(Lyrics credit to 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up” for the headline of this essay.)

Kristy messaged me out of the blue yesterday. We hadn’t spoken in three or four months. The last conversation had orbited the mental health of a shared, quasi friend. The talks were earnest but oblique. We both knew how bad our friend’s situation had gotten, but we also knew how little we could do for her. That brief, angry sigh and then months of silence.

Kristy’s most recent message was about the music video for “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)” by Run the Jewels. I had shown her the music video once. It’s a powerful video about police brutality (although here my friend and valued peer, Isaiah Taylor, makes a persuasive argument about its misguided shortcomings). I used to write about music videos every day for a paycheck. I was giving Kristy the rundown of my essential music videos of the 2010s. “Alright.” “Hood.” “Desire.” “Oblivion.” “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.” We were cosmically stoned.

I wonder what impulse made Kristy think of the video. I knew it was the video itself that she was specifically interested in. Whatever its thematic/semiotic missteps may be, its aesthetic sensibilities are unforgettable.  Part of me hopes she was wanting to tell someone about it. When friendships wither, the one thing I can hope for is that my taste in pop culture infects the people I care about and then the people they care about (and vice versa). It’s a part of me that sticks around even when I’m  gone, and I know I love being able to chart the ways someone’s passion for art has changed me in a meaningful way.

Kristy and I are both artsy, gender non-conforming queers that grew up in the horrifying, patriarchal brutality of rural Appalachian poverty and oppressive queerphobic Christianity. We survived but we knew plenty of people that hadn’t. Even as we found ways to loosen the hold that our masculinist upbringings and masculinist environments had on our internalized identities, men found new ways to assault and restrict us, both in our most intimate relationships and our national and local politics. Except for, perhaps, getting high, I’m not sure there was anything that Kristy and I did more than talk about whatever new (or old) thing that fascinated or intellectually troubled us, but there was also so much that Kristy and I never had to say out loud because we crawled out of the same violent, evangelical nightmare.

When I was first coming to terms with the fact that I was trans, Kristy was one of my two closest friends. The other friend was Martin. Kristy was a creative — a multidisciplinary artist. Martin was a multidisciplinary philosophe. While Kristy was a gender non-conforming woman, Martin was coming to terms with what it meant to be nonbinary trans. We all three had grown up in particularly suffocating and traumatizing versions of Appalachian Christianity. Martin and I were both awakening to how our religious and masculine upbringings had damaged us and closed us off to so much of ourselves. We only began to explicitly discuss it with each other just before the schisms that led to my communiques with Martin being as rare as they are with Kristy.

Stray correspondences on social media. Running into each other at a party. Waving on the street.

I would never describe the bordering-on-codependent friendship that Martin, Kristy, and I shared as healthy. Martin and I are both severe depressives. We all had various degrees of substance dependency, whether that addiction was alcohol or weed. Kristy and I both self-medicated with pot for our PTSD. It sprung from the shared font of our serial history of emotionally and physically abusive relationships. As a group and in various duos, we spent an extraordinary amount of time together. Some of us had romantic partners. We all had other close friends. But I know that for at least Martin and I, there was no one we saw more on a daily basis.

We got high. We got drunk. We got crossfaded. We played video games. We played so much Hitman. So fucking much Hitman. We watched movies. I orchestrated a viewing of The Tree of Life, and it was a transcendental communal experience. We listened to music. I remember listening to 22, a Million with Kristy and both of us were almost totally and emotionally overwhelmed by what Justin Vernon was achieving with that record. We did homework. We debated philosophy and politics and art. We read Gravity’s Rainbow aloud to each other. We were constant fore-and background presences in each other’s lives.

I have very intense friendships that I have trouble maintaining in the long run because of how severe my depression is. Once it gets bad, I become incapable of putting in the work required to maintain friendships and I don’t resent people that decide they can’t be the only ones initiating any conversation or affection. I am a generous friend and partner when I’m well, but if I’m not well, my depression makes me withdraw completely. The anxiety assures me I would be an exploitative piece of shit if I did reach out when my mental health improves. It’s as if mental illness means I’ve forfeited the right to friendship somehow. The stigmas surrounding mental illness convince me that anxiety is logical.

If you ever want an entry level philosophy lecture on Wittgenstein disguised as a sci-fi melodrama, watch Arrival. It’s an intimate examination of the ways in which language affects the possibilities of our cognition. People have emotional intelligences, but almost the entirety of our active conceptualizations of the external world is verbal, even when it’s not externally verbalized. If you broaden the possibilities of someone’s language, they can engage with ideas and phenomena in the real world with more clarity and precision. That’s a poetic abstraction of Wittgenstein’s somewhat drier, analytic philosophy, but Arrival gets it across with language that erodes our perception of space and time itself.

I was able to accept that I was trans during my friendship with Kristy and Martin because they revolutionized the boundaries of my language. I tend to gravitate towards folks who can teach me things that I am often too non-functional to study more independently. I seek out folks who can educate me, and Kristy and Martin were both educators at heart.

Prior to Kristy and Martin, I rarely went out of my way to find people that weren’t men to teach me. And so before the three of us became friends, I learned a lot of things about science and philosophy and art and ethics, but I was rarely hearing about how feminism intersected with those issues. I was rarely hearing about how gender more broadly intersected with those issues. Or if I was hearing how it affected gender, it was through a cishet, masculine spin. Then, for the first time in my life, I was around people who could casually quote Judith Butler and Foucault and actually engage with the dialectics of revolutionary, experimental queer art.

Kristy and Martin’s formal background in critical gender theory was like being handed the key to a lock in my mind that I had always known existed but never had any clue what lay beneath it or what it was locking out. A conversation with either of them was a constant, surgical dissection of gender essentialism and both the obvious and subtle suffering wrought by cisheteronormativity. Suddenly, I knew how to describe how scared I was of men. How alienated I had always felt by them. How much I tortured myself and hurt others to make a connection I could never navigate. And I thought about what it meant to be a man to so many of the men that I know and I asked myself if I was that thing they thought they were or wanted to be and I knew I wasn’t and I had only done harm trying to be. Other men and almost all of the women I knew had always intuited that I would never be that sort of man even if they couldn’t describe the root of the ambiguity. I didn’t know what I was but I knew I was done trying to be a man.

I started to realize I was explicitly transfeminine because of my friend Angela. Sadly, I only speak to Angela slightly more often than Kristy and Martin. However, there was a time where our emotional connection was one of the most intimate I’d ever shared in my life. We used to work together the first time I lived in New York. When I had to move back home for the first time, we carried on a substantial e-mail and Twitter correspondence. She’s an extraordinary photographer and video editor (and another gender non-conforming artsy queer).

The first time Angela and I hung out, we had an hour long conversation about the indie film Conversations with Other Women. Our chat was in the basement of the Music Hall of Williamsburg. The Boxer Rebellion was headlining that night. Angela kept telling me I was a heartbreaker in my leather jacket; it only occurred to me years later that she was flirting with me and not giving me a hard time. I remember Angela getting in trouble with security during the concert. She was trying to film some of it on her DSLR. She wasn’t recording it for profit… just to practice her video editing. Security made her erase the footage. Afterward, we waited for one of those brutally late L trains and talked about Charlie Chaplin and British folk singer Ben Howard and the Steve Buscemi/Sienna Miller vehicle, Interview.

Angela and I developed a mutually acknowledged, romantic and intellectual attraction that mutually ended at acknowledgement because of physical distance and emotional baggage from our mutual histories of emotionally exploitative relationships. Angela is queer but dates women almost exclusively. I don’t want to detail her sexuality too intimately, but it’s easy to understand how someone can find men sexually and even emotionally attractive while understanding that the vast, overwhelming majority of them are incapable of managing the labor and vulnerability required for an actual emotional relationship.

Angela and I have known each other for years now. We’re both depressives and we both struggle to maintain relationships. We check in on each other when we can. We send stray gifs from Bringing Up Baby to one another. We make sure the other is doing alright. We’re both doing so much better than we had been when we first met all of those years ago.

However, up until I realized I was trans, it never once occurred to me to ask — in the novel’s worth of e-mails Angela and I had written to each other — why I was connecting with this homoflexible woman with an immediacy and an intimacy that I had never shared with a cishet woman.

After Martin and Kristy, Angela was the next person I came out to as nonbinary trans. I needed her to know because she had seen the things in me that I hadn’t understood before Kristy and Martin expanded the horizons of my deeply gendered language. I realized that I wasn’t a special man that had slipped past her barriers. This wasn’t Chasing Amy. I realized I wasn’t a man at all, and she had known even before either of us had the words to say it.

Suddenly, the problems I’d had dating straight women my whole life unfurled before me. I was never the man my cishet girlfriends wanted because I wasn’t a man. I’ve been in my share of emotionally abusive romantic relationships, but even with the selfless and generous partners, my femininity made a sexual relationship impossible. Something always felt off even when there was no tension in the relationship. But, to Angela, my womanhood was what drew her to me. Everything that she had ever made known that she found attractive about me were my most explicitly feminine features.

I had to love a woman who liked women more than men to realize where my heart had always been and how I had always wanted to be. I had to let Angela know how much I appreciated her understanding me better than I ever had on my own.

After I wrote that letter to Angela, I saw every relationship I’d ever been in and every woman I’d ever dated in a different light. I went from being confused about why I would go years between relationships that ended like a flip had switched after a couple of months of misguided passion to knowing I was dating women who were looking for something fundamentally different from everything I could ultimately offer. I finally dropped the self-pity I had carried around for years and replaced it with a tragic sympathy for the women who knew things weren’t working but didn’t want to hurt me cause I hadn’t hurt them. I was just so obviously, almost comically not a dude.

My mom asks me all the time why I don’t ask out such and such woman in my life. I tell here that there are plenty of reasons I don’t. We work together. We know each other through school. We have some other professional connection. But the one that she doesn’t seem to get is when I tell her I can’t ask this person out because they’re straight and therefore I’m not even an option. She can’t seem to grasp how differently straight women have always seen me when it comes to sex.

Kristy and Martin handed me the codes to a world where I could acknowledge, reject, and combat the patriarchy and its deeply socialized internal manifestations. Angela helped me accept the most endearing and lovable parts of me were the parts that were most like a woman, and then Sense8 reshaped the frontiers of what gender and sex meant to me one more time. I finished an episode of that show and felt like I had reached a major crossroads in my life. I knew something I had been dancing around my whole life and how much I wanted that thing and why I had never been able to have it. I saw something I had never seen before and knew it was the thing I had always been missing.

From the series’ pilot on, Nomi and Amanita felt like the TV relationship I’d always needed to see. Amanita defended Nomi in the park from TERFs and I spent twenty minutes crying later that evening. I start crying any time they’re both on screen. I cry because it took seeing Nomi in this sort of genre spectacle for me to finally realize what I had wanted in a relationship and what I had never been able to have because I was forced to go around, pretending I was a boy and then a man. I’ve never wanted to be someone’s boyfriend. I’ve never related with that role men are expected to play in a relationship. I saw Nomi and Amanita and saw two girlfriends who cared deeply for each other, who would give anything for each other, who were capable of total, public affection with one another, and I realized I had never been someone’s proper boyfriend because I had always wanted to be their girlfriend.

I’m not a trans woman. I think about that distinction a lot. I think it’s logical for a femme nb male to consider. Seeing Jamie Clayton on Sense8 has made me consider it even more. But, at the end of the day, it’s not a label that I feel comfortable appropriating from trans women because our struggles seem different in fundamental ways. But, when I navigate the relationships that mean the most to me, I have always wanted to navigate them the way the women I love and respect do. I want to talk to women that way. I want to talk to men that way. I want to be that open and vulnerable and tough. Men are never encouraged and are very rarely allowed to walk that path. I know that I want to wear makeup and more feminine clothing. I want to make my external presentation of gender as fundamentally unrecognizable from a man’s as I’m beginning to feel free with my internal conceptualization of gender. And maybe someday I might realize that I’ve been a woman all along, but I don’t think that’s where I’m at now.

The one thing I do know is that I would have never gotten this far if it weren’t for Kristy and Martin and Angela and Nomi and Amanita.

Merry Christmas and a happy “burn the patriarchy and capitalism to the fucking ground” New Year.