¡hola papi!

‘I Transitioned, But I Still Feel Like a Phony’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

I’m a trans man who lives in a blue city in a red state, and I’ve been very fortunate in my transition. A few years of HRT and getting top surgery have transformed my body and, frankly, my entire life. I feel (and look) unrecognizable compared to just three years ago. 

Adding to the magical girl boy transformation, the COVID pandemic lockdowns were like a weird blessing, allowing me the social privacy to cocoon away from others with my vials of testosterone before magically getting to emerge like a metaphorical manly butterfly.

Now, I have a respectable mustache, a flat chest, and am 100% gendered correctly in public. This is all a huge privilege, and I am grateful every damn day for it. If I hadn’t started this journey back in 2019, I would not be alive today.

I also feel like my life’s magical transformation has potentially caused my courage to atrophy.

When I started at my very corporate workplace in 2019, I showed up on day 1 with my pre-T babyface and a freshly printed name change. I absolutely did not pass as male. Still, I showed up and advocated for myself, corrected misgendering, and used the mens room even when it felt like I was walking into a literal den of lions. It took grit and bravery and determination and I look back and genuinely do not know how I did it.

At the end of last year, I did an internal transfer at my job to a team where nobody knows I’m trans. It may sound strange, but I kind of feel awful about it.

On my old team, people knew me from the beginning of my transition. They saw my transformation, and they saw me fight to prove myself as a man. And eventually, they all saw and treated me as a man and it felt real and genuine. It felt like something I’d earned.

On my new team, I feel … phony. And cowardly. Everyone treats me as a man, which was, ya know, one of the major goals of my transition. But my stealth status feels like the flimsiest of shields, and I find myself now afraid that someone will find out and then treat me differently.

What happened to my courage, Papi? The babyfaced pre-T guy from 2019 who rocked up and made it work had so much gumption, and I don’t know what happened to him.

I’ve even thought about leaving my job and going elsewhere, but that just seems like it’ll kick the can down the road to some other workplace. How do I find that courage again to be openly trans and rock it like I used to, back when that was the only option?

Fearful in Stealth

Hey there, FS!

You know, I’m not trans, and I certainly can’t speak to that experience, but I do know what it’s like to go from scrappy underdog to … regular dog. Like, a dog with a backyard and nice treats. I guess we’re going with dog metaphors here. Kind of dangerous. Kind of furry adjacent. But I shall be brave and persist.

Point is, when struggle is such a big part of your life, when every day is a battle and you have to tussle for every last scrap you get, you can start to identify with it. You can start to feel like, This is who I am. You wake up every morning ready to fight, and you go to bed every night exhausted from having fought.

And blood, sweat, and tears aside, there are upsides to that. A lot of people don’t wake up knowing who they are at all. There’s a sense of purpose, a noble one, in being a warrior. Many people in this cold, confusing world don’t have that sense of self. They don’t have a fight or a goal or anything to suffer toward.

With suffering as common and unjustified as it is, there’s really something to the idea that our pain means something, that it’s useful, that it’s all part of a journey with a destination. Isn’t that the foundation of every powerful story? And isn’t a story what we all want?

I’ll try to relate in my own way.

I remember, FS, wanting to be a writer so badly. I was a kid in rural Oklahoma trying to find a way into the life I wanted. My high-school English teacher started entering me into contests, and even though our school was far behind our competitors with smart boards and modern textbooks and “enough desks,” I started winning.

I remember being moved from Oklahoma to Washington, D.C., and then from D.C. to New York for whatever writing job would have me. I remember working multiple jobs at once, some involving writing, some not, staying up late and waking up early to make it work. I was resentful of my colleagues who went to Ivy League schools and had family connections, but I was also proud I didn’t have those things. I found a sense of identity in my struggle. I had a reason to push myself.

After my first book came out — the goal I had been pursuing for what felt like my whole life — I entered a profound depression, the aftershocks of which I’m still feeling today. I felt there had been a huge question mark at the center of my being: “Can you do it?” I had answered it, and now I was no one. I had to start all over, only with a much less compelling narrative.

It’s funny, FS.

You say that on your old team, when someone treated you like a man, it felt good, like you’d earned it. You know that’s wild, right? That it’s not a thing you should have to earn? Not a thing you should have to fight for in the first place? That the good and normal thing is to be treated that way?

And yet, our world is not a good and normal one, so I understand. Should basic decency be something you have to strive for? No. Can it feel good to get it when getting it is no guarantee? Yes. I don’t blame you. But there comes a time, if we’re lucky enough to get there, when the strategies we relied on to survive don’t serve us the same way, and we have to let them go.

The idea of starting all over can be scarier than having to keep fighting when fighting is what you know. It doesn’t make you a phony. It doesn’t mean you have to switch jobs. You don’t have to force yourself to be as fierce as you were in the past.

We are humans, adaptable things, and we respond to the environment we’re in. You fought to get where you are, and where you are now is a different place than where you were before. It’s good to be proud of how you got here, but you didn’t have much of a choice, did you?

This can’t be the same body I used to crash on strangers’ couches with in various cities around the world, the same brain that used to compose fluff pieces about celebrity outfits for content mills, the same Papi that was fielding letters about poppers. And, you know, in many ways, it isn’t.

We embrace different strategies at different times in our lives, hold different wisdoms, and rely on different strengths. It is good, actually, when we don’t have to struggle as we used to, so long as those struggles inspire empathy and solidarity with those who aren’t in the same place.

So, no, you’re not a coward, FS. Or at least not because of anything you listed above. You might be a coward in a way wholly unrelated to being trans. But that’s none of my business.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published December 13, 2022.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘I Transitioned, But I Still Feel Like a Phony’