Crisis on N Earths: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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There are a handful of shows pointed to as the beginning of a shift in American television, and especially science fiction and fantasy, from being mostly or entirely episodic to the “arc” structure ubiquitous today. Lost is often cited, and certainly coincides with the point at which long-running plots became ubiquitous. At the other end of the 90s, Twin Peaks is sometimes credited, but that misses that Twin Peaks was pitched and structured as a prime time soap opera, which is to say as part of a genre in which such plotting was a long-established element. Where explicit science fiction is concerned, Babylon 5 is also frequently pointed to. But it and Lost share the same counter-indicator: they aren’t actually structured much like most modern serialized television. Neither is Twin Peaks, for that matter.

Twin Peaks is, like most soap operas and, for that matter, superhero comics, a true serial: a sequence of overlapping stories that don’t collectively move to a shared end so much as coming to a stop with cancellation. Babylon 5 is structured as a single story, with its own arc, containing multiple smaller stories, including the individual episodes. (An overarching story which was, by the end, unrecognizable as the originally planned story, but an overarching story nonetheless.) Lost is an attempt to achieve the latter, or at least the appearance of the latter, while actually doing the former. None of these shows share the structure on display in most modern, serialized science fiction and fantasy television, in which most or all episodes in a given season follow contain some reference to an ongoing, overarching story; some episodes advance that story significantly; and the season finale concludes the story, with the next season starting a new story where the first left off. We’ve seen where that structure really arrives on American television, with Sailor Moon; what we have not seen is where it entered the mainstream.

Until now. In 1998, Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired the end of the second season and beginning of the third, arguably its strongest run of episodes, with only the fifth season really challenging them. It was a huge hit for the still quite young WB network, and, for better (post-2005 Doctor Who) or worse (TVTropes), had a profound influence on television and how we talk about television in the early 21st century.

And it shows extremely clear similarities to Sailor Moon: a blonde teen girl, the titular Buffy, who is chosen to inherit the power to fight evil, gathers a group of friends who aide her, explicitly cites their friendship as the reason for her success, and frequently faces monsters as metaphors for common teen problems, all structured as season-long arcs peppered with monster-of-the-week standalones. There does not appear to be any evidence that Joss Whedon ever actually saw Sailor Moon, and it is almost certainly a coincidence that Firefly also shows strong similarities to anime that aired on American television around the time it would have been in initial development, namely Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop. Nonetheless, the similarity stands; in ideaspace, Sailor Moon and Buffy have a lengthy border.

The ending of the second season is a prime example of the Buffy/Sailor Moon approach in action. Angel, Buffy’s vampiric boyfriend, has struggled all season to retain his morality, and the whole cast has had to deal with elements from his evil past returning to haunt them. Then Buffy sleeps with him; diegetically, this causes him the “moment of perfect happiness” that breaks the curse that restored his soul to his body, causing him to revert to the soulless, evil vampire that he was. Extradiegetically, however, this is fairly obviously the old story of a teen girl thinking she’s fallen in love with an older man, who turns abusive the moment he’s successfully gotten her into bed. It’s exactly the kind of thing Sailor Moon did with, for example, an evil gym that sucks the life-force from the young girls who obsessively work out there.

The key thing is that this structure works. Using the fantastic to reify genuine emotional realities is long-established in the genre. Meanwhile, the season-long arc peppered with standalones has the increased room for complex plotting and characterization that a full season affords over a single episode, without committing an entire season’s worth of episodes to furthering one story. On top of that, because every season concludes with the climax to an ongoing story, any season can more or less function as the last; unlike Babylon 5, Buffy never had to scramble to deal with possibly being cut short by the network declining to pick it up for another season. (Indeed, it had the opposite problem: it wasn’t picked up after the fifth season, brought the show to a satisfying and extremely final conclusion, and then got picked up for two more seasons on another network.)

It is precisely this structure that the DCAU would eventually pick up, adopting it for Justice League and even more so Justice League Unlimited. But a more direct result looms closer. On the strength of shows like Buffy and Dawson’s Creek, the WB was developing, and deliberately courting, a reputation as a “young people’s network.” Buffy demonstrated that a high-school superhero was a draw, and the WB wanted more. And where better to turn for superheroes than their own superhero “universe”? The decision to have a show about Batman in high school descended from on high, an instruction from the network to the producers of The New Batman Adventures and Superman: The Animated Series. TNBA would end, and the young Batman show would take its place.

But as we already observed, the atmosphere of the 90s, the grayness of near-apocalypse, and the darkness of Batman: The Animated Series, made it natural for any such show to incorporate cyberpunk. This show couldn’t be young Bruce Wayne; we’d already seen him in Mask of the Phantasm. It had to be someone new: someone different, with new villains, and a futuristic setting that made Gotham into the Dark City, which it always basically was anyway. This show wouldn’t reach back into Batman’s past, but into his future, past the point at which he could no longer continue. By extension, it would be someone who could face, and do, what the familiar Batman could not. It would be the Batman beyond Batman.

In less than a year, and less than 20 chapters, Batman Beyond begins.


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Crisis on N Earths: Dark City

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It’s February 27, 1998, and none of us know who we are.

That’s more true of some of us than others, of course. I’m a teenager, for instance, still deep in that protean flux of trying on identities until one fits. And I haven’t figured out I’m a trans girl, so I won’t find one that does for another twenty years.

(It will be an incredibly powerful experience once I do. My entire world will realign around me, structuring itself into something that makes sense. It will feel like emerging into the sunlight for the first time.)

But none of us entirely know who we are, because nothing has gone the way it was supposed to. There was no Big One, just a wet fizzle as the Soviet Union imploded a decade ago, and for all the time since, we have been feeling like characters in a story that failed to end, sitting around waiting for something dramatic to happen.

We know who we were supposed to be. The Good Guys, who saved the world from Hitler, who stood up to the evil commies. Oh sure, there was that whole bit about the slavery, but that was a long time ago and it’s over now. And then the Civil Rights movement fixed everything, right?

But we were the evil empire all along, who fought the other evil empires not because we were the Good Guys, but because we wanted to be a bigger evil empire than all the others. We didn’t win the war between good and evil because there was never any such war; we won the war to be the biggest bully on the block. The Nazis learned by watching us, their racial policies just a Germanized Jim Crow, the Holocaust American-pioneered techniques of mass production applied to the American-pioneered techniques of concentration camp and genocide. Lebensraum is just German for “Manifest Destiny,” which is why we fought them–one imperialist expansion smacking into another. (Well, not really. The Germans and Japanese both learned from us, but it was the expanding Japanese empire that smacked into ours first. But they could ally with Germany because they had the Soviet empire in between them, and that’s how we ended up at war with Germany. The point: it’s all empires fighting empires; if you want scrappy bands of heroic rebels, look to the places already conquered.)

So why didn’t we know that? Why didn’t we know who we were? Because we only knew who we were supposed to be.

“Supposed to be.”

By whom? Who are these supposers, and why do we let their suppositions define us? They’re not Strangers, unfortunately, not hydrophobic leech-mouthed squid inhabiting human corpses. But neither are they people known to us–the people around us transmit the suppositions, enforce them on us, but never seem to be the originators of them.

“Supposed to be” isn’t just passive; it’s in the divine passive. The agent isn’t just moved to a prepositional phrase, it’s dropped entirely, as if this widespread supposition were instituted by an act of God. No one knows who supposes; we’re barely starting to realize that they suppose quite wrong.

And, as it turns out, treating it as an act of god isn’t that far off, and Dark City‘s metaphor is apt. The Strangers are a collective mind inhabiting human corpses, which is to say they are history, and the power structures that result. They are everyone who came before us, and the thing–the hideous, tentacular, reality-defining monstrosity that we call “our culture”–that those people collectively manifested. Not quite a god, but closer than anything else we can reliably locate.

That thing, collectively, tried to hide our memories of the past. Tried to keep us going, still functioning as we had before, even as darkness fell and daylight was forgotten. Tried to manufacture false histories, shift things around, find someone to slot neatly into the place the Soviet Union had once occupied. To persuade us, against all evidence of our eyes, that our society is as fair as we can possibly make it, that oppression is a matter of individual bad actors, that we are not all slaves to forces most of us barely even notice exist.

This is, of course, cyberpunk. The aesthetics of noir given a sci-fi twist, though this is noir-ier than most, in the sense that it retains the 1940s-vintage clothes and cars, and the main character is a good man in a corrupt world, neither of which are commonplace in cyberpunk. But it’s very clearly a point on the trajectory from Blade Runner to The Matrix; like the former, the questions it overtly asks are about personal identity, not the nature of reality like the latter, but it has a blatant messianic element that is more Neo than Deckard.

But questions of identity and reality are, in large part, the same questions. Is there a self independent of culture? Can there be one? It doesn’t seem like there possibly can, since we learn who we are from the people around us. But if there isn’t, how can we possibly hope to change our culture? How is it that people turn out not to be who they were “supposed” to be?

Dark City answers, rather patly, by invoking the soul. That seems overly simplistic. At the same time, there is something that seems to predate our first encounters with the culture: personality research suggests the existence of a handful of traits that can be identified in the womb and remain mostly stable throughout life. Those aren’t enough to make an identity, and without culture, of course, there are no labels by which to name them, but there do seem to be patterns or tendencies that are not derived from external sources. At the same time, we are also greatly shaped by our experiences, and we frequently internalize many of those suppositions.

This, in turn, means that the struggle to define ourselves necessarily involves some kind of engagement with the power structures around us, because it is those structures that establish  “supposed to.” This, in turn, links to the thematic concerns of cyberpunk, its projection of the dystopian present into a dystopian future. “This is the logical endpoint of those structures,” it says. “This is what the world looks like if we all keep doing what we’re supposed to do and being what we’re supposed to be.” Mostly, that means corporate power, the tyranny of wealth swelling until it is singularly able to define our reality, but it includes other forms of power as well, particular in how they violate the self and the body.

It’s February 27, 1998, and I don’t know who I am because I’m in high school, and we don’t know who we are because the apocalypse never came, and the dark city is a vision of a future in which this state of being continues forever. These things fit together, inextricable from one another: high school and adolescence and the uncertainty of identity; the uncertainty of living in the near-apocalypse; cyberpunk. A natural cocktail, if you will, a recipe from which to engineer the next step in our story.

His name is Terry McGinnis.

That’s the what. As for the why…


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Crisis on N Earths: Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, Clinton impeachment

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Sorry this is late. Snow days screwed with my sense of time, which is pretty tenuous to begin with.

It’s January 21, 1998, and the Washington Post just broke a story that will devour the airwaves for months on end: in 1995-7, President Bill Clinton had an affair with a then-22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. This is going to be a strange year: journalists, news anchors, and comedians will spend much of it discussing blowjobs, semen stains, and alluded-to but ultimately unspecified acts involving a cigar, while Congress launches an investigation into same.

Rewind a little: in the 1994 midterm election, Republicans won control of both houses of Congress, which they retained throughout the Clinton administration. The resulting tensions combined with the rise of right-wing talk radio and the burgeoning Internet (the right-wing gossip site The Drudge Report had actually broken the story of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair three days before the Post) to create an environment of high partisanship, which is to say more or less the political environment we still have.

A few months earlier, in May 1994, a woman named Paula Jones filed a lawsuit alleging that, in 1991, then-Governor Clinton had exposed himself to her and propositioned her for sex. As Jones was an Arkansas state employee, Clinton was her boss, making this a case of workplace sexual harassment. The resulting legal battle went to the Supreme Court, who ruled that yes, a sitting President can be sued for conduct that occurred before he took office, and ultimately resulted in a settlement in November 1998.

In the course of that lawsuit, Jones’ lawyers sought to establish that Clinton’s behavior toward Jones was part of a pattern of abusing authority and seeking sexual contact with employees (which it very likely was), and therefore subpoenaed women with whom Clinton was suspected of having affairs; in the course of his testimony, Clinton denied having had sex with Monica Lewinsky specifically.

Meanwhile, Congress had hired independent counsel Ken Starr to investigate the Clintons for alleged criminal involvement in a real estate deal gone bad. (Repeatedly. No matter how many times the investigation turned up no wrongdoing on the Clintons’ part. See the climate of rising partisanship mentioned above.) Starr had received permission to expand his investigation into other allegations against the Clintons, and so he was the one who received the recordings made of conversations between Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, who had made the recordings on advice of a literary agent, and appears to have gotten close to Lewinsky specifically to get dirt for her own enrichment.

Clinton was impeached late in 1998 on charges of perjury. Interestingly, charges of abuse of power were mooted in the House, but ultimately did not get enough votes to be included in the impeachment proceedings. He was acquitted the following February.

Very few people come out of this looking good. Tripp appears to have been an archetypal snake in the grass. Clinton was pretty clearly a sexual predator, and he very obviously lied under oath, but after a year of wasting time and taxpayer money, not to mention destroying Lewinsky’s life, Congress still ultimately didn’t do anything about it. Not that they ever actually cared about either sexual predation or lies, given several prominent Republican Congresspeople caught in both; Congress was pretty obviously acting out of pure partisan spite and an early prominent example of what would become the endemic right-wing inability to conceive of the legitimacy of any power other than their own.

Lewinsky is really the only person who did no significant wrong in all this. She did submit a false affidavit in the Jones lawsuit, denying the affair with Clinton, but she was young, in her first job after college, and under pressure to protect her boss, who was incidentally the most powerful man on Earth. And it was Clinton, not Lewinsky, who abused his status and power to take advantage of a much younger and more vulnerable woman; Clinton who broke his promises of fidelity to his wife; Clinton whose history of sexual predation gave rise to the investigation in the first place. So, of course, it was Lewinsky who was tainted for life; in two heartbreaking articles for Vanity Fair penned years later, she discusses the humiliation she experienced, the depression and suicidal ideation that followed, and the PTSD that she still struggles with to this day. She also discusses the way it has followed her ever since, interfering with job prospects, isolating her socially and especially romantically.

We have seen this story before, more than once. It is the story Batman told about Harley Quinn in the Mad Love comic, claiming that she took advantage of her professors by sleeping with them, despite the power dynamics involved virtually guaranteeing any advantage-taking had to happen in the opposite direction. It’s even closer to the story Akio pushes on Utena, blaming her for his decision to cheat on his fiancee:

Akio: You didn’t reject me, even though I have a fiancee. That’s a sin, isn’t it?
Utena: This isn’t fair..!
Akio: Unfair? Isn’t turning away from the truth and blaming others even more unfair? Isn’t it unfair to pretend only you are noble and in the right?

Of course the power differential between a 22-year-old White House intern and the President of the United States is not as extreme as the differential between a 14-year-old girl and the Acting Chairman of her school, who is also the ruler of her home and the home of everyone she knows, as well as the demiurge of her world. The point nonetheless remains: the wrongdoing is clearly on the part of the powerful older man, but he deflects it onto the young woman.

I have, elsewhere, described that scene from Utena as gaslighting, and that is exactly what happened to Lewinsky. The President, Congress, the Starr investigation, and the media all collaborated to humiliate a young woman, to persuade her that she had done wrong, that she was somehow dirtied or tarnished by acts which, insofar as they involved any wrongdoing, did so only on the part of someone else. They conspired to convince her that, even though she was the clearest victim in the scandal, nonetheless she was the one to be punished.

This is just one instance of a pattern repeated again and again: when the abuser is powerful and privileged and the victim is not, it is the victim who is punished. To a lesser degree, the other person obviously a victim in all this, Hillary Clinton, was punished as well, or at least her “inability to keep her man” came up in the quarter-century-plus of relentless right-wing attacks against her character that began pretty much the instant she arrived on the national scene. (But she’s also on the record blaming Lewinsky rather than Bill, so fuck her. But as a woman in politics she is constantly balancing on a knife edge that requires some conformity to popular narratives, but… and around and around we go.)

The use of “gaslighting” to describe social processes like this is somewhat controversial. Strictly speaking, gaslighting is a process of undermining a victim’s sense of reality, getting them to question things they know are true and doubt their own perceptions, thus increasing their dependency on the abuser. But Lewinsky herself describes her experience as gaslighting, and it is a key part of how the culture of abuse controls its victims: by teaching us to accept the harsh and unjust judgment of society over our own senses of self-worth and of right and wrong, our own values.

The techniques of interpersonal abuse, carried out on a culture-wide scale. Lewinsky is far from the last woman to have experienced such; we will be seeing this phenomenon again.


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Vlog Review: Propaganda Cartoons 1

Bonus episode! As long as my Patreon stays over $150/mo, I’ll post two extra vlogs every month!

Welcome to a new series on propaganda cartoons! We’ll start with some WWII “classics” starring Donald Duck: “The New Spirit,” “The Spirit of ’43,” “Der Fuhrer’s Face” (the infamous “Donald as a Nazi” cartoon) and “Commando Duck” (which is SO RACIST holy crap).

Retroactive Continuity: Devilman Crybaby E9 “Go to Hell, You Mortals”

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One of my mother’s favorite jokes is about a trial where the prosecution presents five people who saw the defendant commit the crime. So the defense presents ten people who didn’t.

As I write this, it’s September 28, 2018, and the farcical confirmation process of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court of the United States is on pause. He is probably a rapist, and he will almost definitely get the job. (Note from the future: he did.) Part of this farce was my mother’s joke, played out in real life: he was accused of attempted rape, so his supporters put out a letter signed by 65 women that he is a good person who totally would never do that kind of thing. People, in other words, who didn’t see it. So, I come at this episode with a certain bitterness, centered as it is around Miki’s decision to post a defense of Akira that amounts to “he’s always been nice to me, therefore he can’t have killed people as has been credibly claimed.”

Miki’s a Christian, of course. She believes in sin, in the toxic doctrine that good and evil are not adjectives, but substances. That evil acts stain a person, making them evil people; ultimately she believes in the toxic logic that leads to the conclusion that there are no crimes, only criminals. That it doesn’t matter what Kavanaugh does; he’s a “good person,” not a “criminal,” and therefore will be confirmed to the highest court in the land.

Of course, there’s a pretty big difference between a job interview and a murderous mob coming to your house. That part of the episode felt disturbingly real. The responses to Miki’s post are juxtaposed with Akira placing himself between a group of humans falsely accused of being demons and an angry mob about to stone them. When Akira begins crying for the victims, the mob starts laughing at him, taking pleasure in his pain; at the same time, commenters lash out at Miki for protecting Akira.

Akira is, as we’ve discussed, defined by his compassion. But to feel compassion is to share another’s suffering, to feel pain because they are hurting. The mob feel no compassion, and therefore do not hurt when Akira does; instead his pain is funny to them, and their decision to cause pain righteous. They can do this because Akira isn’t a person to them; he’s a demon. By publicly siding with him, Miki sees to be a person in their eyes, too; she’s a witch.

Demon, witch, criminal, sinner; they all mean the same thing: a person-shaped object made of evil. Not a person whose suffering matters; just pure evil. They, the good people of the stone-throwing mob, the Internet hate machine that doxes Miki, the neighbors who converge on her house to murder her and her friends, they’re not criminals, or demons, or witches; they’re good people and therefore what they do is good. Even when it’s murdering a houseful of people, then setting the house on fire to dance around the flames.

It’s the same logic, in the end. If good and evil are substances, then a good person is obviously innocent of any wrongdoing, no matter what they do, just as an evil person is guilty of any and all crimes, no matter what they do. There is infinite forgiveness for the good, and infinite punishment for the evil.

Disgusting.

Consider instead what Akira represents. Compassion that places itself between the victims and the attacker, no matter who they are. Violence to protect the victims of violence, rooted in compassion for those victims. Compassion is a form of suffering, and many other feelings can rise from suffering: fear, sadness, despair, rage, determination. Akira burns with all of these now.

We, if we are compassionate ourselves, can only hope the world burns with him.


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Transition: The Best Year of My Life (So Far)

One year ago today, I realized I was trans. I came out to my best friend later that same day, and to my family and a few other friends that week. I was out to all my friends within a month, and started HRT around the same time. Soon after that I came fully out online. I began the process of coming out at work shortly thereafter.

Today, I present as a woman 24/7, and have no intention of ever not doing so ever again. Frankly, I’d rather die.

The reason is simple: this was the best year of my life by a substantial margin. For the first time since college, I was actually happy; for the first time ever, I was not filled with self-loathing.

They say that you’ll end up regretting anything you write about being trans in your first year of transition. I’ve therefore mostly resisted the urge to write about it in any substantive way—but it’s not my first year anymore.

The Before Times

Some people have always known they were trans. Others know they were always trans. I belong to neither camp.

I’m pretty sure I did not become trans in the moment I realized I was. That just isn’t what that moment was: it was a revelation of something self-evidently already true, not a transformation (except that in the sense that revelation is always transformative).

But I do not know how long before that I was a woman. I can point to things I wrote in the years prior that sound particularly eggy, or I can delve into my childhood for memories that suggest something going on earlier. The thing is… well, there’s this game my girlfriend told me about, a sort of icebreaker exercise used to help people recognize they’re more creative than they think. You write a bunch of jobs down on slips of paper—fireman, for instance—and put them into a hat. Then everyone draws a job, and whatever they draw, they have to discuss a childhood memory that leads logically into “and that’s when I knew I would be a fireman when I grew up.” (Or whatever they drew.)

The point is, most people can do this with most jobs. Given a narrative, we’re very good at fitting whatever facts we have into that narrative. But on the other hand, that’s what truth IS—facts plus narrative. And identity is pretty much entirely the latter.

So the facts don’t really matter: if I want, I can definitely construct a narrative that I was always a woman, and the facts fit. It’s not the only narrative they fit; but it’s a truth, a nd that’s all we’re ever going to get.

And I do want. That’s key, the absolute most important thing: I want to be a woman. I wanted to be a woman, for a long time before I realized that was all I needed to be one. The narrative was there and the facts could fit it; it was always a truth. I needed only to claim it; to throw off the narratives of others and embrace my own. (See the first chapter of Animated Discussions for an example of what is very obviously an egg working her way toward the realization that she’s trans.)

But I spent decades in misery because I too readily accepted the narratives of others, and ignored what I wanted. I was ashamed of it, and so I never quite connected the dots. I felt like there was something monstrous inside me, something evil and wrong. I lived in terror of being truly seen, because someone might discover what was inside me; I recoiled in disgust from my own body and from my sexuality. I had dreams in which I was a woman. In times of stress I fantasized about being transformed into a woman; I thought it was a weird, gross fetish. I created accounts on web fora and Tumblr—not to catfish, per se, just so that, in those times of stress, I would have spaces to retreat to where I could be the woman I wanted to be.

And so I proceeded, miserable and self-loathing, for most of my life–until late on January 2, 2018.

The Revelation

I had been starting to question my gender and sexuality for a couple of years prior to that night. I toyed with the possibility that I was somewhere on the ace spectrum, or even that I might not be entirely cis. I hadn’t made the connection yet, but I had written and published Animated Discussions, with its so obviously eggy first chapter. On December 31, I wrote an essay that had been commissioned through my Patreon, about Insexts vol. 1. I wrote about the abjection of femininity, the body as a monstrous entity within which lurks something horrifying and beautiful. Iwas nearly there.

Fast forward a couple of days, to late on January 2, near midnight. I was feeling restless and unable to sleep, so I went on Twitter. And there, I saw a tweet from my friend Ana that would, ridiculously, sublimely, utterly transform my life.

Image of a tweet from Ana Mardoll. Tweet includes a drawing of a redheaded girl in a bikini, on a beach. She is looking with surprise and delight at a flying, iridescent seahorse with butterfly wings. Text of the tweet reads, "The queerest of animals: the Rainbow Butterfly Seahorse. Legend says that just LOOKING at the creature can make you trans."

The tweet that changed everything.

In the moment I looked at that tweet, I distinctly, clearly thought a single phrase: “I wish.”

And then I realized what I’d just thought. I realized what it could mean.

It was like the entire world realigned around me. It was like solving a mystery I hadn’t even realized I was there; all of a sudden details I had never paid attention to fell into a pattern. All of a sudden things made sense. I made sense.

There was an I to make sense of!

My brain fizzed, ideas seething and churning as a new narrative assembled itself, a lifetime of drifting facts suddenly finding a structure to attach themselves to. Truth was happening. It was exhilarating and terrifying.

Not knowing what else to do. I messaged Ana: “If my immediate kneejerk reaction to [that tweet] is “Man, I *wish*…” does that mean what I think it means?” And then I waited in terror, not sure which possible answer frightened me more.

“Oh bless, love,” xie wrote back after a few minutes in which I died of several dozen heart attacks. “Yeah… As a general rule, if you want to be trans, you are.”

That was the answer I’d expected. Was it the answer I wanted? We talked a little more before Ana went to sleep. There was no possibility of me doing the same, however. My brain was fizzing much too much. I’ve never had a religious revelation, or really any kind of religious or spiritual experience at all, but this was what I imagined that would feel like: a single moment of clarity that alters the entire rest of your life, whose full implications could take years to work through.

Religion, I have come to think, is actually a good metaphor for gender. Most people get assigned one at birth, after all, based largely on circumstance. They get raised with expectations about their behavior and nature rooted in that assignment, and over time internalize their own conception of what it really means, though that conception is derived from what they’re taught about it (both deliberately and by example). Most people remain more or less satisfied with whatever they were assigned at birth, though many tweak it to fit themselves better. But for some people it never quite fits. Some of those remain, miserable, in their religion assigned at birth, because they don’t see a way out or because they believe there has to be some way to make themselves fit it. Others find another that fits them better, and convert to it. Still others start their own, or reject having one entirely.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, of course. Some religions don’t allow conversion; most of those that do have requirements of varying stringency that must be met before you can join. To be trans, on the other hand, requires only the desire. If you want to be a trans woman, or trans man, or nonbinary, or what have you? You are, and the implications of that are yours to decide.

By morning of that sleepless night, I was certain. I wanted to be a trans woman. I was a trans woman.

Coming Out

I spent the next few days terrified that it was all a mistake. I had nightmares of being subjected to batteries of tests that “proved” I wasn’t trans, and doomed me to spend my life as a cis man. But slowly I came to accept that it was real and it wasn’t going away. The “monster” I’d been keeping inside me all my life, terrified that others might see it, was out. Her name was Jenny, and she was awesome.

I went to work, I came home, I told my best friend. She was supportive, sensible, pragmatic, everything I could have hoped for. She asked if I’d picked a name yet; I said I wasn’t sure but leaning toward either “Jennifer” or “Meghan.” Talking to her, I realized Jennifer was the right name.

Later that week, I made phone calls to family. I meant to go slow, but my sisters were tremendously supportive, and my parents had questions but were supportive, and my brother had questions but was supportive… there was no reason to slow down. So I kept going. I came out to friends, I came out online; a few weeks later I came out to my boss and discussed coming out at work. While all this was going on, I found a new doctor–who was way better than the old one, and shortly after replaced by one that was better still–and started HRT.

I had the Cinderella coming-out. Everything went right. One family member had serious issues with this–that I only heard about second-hand, and they’ve always been entirely wrong about everything as long as I’ve known them, so I don’t really care. Anyway, they’re the token conservative in the family, so I expected it from them. Importantly, I haven’t spoken to them since before I came out, so I’ve never had to deal with their transphobia, and never had to care.

Everyone else–every family member, every friend, every coworker, my therapists and every member of my therapy group–has been positive and supportive. Some have grown closer: a Facebook friend I’d met in person once, at a convention in 2011, volunteered to go with me on my first makeup shopping expedition. At lunch beforehand we realized she and I had more in common than either of us knew; by the end of the trip we realized there was a powerful draw between us. Within weeks, we had fallen in love.

I know that I am, as transitions go, astoundingly privileged. I live in one of the trans-friendlies cities in the country, with some of the strongest civil rights protections. I’m fat enough to hide my Adam’s apple, quite short, and have small hands and a high-pitched voice–it is less effort for me to pass than most. I have insurance that covers some transition costs; I have access to very good physical and mental health resources via the Whitman-Walker Clinic and the Washington School of Psychiatry; I have a decently paying, steady job and no significant debts. And, most of all, I have that supportive circle of family and friends.

I am the luckiest goddamn trans girl in the world.

And I’m happy. I’m finally, for the first time in life, somebody I want to be. I feel comfortable in my body, happy with the ways it’s changing. The HRT side effects have been minimal–my pre-existing stomach problems now flare up for a week or so every month instead of popping up randomly for a day or two every couple of weeks, and that’s about it–and the effects overwhelmingly positive. My self-loathing is mostly gone, and my body no longer feels like hundreds of pounds of baggage I have to carry around 24/7; it feels like me. Of course my life isn’t perfect–no one’s ever is–and the people at the top of the government very clearly want me dead, along with significant chunks of the population. People misgender me maliciously on occasion, but mostly I don’t interact with people I don’t know, so it doesn’t happen much.

The important thing is that my life is better now, on every front, in every way, than it was a year ago. Being a trans woman is the best thing that ever happened to me; I cannot imagine wanting to be anything else. That ridiculous rainbow butterfly seahorse worked. Just looking at it turned me trans–and I’m so glad it did.