The story of my life begins with my brother’s death. His name was John, and he was five years old when he died in 1985. He caught measles, which developed into something more aggressive, something that the doctors didn’t catch in time. His kidneys stopped working first, then his liver, and then everything else. Within the space of a week John went from healthy and happy to depending on a machine. His brain shut down, and then the machine was shut off.
The loss of John is a moment in my family’s life that I didn’t experience, so it distances me from them. But that loss is also the event that caused my own existence, because I was born to replace him.
My older sister was seven when John died. She wasn’t present when my parents watched as the doctor switched off the life-support. Two years later, my parents began planning for a second son, and my sister was excited that she would have a sibling again. She was disappointed when I was born. She had been expecting a facsimile of John — someone nearer to her age. She didn’t want a baby.
My parents gave me five names, and the middle of them was John, a name whose significance I wouldn’t know until I was nine years old. I remember the first time I was told that there had been another boy in the family. It didn’t seem like something that could have actually occurred — death was something from the news. I actually said that. “But… that’s what happens to people on TV.” No, it happened to us, too. But now we have you and things are all better.
My aunt once told me that she thought I was a reincarnation of John, and that had certainly been my parents’ intention. The idea was that our family was just a jigsaw puzzle that was missing a piece, and my parents felt pretty assured that they knew how to make one. It worked out for a while. I looked like him, or at least I looked similar to the few pictures that hung on the wall in whatever house we were renting that year. The chubby face, bright blond hair, toothy smile. I idolized our older sister. I shared his distaste of the dirt and fear of germs.
After my parents’ divorce, I was the only one my dad wrote to, sending cards to “my little soldier.” I didn’t write back. I was too young to understand the complexities of marital life, and so I bought into the narrative of my father as the bad guy. I cut him out of my life.
It’s probably for the best that he didn’t get to watch me grow up. As the years went by, I started to reject my body. When people ask me if I “knew” about my true nature when I was a child, I say yes, although I’m not sure. I do know that in second grade I brought home school pictures and took a ballpoint pen and covered the images of my face with ink and scratches. I do know that I told my mother I didn’t look right.
That same year we went to see Mrs. Doubtfire, and I discovered that there was a precedent for the male-bodied to wear women’s clothes. The pictures my mum took that night, of me in an old wool dress, were a family joke for years.
Children at school always sensed that something about me wasn’t quite right. After a decade of bullying I buckled under the stress and attempted to pick up my desk and throw it at a boy who was teasing me. The school-assigned psychologist asked if I knew why I was so often the target of attacks. I told him that I didn’t feel like a boy. I was scared to say those words out loud, to admit that nothing about my internal experience seemed to be reflected by the gender I’d been given.
I needn’t have worried. My nervousness stopped me from elaborating on my dysphoria, and the psychologist assumed that I was referring to my small size in relation to every other male-bodied person my age. Later, I was sent to an endocrinologist who informed me that I had a testosterone deficiency. I prayed that the steroids they used to start my puberty would make me feel right inside. Instead, I became even more alienated from myself: my shoulders were widening, my voice was growing deeper, and I could no longer pretend that I looked feminine. I cried the day I realized I would need to start shaving my face.
I’ve always hated the phrase “woman trapped inside a man’s body” (I’ve never thought of myself as trapped — there are just things about my body I don’t happen to like), but it’s a good platitude to distill the experience into. So that’s what I said to my mother when I finally came out. It was the best way I could think of to say “you’re about to lose another son.”
All credit to her, my mom actually took the news well. She didn’t yell at me, or try and convince me I was wrong. In fact, she didn’t seem to have any emotional reaction at all, which doesn’t make much sense. That has to be a kind of reaction of its own, right? Did I do something so terrible to my mother that she couldn’t even face her feelings about it?
My sister once said that John was the first thing she thought of in the morning, and the last at night. She had always kept her personal and emotional life private from me, perhaps wary of again risking the kind of closeness that could cause her harm. I asked my mother if John lived in her thoughts the same way. She said, “Of course not.” Denial is probably something she’s lived with for a long time.
I feel so strange writing about all this. It feels like a story that isn’t mine to tell. I wasn’t there when my parents and sister lost somebody they loved — it’s an event that belongs to them. I never felt like I could discuss the pressures of having to live up to John’s memory, because that seemed like whining about the fallout while in the company of those who survived the blast.
I’ve only ever been able to talk about these issues before under the guise of performance, as part of my stand-up comedy material. I’ve been callous about the subject, referring to my mum’s “.000 batting average when it comes to raising sons,” but that joke unjustly shifts the blame from myself. The simple truth is that I couldn’t be a son or a brother or a nephew to the people that needed me to.
In my darkest moments I feel like I’ve failed, utterly failed, at the one task life actually gave me. My family asked one thing of me: be this person. And I couldn’t do it. I managed it for nineteen years, and then just couldn’t make it any longer.
Wallowing in the guilt of that failure is self-indulgent, though. And the fact is that the suicide rates for transgender individuals are staggering, and the metaphoric death of a son is surely better than the literal. I did not ask to be born “trapped in the wrong body” any more than I asked to be the replacement for a child I never met. When I’m not struggling with those darkest moments, I like to think that I’ve made choices that are best for all involved.
Sometimes I mentally zoom out, and treat this all like a simple story. Just pronouns and verbs. He was born and he lived and he got sick and he died. I was born and I was sick and then I died and then I lived.
Illustration by Elizabeth Simins