Justin Cascio reports on the changes he’s been through since he began taking testosterone more than 12 years ago.
When I began transition at 24, I thought of it as getting to an end goal of looking like a man of my own age. The changes I went through in the first year got me to a secure place: one where I looked young, “clockable” to other queers, maybe, but visibly, audibly an adult male.
Clearly, sex and gender aren’t all reducible to hormones, or there wouldn’t even be people like me, born one way and yet inexplicably driven to be the other way. Yet they are not at all inconsequential to the moods or circumstances we find ourselves in. On my way, what I call my transition, the vehicle for most of my journey was testosterone.
The first months of injecting testosterone are like boyhood adolescence. It’s exciting and dizzying, self-absorbing, not as much fun to watch, but enthralling to experience. Books and movies try to convey the heat and confidence of male adolescence. But as with other mind-altering experiences, there is practically no way to prepare for the changes that testosterone brings.
There are characteristic physical changes that trans men will go through on “T.” The soft tissues are most malleable to hormonal influence: organs, muscle, fat, skin, cartilage. It’s why our faces change—skin grows coarser, noses, chins, and brows thicken. We go through awkward phases where we get puffy or sleepy, horny, or cranky. We get acne and, if it is our destiny, male-pattern baldness. Our beards creep up our necks to our jawlines. Our voices drop, and will do so in phases, complete with cracking and loss of musical range. We can put on muscle easily, and our fat deposits slowly shift from our hips to our bellies, like continental drift. We sweat more and have a stronger smell. Some guys have to start wearing a larger shoe size, because their feet grow on T.
Describing the physical changes from testosterone are easy enough. It’s the changes to identity that remain the hardest to explain.
Testosterone made my hands grow so that my life lines cracked open. I’d been told my heart disease risk would rise to meet that of other men’s, but I hadn’t expected such a visible sign. My life line, which had once extended to my wrist, was now splintered, as if I had two lives which no longer added up to as many years. In compensation, I developed a pronounced fate line on my right palm.
My experience of being in the world, taking up space, being heard, responded to, and even smelling like I have for all these years, has been a realization of my dream. There was the desire and identity that set me on this course, and then there was getting here. My definition of manhood has changed, because I know now that to be a man is not only in the potential that was locked in my mind, invisible to others, but in the lived experience. Identity is a give-and-take with others; I needed to see my reflection in mirrors, and in the faces of others, to feel real.
Whether you want to be male or female will affect your experience of being one or the other. Trans women will tell you how great estrogen is—how it makes their skin resilient and soft, their hair and nails grow long, their eyes bright. I’ve read more than one paean to the peace that comes after the storm of an awesomely good cry, always written by an enthusiastic new estrogen cyclist. I hated the emotional lability, the moodiness, that came with adolescence, the first time. I used to cry easily, especially when I was angry. Now I rarely cry. She is happy with what I am glad to be done with, and I am equally enthusiastic about that which she despises and will suppress.
Sex as a queer means that reproduction is not always even a remote possibility. Menstruating had been one of the most profoundly dysphoric experiences of being a man in a female body, and being able to control that, make it stop and never come back again, has been a tremendous relief. Testosterone tells my body that I am virile, and in the moment of truth, I believe it. Thanks to T, I have a small but functioning phallus. The trans men I can have these conversations with all swear that our dicks continue to grow every year we’re on T. Maybe it’s true. I didn’t know it would be a feature; I thought I was going to be stuck until medical technology rose to the challenge. As it turns out, I love my dick. Even missionary sex is fun, now that I can give rather than receive.
Going through a second adolescence in my mid-20s, I was more maturely able to handle the surges of desire, mad impulses, and swollen ego that come with T. Even so, for the first few years on T, I thought such aggressive and sexual thoughts, and so persistently, that it changed my worldview. I understood a new dimension of the human animal experience. Not only in sex, but in countless conditions and situations, I have now experienced what it is like to walk in the world as a woman and as a man, and the differences.
When you begin a large change in your life, one or more of several things will happen:
A.) You will like how it feels to start down this road, and want to continue.
B.) You will be too afraid to take the leap, and turn back.
C.) You might change and then regret it, and change back at some later time, but in this way find what is permanent and what can be undone.
D.) You will feel ambivalence or sorrow.
E.) Your relationship to this new path will change over time.
There is a belief that trans people can try this out and find out if they like it: It’s called the “real life test” and is a source of anxiety among the trans and questioning. But the truth of the matter is, as in other aspects of life, there is no testing ground, only real life. It takes time to move from one to the other, and you are on your own journey, every step.
Justin Cascio is a food and lifestyle writer and activist. In the Aughties, he started the first transgender health and fitness magazine. He is currently Senior Editor of The Good Men Project Magazine. Justin lives in western Massachusetts with his husband.