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On Becoming Lucy Sante

On February 15, 2021, I downloaded the application called FaceApp to my phone, just for a laugh. I’d had a new phone for a few months, and I was curious. Although the app allowed users to change age, shape, or hairstyle, I was, specifically and exclusively, interested in the gender-swap function. I fed in a mug-shot-style selfie and in return got something that didn’t displease me: a picture of an attractive woman in whose face my features were discernible. Changing genders was a strange and electric idea that had lived somewhere in the recesses of my mind for the better part of my 67 years. But I had seldom allowed myself such a graphic self-depiction; over the years I had occasionally drawn pictures and altered photographs to visualize myself as a woman but had always immediately destroyed the results. And yet I didn’t delete that cyber-image. Instead, over the next week or so I hunted down and fed in every image of myself I possessed, beginning at about age 12: snapshots, ID card pictures, studio portraits, book jacket photos, social media pictures. The effect was seismic. I could now see, laid out before me on my screen, the panorama of my life as a girl, from giggling preteen to last year’s matron. I had always hated seeing pictures of myself, but these made every kind of sense. My desire to live as a woman, I could now see, was a coherent phenomenon, consistently just under the surface of my nominal life for all those decades, despite my best efforts to pretend it wasn’t there.

After that, something took over, a wave of pure momentum that persists even now, on good days overriding my always-crippling self-consciousness. Whatever that force might be—very likely the tectonic power of something long confined that is suddenly released—it converted insight into imperative. My cover with myself had been blown, and I had no choice but to take action. The last two weeks of February are a blur in my mind because so much was going on inside me that I couldn’t keep track. I was about to make a radical break with my previous existence, but I have no way to reconstruct just how I proceeded to its execution. All I can remember for sure is driving 300 miles from my home in Ulster County, New York, to Utica and back for my first COVID vaccine—appointments were hard to find in those early days—trying all the while to decide whether to hit the mall in Albany in search of a wig store. Tired of the drive and a bit fearful, I went straight home, but I came out to my therapist the following day.

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Trembling but resolute, I told Dr. G at our weekly Zoom session that I had always wanted to be a woman and now felt it urgent that I take the necessary steps. Dr. G had consistently maintained an imperturbable nothing-human-is-alien-to-me equanimity, but I was nevertheless stunned by her quick and unsurprised assent. “It makes sense,” she told me. “It sounds like a good idea.” In the four or five years I’d been seeing her, I had never broached any mention of gender. My inner omertà relegated all such thoughts to the deepest, darkest corners, guarded by dragons. I’d seen therapists for nearly 40 years by then, but only one previous practitioner had ever come close to breaking the silence. Around 1991, Dr. P got me to admit that I had tried on my mother’s dresses and undergarments in early adolescence, although we never got a chance to explore the ramifications. Not long after I made that admission, Dr. P died of a massive heart attack 20 minutes after I left his office. My relationships with therapists had been checkered before and after—one tried to convert me to New Age spirituality; one spent most sessions talking about herself; one admitted that her expertise was in child psychology—and I never fully trusted another until I began seeing Dr. G.

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