nicole ai portrait

I used to float, now I just fall down
I used to know, but I’m not sure now
What I was made for
What was I made for?

– Billie Eilish

Today, I spent the day driving around the roads outside of Denver, kind of aimlessly. It was an excuse to listen to the audiobook of “Inverse Cowgirl” by Alicia Roth Weigel, a woman born with XY chromosomes and complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS). I am fascinated with biology, specifically human embryology, and more specifically, human sexual differentiation in utero. You can probably imagine why: I spend a lot of time thinking about, wondering about, and hoping to find some reason that I am the way I am. Arguably, I’m also a kind of intersex person: I was born with what I can only describe as a female brain in a male body.

All humans start off as intersex. Until seven weeks’ development, we have both female and male anatomical parts. What are called “primordial germ cells” migrate into our abdomens and form undifferentiated gonadal streaks. We have a common genital ridge which, left to its own devices, would form a vagina. Müllerian ducts that would become fallopian tubes, uterus and cervix. The gonadal streaks can become either ovaries or testes. Wolffian ducts can become prostate and seminal vesicles. Labia majora and scrotum are the same tissues, as are clitoris and penis.

Then, at seven weeks’ gestation, genes on the Y chromosome which code for specific proteins become active in embryos with that chromosome. These proteins, in turn, form anti-Müllerian hormone. They obliterate the part of the gonadal streaks which would form ovarian tissue, as well as the Müllerian ducts. From that point forward, the embryo develops as a male child, except in certain rare circumstances. In Alicia’s case, she is quite literally molecularly immune to testosterone, so while the AMH obliterated her female reproductive system and gave rise to testes, the testosterone could not affect the rest of her systems. She was born with a vagina and grew up with female secondary sex characteristics.

We still don’t know what causes trans people to be trans. In some cases, it may be another type of hormonal intersex condition, in my case, I suspect a condition which causes my body to be extremely efficient at converting estradiol to estrone. In utero, exposure to my mother’s natural estradiol may have enabled my body to sequester large reserves of estrone, feminizing my brain. Blood tests seem to bear this out. Or, it could be something else.

In any case, when Alicia was born having had an amniocentesis test saying she would be a boy, and popped out with a vagina, everyone was surprised. Doctors advised removing her testes from her abdomen at an early age. Thus, she was sterilized before the age of one, never given the chance to have biological children of her own.

I never had children, either. First, I thought, by mutual choice with my ex-wife, although now I understand that my desire not to have kids was really a desire not to be a dad. I wish I could have been a mother. When I underwent bottom surgery to help alleviate dysphoria about my anatomy (dysphoria I’ve had since at least the age of two), I was also sterilized, but by my own choice. I didn’t want those things in me any more, making a hormone I do not need or want.

Listening to Alicia describe her sex life in her 20s made me so sad. I mean, good for her, but I felt this deep jealousy. I didn’t have sex until I was 26. I’ve only ever been with two people. I was so ashamed of my body. Transition helped, but now I’m ashamed of my transness, specifically my inability to bear children and the fear of being hurt by a partner who may think of me as “less than” or low status. Or be embarrassed by something about me.

I found myself listening to Alicia read her book, and yearning to have been a pretty blonde girl in my 20s, attractive to guys my own age (now, it seems like the only people interested in me are either men 20 years older than me, or 20 years younger than me. Or men who fetishize me. In many cases, both.)

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, which I will spend alone. I am incapable of producing a family with my body. I feel barren and wasted, old and alone. The men I’m attracted to aren’t attracted to me, and I’m not attracted to the men who are. It reminds me of something a girl once said to me in junior high, totally apropos of nothing (or maybe she knew): “Girls don’t like Nick because Nick doesn’t like girls.”

Quantum Polynomial Unicorn Sparkles

“I’ve been tryna give it to you all night
What’s it gonna take to get you all alone?
I just want you here by my side
I don’t wanna be here, baby, on my own”

– Kim Petras, “Alone”

Last night, I went to the Kim Petras “Feed The Beast” show at the Fillmore Auditorium on Colfax in the heart of Denver’s gay district. Probably 75% of the audience were very cute gay men, and the other 25% were a mix of cis women, trans women, drag queens in full regalia, and a couple trans guys.

I always feel like a space alien at these types of events. I spent the vast majority of my life pointedly avoiding anything that was remotely queer-coded. I was afraid of the community for the same reason I was afraid of putting on women’s clothes or doing my makeup or painting my nails: Because it felt like an indulgence. A permission-granting exercise from which there would be no coming back. I suspect that same fear is a large part of what keeps so many others closeted, and doesn’t allow many queer-spectrum people to explore parts of their own identities and sexualities.

That room was full of joy and queerness. Acceptance and love and passion and gaiety. Singing, dancing, grinding, kissing, hugging, sweating, waving fans at each other, sharing drinks and vapes and selfies. Shouting along at the top of our collective lungs, hands in the air:

“King of hearts
You gon’ keep on playin’ ’til you go too far
No one in the world could ever be enough for your love
Baby, you keep on playin’, oh, baby, c’mon, ah, ah”

I try to make smalltalk with the kids standing in line behind me in the cold, waiting to get in before the show. I’m probably 25 years older than them. My makeup artist had to cancel my session so I did my own makeup, which I’m terrible at. They all have immaculate drag makeup on. After eight straight hours of zoom meetings at work, I barely had energy for mascara, rainbow metallic lipstick and blue glittery sparkle tears that I put on with my finger in the car, parked on Downing and 14th. We’re talking about what everyone went as for halloween, and I show them my Troye Sivan costume. One of the guys says, “Ooooh cute! Masc for masc” and my heart tries to break for a half second.

Girl, please. I’m in a form-fitting zip-up jumpsuit with my tits out. Yeah I’m not as effeminate as 80% of the boys here, but I’m still undoing decades of suppression and trauma. Anyways, I was cute too.

In the moments between smalltalk and songs, I hit my vape and think about why I have a hard time talking to people. It’s the shame. And the my brain is full of thoughts about OAuth and SAML, the threat that quantum computing poses to traditional cryptosystems, and how to anchor trust in a massively distributed world. Five percent is taken up by knowledge of fashion, hair, makeup and miscellaneous other of life’s most important concerns. So I observe.

I look at how people greet each other, eyes wide, arms offered forward in an invitation to embrace. Couples kissing. Groups exchanging deets. Facial expressions and body language that I can’t even imagine how I would start to make my muscles try to replicate. Hands in my pockets. Look at phone, hit vape, open snapchat and take selfie.

Think about how I’m 25 years older than everyone else.

Get asked by a sweet queen if I’m going to Charlie’s afterwards, I say yes, he says he’ll buy me a drink. I’m his favorite person because I let him hit my vape.

I walk back to my car alone. I don’t have the energy for Charlie’s.

But let me tell you, what I discovered in that room is that everyone has an inner unicorn. Life is better with glitter and sparkles. We all only have one life, so be gay. Do crimes. Grind on the dancefloor. Some day I’ll go to Charlie’s.