Note: This article mentions childhood sexual abuse, body dysphoria, and transmisogyny.
When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a princess. They are so beautiful, elegant, and refined. They own entire kingdoms. They fall in love with gorgeous guys who take care of them. My desire wasn’t a matter of mechanical social conditioning, either. After all, I wasn’t allowed to like princesses. Society beat the message into me. “I’m a boy, and boys aren’t supposed to like those things.” Yet I still wanted to dress up as a princess for Halloween. I wanted to watch movies with princesses in them. I wanted to play with princess dolls. But I couldn’t. What a bummer, right? By my current standards, I was an embarrassingly conformist, heteronormative girl. According to the people around me, I was a radical. A freak.
I was a perceptive little girl, and I knew what happened to boys who broke the rules. Even ones like me that weren’t really boys. I didn’t have to be told “no” by my parents. I learned my lesson just by watching feminine boys get made fun of. Feminine boys were a joke everywhere I looked—in person, on TV, and in movies. I hid my desires from everyone. I already knew the best way to lie was to fool myself, so I told myself I liked robots. They were less masculine than toy soldiers or sports, and thus, more tolerable a compromise.
Other little girls inspired feelings of jealousy within me. Why were they allowed to be themselves and I wasn’t? They had what I was denied. I tried to befriend them. This strategy worked in kindergarten, but in first grade they treated me like an alien. I tried to be friends with boys instead. Oh how that didn’t work! Boys didn’t make any sense. I didn’t like how they played or the way they treated other girls. I was all alone.
My feigned interest in robots grew into an elaborate fantasy. I told everyone I was a robot. My feelings disappeared. I was a robotic preteen boy operating on an instruction set. A lot of my other interests were feminine too, and as I realized this I hid more and more of my personality. I emptied myself out until nothing remained except for that which society expected of me. My inner world, once so vibrant and colorful, became a wasteland.
The pain was unbearable. I found an escape in video games. I spent every spare moment in front of a PC, an NES, or a Gameboy. In most of these games, I played a valiant male hero whose duty was to rescue a princess. She was always imprisoned and helpless. Like me. I projected myself onto these damsels in distress. My robotic boy facade became the protagonist. He was the one who took action, in the games and in my own life. He faced the world while I sat in a prison.
As a teenager, I became desperate for emotional connection. My boy persona was hollow. There was always a wall between me and everyone else. I never let down my defenses, afraid my real self might slip through. It wasn’t safe to let anyone know I even existed. Some girls began to treat me differently, though. They used to avoid me, but now they let me in closer. We talked every chance we got. I liked some of my new friends because they were fun, and I liked others because they reflected aspects of myself I wasn’t allowed to show. I lived vicariously through them. Other kids would tease me for only having girls as friends. They’d ask if we were dating. “Boys can’t be just friends with girls,” they’d say. (That claim was wrong on two counts, but I didn’t have the tools to fight back.) I caved to the pressure. The girls I ended up dating were doppelgängers of my repressed personality. People even confused one of my girlfriends for my sister. To me, that girl in particular represented my real self, minus the testosterone poisoning. She was an anchor in my life, even after we broke up. We became best friends, like happened with all my exes during this period.
I pretended to be a boy in a straight relationship, and it destroyed my identity even further. I had found an accidental loophole, though: I couldn’t be a girl, and I couldn’t befriend other girls, but I could date other girls. If she was like me—the real me—I could kill two birds with one stone! I could feel my feelings through her. I could pretend to be embarrassed while watching the chick flicks I loved with her. I could even enjoy the clothes I like through her. It was a brilliant solution, given the circumstances.
Problems sprang up, however. If my partner was a stand-in for me, then who the hell was I supposed to be? I filled the empty shell with the type of guy I wanted to date. This hypothetical guy was artistic, in touch with his feelings, and had long hair. (The long hair was non-negotiable. My god, guys with long hair! I just want to grab them and… Anyways. Moving on.)
My entire orientation of self flipped. The person I dated was me, and I was the person I wanted to date. I had become an expert at lying to myself, and made myself believe my invented identity was real. I convinced myself my intense feelings toward my partners weren’t envious, but loving. In a way, that was true. Since I couldn’t be myself, I couldn’t love myself, either. I loved myself by loving my partner. My relationships became a very convoluted form of masturbation. The entire framework was fragile, and it only lasted until the end of high school. My male persona’s quest, after all, was to rescue the princess, not replace her.
After I graduated (after we graduated?) the boy facade fell apart. I emerged from my prison, came out as female, and began the arduous process of physical transition. I was so weak from my long-term imprisonment that my male persona had to do a lot of the work. On many days he would live my life for me, in drag, while I built up my strength in the shadows. It took years for transition to give me a life that was truly my own. When I changed my legal name, it felt like the opening screen in an RPG where you name the protagonist. I was finally the hero of the game. I believed this accomplishment would mark the end of the story, but I did not live happily ever after. Only upon gaining a new life did I realize I had no clue what I wanted. The first quest had consumed my life. Now it was gone, and I had nothing. The notorious Second Quest awaited.
Instead of improving, my dating life worsened. I continued to pursue women who reflected me, because I had no clue I was even doing it. My inverted dating habits originated from repression, and these relationships became a form of self-harm. By continuing to date women who represented me, I told myself I still wasn’t allowed to exist.
The world treated me differently after transition, and I had no idea how to navigate it. I was now visibly transgender, which lead to constant harassment. The harassment destroyed my self-esteem. My penis, one of my primary sources of bodily discomfort, remained. Sex became terrifying. Sexuality itself felt dangerous. I still held tension all over my body. I still couldn’t relax. One day, at work, I completely snapped. I curled up into a ball in the bathroom and cried. After recovering enough to speak, I called my roommate and asked her to pick me up. Only after the episode ended did I understand its cause: A few days prior, I had received an unsettling email that (unbeknownst to the author) revealed I had been sexually abused as a child. An ancient evil which had slept for so long, awoke.
I knew my childhood memories were clouded. I had assumed it was because of the pain surrounding my gender. Now there was a second factor. I spent the next several years recovering long-repressed memories of rape and psychological torture. The sexual abuse was another cage the princess had to escape. Still weakened, she worked alongside the male hero. The web they untangled was complex.
I used to express my childhood femininity spontaneously, before I learned to hide it. My abusers responded to my femininity by using it against me. They turned my femaleness into a justification for the rape. “We wouldn’t do this to you if you weren’t so sexy.” All girls have to deal with the sexualization of femininity at some point in their lives. I received that sexualization twice over. I was told my femininity wasn’t a legitimate part of me, and therefore I was “asking for it” even more than cisgender girls. To my abusers, I was “choosing” sexualization by acting femininely.
My abusers’ conditioning was hard to shake, even post-transition. The princess, even in her freedom, wore a disguise. Instead of a false “boy” persona, I kept up a false “butch” persona. If I removed the armor I felt as though I was broadcasting to the world, “RAPE ME! I’M AN EASY TARGET!” A wave of panic would strike. Sometimes I couldn’t even stand up.
I eventually released myself from the darkness that held me captive. I didn’t fight a climactic battle; I changed gradually over years of difficult recovery work. One moment stands out to me as the moment all the pieces came together, though. I visited my hometown. Cleveland was the prison the princess escaped from. This time there was no more desolation. The ancient evil was defeated. The trees glowed orange and red. I reunited with my ex from grade school, the one others had confused for my sister. Up until that moment my doppelgänger hypothesis had been untested, but once I saw her I knew it was correct. We wore practically the same outfit, even. Old feelings resurfaced and untangled themselves. If the love I had felt for her is really the love I feel for myself, then I’m in a very good place.
The Second Quest is over. I can live without the male hero I invented to save me. I no longer chase after reflections of myself. Now that I’ve given up on doppelgängers, who am I actually attracted to? I know I’m interested in women, but which ones? And then there’s men. My interest in them has increased. Do I want a husband and kids? Something more queer? A little of both? I have no idea. Sometimes I panic, convinced I’m turning straight. Will I lose my queer cred? What if I run into the guy I pretended to be? If I’m too poor to afford surgery, how could I even date him? The sexual options available with my current configuration don’t interest me.
Regardless of what happens, I’m on the inside and the people I want to date are on the outside. The change is new and exciting. It’s also scary. I’m an emotional teenager excited about her first date, at the age of 32. I don’t even know what I want. All over again.
The rest of my life is just as confusing. I used to chase after the girl I wanted to be. But now I am her. What else have I kept at a distance because I’m too afraid to own it? The princess has returned to her own castle. She doesn’t know what to do with her newfound freedom. What happens next? There aren’t many video games that tell the story of a brave princess who goes on adventures. Maybe I can start there.