On Coming: From Anonymous Sex Into the Right Body

Eventually I landed in the hospital with a "fever of unknown origin" (FUO, the doctors called it), which lingered over 105 degrees for a week and kept me shivering under an electric cold blanket, hallucinating all the while. The following week I was right back at it, having anonymous sex as soon as I was discharged -- until, sure enough, I returned to the hospital with another FUO. This time I was worried, and alone: my boss from the theater where I had started working straight out of college didn't come to visit, as she had the first time. I was trying people's patience; things could only get worse.

And then what movie aired on TV as I lay in my hospital bed but Philadelphia, in which Tom Hanks plays a lawyer who's fired for being gay and ultimately dies of AIDS.

"Okay, God," I said. "I'll stop."

But of course I didn't. I am an addict.

I acted out for ever more potent highs with, paradoxically, ever more debasing behavior, so that demoralization imbued whatever self-worth I had left, until I saw myself as deserving nothing more. I began to believe what I believed other people believed about me.

*

Years and years into the cycle, reprieve would come at last in the form of recovery meetings. I needed to show up in the rooms to stay abstinent, not from sex altogether, but rather from the addictive behaviors that made my life unmanageable: phone sex, cybersex and pornography, in addition to the anonymous sex -- all forms of sexual activity which were, for me, attempts to rub out the unease of being in the wrong body through forms of self-effacement.

The root of the problem was that I did not want to be in a male body; I never had. Anonymous sex provided an avenue for assuming the role in which I was comfortable, while covering up the longings I felt inside, if only for as long as I acted out. Since the sex was over before it began, and I never knew my partners, the underbelly of my gender dissipated upon expression. Thus I sought to suppress myself under the illusion of control.

But denial only exacerbated the discrepancy between my reality and my potential. The mirror of life followed me everywhere, and the shame in which addiction coated me obscured the reflections I saw.

Impulsion distorted any sense of self-worth, which worsened the disgrace of being unable to control my addiction. After engaging in behavior that I'd promised last time I would never do again, here I was doing the same thing once more -- again, and again, and again and again -- and again.

I ventured further into the abyss each time I acted out. Yesterday's rush fell short of what I needed today -- riskier danger, steeper precipices and more, always more. There was never enough of anything because my addiction craved annihilation above all else. Every letdown fanned the flames of the hell that life became when I acted out.

And yet I sought even more.

I wanted to stop. I promised myself I would stop.

I could not stop.

*

By the time I crawled on my hands and knees into recovery, I was a shell of a human being; I knew that I would not survive unless I got help. The nearest fellowship for sex addicts was in San Francisco, 90 miles away from where I was living at the time -- so I drove for two hours and attended my first meeting.

A man who would become a friend came up to me afterward and asked me how I felt. I told him and he responded that he could relate.

"Keep coming back," he said.

And so I did.

Still, months upon months passed until I introduced myself as Zoe in a meeting for the first time. Once I said my name, all the fears that were stifling me drowned in a roomful of applause.

*

Years later, after sex change surgery, nothing could gloss away how I wanted to have sex in the right body for the first time and was going a little crazy over the prospect. I wanted it to be special.

I searched and searched, and tried and tried. All to no avail, of course; I was searching and trying too hard.

Plus, dating straight men was just... different. And, to add to the mix, because I was now practicing sexual sobriety, the glare of everything was brighter.

Then one day an e-mail out came out of serendipity from Robert, a skinny Guyanese man with breathtaking eyes whom I had fallen in love and been boyfriends with, when I was male-bodied, a decade before.

We had dinner together and eventually found ourselves lounging around in my apartment with the lights down.

"Rob," I said, "will you do me a favor?"

This blog post is excerpted and adapted from my book There Is Room for You: Tales From a Transgender Defender's Heart.