My very first discovery of my womanhood was in 1957, when I was a child living in Baltimore. I had a friend named Rosemary, and I wanted to play dress up with her. When I told my mother I wanted to be like Rosemary, she said, “You can’t be like Rosemary; Rosemary’s white.” It went right over her head.
I was afraid to go to school, because I didn’t like the treatment I was getting and couldn’t talk to anyone about it. In 1968 or 1969, I ran away to DC. This was the 60’s—everyone was doing everything. I needed rebellion; I never would have transitioned without rebellion. It’s how I found out there was something besides what I was taught growing up, in church and at home. That set off a lot of years of searching, turmoil, and confusion. I tried different names—Carla, Cinammon—but I never got that feeling about them. The next time I really tried to transition, I met this girl who was a drag queen, who introduced me to a group of drag queens. That didn’t work for me; it lasted about two years. I didn’t really know the difference between drag queens and trans people back then; I knew they were dressed like girls, and I wanted to be dressed like a girl.
At 26, when I came back, my life was a mess. I met back up with someone I’d known earlier, and we started a family. I was going to work and taking care of the house, but I was high on cocaine, weed, wine—all kinds of stuff. I was trying to be this perfect man, but I couldn’t make that—or my relationship—work.
At some point after that, I went into 12-step recovery. In the recovery house, I was always hearing the name Monica when I would go to shave or wash my face. I would tell myself, “You’re not going to do this today.” I was afraid she was going to pop out, because I was in a mens’ recovery house. And I thought that if I could just make all of this go away again, I wouldn’t drink and drug; I would live a normal life; I would have everything back. What I didn’t know was that the more I worked on myself, the more I would find out about my true self. In recovery, they talk about peeling away the layers. I was peeling away the layers.
After that, I wrote a poem called ‘Monica’ that talked about how I was hiding behind my eyes. A friend and I were going to a rave club, and she made me up really nice. When she handed me the mirror and asked what I thought, I said, “Monica.” That was the first time I actually saw me. I humanized me.
It’s taken me a long time to navigate that journey to find myself, because it can’t just be about my body. I know women who have had mastectomies because of breast cancer, so if it was just about body, that would mean their womanhood has been removed. It’s always been more than that.
One of the things my ex said when I came out to her is that she felt she no longer had a role in the relationship; I was the man, the woman, the husband, and the wife. But I think we are all yin and yang. For most of my life, one of the energies has definitely been more dominant than the other, but both are in me. I’m a trekkie, and one of my favorite trekkie phrases is: “Infinite diversity and infinite combination.” Everything in nature is that way; why would we be any different? If I found myself in an eternity that had a giant menu, but I was only able to pick one of two options, I’d say, ‘Oh, this is Heaven? Let me try the other place.’