By Kalil Cohen
This is a chapter from TransLash Zine Vol. 6: Anti-Trans Hate Machine (April 2023).
BEYOND ASSIGNED FEMALE AT BIRTH
Fifteen years ago I began a life-changing transition process to claim a gender more complex than being a “girl,” which had been automatically assigned to me as someone born female.
I have now transitioned once again with the same goal in mind, shifting from being Kalil, a genderqueer trans person mostly seen as a man, to being Kalil, a genderqueer trans person sometimes seen as a man, sometimes as a woman.
For me, being both genderqueer and transgender signifies a complex interweaving of femininity and masculinity – and a blurring of the gender binary. While my gender identities have remained consistent throughout this journey, my gender expression continues to evolve.
This ongoing process of transitioning my gender expression stems from my yearning to be seen in a world that is blind to my multiplicity, to be understood in a culture that lacks the categories to describe me, and to be embraced in a society that is constructed to exclude me.
I thought this process was complete when I transitioned my body and gender presentation from female to male fourteen years ago. However, it was simply the end of one life cycle of my gender journey. While it removed the limitation of being seen as unequivocally female and made my masculinity visible, the masculinity others saw was rarely the one I experience. And there was something ineffable missing as well.
MY GENDER JOURNEY
The gender evolution of my first 23 years of life culminated in my decision to medically transition from female to not-female.
Genderqueer and trans-identified, I felt trapped and controlled by the female gender role, my masculinity invisibilized at every turn. And while I admired lithe butch bodies with small chests and no hips, my busty Jewish figure could not comply. And so I eagerly underwent top surgery, thrilled to no longer be weighed down by the DD mounds of flesh hanging from my chest.
Forging a new life as a non-female person, however, proved to be more complicated than a few hours of surgery and a few months of recovery. I quickly realized that walking through a binary world as a non-binary person was simply not an option. People still saw me as a woman.
If I wanted to truly leave femaleness behind, there was no option but maleness.
And so, six months later, I started a very low dose of testosterone, just enough to allow me to move through the world as male––a lower voice, masculine fat distribution, and a bit of facial hair. I was grateful for the added benefit of relief from my exceptionally heavy moon cycles, including a month-long period in my teens that landed me in the emergency room because of excessive blood loss. At the same time, I did not like the extra emotional disconnection I experienced from testosterone, especially as an already mind-dominant person.
However, this was not a strong enough drawback to dissuade me; I soon grew used to this new emotional state, and it began to feel natural to me. I didn’t plan to take hormones forever, but I was confident that it was the best solution for the time being.
FINDING TRANS COMMUNITY
Strongly trans-identified, I cultivated a community of trans and genderqueer friends and chosen family. I finally felt seen, understood, accepted, and respected. For the next seven years I explored this realm of gender outlaws, transhuman futurists, and body sculpting visionaries. I played in the infinite colors of gender fabulousness. I mostly gravitated to a butch expression but revelled in my femme side as a performance artist with a fey aesthetic.
Proud of my place as a freak, I was glad to exercise the important muscle of evaluating rather than accepting social norms, and rejecting those unaligned with my personal sensibilities. Strongly connected by our shared social marginalization, I bonded deeply with my chosen family.
At the same time, I was now experiencing the other cage of the gender binary, the “man” box. It didn’t bother me at first, because I was so relieved to no longer be trapped in the “woman” box that had plagued me for 23 years.
At first, I enjoyed that people listened to me more, criticized me less, and didn’t objectify me physically. But slowly the male cage started to feel just as claustrophobic as the female one had.
While the constraints and expectations of being male were not always as offensive, they were just as oppressive. I was no longer allowed to hug children in public lest anyone thought I was a sexual predator. Men teased and bullied me in their quest for dominance. Queerness was more strictly policed, and the homophobia more violent and aggressive.
I was also less supported in exploring my emotional world, healing from trauma, and becoming an embodied and balanced person. And even after all my physical changes, I still felt disconnected from my body.
While I was no longer measuring myself against the impossible standards of female beauty, the muscular masculine ideal had quietly replaced them.
I slowly realized that my body dysmorphia was about more than just gender. It was about living in an anti-body culture, dissociated from physical sensation and lacking mind-body balance.
GENDER PRESENTATION AND HRT
Ten years ago I stopped taking testosterone. I didn’t want any more body hair or facial hair than the small scruff I’d already grown, and although I really appreciated the benefits of no menstrual cycle and greater muscle tone, it wasn’t worth it to continue just for that.
I was lucky that hormones were no longer crucial for my mental health, as I had already achieved the physical changes I desired. Additionally, I’d become more interested in nutrition and holistic wellness and felt growing concern about Western medicine and more cautious about what I put in my body.
I had also started a new self-development process for my 30th birthday in order to become a more heart-centered person, and hoped that coming back to a female hormonal balance would help me deepen my connection with myself. Little did I know that this would lead me on an entirely new journey of self-discovery, healing, growth, and transformation.
TRANS WOMB POWER
Only a month after I stopped taking hormones, I started to bleed again, for the first time in seven years. On a camping trip and ill-prepared for this novel occurrence, I reached out for help. I connected with a female friend over the rhythms of our bodies as she shared her pads and tampons with me. The experience was somewhat familiar and yet entirely new.
During my adolescence, I hadn’t felt allied with my female friends as we were initiated into this rite of womanhood. Not identifying as a woman, I had felt like a foreigner, an imposter. Now I had a community of genderqueer and trans friends who bled, with whom I could explore this experience of body and moon in rhythm together.
Now I had a spiritual connection to this monthly cycle, to the opportunity for mindful awareness, reverence for the sacred womb, and the emotional expression that it offers. Now, no longer consuming hormone-laden dairy and meat, my cycle was much lighter than it had been. Now, I knew about the cup and cloth menstrual pads – ways to bleed that were not toxic to me or to the environment.
As I started to settle into the rhythm of bleeding, I opened into a whole world of beauty that I had never known before. I discovered that I have an open door to grief when I’m bleeding – a mechanism to process and digest the pains of my life in a measured and consistent way.
I discovered the empowerment I felt when I gathered my blood in a cup – when I could see what was being released. I discovered that this cycle asked me to arrange my life with flexibility so that I could take it easy for the first day of bleeding.
And suddenly I felt the supportive, profound, esoteric sanctity of what had once been a terrible burden and insurmountable obstacle in my life.
With this shift came a newfound reverence for my womb and its power. While I had always been a yoni-centric person, the rest of my sex-specific organs had always been somewhat mysterious to me. They were vague line drawings from biology class that didn’t have real meaning in my life or self-image. I now felt drawn to deeply know my womb, to embody the power residing there. And with these new interests, I slowly became more aligned with people I knew who were on similar journeys of self-discovery. I began to seek out spaces to be with others sanctifying the monthly rhythms of their bodies, most of whom identified as women.
And for the first time, I didn’t feel like an alien in these spaces. As a genderqueer, yet male-appearing trans person, I felt accepted and respected as I talked about the spiritual empowerment I had found in my womb and my moon cycle. In these circles I found a shared narrative of defamation and degradation of the bloody potency of our bodies.
Through this process, the question of gender expression emerged to the forefront of my life once again. Still faced with the inadequate constraints of the gender binary and the social reality of being seen as either male or female, I began to reconsider my options.
My priorities had shifted, and rather than wishing to demonstrate my non-femaleness as clearly as possible, I now wished to be seen as a person with a womb. And if “female” was the clearest word that most people could summon for such a person, then so be it.
My appearance shifted gradually, more slowly than my first transition, as I felt out the significance of this gender reorientation in my life. I began growing my hair out, shaved off my mustache, and welcomed more purple into my wardrobe. For the first time in nine years, some people called me “she” when they met me, and it felt nice and a little daring.
As I slowly followed this thread of transitioning my gender presentation, I felt closer to my body, more able to convey my spirit to the outside world.
Next, I started wearing prosthetic breasts made for women who had the same double mastectomy surgery I did, mostly for breast cancer. I tried to lilt my testosterone-lowered voice up a bit, into a more androgynous range.
WOMANHOOD V.S. WOMB-HOOD
These shifts opened the door to exploring how it feels to have the female aspect of my being recognized by strangers, acquaintances, and friends – to be genderqueer on the other side of the binary gender line. With my hairy legs, no make-up, and the same androgynous wardrobe, I didn’t appear more feminine, just more female.
For me, this had a different meaning than it did ten years prior, when I was last seen as female. This time, I was able to reinterpret what people were seeing as not my “womanhood” but my “womb-hood”, not my femininity but my capacity to create life, to connect deeply with the moon, to chart my own fierce emotional and spiritual pathway.
Of course, most people have no such complex thoughts when they see a “woman”, but by reclaiming these aspects of my identity for myself, it no longer mattered as much what others could see of me.
This was my first real foray into womanhood. Even though I was socialized as a girl, I never experienced adult “womanhood”. I went from girlhood to a genderqueer adolescence, to a transgender adulthood.
At puberty I only felt disconnected and let down by my body, without any way to experience an empowering sense of womanhood. This is partially because I did not see a pathway toward embodiment that reflected my genderqueerness, one not made-up and lacy, objectified and disempowered. But it is also because of our cultural disconnection and dismissal of wombs, the power of bleeding, and the potential to physically grow another human.
While the feminism of my youth embraced the notion that women could do and be anything, it did not include a spiritual component or a way to understand the sacredness of my female body. And yet, this newly defined womanhood was inevitably rife with the heartbreaking limitations of being truly understood and seen in the world. And the misogyny I experienced in the “woman” box is just as painful as it was the first time around.
EMBRACING GENDER COMPLEXITY
After three years of proactively choosing to be seen as female in the world, I shifted into a more in-between appearance by removing the prosthetic breasts I had been wearing. This one small change caused some people to start calling me “he” upon meeting me once again, while others continued to use “she”, and some people began to avoid using pronouns altogether, or to ask my preference.
This current reality of having different aspects of my gender and selfhood being seen by different people feels like the closest I can get to being fully understood or visible to dominant society.
As a genderqueer trans person, I have an overarching life experience of most people not fully understanding my gender. This is a given in casual encounters where someone will never know how I identify or what those identities mean to me. But it is often true in relationships with colleagues and cisgender friends as well.
Before transition, I thought that if I could materialize the reality I felt inside, making my physical body part female and part male, people would believe me when I told them that I was trans, would see that I was non-binary. But what most people believed instead is that I wanted to be male instead of female, or that I just “thought” I was male.
Our culture has a long way to go before we will have a shared understanding of gender identity and expression, and how these relate to bodies and biological sex. So, gender variant folks navigate the systems in which we find ourselves. And as my desires shifted and morphed over time, so have my strategies for playing this gender game.
Now, some people say “he” and others “she,” and I don’t correct them. Neither option is right, but neither are they wrong. In another few decades perhaps everyone will know how to use non-binary pronouns like “they,” “ze” or just my name.
For now, my chosen family and community of trans and genderqueer folks and allies understand the complexity of my gender, and most of the rest of the world doesn’t.
GENDER: A LIFELONG JOURNEY
Even though it might appear that I’ve “gone backwards” or “de-transitioned,” that is not my experience at all. My gender expression is a continually evolving aspect of myself, and I am wholly different than I was 15 years ago, when I was last read as female by strangers. My deeper voice feels so natural to me, like a true reflection of how I would imagine sounding.
And even though I don’t drop into the depth of my low range as much anymore, I still enjoy the resonance and sound of my testosterone-lowered voice. Top surgery has turned out to be a more complex aspect of my journey, however. I continue to enjoy the convenience and contour of my flat chest, but I now feel conflicted about the loss of my mammary glands, an important aspect of my reproductive capacity and life-giving abilities. And while many people with intact mammary glands are unable to nurse, I am sad that this intimate experience of parenthood would not be an option for me.
And yet, I don’t regret physically transitioning. I don’t regret transitioning like I don’t regret former romantic partnerships.
Even though I am no longer in love with my ex wife, I don’t lament the six years we spent together, and am grateful for how that experience has shaped the person I am today. I have gone through a lot to get to where I am now, but every part of this path has been crucial to my development as a person navigating the gender binary. The level of self-acceptance, comfort with my body, and connection with my spirit that I now enjoy is priceless.
THE FUTURE OF GENDER
I don’t know how all of this would have unfolded without the years of living as male. What if I had gone on my womb reclamation journey while still feeling frustrated and trapped by the label of woman? What if I had never experienced the feelings of being trapped and frustrated by the label of man? While it is difficult to transition socially again, I don’t think these deeper understandings could have occurred without the invaluable experiences of the past.
Now that all this has come to pass, I know that this may not be the last time I write words such as these. I now truly understand that expressing my unique gender and navigating this culture of gendered limitations and assumptions will be a lifelong journey for me. I am curious to see what else this path has to teach me, and how I can help illuminate the complexities of gender for us all.
In sharing my story with you, I hope to expand the narrative of what a life in many genders can be. This journey is uniquely mine and represents only one of a multitude of trans and genderqueer experiences.
Also, I am grateful for the economic privilege and social agency that have allowed me to make these ongoing shifts to my appearance, and to how people read me while maintaining employment and familial connections throughout my journey.
Kalil Cohen (ze/zir/zem) writes personal narratives and poetry to heal and beautify the wounds of personal and ancestral trauma. Ze also leads rituals to support folx in connecting with Transcestors and ancestors. Kalil’s short films have screened at film festivals from Minneapolis to Mumbai to Melbourne. As a gender rights advocate, Kalil has appeared on Democracy Now! and Current TV, and written for online and print magazines including Bitch and The Progressive.
ABOUT TRANSLASH ZINE
TransLash Zine Vol. 6, released on April 24, 2023, is a companion to our #AntiTransHateMachine campaign & the launch of Season 2 of our podcast series, The Anti-Trans Hate Machine: A Plot Against Equality. Day by day, the attacks on trans kids grow louder, and more anti-trans bills keep moving through state legislatures. In this season of the #AntiTransHateMachine, we illuminate how the right wing has fueled these bills by generating a breathtaking and wide-ranging disinformation campaign. Listen to #AntiTransHateMachine S2 on Spotify Podcasts and purchase the print edition of Vol. 6 right here.
Since 2019, TransLash Zine has been an independent publication by TransLash Media that supports our mission of telling trans stories to save trans lives. We feature uncensored art, writing, and photography by TGNC people––and we pay contributors. Our first six issues were developed and produced in collaboration with POC Zine Project, and POCZP founder Daniela “Dani” Capistrano continues to support our content and partnerships strategy as editor-in-chief and creative director of TransLash Zine. Learn more: www.translash.org/zine
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