7 min read

How to build a boy

I’m piecing myself together, unpicking the person everyone thought I was. I sometimes wonder if my 18-year-old self would recognise me now.
How to build a boy
Happy Pride! Welcome to Genderbent, a newsletter about gender, transmasculinity, and mental illness by journalist Quinn Rhodes.

[CW: suicide, intrusive thoughts, depression, and mention of OCD]

"Queer people don't grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimise humiliation and prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us and which parts we've created to protect us."

– Alexander Leon

Nothing changes overnight, as much as I’d like it to. Starting testosterone saved my life, but it didn’t make my intrusive thoughts about suicide stop. Stepping into my gender was the start of me unpicking the lies I’d internalised about myself, but I’m far from finishing unpacking all the shame. Sometimes I wonder if I ever will be.

Change takes time. The recording you make of your voice on your first day on testosterone isn’t very different from the one you make a week later, or the week after that. But if you keep going, the recording you make six months after starting testosterone will be different to that first one. And your voice is only going to get deeper, giving you gender euphoria every time it cracks. 

Being patient with the slow changes of my transition is like getting through the worst of my suicidal ideation: sometimes all you have to focus on is getting through the next second, the next ten seconds, the next minute. You break it down, you breathe through it, and suddenly you get to the place where even when your brain is screaming at you to kill yourself, even though you feel like shit, you know deep, deep down you don’t want to die. 

Not when you feel like life is finally worth living. Not when you feel like you are finally, well, you

As testosterone changes my body, I’m figuring out everything else. As my voice gets deeper and my shoulders get broader, I have begun to unpack my shame and self-hatred. As my facial hair comes in and my t-dick grows, I get the bittersweet joy of working out who I actually am when I’m not trying desperately to be the person everyone else expects me to be. 

It turns out, I like him. Me, I mean. When I dig underneath the lies my depression and OCD tell me about myself – that I’m a terrible person, I’m useless, that I only hurt people and they’d be better off without me – I think I’m actually proud of the person I’ve become. And I feel like I get to be proud, because every step I’ve taken towards myself has been a battle against years of shame and societal expectations to decipher what is actually me.

So what is me? 

The velvety fuzz of my just-shaved-yesterday head, yes. How strong I feel when the front of my silver chain is tucked inside whatever I’m wearing and I catch a glimpse of it around the back of my neck, yes. The low buzz of my voice when I sing, and how singing Grace Petrie or Frank Turner or Olivia Rodrigo brings me so much joy that I do it even if I’m off key? Yes, yes, yes. 

Wearing my ring from my girlfriend on the ring finger of my left hand, yes. Therapy sessions where I feel like I’m making progress, where I come away feeling exhausted by much lighter, yes. Bright pink cord trousers? Yes – sometimes, anyway. My girlfriend calling me their boyfriend? Absolutely. Giving a speech at my friend’s leaving party, because while I hadn’t planned it I felt so happy and there is so much I wanted to say to them? Yes, because apparently I’m a lot braver than I used to think. 

I’m piecing myself together, unpicking the person everyone thought I was. I sometimes wonder if my eighteen-year-old self would recognise me now. Not only have I changed, but my life looks nothing like the life my younger self imagined for me eight years ago. I spent so long trying to be perfect and perform femininity; masking my autism and trying to force myself to be something – someone – I’m not. No wonder I spent years feeling like I was failing.

When I turned twenty-six in February, it was my first birthday since my eighteenth where I was confident that it wasn’t going to be my last. And it was only in realising that I’m going to turn twenty-seven, then twenty-eight – that I’m going to reach my thirties – that the heaviness of all the years I didn’t think I’d be alive long enough to get another year older hit me. It’s strange to realise how much I bought into the queerphobia and transphobia I grew up surrounded by all along, believing that people like me don’t get to be happy.

I’m still surprised by it, sometimes. How happy I am nowadays. I’m surprised by how easy that happiness is, even if it can still take me a while to identify what I’m feeling. I’m surprised how easy it is to love myself, by how I’m finding it easier and easier to take care of myself and treat myself with respect and self-compassion. It feels incredibly strange to feel so right in myself so much of the time, after years of dysphoria and dissociation and wrongness.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen – so slowly that it might take you a while to realise how far you’ve come. You keep moving forward, keep working on your shit, keep figuring out who you really are, until you look up one day and realise that you’re suddenly comfortable in your own skin. 

I missed the moment it happened, but I’m so proud of how far I’ve come.

Links to what I've been writing, reading, and generally getting excited about recently.
  • First some shameless self-promotion: I'm an award-shortlisted journalist! At the start of May I attended the 28th Sexual Freedom Awards, in which I was a finalist for Writer of the Year. I didn't win, but even making the shortlist was a massive achievement. I’m so proud of the career I’ve built for myself, and I'm glad I had a reason to celebrate that!
  • It was so cathartic to read Rachel Charlton-Dailey's piece about the empty platitudes of Mental Health Awareness Week. "The government has been a lot more quiet this MHAW than it has in the past – maybe even it can’t pretend to care anymore? After all, you can’t destroy people and keep them quiet whilst also highlighting their struggles."
  • I loved Frankie de la Cretaz's newsletter on how the WNBA's new Skims campaign is a betrayal of the league's gender diversity. "Beautiful women play in the W, that’s true, but they’re not the only athletes in the league and the marketability and desirability of the league does not rest on the players who conform to a certain kind of femininity."
  • If you're a cisgender person reading this, I recommend you listen to Maintenance Phase's episode about Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria. Aubrey and Michael are two of the few cis people I trust to debunk the steaming pile of anti-trans bullshit that is ROGD, even though I'm going to be skipping this one in the interests of self-care.
  • I absolutely LOVED The Prospects* by KT Hoffman. I'm so fucking here for rivals-to-lovers queer sports romance right now, and this one made me cry in the best way. And oh my god, such incredibly written trans sex! (I don't think I've ever read a book where a trans guy has such hot, realistic sex!?)
  • Speaking of books, It Ain't Over Til the Bisexual Speaks* (which is an awesome name for an anthology of bisexual voices) is out now! C0-edited by Lambda-nominated Vaneet Mehta and Senior Sex & Relationships writer at Cosmopolitan Lois Shearing, I'm so excited to get my hands on a copy.
  • Finally, but perhaps most importantly: free Palestine.
*Book titles marked with an * are affiliate links, so if you click through and buy a copy then I get a small commission at no cost to you.