The Boy and the Nettles

Taking a break from my studies because I cannot get this blog post out of my head, try as I might (“out, out, damn spot!”), and I don’t think my geology professor will accept an essay on gender transition in lieu of my case study.

In any case, one of Aesop’s many tales is that of the Boy and the Nettles.  I have this fantastic copy of Aesop’s Fables which I read over and over as a kid, with illustrations and a beautiful cover, but I left it at my parents house.  So, I am left googling Aesop’s tales, which, for some reason, makes me kind of sad.  But, every version I’ve found uses pretty much the same wording, so I will not presume to change it:

“”A Boy was stung by a Nettle. He ran home and told his Mother, saying, “Although it hurts me very much, I only touched it gently.” “That was just why it stung you,” said his Mother. “The next time you touch a Nettle, grasp it boldly, and it will be soft as silk to your hand, and not in the least hurt you.”

Whatever you do, do with all your might.”

For me, personally, this moral has worked well to guide my transition.  I spent twenty-odd years living with that sick feeling in my stomach telling me something was not right.  I then spent about two years knowing what was wrong and refusing to accept it. At twenty years old, I cautiously grazed the nettle, and it stung me quite hard.  I could not bear the thought of feeling that sting again, so I went out of my way to avoid the…er…nettles of life.  Or, more accurately, the two years I spent in denial, the most painful and uncomfortable years of my life, were one long attempt to gently poke the nettle.  And let me tell you, it did not go well.

I would sit in my room and ask myself, “Am I trans? Am I trans?”  I had never, as a three year old, refused to use the girls’ restroom or declared I wanted to be a boy when I grew up, so I would quietly answer, “I can’t be.”

I think I made the mistake of believing that all transitions looked the same, that all trans people had to have the same experiences.  So, despite the fact that most of what I read in books on transition elated me, I would find one detail that didn’t feel right and say, “Oh, well, I guess I’m not trans.”  Then, I started to say, “Trans men know they’re men; I just really, really want to be a man, so I’m not trans.”  I think I said that to someone literally a week before I came out.  I was also terribly afraid — of transition not being enough, of what people would say, of being alone or jobless, of never having a family.

But, eventually, I reached out and I grabbed that nettle by the horn — oh wait, wrong metaphor.  The point is, I went for it.

Oberlin students have this website called Obietalk (created by a student, not connected to the College itself), where people can post whatever they want and comment on other posts anonymously.  There’s lots of drama about Obietalk which I can discuss some other time.  But, for the first month-ish of my junior year of college, I constantly found myself logging onto Obietalk and typing things like, “How do I know if I am transgender?” or “I think I am transgender” into the comment field, then deleting them, whether out of fear that someone would answer my questions or embarrassment for where I sought my answers.

Finally, one day, I realized, “If I am looking to Obietalk for answers to my life, there is something wrong here and I need to deal with it, whatever the result.”  I could no longer avoid the questions in my mind, I could no longer pretend that nothing was going on behind my forced smiles.  I told my housemates that I was going to go pick up my laundry, and subsequently wandered around Tappan Square for over two hours.  I kept asking myself, over and over, “If you had the perfect job, the perfect relationship, the perfect life, would you be happy? If you had X or Y or Z, would the jealousy you feel for every man you see fade away?”  I sat down on the cold stone of the Memorial Arch and I began to cry, because I knew the answer was no.

I felt all the fear that I had run from two years prior, but a new emotion creeped in behind the fear: hope.  Hope for happiness, for contentment, for a moment when I wouldn’t care about perfection.  I stayed out in the cold, and I cried, and I said to myself, “I’m transgender; I’m transgender,” trying to see if it sounded right.  In that moment, sitting out in the dark under the Arch and the trees, I knew, without a doubt. I had found my answer.  I spent some time pretending I wasn’t sure, telling my friends again that I thought I might be transgender, telling my new therapist that I was confused.  But I knew.

So, I went for it.  Undoubtedly, my transition has probably seemed fast to some who know me.  But I wasted twenty-two years of my life ignoring the biggest problem in my life, and I felt I had no more time to waste.  I wouldn’t recommend that every trans person treat transition as a nettle waiting to be grasped, but it was the right call for me.

Part of the issue, I believe, is decision-making processes.  Everyone has his or her own decision-making process.  And just as we tend to comfort others as we ourselves like to be comforted, I think most people tend to, at least subconsciously, assume that his or her own individual decision-making process is the right one.  If someone’s beating you over the head with a legal pad, telling you to make a pros and cons list about some big fork in the road of your life, chances are that person likes to make pros and cons lists.

Me, personally, I need to say something out loud, as if I’ve already made a decision, to see if it’s the right call.  Then, I begin to move in that direction, as if I’m sure, and see how I feel.  I don’t do anything crazy.  If I say I want to move to Alaska, my next move is not going to be to buy the plane ticket.  But I might start looking at flight times.  My sophomore year, when I first realized I was trans, I had to say it out loud, but I didn’t commit enough to really feel the effects.  I felt anxious, which is usually a sign I’m going in the wrong direction, but the anxiety stemmed from my ambivalence.

When I finally rounded up the courage to admit, rather than ask, that I was trans, I felt free for the first time in my life.  Once in a while, someone thinks that I’m a flake, because of my decision-making process.  I try to stay aware of my flaws, and I do an okay job, but I know I’m not a flake.  I understand why they think that, though.  “A week ago you said you wanted to go to Alaska.  Now you’re saying you want to kayak across the Atlantic Ocean.  What gives?”  Well, Alaska wasn’t right.  I looked at the flight times, and all of a sudden I was anxious about the long trip and what I would pack and where I would stay and I realized I didn’t want to go.

It’s unfortunate, I know that some members of my family panicked at the speed of my transition.  They thought I acted on impulse.  And I can see why they thought that.  But I had been thinking about that decision every single day for two years.  I had weighed the ramifications, I had asked the questions – “Will people think I’m a freak?  Will I find love?  Will I be able to get a job?  Is it dangerous?” – and had tried so hard to drown out the answer that whispered in the back of my mind: “It doesn’t matter.  Better they think you a freak, than you live a ‘normal’ life and never lose this weight on your shoulders.”  What, to many, appeared to be the beginning of my decision-making process, was actually the end result.

As I said before, the pace and flavor of my transition would not be right for everyone.  It’s a very individual thing.  And people should of course transition when they are ready, whatever that means.  For some, the fear persists throughout, for others not so much.  But, for me, taking at least seemingly-confident strides down that path, grasping that nettle as hard as I could, allowed me the clarity and calm to figure out what I wanted out of life.

I’m curious what others think about this.  What’s your decision-making process?  Do you prefer to grab the nettle and go, or test the waters more carefully?  If you’re trans, do you feel like things are going slowly or quickly?


“The Boy and the Nettles” translation from, by George Fyler Townsend.

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3 Responses to The Boy and the Nettles

  1. Smash Brown says:

    I think I had an Aesop’s Fables book when I was little too. It disappeared, probably when my love of ghost stories picked up.
    I love your writing style – you make me laugh and you convey your feelings and thoughts so well. I think I really connect with your writing because how you feel is similar to how I feel. Which is quite rare for me.
    In relation to your questions directed at the reader… I over-think a lot. I think every situation and what will happen in the long run (transitioning in particular), usually negative things. But sometimes, I feel hopeful at the thought that I’ll be me one day and I get way too excited and just rip that nettle out from the ground. And then I overwhelm myself. Because I think this process is going too slowly for me. But that’s just the way it goes.

    • Isaac K. says:

      Mine may have disappeared as well. I remember two books — Aesop’s Fables and the Swiss Family Robinson — which had bizarrely similar covers, and I think only one of them still resides in my bookshelf at my parents’ house.

      And thank you, so much, for the compliment! I really appreciate it. I’m glad that you can connect. It does seem like we have similar feelings on this stuff, which, I agree, is rare.

      I love that image of ripping the nettle out of the ground. Maybe not what Aesop had in mind, though it would probably also work, at least pain-wise…:-D. Sometimes I am shocked at how fast my transition is going, other times I feel it is taking forever. I hope you are able to feel hopeful more often than not! As Aesop says, slow and steady wins the race! (does that count? Do I not have to write about the Tortoise and the Hare now?)

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