On Saturday night, Luke was lounging in the gathering room of Equinox Gender Diverse Clinic in Fitzroy, having a yarn with some trans friends, when one of them sprang the question: “Hey, have you heard of the magic button thing?”
“No,” Luke said. “But I bet I’m about to.”
“It’s a test, see, to know if you’re really trans. I found it online a year ago, when I was still questioning, you know, more Q than T.”
“So if you had a magic button that would completely and irreversibly switch you to the opposite sex, and all your friends and family would’ve always seen you that way, would you press it?”
Luke, whose legal name was Leila and had D-cup boobs and curves to die for, if you had the sort of mind that wanted a body with curves, said, “Well, fuckin’ aye, Sarah.”
Sarah’s legal name was Scott. She had tiny boobs and copious facial hair that, at the moment, was trimmed into a neat goatee. “Of course,” Sarah said. “I think we all would. But here’s the kicker, what if every time that button is pressed, kittens die? Would you still use it?”
Luke shrugged. “Depends on how many kittens.”
The next day, Luke drove to Royal Park to meet his school friends where they always hobnobbed on the weekend. His friends were all girls and he hadn’t come out to any of them. They knew him as ‘Leila’.
“You’re late, Leila!” said Betsy, the most rambunctious of them. “You missed brunch!”
“Remember, we planned to have brunch with my friend Michi!”
Luke had completely forgotten. Not entirely his fault, because Betsy’s plans wouldn’t even fit into an extra-large notebook and changed at least three times a week.
“Oh, well come and meet Michi. She’s from Japan!”
Before he even had a chance to say hello to his other two friends (Stephanie, the quiet one, and Molly, who only spoke when there was something juicy to gossip about), Luke was introduced to a stunning girl who seemed to be a couple of years older. She held out her hand and curtsied. “Michi,” she said with only a hint of an accent. “It is nice to meet you.”
“Yes, you too. Hi. I’m L-leila.” He’d almost introduced himself as ‘Luke’.
“Michi’s here for a week,” Betsy said. “Then she flies to, where was it, Michi?”
She smiled. “Indonesia.” Michi had very prominent cheekbones.
“Michi travels a lot,” Betsy said. “I bet she’s been to every country in Asia!”
“Not every,” said Michi. “I’m still missing China!”
Michi met Luke’s eyes. He was bloody head over heels, and then upright again! But the problem was that the world saw Luke as a lesbian. Now, obviously he wasn’t a lesbian. Luke was a dude. A heterosexual dude, if that counted for anything. But when you’re told you’re a girl, you’ve got to find women who are into that body type.
In year 10, Luke had had one such relationship but the girl (Nikki, hair pink or blue, depending on her mood) had told Luke he was “too much of a guy” for her.
“I mean, that’s fine for you,” Nikki had said during the break-up. “If you wanna be a guy, just be a guy. But I’m not into masculinity.”
Luke, obviously, wasn’t into it either. He was a straight dude. But he was still trapped in the same girl’s body as he’d always been.
So, that was the playing field.
Luke wondered whether Michi would consider dating someone who looked like a girl. More than Betsy or Molly, Michi seemed to exist beyond the boundaries of society. It was a long shot but he figured he would put it to the test.
Luke turned to Molly. “Did you see the pride march last week? All lemons.”
“Ooh,” Molly said. The conversation had entered her ballpark. “They just don’t stop, do they?” She looked around to her girlfriends for support. When none came, she looked back at Luke. “Leila, you were a lemon once, weren’t you? In year 10, with that dyke with all the hair dye?”
“Her name was Nikki,” Luke said.
“She was pretty lesbo. You both were, Leila. Now, I get that it might’ve been just a phase, but still…”
Michi cut her off. “Please, do not bother the girl,” Michi said. “Whom Leila likes is her choice.”
Luke almost couldn’t believe his ears. He felt his throat tighten, right where his Adam’s apple should have been.
“Are you also a pussy licker?” Molly said. “Lesbian,” she added, when it was clear that Michi didn’t understand.
“No,” Michi said. “I am not attracted to girls or guys only. I am pansexual.”
“And what the bloody hell does that mean?”
“It means that I do not care what is between your legs,” said Michi. “I love people because they are people. Girls or guys, or even transsexuals.”
The butterflies in Luke’s chest were all a-flutter.
That evening Luke went back to Equinox. Normally he didn’t go to their social gatherings more than once a week, but after the park that afternoon an outside force seemed to push him through the white, pink and blue door painted in the trans pride flag.
Sarah was at the checkers table with Rebecca and Cardenia. They were playing intermittently. Rebecca (legal name: ‘Robert’) was the one sitting out, and the first to see Luke come in.
She frowned and settled her large hairy arms on the back of the chair, like two massive tree trunks. “G’day Luke,” she said. The others looked up. “We were hoping by now you’d have some facial hair showing!”
Luke hadn’t told anyone at Equinox that he wasn’t going to take “T,” as they called it. The rationale was simple. Taking hormones meant all the negatives of coming out and none of the positives of really being a guy. The surgery for trans woman was okay, if not perfect. For men, it sucked. Getting rid of a penis was a lot easier than making one.
The girls looked around at each other. “We’re going to get you champagne,” Sarah said. “When your beard starts showing.”
“Um, that might be a while,” Luke said. “See, I’m not taking anything. To, you know, help me on that front.”
“Oh, Lord,” said Cardenia, whose legal name was now ‘Cardenia’. “Equinox can help you, you know. They helped me get cypro and estradiol. And they don’t charge a fee for consultations. It’s based on donations.”
“You need to start taking T,” Sarah said. “Otherwise the dysphoria will stay.”
Cardenia jumped two of Sarah’s pieces, ‘king’ed her piece, and then jumped a third. She frowned at Luke. “I don’t need to intrude but are you, like, non-op, Luke?”
“Um,” Luke said. “I’ll probably get rid of these. Or reduce them.” He glared down at his boobs with enough force to fry them.
“But, bottom surgery?” Cardenia said. “Is that an option?”
“Not until I can get real, functional man parts,” Luke said. “No matter how many kittens I have to sacrifice to make that happen.”
“I can go waltzing Matilda into any government pharmacy and get testosterone but I’m afraid of what it will do. Not things like body hair. I want that. But I’m afraid of coming out as trans.”
The next day at school, Molly had something new to gossip about.
“G’day Leila. You remember Betsy’s friend from Japan?”
I dreamed about her all last night, Luke thought. “I guess,” he said.
Molly was practically spinning from excitement. “Well, it turns out that Michi isn’t a girl, exactly! Betsy’s friend was a shemale!”
This rattled Luke. He thought of ‘shemales’ (he called them ‘trans girls’) as people like Sarah or Rebecca, with beards or hairy arms, almost two metres tall. Michi hadn’t been any of those things. She’d even sounded like a girl. After spending so much time at Equinox, Luke had a pretty good idea what trans girls sounded like. Michi didn’t sound trans.
Luke didn’t want to talk any more with Molly, and definitely not about ‘shemales’. He wanted to see Michi again. School was a drag, and Luke barely made it through the day. Then he had to help around the house before he was allowed to do anything. His mother’s after-school chores were torture. (“Clean up, Leila, like a proper lady!”)
When he finally managed to escape the house later that afternoon, Luke drove to Betsy’s where he figured Michi was staying.
“Betsy, is Michi here? Where is she?”
Betsy laughed. “Do you mean ‘Where is he’? Or haven’t you heard?”
“Where is she?”
“Relax. Michi’s staying at an Airbnb now. She’s – he’s – you know what, I’m just going to go with ‘they’. They’re coming by here later.”
Betsy rolled her eyes. “Please tell me you haven’t got the hots for a tranny!”
I don’t, Luke thought. I have the hots for an amazing, courageous woman.
The moment Luke saw Michi’s sleek Subaru rental pull into the driveway he ran outside to try grab some alone time with her.
“Molly was talking about you,” he said. “She said you were… um… transgender.”
Michi frowned. “The girls saw this. They asked, what it means.” She showed Luke a tiny pin in her pocket, the trans pride flag.
“But, are you?” Luke said. “I mean, not to intrude or anything, and I’m like an ally, but are you transgender?”
“I prefer the term, ‘transsexual’. It is my sex that I am trying to change. I will have sex reassignment surgery next year, I hope, in Thailand. But my gender is not ‘trans’. My gender is female.”
Luke shrugged. “I thought ‘transgender’ was the PC term.”
“Maybe it is for those who do not mind being trans all their lives,” Michi said. “But one day, I will not be trans. I will be cis, that is, a normal girl.”
“You can’t become cis,” Luke said. “Cis means you’re okay with the gender you were assigned at birth. So unless you have a time machine, you can’t change that.”
Michi frowned again. “You know a lot about this,” she said. “I am surprised that you know what ‘cis’ means.”
Luke paused. He’d never come out to anyone outside of Equinox, his safe haven. He took a deep breath and said, “I’m trans too. I’m FtM. I’m a boy trapped in a girl’s body.”
There was no missing Michi’s gaze, from Luke’s breasts, which bulged out of his sporty tee, to the pronounced curves of his hips, visible despite his baggy jeans. “Are you having trouble,” Michi asked, “to get the drugs that you need?”
“No,” Luke said. “I’ve got a psychiatrist who’s diagnosed me with gender dysphoria. I can go waltzing Matilda into any government pharmacy and get testosterone but I’m afraid of what it will do. Not things like body hair. I want that. But I’m afraid of coming out as trans.”
“You must be you, Lei— You must want a different name. What do you want?”
“Okay. Luke, it is not worth it to hide from who you are. Be in a body in which you are comfortable. Your friends and family, if they truly love you, will be happy when you are happy too.” She took a breath, let it out, and said, “I do not know about female-to-male. But for male-to-female, there are very good options for surgery in Asia. I had voice surgery in South Korea. In India, I had facial feminisation. Next I will go to Thailand, for genital reconstruction. I have been fortunate with breast growth, so I will not need surgery there. After Thailand, I will be cis.”
Luke sighed. He didn’t bother telling Michi, again, that one can never become cis: one is born cis, or is not. The thing that was bothering Luke was different. If ‘becoming’ cis meant getting the genitals of the sex you were supposed to be, then he could never ‘be’ cis. There was no way yet to create a real penis.
Right then, of course, Betsy called out to them. “Bring your arses upstairs, girls, or I’m coming down to get them!” Luke’s eyes darted around rather frantically.
“Will I see you again?” he asked Michi. “Just the two of us?”
Michi smiled broadly. “Let me give you a card I have for people who need them.” She fetched it from deep within her purse, wrote something on it, and passed it to Luke before turning to go upstairs.
Betsy poked her head down. “Are you coming, Leila?”
“No,” Luke said. “I’ve got to finish that paper on the mixing of ecosystems.”
Betsy rolled her eyes. “Well, Michi’s flying to Indonesia tomorrow. I guess you won’t see them.”
“Right. I guess I’ll never see her again. I mean, them.” Luke said, knowing the sarcasm would go over the top of Betsy’s head.
Outside, in his car, Luke found that he couldn’t drive. His legs were shaking. He tried to get a hold of himself so that he could drive away from it all: Betsy, Molly, his friends and his mother. (“Don’t be out late, Leila. That’s not proper for a lady!”) He was graduating in a couple of months. He could fly to Indonesia, maybe.
And maybe see Michi.
With his fingers still shaking, even worse than his legs, he unfurled the paper that she’d given him.
It was a Japanese style cartoon strip, with a fat pink cat dressed in lace and flowers. In the first panel, the pink cat looked bothered and was throwing the flowers onto the ground. In the next panel, the cat was now blue and holding a baseball bat. Underneath, Michi had written, with smiley faces, “Be yourself, Luke. It’s worth it!”
And beneath that, she had written her email.