When I said it out loud for the first time to my brother, Mikey — “I think I’m transgender” — I was weeping. “I’m afraid no one will ever love me again.”
It was February 2006, and I was 25 years old. I was living in Bangkok on a research grant from the Fulbright Program, studying the impact of public health marketing on the stigma surrounding H.I.V. I spent most of my free time researching how to transform my body from female to male. I could no longer look in the mirror because each time I was reminded of how uncomfortable I was in my body. Eventually, I covered up all the mirrors.
Growing up female, I didn’t know people like me existed. I had no language for my everyday experience of gender, but I knew that I was not the same. And I knew that not the same was not good and not normal.
“Why did you cut off all of your hair?” people asked. “You were so beautiful.”
“Are you a girl or a boy?”
The truth is, I didn’t know the answer at first. Every time someone asked me, I was reminded of how confusing this question was for me. I knew that I made people uncomfortable.
I did not want to make people uncomfortable.
I was labeled a tomboy. It was a compromise. I still had to wear a white frilly dress to my First Communion like all the other girls, but I got a jean jacket and Vans Half Cabs too. I played sports in my suburban Southern California neighborhood. I rode dirt bikes. But I wasn’t a tomboy. My discomfort wasn’t about the expression of my gender.
My discomfort was about my gender itself.
When puberty happened, things got worse. While girls around me shared their excitement about first kisses, prom dates, makeup and bras, I became increasingly disoriented by adolescence.
It’s not that I didn’t have romantic feelings. I had crushes on plenty of boys. I even had boyfriends — sweet, cute, adoring boyfriends. The problem was that I didn’t want to be a girlfriend. The only model I had of love was heterosexual marriage. I didn’t know then that someday there could be two grooms. I didn’t know then that someday I could be one of them.
So I figured people like me were not supposed to be in love or get married.
I started to hate love stories and weddings.
Transitioning at 25 from female to male didn’t change that. In fact, it only made it worse. I started hormone therapy and had chest reconstruction. My voice deepened, and I grew a beard. I asked my mother to rename me, and I changed my name and my gender marker on just about every piece of documentation imaginable. While I became increasingly comfortable in my body, so many people became increasingly uncomfortable with me. The questions changed. People stopped asking me, “Are you a girl or a boy?” and started asking me, “Do you have a penis or a vagina?”
Learning how to navigate sex and relationships was a particularly frustrating journey. While it was exhilarating to be seen by men as a man, this came with a whole new set of issues. What kind of man would love me? I dated, I hooked up a lot and I had a series of wildly unfulfilling relationships with men who were not right for me.
And then I gave up.
“People like me are not supposed to be in love,” I thought. “People like me are not supposed to get married.”
Then I met Kevin Custer — redheaded, tenderhearted Kevin with the Southern accent. We met in 2013 on a gay hookup app that had a transgender filter. Being able to choose transgender saved me a lot of time that I would have otherwise spent cautiously dancing around the topic of my gender. We messaged for months before meeting in person. Kevin remembers all of it. I don’t. I was not expecting anything deep. I figured we were both looking for something quick or physical, a little bit less than dating.
And then Kevin opened the door.
I fell in love with him the instant I saw his face. I know people say that all the time. I used to hate hearing about it. I once thought people who said that were not my people. But as I stood there on his porch, the universe was laughing at me.
That I could be so completely intelligible as a transgender person to this stranger, that my body and my experience required no explanation, was beyond what I had imagined. I was enamored and disoriented. I had been talking to him forever, but I didn’t actually believe he existed.
The month that followed is a single block of time in my memory. I remember him holding my face in his hands one night and saying, “Alic, you’re a well-rounded gender.” He laughed self-consciously, but that was one of the sweetest things anyone had ever said to me. Another time he held my hands in his and said: “Alic, you’re a very special person. Being with you makes me feel like I’m a very special person too.”
He’s easy to love.
Kevin forgives quickly and believes that the universe is benevolent. I used to think that his positivity was rooted in privilege, that he somehow saw injustice and oppression differently than I did — or didn’t see it at all — because he’s cisgender (his gender identity is the same as the gender he was assigned at birth). But I’ve come to appreciate that he is not ignoring so much as he is imagining. In sharing our lives with each other, we invite each other to see beyond that which we ever imagined for ourselves.
Kevin and I were married on May 6, 2017, in Alameda, Calif., in a beautiful garden surrounded by our chosen family. More than anything, I wanted people to feel at home. I wanted our friends to feel free to be their unique, complex and creative selves. Perhaps in doing so, I was making up for all of the times I felt out of place.
There was one thing, however, that I couldn’t make up for. When I came out to my father as transgender, he suggested that I see a doctor about taking more estrogen, rather than testosterone, so that I could feel like a woman, that maybe they could “fix” me. Later he told me that he was embarrassed to be in public with me and that it would be easier to explain to people that I had died.
People said to give him time. For three years, he used the wrong name and the wrong pronoun. He came to visit me one day in spring 2009. When I opened the door and he looked in my eyes, it was as if he was meeting a stranger for the first time. I could see that he couldn’t see me because he was unwilling to look beyond the person he thought I had been. I decided that in order to maintain my integrity as a person, I needed him to stay out of my life. It was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made.
I came out to my mother on a bench on the side of the Mae Ping River in Thailand in May 2006. I was weeping. I said, “I’m transgender.” My mother, Betti Shook, was crying also. She said: “First of all, I will always love you! And second of all, I have known we would have this conversation from the time you were 3 years old. I didn’t have a word for it, but I knew that you would never be comfortable in a male space or in a female space and that you would have to find a space of your own. I thought my job as a parent was to love you so that you could love yourself.” Since then, my mother has been both mother and father to me. My parents are divorced now. They were married for 20 years.
Kevin and I invited some dear young friends, 12-year-old twins, to be our ring bearers. One twin is transgender. We didn’t know this, but the last time he attended a wedding was also the last time he wore a dress. He requested that the next time he went to a wedding, he would be allowed to wear a suit and tie. That conversation was a milestone for his mother, and she knew in that moment she would make that happen for him. Our wedding was that wedding.
On the day we married, I felt a part of something magical and powerful and relentless. As I looked out over the garden at friends and family, I saw somehow there had been purpose in my life. I wanted to go to my 25-year-old self — wondering if anyone would ever love me again — and say that even in my darkest and loneliest moments, someone in that garden would be with me, and it would be O.K.
I was neither bride nor groom; I’m still getting used to the idea of the word “husband.” I never wanted a husband. I dreamed of being seen, of sharing my life with someone who could see beyond male and female, and that’s exactly what Kevin does. He sees me. He invited me to take up space that I didn’t know existed before, and I believe there is healing in that.
Neither of our fathers was present to toast us during our reception. Kevin’s father died in 2006. Mine wasn’t invited. Our cherished friend Cathy Johnson, a retired social worker originally from St. Louis, stepped in and gave a beautiful toast.
“Our community for this celebration is a beautiful mash-up representation of the tapestry of Kevin and Alic’s life together,” she said. “We are their chosen family, the people who have shown up for them.”
“I know next to nothing about biblical passages,” she added, “but one I do know, from the book of Ruth, seems particularly relevant: ‘For where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people.’
“To Kevin and Alic, ‘We are your people.’”