I pulled my mother's purple blouse over my head and watched in her full-length mirror as it engulfed my 10-year-old frame. Paired with her silver scarf and long denim skirt, I looked as if I'd been swallowed by a Sears store. But I didn't care: I loved playing dress up, especially when everyone else was out of the house. It was my secret.
But then one day in the fall of 1999, I heard my mom call, "Seth!" from downstairs. My stomach knotted up and my heart began pounding as I tore her clothes off my skinny, angular body and stuffed them behind the row of blazers she hadn't worn since quitting her teaching job. "Still not feeling well?" she asked when I ran into her in the hallway, breathing heavily. She placed her hand on my warm, clammy forehead (from the adrenaline burst, not the illness I'd faked to get out of going to school that morning). Since moving to Flagstaff, Arizona that past summer I'd forgotten school ends at 2:45 pm instead of 3:15 like it did back in Los Angeles. I'd lost track of time—mom was just back from picking up Eric, my identical twin.
Eric and I were born one minute apart. Not only did we look exactly alike—but we also did everything together: We shared bunk beds, had all the same friends and tried (and failed) at all the same sports. (Thankfully Eric was just as bad at Tee-ball and Micro Soccer as I was.) My mom even dressed us in coordinating outfits: a blue T-shirt and brown pants for Eric meant a brown shirt and blue pants for me. I didn't mind—I never knew what to wear: Even though I was assigned the male gender at birth, I never felt comfortable as a boy.
Above: Sara, left, and Eric, age 2
I knew I was different from age nine. I was lying in a hotel bed during a family vacation to Las Vegas when my dad had the puberty talk with me and Eric. "Your body is changing," he said, matter-of-factly. Like it was no big deal that my voice was dropping an octave and hairs were sprouting from my face. "You're becoming men," he added proudly. I felt more like my body was betraying me. Every change made me feel like I was moving that much further away from who I truly felt I was: a girl trapped in a boy's body. I couldn't tell my dad that, though; he wouldn't understand. He droned on about hormones and erections having no idea how anxious this all made me feel. I looked at Eric, wondering if he felt as conflicted as I did, but he just nodded along as though it all made perfect sense. I decided to follow Eric's lead from that moment on—he clearly knew much more about being a boy than I did.
So when Eric asked for a Led Zeppelin shirt for his 12th birthday, I did, too. When he signed up for the Boy Scout summer camping trip, so did I. I even copied his class schedule. The more I copied him, the better chance I had at hiding this seemingly freakish part of myself. Eric never noticed that I checked to see what he was wearing to school before I got dressed every morning, or that I always dropped "Boy" from "Scouts" because being in an all-boys group made me feel even more out of place. That obliviousness is why I didn't confide in him—instead, I just mimicked him in public, and continued to dress up in private.
I soon grew tired of my mother's stuffy adult wardrobe though. I wanted to wear cool clothes that fit. One afternoon, I discovered the Lost and Found at my middle school. "I left my jacket here last night," I told the office attendant, a bored-looking 25-year-old who jerked her thumb towards a large box and went back to reading her US Weekly. I spotted a soft blue sweater and my heart skipped a beat. I quickly shoved it and a pair of black leggings into my backpack and left. Back home, I put on the sweater, which smelled like the lotion section of Bath and Body Works. I felt elated—and transformed.
Stealing girl's clothes became an addiction. That summer, at the town swimming pool, I watched a girl leave her white tank and black mini-skirt on a lounge chair. I waited until she dove in before concealing both items in my beach towel and sprinting to my parents' van where I stashed them in a back seat cubby, ironically next to a first aid kit: These clothes were my lifeline. I thought I was stealth, but then one afternoon, my parents picked me up from school unexpectedly. I was 12 years old and usually took the bus with my brother. I knew something was wrong—my father looked furious and my mother was on the verge of tears. I was in the back seat of our car when they said Emily's mother had called. "She said you've been stealing her daughter's clothes," my father said.
My lungs felt like they'd collapsed in my chest. It was true: During a play date, I slipped into Emily's bedroom while she and Eric played video games. I grabbed a pair of her flared jeans and a peasant-sleeve top in her dresser, and snuck into the bathroom. I put them on and sat in that bathroom for more than an hour, lost in reverie—until I heard a knock, followed by, "Are you alright, Seth?" It was Emily's mom. I quickly stuffed the clothes into a cabinet and shouted, "Yes, fine!" She found them two weeks later, and called my parents. That changed everything.
When my mom announced in the car: "You're going to a therapist. Now," I started crying. My secret was out—and my parents were even angrier than I'd imagined. Watching my father's lips tighten as he drove scared me. But not as much as my mom's words: "The therapist will fix this." I wasn't just different; I was broken.
I spent the next hour sobbing on the therapist's couch. She used the term "cross dressing" in a cold, clinical way, which made me feel more freakish than ever. Still, when my parents picked me up, I said, "Don't worry—it's just a phase." I knew that's what they wanted to hear.
Above: Sara, left, and Eric, age 10
I went to that therapist every Wednesday for the next eight years. My parents sometimes asked how it was going. "Okay," I'd reply, and they'd drop it. Meanwhile, Eric had no idea. Our older brother had left for college, so I got my own bedroom freshman year. This meant I could dress up whenever I wanted, which helped offset my increasing anxiety over high school and dances, dates, and girlfriends. When a girl asked me to be her date for homecoming, I went, but it was so torturous that I told her I didn't feel well after one song and went home.
By then, simply walking to my next class gave me crippling anxiety, but I was so used to hiding parts of myself that I did the same with these desperate feelings. My depression soon turned into suicidal thoughts. One night, during spring of my freshman year, I put on the black skirt and white tank top. Then, I applied blue eye shadow that I'd stolen from a friend's '80s-themed birthday party and colored my lips red with a nearly empty tube of lipstick that my mother had tossed in the trash. I brushed out my shoulder-length hair, which I'd been growing for three years. If I couldn't live as a girl, I wanted to die as one.
I snuck out of the house to get rope from our van. Back in my room, I shoved aside the suit jackets and collared shirts I'd hated so much and tied one end of the rope to the bar in my closet. I fashioned a noose and slipped it around my neck. It's a good thing that I never paid attention in (Boy) Scouts—the knot didn't hold. I fell to the floor, sobbing. I was failing in life, and in death, too.
I've since learned that 41% of transgender people will attempt suicide (opens in new tab), which is nine times higher than the national average. At the time, I couldn't have felt more alone—and so I decided since I could never be a girl, I'd do my best to be a boy. It was the only way to survive. That same night, I cut my hair. As the strands fell to the floor, a numbing sensation spread throughout my body: Each chunk was a piece of me.
The next morning, I went to school wearing an Avengers T-shirt and jeans. I didn't wince when people complimented my new haircut. For the next six years, I repressed all urges to dress up. I did what I had to do to fit in.
It was torture.
Meanwhile, Eric had no idea I was experiencing any of this, and somehow we remained inseparable. We both enrolled in Northern Arizona University, which is in our hometown, and even shared an apartment together.
Above: Eric, left, and Sara, age 19
My junior year of college, I signed up for a gender studies class on a whim. It was mid-October 2012, and the topic that day was "transgender." I'd never heard the word, but my mind was reeling as the professor clicked through her slideshow. The first few described terms like "transexual" and "cross-dressing," which I recalled from therapy. But when she clicked to a slide on hormone therapy, my heart stopped. My professor explained that this was a way for people to transition to the gender they felt they truly were. I could barely sit still: She was describing everything I'd felt for so long. As soon as the bell rang, I sprinted home and typed "hormone therapy" into a search. Suddenly, I was looking at hundreds of videos of people sharing stories just like mine, like Jessica Tiffany (opens in new tab) and Jen Paynther (opens in new tab), two gorgeous girls my age who were assigned the male gender at birth. For the first time since I was nine, I felt like I had a chance at happiness. I wasn't a freak in need of being fixed. There was a name for my experience, and others who knew how I felt. Even better, there was a way to become my true self: a woman.
From then on, I spent every spare moment researching my options. I wanted all my facts straight before I told my parents.
On January 6, 2013, my mom invited me and Eric home for a family dinner. I stayed at our apartment and gave Eric three identical letters explaining that I am transgender to take with him. I told him to wait to open his with our parents. In it, I explained the history of the term transgender, and that I was sure this is what I am. I also said I was planning to transition to becoming a woman—but wouldn't have surgery yet, at least not right away. After so many years of anguish, I wanted to be as clear as possible.
Eric returned to our apartment, stunned. He told me that he literally collapsed when he read my letter.
"I never saw this coming," he explained. The conversation that ensued was painful and awkward.
"How did mom and dad take it?" I asked.
"They're worried about surgery," he admitted. "I know you said it's not on your mind right now, but they think it's dangerous."
"All surgery is," I pointed out.
He nodded, and then looked at me and said, "I support you."
Relief washed over me. His response was better than I'd dared to hope for. Although we had a few gay friends that he'd been fine with, this was a much bigger deal. I wasn't sure which he'd be more upset about—the fact that I am transgender, or that I'd kept this painful secret from him, my identical twin! But here he was, not only accepting me, but also supporting my decision to be myself at last. After so many years of feeling claustrophobic, I could finally breathe.
I should have known he'd understand. We were literally one egg that split into two.
After I came out to my family, I asked them to call me Sara, my new, chosen name. The two girls who shared our apartment caught on quickly, but Eric kept calling me Seth. I know it's a hard habit to break, but it's particularly painful when Eric refers to me as "he" while I'm dressed up. It makes me feel exposed, like I'm pretending to be something I'm not. Still, I'm proud of how far Eric has come, even when he messes up my pronouns. I was Seth for 21 years, and I've only been Sara for two.
Above: Sara, left, and Eric, age 23
I'll never forget when I finally gathered the courage to go shopping for my own clothes; I was surprised that Eric wanted to tag along. As I was standing in the dressing room, staring at my flat chest and the thin veil of hair covering my body that remains despite laser hair removal treatments, I was overcome by embarrassment. I could hear other women in the adjoining stalls saying, "I can't wait to see that on you!" to each other. I suddenly felt so silly in the neon pink button-up and skinny pastel jeans I chose, going overly feminine to hide the fact that I still had a boy's body. As I started to undress, I heard my brother's voice.
"Come on out," he said softly. "I want to see!"
I opened the door, feeling defeated.
"It's awful, I know," I rushed to say, but Eric shook his head and simply said, "You look amazing."
I looked up at him, shocked. "Really?" I asked.
"Really," he said, smiling broadly. "It's like you finally are who you are supposed to be."
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Martha Sorren & Sara Horowitz
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