. But all this theorizing falls apart when you try to apply it to cisgender women’s lived experiences. There are many women in America and all over the globe whose circumstances require very different socialization; as other marginalized feminists have long pointed out, the concept of a “shared girlhood” is intrinsically false, relying on white- and cis-dominant ideas of how girls are socialized. Women born into areas with high rates of violence, for example, may have fewer issues expressing their own violent anger; in such an environment, repressing such emotions can be a dangerous sign of weakness, while demonstrating strength through fury acts as a powerful deterrent. Does that make them male?
Contrary to TERFs’ assertions that trans women pose a threat to cis women and their spaces, I believe we have much to teach one another. Imagine radically inclusive spaces where inquisitive minds explore both cis and trans femininities, where we can each open ourselves to new possibilities of the self and take the next steps toward our collective liberation. When we fill in the gaps in one another’s experiences, what possibilities could we discover? On that night in Brooklyn, I tapped into the past I never wanted and found an expression of solidarity waiting where I least expected it. Did I go through that trauma for a reason? When our anger has both power and temperance, what barriers may we yet demolish?
Smashing walls like these isn’t easy, of course. The last four years of my life have often been frightening and strange, filled with confusion over my own changing emotions. It’s been hard to keep my feet under me. I’m still learning to recognize when I hold onto anger and use it for self-abuse, to let go of that and other nonproductive hostility toward those around me, and redirect it where it can be more useful. But the joy of expressing myself authentically is a greater reward than I ever could have dreamed, one that far too many women are still denied. It’s time for us to reclaim our anger—and in doing so, redefine ourselves.