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.”

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