In Medias Res

Six months in.

Six months in.

[Author’s note: This is a follow-up to my first post on The Border House. There are many ways to transition and not all of them involve hormones.  While I want to share my journey, I don’t want my transition to be read as an archetype for others.]

Transitioning legally, hormonally and socially is like playing a classic Japanese role-playing game. At the start, you “gain experience” and “level up” at an exhilarating pace. Last August, I came out to my friends: Level 2! Last October, I came out at work: Level 3!

In November, I reached the bottom of the dungeon (the endocrinology department at the Emory University Hospital), beat the big boss (my long-awaited doctor’s appointment) and obtained some sweet loot: a prescription for spironolactone (a testosterone-blocker) and estradiol (a form of estrogen). This single victory merited a massive experience boost: Level 3 to Level 7 all at once!

As time wore on, however, these monumental moments spread further and further apart. This February, I legally changed my name: Level 8, I suppose. I got an F on my passport last month: Level 8 and a half? I changed the name on my car title. Hooray? How exciting…

It feels like I’m grinding now. About six months into hormone replacement therapy (HRT), physical progress is frustratingly incremental. Everyday, twice a day, I pop that same pair of pills. Everyday, I brush my hair out to see how long it’s gotten, tugging my bangs down over the tip of my nose. Everyday, I examine my body in the mirror hoping that I will be surprised by what I see.

They say a watched pot never boils. But when you’re the pot, it’s hard not to watch yourself. This is simultaneously the blooming spring of my transitionthe moment when noticeable bodily changes are starting take effectand the onset of its long winterthe time when I soberly remind myself that the physical effects of HRT require two years or more to unfold.

Once I was the flashy hero, slaying dragons, clearing dungeons and buying new armor. For six months, I frantically set up court dates and doctor’s appointments. Now, I fight tiny battles everyday, correcting someone’s pronoun usage or (finally) buying a hair dryer. To use the language of Dragon Quest, I’m only fighting slimes nowadays; the bosses have already been defeated.

"Once I was the flashy hero, slaying dragons, clearing dungeons and buying new armor." The author at her coming out gathering in October 2012.

“Once I was the flashy hero, slaying dragons, clearing dungeons and buying new armor.”
The author at her coming out gathering in October 2012, holding some loot.

When I beat the main quest in Dragon Quest IX, I pored through walkthroughs and FAQs, picking out the ideal gear for each of my characters. But when I realized what materials I would need to craft that gear and what I would have to do to obtain those materials, I gave up on the project of outfitting my dream team.

I played through a few of the procedurally generated post-game levels (“grottos”) but my interest quickly diminished along with the rate of return on my time investment in the game. Like many, I’ve given up on grinding in video games. Why spend four hours gaining one level when I could start a new game and spend one hour gaining four levels?

But my body is not a cartridge that I can stow on a shelf. I can’t buy a new one in order to feel the rush of progress once more. I’m stuck in the post-game, chipping away at the more quotidian challenges of being transgender in a cisnormative world.

To speak euphemistically about a sensitive subject, I’m still eyeing some fancy gear down the road. But the item I want is rare, costly and difficult to construct. It’s a weapon with amazing stats and an astonishing price tag, much like the coveted but impossibly out of reach items found in every Dragon Quest shop. Every so often, I count my gold, look at that price tag and put my nose back to the grindstone. Someday.

Middles are an awkward and undervalued sort of temporality. They lack the excitement of beginnings and the catharsis of endings and yet the inexorability of their passage is precisely what enables that excitement and that catharsis.

I’m in a middle now. I’m an unfinished product, a work in progress. I’m still caught, painfully, between the idealized image of myself that I project to the world and the brutal reality that greets me in the mirror’s reflection.

"Middles are an awkward and undervalued sort of temporality."

“…I can take some consolidation in the slow, beautiful strangeness of my changing form.” The author’s character in Saint’s Row: The Third.

I need to realize that middles can be exciting too. Middles are a time when plots thicken, when new characters get introduced, when dramatic twists occur. I’m sure I’ll be relieved when these first few years of HRT are over but, for now, I can take some consolation in the slow, beautiful strangeness of my changing form.

Perhaps there’s a more optimistic way of conceptualizing this awkward middle, another temporal framework that could alter my perspective.

Instead of focusing on grinding, then, let’s say that I’ve completed the tutorial of a sandbox game. I’ve already worked my way through the pedantic, hand-holding early missions: I know how to walk in heels and I learned how to sign my new name. I even figured out how to apply liquid eyeliner after numerous failed attempts with comedic results. I had a lot of help from dear transgender and cisgender female friends in figuring out these basics.

I still have some waiting to do, yes, but I am also free to explore a new territory that’s opened up in front of me, whether I figuratively imagine it as Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV or as the surface of Mars in Red Faction: Guerrilla. In fact, my own experience post-transition is not so far removed from my character’s experience in Saint’s Row: The Third: we both sing along to the radio, try on a lot of clothes and goof off with sex toys.

With the tutorial behind me, I can enjoy new modes of relating to others, new languages of identity and desire, new sensations and, yes, new outfits when finances are permitting. I’ll get to my next big goals in due time but, for now, I’m trying to get lost in optional quests because, in Skyrim as in life, side missions are sometimes the most significant endeavors we can pursue.

One of the reasons why I am so grateful to be on the other side of the tutorial, then, is that I can proceed with the pleasurable business of living, laughing and loving in a world that feels so much more open to me than it did before. The world might not have changed very much but I am changing and I finally get to play.

Dante Alighieri opens The Inferno with these famous verses: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.” In the middle of my transition, I feel a little lost but I’m ready to take some steps in the dark.

About Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality, and technology. She is a contributor for The Daily Beast and her opinion pieces appear regularly at The Daily Dot. Her work has also appeared on Salon, Huffington Post, The Advocate, Mic, Kinsey Confidential, Jacobin, and in Adult Magazine. Samantha is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.
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6 Responses to In Medias Res

  1. Kimiko says:

    The epic gear description had me LOL :)

    I hope you enjoy exploring the newly opened lands. Some day soon that ‘brutal reality’ in the mirror will pretty closely match the ‘idealized image’ and the surprise won’t be so much what you see, but what you don’t see anymore.

    • Thanks, Kimiko! And I’m glad you enjoyed the epic gear metaphor. I’m working on it! And you’re right, everyday those two images get a little closer together. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Dee Springer says:

    Hey, Samantha! We’ve never met, but I’m Kate’s mom..and I just wanted to say..no matter what “stage” of life you find yourself in, you are an amazing, beautiful young woman who is blazing new trails, a new path for all the other girls like you who will follow in your footsteps…and you are VERY much loved! We all feel a little lost now and then, but the important thing is that we keep going.. don’t be afraid of that dark.. just remember to take your dancing shoes with you, because you, my dear.. live your life out loud, and that is a cause of celebration! – Dee :)

    • Thank you, Dee for your sweet comment. You have an amazing and brave daughter. I think she and I both think it’s important to be visible to give hope and courage to others. It’s wonderful to hear your expression of support.

      I wish I could speed up time, but I couldn’t be happier with the path I’m on. I’ll live loud and dance (badly).

  3. Caelyn says:

    Oh, that is amazing! I know exactly how you feel! Although I’ve still got a lot of the big bosses ahead of me (medical stuff, mainly) I feel very much stuck between the big moments. At the moment, I’m mostly limited by my finances; I’m unemployed and most of my meagre disposable income is going on paying back friends and family who lent me money in ever leaner times. Building up a feminine wardrobe and trying to get those pesky cosmetic bits sorted out (how I have come to loathe my facial and body hair) on a shoestring budget is tough, especially when you have some major barriers to being read as female (like being 6’5″).

    I can see all those goals ahead of me, bosses to overcome and upgrades to get, but they seem a long way off.

  4. spectrekye says:

    Thanks for this. I’m a transguy, pre-hormones, and right now I think of myself as in “the middle.” I’m not sure there will ever be an “endgame,” but I love how you’ve characterized the tutorial stage and the leveling in general. So often, especially before hormones or some other step, the experience for me has always felt like I’m losing EXP instead of gaining it by completing the little quests. So, your perspective is really heartening :)

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