CW: mental illness, self-harm, bad sex
here have been times in my life where I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. I’ve pinched at fat and rolled my eyes at how large my arms or thighs have gotten. I’ve popped pimples and squinted at worry lines. There have been moments I’ve wished my hips were slimmer and my abs more defined. However, there’s a lot of other memories coming back to me as we sit in quarantine as well.
Memories of looking at men’s figures and wondering if I’m attracted to them or if I want to look like them.
I’m Sampson, I’m a non-binary transgender gay man, and I’m living my best Portland, Mainer life. My comfortability with saying that out loud, of disclosing this connection of seemingly contradictory labels, wasn’t always the case.
I didn’t always believe that “non-binary” and “man” could coexist in the same space. There were — and are — so many messages that told me I couldn’t simultaneously occupy the binary and defy it. When I was first discovering my transness, I followed the journeys of trans men who felt comfortable expressing their masculinity in a way that aligned with cisgender men in society. I felt that I had to conform to that version of masculinity to “legitimize” my identity to people looking at me.
I also identify as a vulva owner and a t-dick haver. (For those of you who don’t know, when you go on testosterone your clit gets bigger and looks kinda like a little penis. It’s cute.) I’m a person working with adult ADHD, anxiety, and depression, a survivor of sexual assault, and I’m a sexually liberated, gay as f--k partner to another amazing trans man.
I recognize there’s a lot going on here. What I want to talk about is how I came to these labels, and why all of it and none of it matters. I’m looking in the mirror again—like so many others during quarantine—and trying to make sense of what makes me authentically me without the pressures of society.
Identities are important. Why? Because they help you find out about yourself. They help you find your tribe. They help us show that the intersections of conflicting identities are not only possible and real, but part of the complexity of being a human.
I’ve also found labels to be constricting and limiting because of the way society restricts us and compartmentalizes us. Why am I telling this story now? Because America is going through a time of recognizing the limitations society has placed on us. Quarantine is forcing us to take a long, hard look in the mirror at who we really are, what has held us back from being our authentic selves, and how we will move through a world that our eyes are — finally — opened wide to.
I came out as a trans man when I was in college. At 20 years old, after having a mental breakdown and entering an inpatient hospital for 2 weeks, I returned to college with an intense urge to share with the world my new identity.
Honestly, it almost felt as though I didn’t have a choice but to tell everyone because the secret was eating me up inside.
This breakdown didn’t come out of nowhere.
Unknowingly, I had been suppressing my identity my entire life because I didn’t have the knowledge that transgender people even existed. I grew up in a suburban, white family home. My dad was a band teacher, and my mom did freelance graphic design and community theatre. You’d think with my exposure to theatre I would have a better sense of my queerness, but musicals tend to uphold the gender binary and leave little room for creative gender expression.
To my knowledge, I am the only person in my immediate family who identifies as queer or outside of the normative cis-hetero identity. I was hyper-feminine and pretty much seemed like a typical cisgender, straight, white girl who dated your typical cisgender straight men. I was so far removed from anyone who was queer that I didn’t have any reference point to even question this identity that I held. The only exposure to trans people was when I watched Ace Ventura: Pet Detective where a trans woman is not only the villain but the butt of the joke at the end of the film wherein all the actors on screen gag and vomit when her trans identity is revealed. That movie painted my young, impressionable mind a picture of what it meant to be trans and that picture was not pretty.
I channeled a lot of that repression into sex with those cis, straight men. And the sex was terrible!
I had no confidence, I hated my body, I certainly hated my vulva, and had no way to tell my partner that it wasn’t enjoyable for me. I can’t count how many orgasms I faked just to get whoever I was with to come so we could stop having sex.
I would tell my partners (and myself), “I just don’t come that easily, so don’t be offended if you can’t make me cum.” Which didn’t even make any sense because I was having orgasms on my own just fine. I remember telling this true asshole I was hooking up with, “I don’t want to be treated like a woman in bed,” but I had no idea what that meant or how to explain it. All I knew was that feeling that bubbled up whenever anyone went down on me or penetrated my front hole/vagina.
Not only was I having terrible sex with committed partners, but there was a very long stretch of time that I was having sex with strangers and putting myself into dangerous situations.
Often when we talk about people suffering with depression, we think of people harming their bodies or taking to alcohol or drugs. Maybe we mention their reckless driving. No one ever says that self-harm can look like going to strangers’ homes without telling anyone and having unprotected sex. No one says that you shouldn’t cry after every sexual encounter.
And I did that for years. And while I’m exceedingly fortunate to not have gotten into terrible situations and caused myself physical harm, the emotional baggage I accumulated over that time lingers on. To this day, I still find more bags laying around that I didn’t even realize I had.
It wasn’t until I had my first panic attack that I realized what I was doing to myself and I needed to address why I was putting myself into harm's way.
I had lied to my father about where I was going; I went out and met a guy I met on a dating app at a Dunkin Donuts. We went back to his place to watch Netflix and smoke a little pot. You can imagine where this might be going. I tried to escalate things sexually, but he stopped me and said, “I don’t do that on the first date.” I was caught off guard.
Suddenly the mixture of an intense high with this uncomfortable pit in my stomach that I wasn’t going to get the intimacy I sought that night set me into a panic. I started to drive home, but the attack grew so powerful I had to pull over. I tried to call my therapist, but got no answer.
I called 911.
The police showed up before the ambulance; I was screamed at for half an hour by an officer who told me out how stupid I was for telling him that I was high. This was followed by an even more intense scream-lecture from my father, still high, still panicking. I don’t blame him. He was furious that I lied to him and put myself in danger.
It was a wake-up call, a cry for help. I needed to address the elephant in the room — why do I hate myself so much? Only years later, after so many tears and therapy sessions did I realize why.
I was transgender and I needed to accept that and live as my authentic self.
I came out as a trans man after a lot of drunken breakdowns and late-night conversations with my best college friend who also came out as trans around that same time. If I didn’t have her to talk to, if I didn’t have her as a person to lean on and confide in with my deepest fears about coming out, I most likely wouldn’t have been alive today.
Coming out saved my life and changed my entire sex life.
Authenticity in my identity changed the landscape for navigating romance and sexual interactions. It changed who I interacted with on dating apps, it changed my standards for who I allowed to see me at my most vulnerable, and subsequently, my confidence shot through the roof.
Months after I came out, I got back on the saddle and tried hooking up again. I realized that I didn’t have to do what other people wanted me to do in bed. I realized that the pain I felt from vaginal penetration wasn’t something I had to endure anymore. I started having gay sex, only doing anal and oral, and sometimes not even having penetrative sex at all. The labels, specifically at this stage of my transition, meant a lot. It asserted the fact that I was a man and being seen as a man by my partners.
My definition of what sex could be suddenly changed; I realized it could continue to evolve and grow as well.
My eyes were opened wide to a whole new understanding of what pleasurable, consensual, vulnerable sex could look like with partners who saw me as a whole self. I stopped fooling around with people who didn’t care about me or only wanted to touch me in a dehumanizing and fetishizing way. I started having sex with partners who wanted to make me feel good just as much as I wanted to make them feel good.
I didn’t even acknowledge men who only wanted to experiment with me just because I was trans. I started listening to my body and how it reacted to being touched in different ways, both the good and the bad.
Being with partners that saw me as the man that I was swelled my confidence to a point where I could ask for what I wanted instead of faking it. I began having real orgasms with my partners and learning what my boundaries were. If my body tensed up, I learned to listen. Often folks who are socialized as girls and women are told to ignore their instincts and only focus on other people’s needs, which makes it that much harder to heed what our bodies are telling us.
It took me a lot of practice — and therapy! — but I learned how to talk about my boundaries with my partners that acknowledged my trauma, but didn’t send me spiraling inward.
When I started addressing my depression, anxiety, gender dysphoria, and my trauma, my sex life became the best it has ever been; my body was no longer at war with my mind. I embraced myself, I transitioned, and I’m still discovering new things about self-love and how it relates to my identity. Now I’m having the most incredible sex with my partner whom I love dearly. It’s incredible because it’s authentic and true to my desires and his.
And as for the labels? They don’t matter to me much anymore. They changed the game when I found them, but the definitions and my understanding of their relationship to my identity have shifted in a way that has given me more freedom to express myself.
Thank goodness for the pressure cooker that is quarantine.
Some of us may have noticed that there are a lot of folks coming out as nonbinary recently. It’s not that it’s a fad or a trend, but the releasing of performative gender.
I use the term ‘non-binary’ and ‘man,’ and sometimes ‘gay,’ and sometimes ‘queer,’ and all of these things can be true at once. And while these labels help me find myself and those who identify like me, I often sit in quarantine thinking, “I’m just a human.” But I also realize that these labels broke me out of a pattern of harm that was ultimately going to end my life if I didn’t address them.
I identify as a nonbinary man because multiple genders live inside me and I don’t want to limit myself to what society thinks a gay man is supposed to be like.
What I really want to tell you is that if you’re struggling to accept your body, if you’re struggling with mental health, and your sex life isn’t making you feel good, it can be undone.
You can move past what is holding you back from authentic, unique, sexy, liberating sex. Find the language — and maybe that’s a few labels — that make you feel empowered and true to your core self. Then, once you find that language? Keep going.
Gender is not a fixed point.
I don’t suspect that I will still use these labels 20 years from now and I would never want to limit myself in that way; change is the one thing we can count on and I plan to continue evolving my understanding of my authentic self.
Talk to your friends, talk to a therapist, and talk to yourself about what you want and how you want it.
I’d like to give a special shout out to my friends and family at Speak About It, a nonprofit that promotes awareness of healthy sexual choices, advocates for consent, and works to prevent sexual violence through inclusive performance-based education, discussion facilitation, and provision of resources. I’ve learned a ton through working with y’all and I’m honored to pass on that knowledge.