“You have to understand that a ton was happening so fast that year,” says his mother. “So much pressure. We were still struggling with the pronouns! To decide your fate on top of that—”
“But it wasn’t my fate!” Isaac interjects.
“We didn’t feel that way. And what if it was only a phase?”
“But the effect of the blockers is reversible!”
“We didn’t understand that clearly.”
Assertively but not angrily, Isaac drives home the point. “For me it was sort of a win-win situation, a good way to hold things off until either you want to start testosterone or you decide you want to express your gender in other ways. The fact that my parents weren’t allowing it was completely devastating. I thought: Why are they being so stupid and cruel? As if you’d never eaten ice cream and then you’re told all about it but you can’t have it.”
His mother can only say, “He was 13.”
In the end, his parents relented after Isaac, on a visit to his grandmother, called them from the bathroom, wailing. He was having his first period.
A boy bleeding, even if you know the boy is biologically a girl, is a long way from the philosophical conundrums that make it easy for outsiders to mock trans people. The byzantine nomenclature devised by partisans—including titles like “Mx.” as an alternative to “Mr.” and “Ms.,” and the use of “they” or “zie” or “hir” as pronouns to replace “he” and “she”—suddenly seems beside the point. What such diversions mask is the intensity of the pain involved when a person’s deepest idea of himself is betrayed by his body and found insupportable by his society. When Isaac’s parents finally saw through the abstractions of gender politics to their actual child, they rushed into action.
Just before leaving for another season at camp, Isaac took his first dose of Lupron. “I chose a pill form,” he says. “I should probably have started injections, which have a stronger effect, but I don’t like shots. I should have manned up.”
The blockers quickly stopped the periods, but too much breast development had already occurred. When Isaac had his top surgery last summer in San Francisco—some California doctors will perform the operation sooner than the recommended age of 18—he needed a full mastectomy instead of the simpler “keyhole” surgery that would otherwise have sufficed. The result was a longer recuperation, much larger scars, and a chest that may never look quite normal. Isaac has made his peace with that, and is just happy, between the surgery and the testosterone he started at 15, to see more of a man when he looks in the mirror. He has grown taller, his voice has deepened, and his body shape has begun to alter as muscles and fat rearrange themselves in a more typical male pattern. On a recent video he shows off his leg and facial hair, which, though sparse, is good enough for him.
The testosterone also initiated the emotional maturation that the puberty blockers had delayed. He finally had his first crush at 15. Now, at 17, he is less volatile than he was as a preteen, and the anxieties that plagued his childhood (he was terrified of fire drills) have mostly dissipated. The person he wants to be is no longer just an imaginary being but someone others can see when they look at him. Really, that’s all they can see. At a new school, the group of girls he quickly fell in with treats him as a boy; they asked him to manage their roller-derby team. In some cases, their parents—he grins to say it—won’t let him sleep over.
If the drama of transition isn’t complete, it’s at least quiescent; his latest videos are often about things like choosing colleges to apply to. His initial gender overcompensation has relaxed into a more idiosyncratic expression of self. Big assertive hand gestures are undercut with ironic eyebrows, and a careful self-monitoring makes sure that phrases like “it takes a lot of balls” get revised to “it takes a lot of guts.” However boyish he looks, he seems to have landed in an interestingly indeterminate place. “I act as a fairly effeminate male a lot of the time,” he says. “I’m giggly, I have no interest in sports. I’m not the most masculine transperson. But I’m a guy.”
His parents are relieved to feel they eventually did the right thing. His father was “proud and very quickly got used to the pleasure of having a son”: a “shirtless boy” parading around the house. Like Isaac’s mother, he has incorporated imagery of Isaac in his artwork, in his case a short, sweet film. Her response seems more ambivalent. The paintings she’s done dwell on the scars. She takes photos of them and gouges them by hand, then blows them up, silk-screens them, and mounts them on wood panels. It’s as if she’s reliving what she allowed.