Austen Crowder

An open letter to a Wabash alum

Filed By Austen Crowder | September 01, 2010 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: letter, memoir, transgender

Sometimes the best way to stay in the closet is to stand fall09_transgender2.jpgin the shadows of those who came out. Least, that's how it worked for you while attending an all-male college. You lived with the theater group, worked with the GSA, and made sure to pull out the I'm gay-notgay-bisexual-androgyne-anythingbuttrans card whenever possible. Anything to avoid the truth, right? All in all, not a bad way to slog through a great education on the cheap and come out with a diploma, even if it was in a world where I couldn't exist.

Remember Halloween? Sure you do. There was that one Halloween where your crew made a game of getting guys to go in drag to Rocky Horror. You loved Halloween! It was that magical time where you could let me out for a while and blame it on costuming. Not the bunny - he was a different guy entirely, little more than a substitute and a stand-in - but honest-to-god step out of your closet as me, even if only for that one night.

Do you remember how excited you got while you were running around and talking to all your friends? How you drove them to Goodwill, or shopped a friend's closet, or raided the prop room in the theater for clothes? Remember how they tried to talk you into crazier getups, or corsets, or more makeup, and you just said no thanks, this is fine, no really, I like being a little confusing?

Really? I remember that part plenty well.

You told your long-term girlfriend about me over and over again. I remember that part most of all. The tipping point stands out like an island, separate from all other experiences: a picnic in an unnamed park, no clue how I got there or why we went in the first place, stands out in a flashbulb of a vision. We were at the park and I remember feeling grass blades under my arms, my chin resting on folded wrists, staring at the peat pushing through browning, dead sections of sod that hadn't taken root. She was laying over you, and when she spoke her voice wilted and crackled with concern and worry. You heard it creeping in any time the gender question came up - that was more often than not at the time.

"Do you want to be a girl?" she asked. You had long since passed the point where the question surprised you: years of dressing up, of small outings as a weirdo crossdresser, of late night conversations about how you wish you could be female, or pass, or at least be androgynous, everything. I remember the words on your tongue, begging to be spoken, but nothing would come.

"Please talk to me," she said. It may not have been those words exactly. Probably wasn't, even. I can never remember what happened in your messed up, knotted little noggin. "Do you want to be a girl?"

And I remember you broke. There was no more hiding, no more dodging the issue. You looked up at her with these eyes, soft, broken, pleading, as if you'd just stepped out of a prison cell to beg for clemency for the first time in your life. "Yes," you said. "More than anything, I would."

"Then we'll get you the help you need," she said. And for a while the weights lifted, and I bubbled up to the surface as we talked about therapists and hormones and issues with being a girl at an all-guy school and we'd work through it, honest-to-god we'd work through it and things would be okay in the end I promise!

To this day I still can't figure out how you crawled back into the closet.


Maybe I'm not getting through. Remember that Halloween party the year after Rocky Horror? You'd picked up that dazzling little pink sundress with the starburst pattern, and had come out as androgynous - a big step, all things considered. Your girlfriend went as your boyfriend and you went as me. Didn't take much, as you'd already started growing out your hair and had a bit of a wardrobe built up over the course of the year, bolstered by the twenty-or-so Wabash Men who didn't give a crap either way. But this was Halloween, and you two made such a smashing couple even with all the "you're a crossdresser" baggage that would otherwise have been attached. Halloween, baby. It was all about Halloween.

We got to the party late, I remember. Everyone was already pretty drunk playing beer pong and working the dance floor. I remember your friends taking pictures of me, hanging out, having a great time. People were weirded out with how I came off - it was a different person, from what I gather.

But there was that one guy - can never remember his name! - who thought you were just another girl. He knew you, of course - seems like everybody knows everybody at Wabash! - but he'd never met me. I remember how his eyes bugged out of his head when I explained, calmly, that I was the guy who came down to their fraternity to drink and play board games on a monthly basis. "Holy shit!" he yelled. "You make a hot chick!"

It was the first time a guy used the words "you," "hot," and "chick" in the same sentence toward you. I loved it. You loved it. But you had to deal with the whole closet thing again when your girlfriend stated, "So, you do want to be a girl," and you immediately knew you'd shown too much, let yourself be too happy, tipped your hand too far, and that the skeletons were out of the closet for everybody to see.

Looking back I'd have said a thousand things to you that night. "You monster!" would have been first, what with throwing her through the wringer repeatedly with the whole out/not-out thing. Then: "Doesn't take an idiot to see who you're supposed to be, baby. Let's get you help. Let's get you started down the path."

But you were young. You were an idiot.


I found our pictures from Rocky Horror the other day. Everyone looked fantastic in dresses, wigs, and makeup that'd make RuPaul blush. (They even had motorized wings. Motorized wings! What will they think of next?) Me, I was off in the corner, dressed in the conservative little blue spring number we picked up at Goodwill, the little boygirl that tried too hard. They all smiled, but you were keeping my lips tight, nervous that somebody would look and say "there's somebody who's enjoying this a little too much" and start to ask questions like "are you okay?" or "are you seeing a therapist?" Worse, they may not have let up, and they'd have dug and dug until they found me, buried behind closet door after closet door, scrambling for air.

We were all having a great time - they in their outlandish and crazy getups, and me obviously not dressed for the part. But if you look really close at that photo, squint a bit, and stare for long enough, you can see me hiding in the glint of your tightly controlled gaze, the way your hip slumped to one side to pose, revealing the girl you couldn't throw away no matter how hard you tried.

I wish you'd told your girlfriend yes after any of the dozens of conversations you had about being trans. I wish you'd have stuck to it when you finally did agree. I wish you'd have told the school therapist to screw off when he said you were a transvestite. I wish you'd have taken a step back, being the smart boy you were, and realized just how stupid you sounded when you said I'm not transgender, but I sometimes I wish I were a girl - followed quickly by don't tell anybody!

I wish somebody would have smacked some sense into you, or sat you down for an intervention, or really anything a little more forceful than "whatever, buddy." But hey, you were good at being nonchalant - this much I know for fact. That's why I volunteer. That's why I'm stepping in for the kids and bearing witness. I know. You're not alone.

Because in the end, nobody should have to deal with crap like this alone. If they say they want to, they're lying. You taught me that.

So I guess, in a strange, roundabout, way, I should be saying thank you. Thank you for being such a jerk when you were in the closet. Thank you for being a stubborn asshole. Thank you for hitting rock bottom. You gave me the tools and the power I needed to help others not end up like you.

"Go Forth, and Do Good Things," or whatever the president of the college is sending kids out on at graduation nowadays.


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Patricia Harlow Patricia Harlow | September 1, 2010 3:20 PM

Awww, that was kinda sweet.

Fabulously written, and very touching.

Sarah Bellum | September 1, 2010 6:09 PM

Wonderful post Austen.

VĂ©ronique | September 1, 2010 8:08 PM

Thanks, Austin. I love your writing. This piece touched me, but then many of your postings do.

Thank you, Austen. You've spoken for so many of us.

Woah, what a text! And I think it's very common that trans people start coming out in college and then go back into the closet.

Yes, Ive felt much the same way about myself