By Andi Janow
For the vast majority of my life, I have felt like I was half a step off from the rest of the world. Looking in from the outside, while knowing something is different. It took me a long time to finally accept that I am a transgender woman. The choice to honor myself and move forward with my transition has been one of the best decisions I have ever made, despite taking over thirty years to get to where I am today.
I grew up in the 80s and 90s in the conservative Christian city of Lubbock in west Texas. When I was six years old, I began to notice the way girls dressed and how they interacted with each other. I naturally felt an affinity for that type of friendship – that interaction – but I didn’t know how to express it. Boys were expected to act a certain way. A boy’s interest in “girly” things was unheard of, and absolutely not allowed. I skirted that line: Most of my friends were girls, as there were few boys in my neighborhood; and all these girls were tomboys. I accepted that girls could act like boys, but boys could not act like girls, even though it seemed unfair to me.
When I was eleven, we had the “Your Body is Changing” talk in school. That was when my dysphoria began. Everything that would happen to me during puberty looked and felt wrong, and while I was starting to become attracted to girls, I began to feel more like I should have been one. Every day, my brain would scream at me that what was happening to it was wrong. I didn’t have the words to properly express what was going on or what I needed, and I convinced myself that no one would ever accept me.
I pushed my feelings down deep and policed my body language, mannerisms, and tone. This life of inauthenticity would lead to clinical depression, which I was diagnosed with at seventeen. When I completed the psychiatric evaluation at my doctor’s office, there were questions regarding gender. At the time, I was still utterly terrified of anyone finding out about my internal struggle with gender, so I lied. From that moment on, the treatment my depression was sorely lacking in incredibly crucial areas of my mental anguish. I blamed myself – to me, this was all because I was too scared to admit what I kept buried deep in my core.
But what is a choice when you don’t actually have one? Though I could have told the truth to my doctor in the intake portion, the weight placed upon me was too great for me to process at the time. It was an impossible choice, and one that many young transgender and questioning youth are put through. Looking back, I try to give myself grace for that pivotal decision. But in the moment and the time that followed, it weighed on me.
There was a Halloween lock-in the same year as my depression diagnosis, and I chose to go in costume – as a girl. It was supposed to be a couple’s costume with a friend of mine (a male friend, who was also intended to dress as a girl), but he chose to dress as something different without telling me. One of the girls from our friend group went with me to buy clothes, shoes, makeup, and a wig for my “costume.” When I got there, I changed clothes, and one of the girls did “slutty” makeup for me in the women’s restroom. I was ecstatic. This is gender euphoria, I thought. My head was buzzing. I was, for the very first time in my life, able to let the part of myself out that I had kept hidden for so long.
For quite some time after everyone had changed out of their costumes, I was still in mine. Someone pointed out to me that everyone else had changed, so, reluctantly, I changed into “boy clothes” and washed my face.
I didn’t find out until 22 years later that my comfort with being let out of the closet for a single night did not go unnoticed by my friends.
I graduated from high school (barely) and because I didn’t bother to take the SATs or apply for any scholarships, I wound up going to a small for-profit graphic design school in Tempe, Arizona. I met a girl named Josie, and at just 19 we moved in together. Halloween rolled around that year, and I cleverly decided to try the “Halloween as a girl” trick again, hoping to feel that euphoria once more. Even Josie was excited to do it! I wore one of her dresses and she, like my friends before, painted a “slutty” mug on my face.
But that bothered me. You see, I just wanted normal makeup. But how do you express that without giving anything away?
I couldn’t bring myself to say anything, so I just let her do it. We went out with one of her best friends, Ruben. Ruben was gay, which got me thinking: If her best friend is gay, maybe she’ll be accepting of me? After spent several days working up the courage to tell her that I liked dressing up as a girl. I didn’t have more words than that, no other way to describe the real, deeper feelings within me. Nonetheless, trembling with anxiety, I told her.
She destroyed me.
I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember clearly that none of it was positive. The only thing I do remember her saying was that she thought I was a “goddamn freak,” a term which I have never been able to let go of. My first attempt at freedom and it was absolutely destroyed. I buried my feelings deep in the back of the closet once again.
Looking back from my present vantage point, I can tell you with clarity that the relationship was toxic and abusive. She was a manipulator and had more worldly experience than I did: This combination was the perfect recipe for making me think she was right when she convinced me that I was a horrible person and that I was lucky that she decided to settle for me.
The facts were: I had no friends in Arizona. I was 700 miles away from my home. Josie was the only relationship that I had ever had up to that point. I struggled with extremely low self-esteem and depression. For all these reasons, I let her walk all over me for far too long.
I was 22 when my dysphoria was once again coming back to the point that I couldn’t contain it. Three years had passed since that Halloween with Josie. I was physically hurting from the turmoil inside myself. Out of desperation, I even tried to talk to Josie. She replied that she had just gotten to the point where she believed “that” (what she referred to my nonconformity as) didn’t exist.
As you can imagine, I didn’t know what to do. I was depressed, oppressed, repressed, and in agony. I finally decided to what any and all of us do when we need answers in the modern age: Consult the internet.
I came across a website for people referred to as “crossdressers,” a term that this guarded Texan here had never heard before. These were men who liked to dress up as women. I felt like I was finally getting a break. The group was called The Society for the Second Self, or Tri-Ess (get it? Three Ss!), and they even had a branch right in Tempe: the Alpha Zeta Sorority.
I was breathlessly standing at the precipice. Fingers trembling, I nervously sent them an email. Shortly after, they replied to ask if I could meet with one of their members. It was happening! I met with the unassuming gentleman at a restaurant and we talked… and talked, and talked. Not quite fully out of my shell just yet, I explained how I felt and he invited me to an upcoming meeting. I eagerly accepted.
Now, let me tell you how the blossoming of my identity began, really: It wasn’t some huge triumphant moment of clarity and self-possession. In fact, it started off small, as I’m sure it does for most of us. During my time searching the internet for answers, I had begun to slowly, sneakily, go buy women’s clothes from local thrift stores and clearance racks. Don’t get me wrong, working up the courage to go over to the women’s section was terrifying. I felt like everyone was watching me! But over the course of several weeks, I was able to go into the stores, go into the women’s section, and muddle through clothes in roughly my size. Josie and I were still together, but unbeknownst to me, my courage was greater than her oppression. She worked until late, so I was able to go to my thrift stores and clearance racks after work and she never suspected anything. I was making progress.
I went to that Tri-Ess meeting, and instantly felt at home; a Herculean weight lifted from my shoulders, if even just for the few short hours we had together. They provided a safe space for us, gave us a voice, and offered their support to one another – including me! I finally began to feel as though I had the tools to put together the pieces of myself that I had hidden away (some of these pieces I didn’t even know I had!).
Tri-Ess gave me a new mission, a new purpose, and above all: A greater sense of self. Afterward, I talked to Josie. I stood up for myself and told her that this was something important to me. More than that, it was a part and parcel to my identity. Reluctantly – and to my great surprise – she agreed, under the condition that she never had to see me as a woman or heard about me as a woman. Stipulations aside, I still felt like I was finally starting to win the opportunity to truly live my own life.
I went to meetings, made friends, and learned about myself and my new community. I began to learn how to do makeup, how to stay safe in public spaces, and… you know what? I genuinely had a lot of fun!
I became more comfortable and confident. New feminine feelings and mannerisms that I had fought so long to keep under wraps were beginning to emerge, and they felt like they were always supposed to be there. I adopted the name “Natalie” for myself while I was in “girl mode”. I later discovered, serendipitously, that Natalie is a French name that means “born at or around the nativity”. The thought of that coincidence still makes me smile. Natalie was becoming the person I wanted to be and every day she felt less and less like another side of me and more like me. Still, I had to keep Natalie on a short leash, lest I lose “the only person who would ever love me”: Josie.
Over at Tri-Ess, there was another group that would join us occasionally. This group was made up primarily of transgender people. I quickly made friends with a woman named Brianna. She was what I secretly aspired to be, but I couldn’t bring myself to fully admit it… not yet. She was kind, helpful, and patient with my constant complaints about Josie not accepting me. Spending time with Brianna was a Catch 22, though: As much as I valued her friendship and loved spending time around her, her presence also resurfaced feelings from my adolescent years. I envied Brianna’s life as an out transgender woman such that I couldn’t help but feel those old adolescent feelings bubbling back to the surface: laying in bed, begging, praying to a god I didn’t believe in, please let me be a girl when I wake up.
But even in the presence of Brianna’s strength, I couldn’t accept my feelings. There was no way I could ever achieve what Brianna had. I was lucky to have what little I did have. I couldn’t fathom a reality wherein I could ever admit to anyone what Brianna helped me confirm about myself: That my identity went well beyond dressing in women’s clothing. That I am, in fact, a woman myself.
By October of 2003, Josie was fed up with my life and newfound freedom and friends. As abusers often do, she demanded I cut ties with “that”, reminding me that I was lucky to have someone who tolerated me. I did as I was told, like anyone would in that abusive position. My dear Natalie went into a literal box, buried in my closet. I went on to wait on my abuser hand and foot, convinced all that she had told me was true.
I kept my feelings at bay with extreme self-hatred, constantly tearing myself down, reminding myself that I was a “goddamn freak”, horrible, and barely tolerable. My depression worsened. Natalie was bound and poisoned by my conditioning and my desperate struggle to just be normal.
Dearest reader… until publication of this nonfiction essay, no one outside of my Tri-Ess friends has ever heard the name Natalie.
By January of 2007, I was 27 years old and everything had fallen apart: Josie and I broke up halfway through 2004, but we still lived together. To make a long story short, Josie was going down a dark and self-destructive path. I tried to protect her from herself, but she pushed me away as hard as she could. She lied, cheated, stole and manipulated her way to whatever it was that she wanted.
I was left broken, devastated, and made to feel like a failure. I couldn’t have my own life, but to compound that feeling, I couldn’t even save Josie? But as the mythos tells us, it is from ashes that a phoenix rises.
With the help and insistence of my parents, I left Arizona and came home to Texas. For several months, I was completely shut down, unable to even function. I slowly started to get up and about, reconnecting with friends and looking for work. Late at night, while my parents were asleep, Natalie could come out. Natalie could just be. I was still broken and hurting, but I was in a place where I could begin to heal.
In September 2007, I found employment working at a liquor store. My first day there, I met a man named Kethan and felt an instant connection to him. We hung out that first night after work, drinking and talking – as you do. We realized that we went to high school together and knew many of the same people.
That very night – be it from the alcohol, or whatever else – I told him about myself. He accepted and supported me, and shortly thereafter I met his wife, Salem. We began to hang out together almost every night. I relished the opportunity to have friends again, playing video games and watching movies, and Salem would even help me with my makeup technique on the weekends.
At the very beginning of 2008, I quit my job at the liquor store and went to work with my Dad doing mechanical insulation. I still hung out with Kethan and Salem as often as I could and in June of that same year, Kethan called me on my way home from work to tell me that he had someone he wanted me to meet.
Her name was Alex, and we quickly became friends. By August, she and I went on our first date. In no time flat, we were inseparable. I went into this relationship with the memory of Josie’s voice in my head. I told Alex about myself, right at the onset. She was accepting, and told me that Kethan had told her about me just before he introduced us. Alex also told me that she had a dream about me, where I was running towards her in a red dress.
She also commented, curiously, that I “would make an ugly woman”. I disregarded the comment, but I never did forget it. After so many years of pain and suffering, I wasn’t going to focus on an off-color comment; no, I chose to look at what I felt was the bigger picture: That I was finally, finally working everything out.
A month later, our relationship was serious. I was about to move out of my parents’ house and in with her. That’s when the tone shifted. Before I moved in, she asked me to not bring the clothes and makeup out. She cited her young girls, and how she didn’t think it would be appropriate to dress that way around them.
I was distraught and frustrated, once again. After years of progress and safe spaces, safe friends, a supposedly safe relationship, and so, so much self-care, her request felt like several steps back, but I understood her reasons. But I was also madly in love with Alex and her girls, so I took the box of Natalie’s things and brought it out to the back porch. I looked through everything that I had accumulated over the years and purged it all, directly into the dumpster.
Natalie died that day. There was no funeral, but there was a death; a loss. You don’t immediately realize how much you grow to love a person when that person is you.
Alex and I got married on Halloween 2008. I broke into my new life like gangbusters: Admittedly ignoring my own needs, I kept myself occupied with my wife, my kids, and my work. I never had to think about the other side of myself if I never gave myself time to do so.
Years went by until one day in 2012, I realized that Natalie was gone.
I was listening to Slipknot and the song “Vermilion Pt. 2” began to play. The lyric, “She isn’t real, I can’t make her real” struck me out of nowhere, and I was taken back to Natalie. Her presence had once been so close, so nurtured, integrated into my everyday life. I was struck by the sudden realization that she wasn’t there. She was dead, gone four years, and I never even noticed.
The weight of the funeral I never got to have, the loss I never got to mourn, it nearly brought me to the ground. I forced myself to fight back tears of grief and guilt. I played the song on repeat. How had I not noticed that such a big piece of my soul was just… gone?
Life goes on, and my grief soon turned to distraction. After all, as night fell I had to focus on Alex and the girls like normal – like I had for the last four years. and Natalie once again faded into the ether.
Alex and I separated on St. Patrick’s Day 2014. I moved into a room across the hall in our house. By July of the same year, we were divorced.
Almost as quickly as we divorced, we reconciled. Alex came down with gastroenteritis flare-up. I rushed her to the ER and waited with her until her parents arrived and took over. At around 2AM, there was a knock at my door. It was Alex, and she wanted to talk. She had done a lot of thinking that night and even spoke to her mother about it, and she came to the realization that I was the best thing that ever happened to her. She wanted to give it another go. I still loved her deeply, and agreed. Things quietly went back to normal for our little family. I moved back into our room and we carried on.
One night, she mentioned the stuff that I used to do, the “crossdresser stuff”. I replied, “Oh, you mean my ‘problem?’” She asked me why I called it that, and I told her, “As much of a part of me as it was, it has never brought me anything but problems.”
She led me over to the closet and told me to strip. I complied. She tossed a pair of underwear to me and told me to put them on. I did, and she threw me a dress with another command to don the apparel. The moment was so unexpected and surreal! She tossed over a few other items to try on, encouraging me to explore this part of me that I had put aside for her and the kids. The only stipulation was that she didn’t want the kids to know. I agreed, and proceeded to start buying clothes and makeup online. Was this what acceptance looked like? What freedom in a relationship felt like? I didn’t know for sure – I’d never experienced it – but what I did know was that I could breathe.
Alex and the kids still kept me plenty busy, and despite receiving Alex’s blessing, I was understandably anxious about letting anyone else see this side of me.
In early October that year, I came home from work and Alex was asleep. She’d had trouble sleeping for a couple of nights up until then, so I decided to let her sleep a little longer. When I went to wake her up, she didn’t react. I realized that she had no pulse and wasn’t breathing. I immediately called 911, explained the situation, and began chest compressions. Emergency services took over when they arrived and managed to start her heart again. She was taken to the hospital and put into a cryogenic coma to protect her organs from shutting down.
Eleven excruciating days later, doctors informed us that brain had been without oxygen for an unknown amount of time, but however long it was, was too long. Most of her organs were shutting down and her hypothalamus was only part of her brain still functioning. As a family, we made the collective decision to let her go. On October 23, at 1:22PM, Alex was gone. She passed peacefully, surrounded by her family.
Somehow, life went on, as it does. Despite that, I felt like time had stopped for me. I saw a therapist for grief counseling, went back to work, and had countless friends and family members check on me, invite me out, and keep me occupied. I was surrounded by support for a couple of weeks, until I got a little overwhelmed by being so busy every day. Friends and family still checked in on me, and I still got to see my kids, but not as frequently as I had before.
In December, I began looking through all of the clothes that I had and decided that maybe this would be something that I could keep myself occupied with. I would allow myself to go into “girl mode” when I got home. I would stay in my room playing video games and playing with my cats. My teenage nephew, who lived with me, had recently come out to me as bi, so I opted to tell him about my situation. I was so gracious that he was accepting – we would hang out together; talking, listening to music, and making fun of whatever was on the TV. He missed his aunt Alex, just like I did. But together, we were able to just be there for each other.
That following January, I went to a birthday party for a friend at a karaoke bar. I met a girl at the party who wasn’t part of our group, but I nonetheless felt compelled to talk to her. Her name was Cassie. She joined our party and we spent the rest of the evening together. I took her home and when I left, very early in the morning, I told her, “You haven’t seen the last of me”. A week later, I texted her and asked how she felt about me coming over to “kidnap” her. She agreed – we’ve been inseparable ever since.
I had already decided that if I ever got into another relationship, that she would have to be okay with my exploration of gender. A couple of weeks into dating, I told Cassie about it and stated that it won’t go away; that I had tried against my mental health to get it go away for the comfort of past relationships, but it is a part of who I am. She acknowledged my apprehension, and said that she had a feeling something about me was different from the beginning. I cautiously proceeded to introduce her to the other side of me – or, rather the real me – and to my great relief, she was nothing but loving, caring, and supportive.
We got married on New Year’s Eve 2017. Happily ever after, indeed.
In August 2019, I was being antagonized on Facebook (of all places) by someone I thought was a friend. Any time I would post or comment on something, he would get belligerent with me. I reached out to him and asked him to stop multiple times, he wouldn’t. I decided to take a break from Facebook for a while. Still, in the modern age I found myself needing to scratch that social media itch, so I looked into Reddit. I discovered that I already had an account from years before, which I had completely forgotten about. I began to explore my old account, checking out my past posts, comments, and groups. I began to uncover my own history, realizing that I had joined multiple forums for transgender individuals on Reddit, which I had also forgotten about.
I read the posts.
Every post, every comment, every single person was saying the things that I never said, except to myself. Gender Dysphoria, a term I had never heard until then, described my own situation perfectly. The feelings that I denied and ran from; that I tore my self down for feeling. I felt like the floor had been pulled out from under me. Like I was free falling.
My egg completely cracked, as it were. Sitting with Reddit in front of me, reading and rereading posts by gender health doctors and fellow transgender siblings from around the globe… after years of running from it, I finally understood that I am a transgender woman.
I had to tell Cassie, of course. But I was afraid to. She knew that I was different, but not like this. Not in this context. After several days of planning (and with more anxiety than maybe any previous confrontation with any prior partner), I brought it up to Cassie. She was surprised to say the least, and a bit overwhelmed. I expected this, but then the tone shifted. Considering my past, I feared that the tone would go downhill; that I would be berated and demoralized. Instead, Cassie spoke from a place of empathy.
She knew how badly these conversations have gone for me in the past; Cassie and I talked about everything. I had just never spoken to anyone about this, ever. I refused to consider coming out as transgender as an option for such a long time. As support, she suggested that I talk to our therapist, so I did: Our therapist said that from what I told her, that yes, this is gender dysphoria, and that transitioning would be helpful.
Cassie was understandably still a little overwhelmed, so we decided to talk to our therapist about it together. By the time our appointment rolled around, Cassie had done so much research on her own that she was completely on board with my journey of identity discovery, and had become incredibly well versed on all things trans. She became my biggest supporter!
When I tell you about weight lifted from my shoulders… I can’t imagine that there are words to describe how much this act of compassion and partnership meant to me. I told Cassie that I want her to be involved with every aspect of my transition because it not only affected me, but her as my wife, too. I also made it clear that if anything about my transition made her uncomfortable, that I would stop, or slow down – a compromise that I was willing to make.
By October, my annual checkup with my doctor rolled around. I told him about my dysphoria, and he promised a referral to an endocrinologist. But then I waited. And waited. And waited. Every week, I would call about the referral, but nothing. After two arduous months, I took matters into my own hands and reached out to a primary care physician who did informed consent. I called her office, and set up an appointment for the end of January.
It was a long month.
The day finally came. Cassie was with me. We went through all the usual business: A nurse discussed several pages of information that we needed to know, like fertility, cancer risks, what changes to expect (and what not to), other health risks, and so on. We agreed and I signed my papers. Each time we waited for the next step, it felt like an eternity. My heart was beating out of my chest and I kept expecting something to go wrong, but nothing ever did. Shortly after, the doctor came in and talked to us. She went over the paperwork, she checked my vitals, and in no time I had prescriptions for spironolactone, estradiol, and progesterone.
I had done it!
I was there. Finally.
I picked up my prescriptions that same day and took my first step as soon as I got home.
There were other obstacles, though: Coming out socially. At work, I spoke to HR about what was going on and she wanted to talk to our site director about it personally. I said that was fine, as long as no one else was involved. Outside of work, I told my best friend who said that after the lock in in high school, he wasn’t surprised.
Then, my parents. This was the biggest hurdle. I spent thirty years convincing myself that they would never accept me, and I was terrified. I told them in late February, about a month after my doctor appointment. I was trembling with fear and anxiety. Had Cassie not been there holding my hand reassuring me, I couldn’t have done it. I was too scared.
My parents didn’t fully understand, but they accepted and supported me. My mom told me, in a way that was so her, “as long as you’re not doing anything illegal, immoral, or fattening, I don’t care what you do.” From her, hearing this was a good thing. My dad said that of course they would support me; that they loved me.
After thirty years afraid of being rejected by my family (and being rejected by others), I finally had my greatest weight removed from my shoulders.
I began telling other friends and family via Messenger and received glowing replies of love and support. I had never dreamed in a million years that it would be this easy!
But there were hiccups: By May, I still hadn’t heard from the HR representative at my job and I was running out of time. HRT was working quicker than I expected, and it was becoming difficult to hide changes in the locker room at work. I emailed them, but they had become overwhelmed with people reaching out about COVID-19. I was told that the company would pivot their approach to my inquiry and instead would support me by offering to help with my coming out.
Later the same month, our site director informed me that he would talk to everyone at 2:30 and that I would go home early shortly before that so that no one would be uncomfortable, nor would anyone feel “put on the spot”.
While this chat at the office was going on, I went on social media and dropped the bomb on all of my friends, family, and other social media acquaintances who I hadn’t already DM’d on Messenger. I came out publicly. I posted it and waited.
With a Facebook post live online and a chat taking place back at my office, I waited, wondering if the bottom would fall out or if everything was okay.
I received a text from my shift lead saying they had my back. I later found out that the site director had essentially told the team, “Andy is trans, and y’all are going to be okay with it, or you can come talk to me. She’s going to begin using the women’s locker room on Monday.”
Then on Facebook, the comments, reactions, and private messages began rolling in. All positive, all accepting and supportive. I could breathe again. I could never have dreamed of it. All my worries were gone, and I was riding high on a wave of euphoria.
By the beginning of June, I was living my life authentically as the woman I am full-time without realizing it.
As I write this, it is now March 2022 and I am 42 years old. I’ve been on HRT for over two years and I am still out publicly. I still have the love and support of Cassie, my parents, extended family, and friends. I have made more friends in the past two years than I ever could have imagined. I’ve also lost a few, and that is to be expected, but I know who my true friends are.
I have also started voice training, and have gotten it to where my voice passes over the phone. I’m in the process of getting my gender marker changed, but I’m not changing my legal name. I am, and always will be, Andrew Heath Janow; I’ve always gone by Andy, so I changed the spelling to Andi. I believe it fits a little better now. I’m even looking into the prospect of gender confirmation surgery at some point.
This is my story up until now, but it is far from over.
When I admitted to myself that I’m transgender, I set myself upon this path and I made a vow. I vowed that whenever I could, I would work to spread awareness and understanding of the trans community. Because of how uncommon trans people are per capita, I am often the first trans person a cis person has met, so I see it as a personal obligation to be a good ambassador for my community and to make a positive impact on people I meet.
In my writing of this autobiography, I have one hope: To help even one person. Even if my story helps just one individual, whether that is helping a cisgender person understand what it is to be transgender, or helping a transgender individual love and accept themselves, not be afraid, or to not run from themselves for thirty years. If an ageing person questioning their gender identity reads this, please know that it is never too late to start. As with my own story, there may be ups and there may be downs; there might not be one moment where the weight is lifted from your shoulders, but several. But you will never experience that euphoria without being true to yourself.
Thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to read this. Be careful, stay safe, and always remember that you are valid and loved.
From Lubbock, Texas