“If I win this race, I’m going to get you a pink, frilly dress for your birthday!” he taunted me right as our Mario Kart race began. I was ten years old and it was a month before my February birthday. My brother was trying to psych me out by trying to humiliate me. He needed to because I was always the better gamer out of the two of us, despite my being on the bottom side of our five and half year age gap. Normally I ignored his blithering and concentrated on winning whatever game we were playing at the time, but this time he got to me. I now know myself to be a transgender woman but back then I was a scared little child with a huge secret. Would he really get me a dress, I thought to myself as I careened around the course. I even remember the course we were racing on. It was the first haunted house level in the original Super Mario Kart. I ended up badly losing the race but internally I considered it a win and I was gagging with excitement to get my hands on a gorgeous pink dress…

My brother and I have always had an interesting relationship. If yin and yang could manifest into a set of siblings, that would be my brother and I. Growing up though, the two of us did not appear that different from each other, we both liked swimming in our small pond, we both liked fishing with dad, both played soccer. He and I used to play an improvised game of wiffle ball in our backyard, we would play it for hours on end. In the harsh upstate New England winters, we would mostly stay inside playing Nintendo to occupy our time, though an occasional sledding adventure was definitely had. All of this having been said, in the case of my brother and I, appearances can be deceiving.

My brother started listening to Rush Limbaugh in high school, and I bet you could guess what his political stances look like today. I, on the other hand, ended up pretty far to the left of center politically. We’ve raged over Facebook about everything from elections to gun control and I bet our friends on there are way past the eye-roll stage at this point.

My brother loves fishing to this day, whereas I’ve fallen out of love with the pastime. He loved fishing so much that he goes fishing for a living, an endeavor that still makes me proud to be his sibling. He also loves hunting, which I have always hated. My dad used to take me hunting and I detested every minute of it. He finally figured out that he should stop taking me when I let an eight point whitetail buck walk right under my tree stand and away because I didn’t feel like dragging his heavy ass out of the woods. What a relief it was to me the day my dad finally stopped asking me to brave the freezing cold to sit in the woods for hours!

I looked up to my brother growing up. He had the advantage of being older and having more developed skills in everything we ever did together (except for Nintendo). He looked out for me and held me responsible. I got so mad when he reported me to a summer program director for stealing candy from a convenience store (my accomplice in that act is now an NYPD cop, ha!). But thankfully I learned my lesson from that incident and never stole anything again in my life.

One day I had found a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog under his bed. (We were classy enough, ok?!) I honestly had no idea why he had something like that. Maybe he was intrigued by women’s clothes like I was? No it couldn’t be that, he had never said anything about that before and didn’t seem like he would be into that? Looking back on it now, I was laughably ignorant. I took that catalog though and spent hours thumbing through it, imagining how each item would feel and look on me. It was heaven.

My eleventh birthday fast approached and my excitement grew literally by the hour as the day came closer and closer. My brother hadn’t brought up the dress again but I just assumed he had explained his little joke to my mom and that she would be okay with it. This was my chance, I thought. They could see that the dress actually made me very happy and my life would finally change in ways I had only dared to dream before. I didn’t know that it was possible to transition genders back then but I just knew that if I got that dress, things would get better for me, they would just have to.

My actual birthday was on a weekday and my party would be the following weekend so we had a small family celebration with gifts during the midweek. I always got to choose my birthday meal and of course I chose pizza. While eating, I nervously eyed the presents, there was one that was definitely a clothes box and I eyed it with anticipation. I don’t remember now any of the other presents I got that birthday but I will never forget what was in that box. I slowly unwrapped the paper, my heart beating loud in my ears, my hands visibly shaking. As I turned up the lid of the box I saw it…

My mom and dad used to tell me a story about the time my brother saved my life. I was too young to remember this happening but the recounting went something like this: Our family was at a pool party at someone else’s house and I was probably of the age when I swam with floaties. Evidently there was supposed to be an adult or an older teenager watching the kids play in the pool, but he was distracted by something or someone. Suddenly I went under the water in a part of the pool that was too deep for me to stand in and keep my head above the water. No one noticed for a dangerous extra few seconds. I was probably thrashing around desperately underwater at this point but luckily someone was paying attention. The boy dove head first into the water and fished me out with his hands. It was my brother, he had been keeping an eye on me even when he wasn’t in the pool with me. I don’t properly remember the story well enough to know if they had to do CPR on me but the point is, I’m alive now and it’s at least partially thanks to my attentive big brother.

A couple of weeks after my eleventh birthday, my brother and I were again playing Super Mario Kart. It was battle mode, if I recall correctly. My brother was a little better at battle mode than racing mode on that game. I nervously fingered a button on my brand new green and blue flannel shirt, it had been a recent birthday present. I had been completely devastated when I opened it and I still wasn’t done shedding tears as I fell asleep from that gift at that point. It was just so wrong. I wasn’t supposed to get flannel shirts for my birthday. The round on the screen ended in my brother’s victory and I put my controller down suddenly as he looked at me confused. “H-how… can I ask you a question?” I asked him. He nodded. “I…” I gathered myself, holding back some tears. “I thought you said you were going to get me a dress for my birthday?”

His eyes eyes narrowed and then went wide as saucers and then narrowed again suspiciously. “You WANTED a dress, didn’t YOU?” he spat. I instantly regretted bringing it up, this is not how it was supposed to happen. I wanted the blue couch to turn into a blue dragon and swallow me whole. “You WANT a dress! Don’t you?” He was standing now, looking down at me menacingly. I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore and I cried my denials, my humiliation complete. “You’re SICK, you know that? You need a psychiatrist! You’re mentally ILL! You’re sick!” Each statement ripped a larger and larger hole in my heart successively. He then stormed off to his room, leaving me crying in his wake.

He was right, I remember thinking, I must be sick. I mean, if my big brother, the guy who could do anything and knew everything in my world said so, who was I to doubt him? If he thought I was mentally ill then how could I risk ever telling my mom and dad about my true feelings? I knew at that point that telling my family that I prayed every night to wake up a girl the next day was not ever going to happen.

I haven’t come out to my brother in my journey yet and in many ways he’s the scariest person yet to tell. After my parents pass away, it will just be the two of us. We at least will have to settle an estate together without incident. Will he accept me as his sister, or will he still look at me as someone who is mentally ill? I’m honestly not sure how my coming out will go with him even now. We’ve had a tumultuous relationship and we were practically estranged for years, though we’ve reconnected recently. If I could tell him anything right now, it would be that I love him and I forgive him for humiliating me and that I’m sorry that I wasn’t always there for him when he needed me. I would tell him how scared I am of his reaction to my being trans and how proud I am to be the sister of a hard working man like him. I love you big brother.

I can be reached by emailing katelynburnswrites@gmail.com or by following her on Twitter @closettransgirl. I love hearing from my readers so please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

Written by

Political journalist. The first openly trans Capitol Hill reporter in US history. Writing about more than just trans issues. Follow her on Twitter @transscribe

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