Written by a WSTB05 student from the University of Toronto
This piece was submitted as part of OPF's partnership with the WSTB05 class (Understanding Power and Knowledge in Research). More information about our partnership can be found here.
TW: I talk about some pretty personal stuff, including a failed coming-out to my parents and suicidal ideation. Please read with caution.
“I’m Cindy,” she says. She’s 3, maybe 4 years old. She picked up the name from a Jimmy Neutron character; a cute, white girl with her long blonde hair tied in a ponytail. (Her current self is pretty embarrassed to admit that, but he needs a grade, so he’ll push past it.)
Her mom looks at her, does that smile grown-ups do when they’re about to correct you, and tells her her name is “Sydnee.” The little girl insists. She’s Cindy. She likes that name better, and likes the girl on the screen better. She doesn’t get why she doesn’t look like her. Why her skin’s tanned, not white, and why she’s got long, black hair instead of pretty blonde locks. She kind of wants to look like her. Her mom doesn’t press it, but keeps calling her Sydnee. Sydnee gives up, loses interest since it doesn’t seem she’ll be getting her way. Sometimes, she tries to change her name again, but her parents always go “you’re Sydnee, not Cindy.” Eventually, it sticks. Sydnee keeps calling herself Sydnee, but a part of her still wishes she was Cindy.
Sydnee’s had to move again. This time, the change seems long-term. She’s 8, going into the 3rd grade (she thought this was very grown-up; the 3rd graders she’s met seemed way more mature than her). She’s attending a Catholic school, St. Timothy. She’s small and at that stage in life where she’s gaining more awareness of herself – she used to never shut up in class. She even got in trouble for it. (She was also kinda dense; she didn’t get that the teacher wanted her to leave the classroom until she was told like, what? 5 times? Sorry, Sydnee’s 1st grade teacher number 2.) Now, she doesn’t really volunteer. Doesn’t want to speak if it means she’ll get put in timeout or something, or god forbid, get a note sent home. Abandon all hope, ye whose teacher tells you they need to talk to your parents.
The not-speaking thing isn’t much of an issue. Except it is. Now, instead of her teachers saying “your kid literally never shuts up” (but, you know, nicely), they’re all going “she needs to participate more in class.” In other words, “your kid never speaks and it’s kind of concerning.” Sydnee hates parent-teacher interviews because of that. She also hates report cards, because they say the same thing. Every time, her parents go “you’ll talk more in class, okay?”
But she never actually does.
Sydnee’s made a new best friend. Her name’s Anna Flora (Anna, I know you probably won’t see this, but hi. It’s me. A lot has happened and I miss you, hope we can meet up sometime; we’ve got a lot to catch up on). She’s tall, pale, and pretty, with paleish, greenish-blue eyes and long blonde hair. She’s also very smart, and pretty well-liked. Sydnee’s fond of her. An ugly, subconscious part of her wishes she were her; or at least looked like her (even her parents seem to like her better; she thinks they wish she were more like Anna). Sydnee still doesn’t understand why she thinks that. She puts it off. Anna Flora’s cool, and being her friend is cool too. She hopes they stay friends forever.
Sydnee’s grown up a bit now. She’s about 11, 12, maybe? She’s a bit taller, but Anna Flora still towers over her. She doesn’t mind. She kind of likes being short; means she’s easier to hug, and gets to make short jokes (her favourite one is joking that she’s closer to hell, but she’s not gutsy enough to say that out loud, since she is attending a Catholic school).
What Sydnee doesn’t like is how awkward she’s become. She’s struggling to click with her classmates now; they’re nice people, but she always feels a bit on the outside. She’s still not participating in class all that much. She’s also been a really shitty friend recently; some days she’s super nice to Anna Flora, other days she completely ignores her. As her older self types this, he still doesn’t know why he did that. Maybe for some form of control, to feel a sense of superiority because he felt so low compared to everyone else. Anna, I’m so sorry I did that to you, and looking back now, it was super screwed up. You don’t have to forgive me (again, you probably won’t see this), but if I can’t apologize to you directly, then writing it out is fine.
Sydnee is following her class inside when she tells Anna Flora something like, “hey, I think I wanna be called he or they.” She’s been spending more and more time online; she didn’t know people didn’t have to identify with their birth genders. She likes the sound of non-binary, but the word transgender seems scary to her. Anna listens and tells her “then that means you’re not a girl.” Sydnee isn’t sure how to feel about that. She doesn’t like it. If she’s not a girl, then what is she? A feeling of disgust worms its way into her head. She drops the topic. She doesn’t bring it up again.
Sydnee thinks she’s bisexual. She doesn’t realize it at the time, but she has a bit of a crush on one of her older friends, a girl a year older than her named Nicole. God, was she ever dense. She’s about 12 or so at this time; she’s trying to figure herself out. Her older self wants to smack her upside the head for how dumb she’s being, but he knows she needs to get her stupidity out now, otherwise he’ll be stupid too. He also needs to stop bullying his past self. You went to therapy for this, you jerk. (To conclude this story, I actually realized I liked Nicole in the 9th grade, and I told her as such when we reconnected. It’s an inside joke between us now, and I call her Nico. We became very good friends.)
Sydnee is 14 now. She’s in grade 8, and graduates in June. She’ll be a bottom feeder again, as her substitute French teacher so kindly put it. She’s sure she’s queer somehow, but doesn’t know how. But she can’t worry about that right now; she has two speeches to finish for class, and she has no idea what she’s going to write about.
Sydnee is 15 now. It’s the summer before her grade 10 year. She’s come home after buying a new stylus for her iPad (she draws now, wow), and is currently having a breakdown over how she is apparently a he. He doesn’t like this conclusion. In fact, he hates it. He realized it during the car ride home from Staples, and really wishes he hadn’t gone out to buy that stylus. He pushes his feelings down and decides to draw. Test out his new toy. He makes some ugly vent pieces, deletes them, then goes down for dinner, pretending he’s alright. He writes a coming-out letter. He decides he’ll give it to his parents, just get it over with. He hopes they’ll accept him; believes they’ll accept him. They’ve got gay friends, right? They’d be okay if their daughter turned out to be a son.
Cat’s come out to his parents. They just came home from eating at a really nice pizza place, and he wishes he hadn’t tainted the memory like this. They insist that the name he likes isn’t his name: “you’re this, not this,” his dad goes, pointedly underlining the name he’s given himself. Sydnee. Not Cat. He’s beginning to hate Sydnee. He hates her a lot. As he storms upstairs, face hot in embarrassment and stained with tears, he wishes Sydnee were never born.
His parents keep the letter. It’s been 3 years since then, and he still doesn’t know where they’ve put it. He still wants to see it again. Maybe even burn it. He regrets telling them the truth.
Cat doesn’t talk to his parents about personal things anymore. Not like he used to.
They come to a compromise. The night he came out, Cat begged to get his hair cut. Anything to look less like a her, and more like a him. His parents agree, and the next day, they drive to the mall. Before they get out, his mom sternly tells him “just because you’re getting this haircut, doesn’t mean you’re a boy.” He gives the usual “okay.” He’s too tired to argue. He cried himself out already.
He gets his haircut. It’s a bob cut; not super short like he’d wanted, but his parents insisted he transition from longer hair to short hair over a gradual process. He thinks it’s ironic; his hair’s doing more transitioning than him. He still looks like a she, but it’s a start. Soon, I’ll get out of here, he keeps telling himself. Soon I can cut my hair however I want. Soon I can feel like me.
Cat begins using his new name at school. He came out to his friends before the fall-out with his parents; they supported him, and loved him all the same, and he’s glad for it. His first class of the year is an English class with his friend Kyle. He tells the teacher his preferred name during attendance.
Some of his classmates went to his old school; they knew him as someone else. There are some amused whispers of “Cat? What?” that make his skin prickle with shame and irritation, but his teacher takes it in stride and makes note of his preferred name. He sits down and looks over at Kyle, who beams at him. It’s been 3 years since then, and he still hasn’t forgotten it, nor has he forgotten the feeling of giddiness and “yeah, I’ll be okay” once he and Kyle grinned at each other. It’s one of his favourite high school memories.
He’s really embracing his identity now. He’s out at school, since he figures if he can’t be himself around family, he’ll be himself around friends. He…kind of prefers his friends, anyways. Thinks they’re a much better support system. He admits to himself, with a little shame, that they’re the ones he’d rather call family.
There’s a minor setback; he finds out from a friend that a girl in their French class insisted on dead-naming him while he was away. “It’s not Cat,” she’d said, “It’s Sydnee.” He’s glad to know that his teacher and classmates were quick to deny this, but it still makes him feel a little sick. His friend asks if he’s alright with the news, and he says he is; he can’t help it if that’s how she sees him. Besides, it’s not like he’s friends with her. He won’t have to deal with her on a regular basis.
He waves his friend off and goes to class. The girl is still friendly with him, but he feels like she’s looking down on him somehow. He shrugs; it’s fine (even if it doesn’t feel like it is). Not like his identity is any of her business.
(His present self looks back on the situation and laughs. As he’s writing this, he’s thinking to himself, it’s pretty flattering that she cared enough about his identity to try and invalidate it in front of their class. It’s funny, really, though it didn’t seem that way before. I wonder what she’s up to now?)
It’s winter now. He doesn’t know what’s wrong, but something is wrong, and he just can’t seem to place his finger on it. Everything is fine. He’s got great friends, he’s doing well in school, and things are fairly okay with his parents, if not a little tense with what happened over the summer. So he doesn’t understand why he wants to die. Why he thinks everything sucks when it clearly doesn’t, and there are other people who have it so much worse than him, and they’re doing alright, so why isn’t he? He keeps joking about needing therapy. He’s beginning to think he actually does. But he doesn’t think his parents will let him, so he copes like this, until one day, it gets to be too much.
He’s riding the bus home one day, staring out the window as his music plays in his headphones. It’s cold; he can tell from how everyone he sees is bundled up, wearing long winter coats and hats. He himself is wearing gloves and scarf, and a thick, grey coat that covers almost his entire body. The world outside is tinted bluish-grey, and when he reaches out to wipe fog off the window, he winces at how chilly it is.
His bus passes over a bridge, like usual. He doesn’t remember what song he was listening to. All he remembers was that all his thoughts of “what if I jumped off of here?” were replaced with “I should jump off here.” He’s scared of it, and especially of himself; he hadn’t felt anything when he thought that. Hadn’t tried to combat it with thoughts of “no, you have homework to do” or “your friends would miss you” or “you haven’t even written a will yet,” like he usually would. Instead, all he felt was a numb sort of acceptance: the apathy you feel in the face of the inevitable. He continues staring out the window. He imagines himself stopping at the next stop, trudging back to the bridge, leaving his school bag behind and leaping down onto the highway below. One last nagging thought of “if you jumped there, you’d be hurting others” calls out to him, but he silences it in favour of imagining selfish nonsense.
Cat is 15 when he first decides he wants to die.
Sometime in January or February, he has a breakdown in the car as his dad drops him off at school. He tells him what happened, his thoughts of jumping, and begs to go to therapy. His dad says they’ll talk more about it later, and he’ll bring it up to his mom (Cat doesn’t want this, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers). He wipes his face off and goes into the school. He makes his way into the cafeteria, and his friends are there as usual. They see him coming and greet him happily, just like always. He remembers Kimmy, Arielle, and Izzy being there; they noticed almost immediately that something was off. Kimmy asked (thanks, by the way. I think you seriously saved me back there), and as he opens his mouth, all that comes out are sobs.
She takes him to the corner of the cafeteria, away from prying eyes, and they talk. He pours his whole heart out to her, tells her everything that’s been on his mind, the deal with the bridge, everything. She doesn’t judge; she just listens. She listens until he’s done and listens some more, she gives him words of comfort and hugs him close, and he feels warm and safe and realizes “wow, I am seriously touch-starved.” He hasn’t been hugged like that since he was little.
The rest of the day is better, and he feels a lot better too, but he knows that relying on his friends for support isn’t going to be what helps him. His mental health isn’t their responsibility; it’s his. He’s determined to get better.
Cat goes to therapy for about half a year. His therapist, Phyllis, is very supportive of him, and a great listener. He still remembers what she taught him, and tries to practice what she’s preached to the best of his abilities. He’s no longer at odds with his emotions; he lets them course through him, lets himself feel them, because he knows they’re neither good nor bad. They just are, and that’s okay. They don’t define him, and they never will.
He still has intrusive thoughts, but never to the magnitude of the day he decided to jump. He knows how to quell them; let his brain think them, then reminds it that he has a lot to live for, and he’ll never get to experience it all if he chooses to cut it there. Some days are still bad. Some days he wishes he had jumped back then, because he’s so tired of enduring, enduring, enduring (he’s still living at home, under his dead name and identity). But giving in is the easy way out, and he refuses to let himself take it. He’s far too prideful to let the world go “I told you so.” He’s also too prideful to let his parents think his mind’s changed.
Things are better between them now; they know that he still feels the same way about his gender, and he knows they probably won’t change their own stance on it either (which is still pretty annoying, but I’ll take what I can get). He knows it won’t be forever, because he’s in university now, and if he’s in university, that means he’s grown up a little. By the time he graduates, he’ll hopefully be looking for jobs and moving out. He’ll be on his own, then. He’ll be able to do what he wants with his life.
Cat is 18 now. The year is 2021, the month is November. He’s a first year at University of Toronto Scarborough, thinking of majoring in Population Health come second year. He’ll worry about that later. Right now, he’s finishing an assignment for his Women’s and Gender Studies class. He’s typing out the ending, and soon, he’ll be done.
He looks back on what he’s written, how far he’s come. He’s at home with his identity, and is patiently waiting for the day he can truly express himself. He doesn’t think about Sydnee or Cindy anymore; there’s just him, and he likes being him. He likes the way he looks, likes his hair and doesn’t wish to be a little paler. Not anymore. He’s starting to recognize himself in the mirror. He’s grown, he thinks, typing out the last few words of his story. He’s become a little cooler, hasn’t he? …yeah. I think I have.