Memoir: after years in denial, I finally worked up the courage to switch genders
In my earliest memory, I am four and it’s bath time. I see my brother’s penis and turn to my mother to ask where mine is. She laughs the question off as normal kid stuff. But I am legitimately confused, and in that bathtub, I realize for the first time that my body and my mind are not aligned.
I grew up in a tiny village in Portugal where men were men and women were women, in the traditional sense. If I tried to play farmer with the boys, I was told to play dolls with the girls. My name was Lilia and physically I was female, but every time someone called me a “she” I felt like they were looking through me. I was granted respite a few times each year on village festival days when the streets teemed with families and I was allowed to run freely. Once, wearing my most androgynous clothes, I approached a little girl, and with one look she took me for a boy. We played as boy and girl the entire day; at one point I even stood facing a wall pretending to pee. It was the first time I’d ever experienced “passing,” and it was like every Christmas wish I’d ever made was granted to me in a single instant.
Most of the time, though, I preferred to play at home by myself. I found solace in music. Songs like “Eleanor Rigby” conjured vivid dream worlds where I could escape my confusion. When I was 10, my family moved to Canada, and, seeking a fresh start, I forced myself to forget about being a boy and tried to live as a girl.
I spent my teens writing songs and performing in small clubs. When I was 17, I came out as a lesbian. I liked girls, and I figured I’d take on a label people could understand. But I cringed whenever I was described as a “lesbian singer-songwriter.” That identity didn’t sit right with me. Still, it was the late ’80s, and the only trans person I’d ever heard of was Brandon Teena, whose tragic story would later inspire the film Boys Don’t Cry. Fear suppressed any notions I had of being male.
Years later, I befriended a trans man. I was fascinated by the way he moved, gestured and presented as male. My yearning to be male was so repressed that, at first, I couldn’t identify the emotion he stirred in me—it was envy. A year after we met, I discovered he was having an affair with my girlfriend. It broke me open and was the final push I needed. It was 2005, I was 32 years old, and I started introducing myself as Lucas.
For the first time, I bound my breasts. Clothes finally fit the way I wanted them to and I felt sexier than ever before. After a year, I decided to make the change permanent—to have top surgery, a double mastectomy. The move shocked my family and friends, but removing physically female traits didn’t seem extreme to me. It gave me ownership of my body.
Meanwhile, I’d formed a rock band, The Cliks. As the lead singer I was openly trans, and it seemed that the mainstream was finally accepting queer culture. After only a year we were signed by a major label and sent on tour with Cyndi Lauper. Being onstage every night opened my eyes to the reality that despite my name, the clothes I wore and my insistence that I was male, I wasn’t passing. I had to start taking testosterone.
One of the main side effects of male hormones is increased muscle mass. Singing requires finely honed control over the throat muscles, and if T caused them to grow too quickly, I could be robbed of my voice. I had to decide what would be worse: not feeling like a man for the rest of my life, or being a man but never being able to sing again. The question paralyzed me for five years.
In 2009, with The Cliks on hiatus, I decided it was worth the risk and started on a low dosage of testosterone, upping it gradually and working with a vocal coach. As the hormones took effect, my register dropped and my voice cracked like a pubescent boy’s. Then I lost my falsetto, a side effect I’d been afraid of. When I tried to hit the notes, the sound that came out was less than a whisper. I kept writing songs that stretched my range, challenging myself. Two years later, I got my “woo-hoo” top notes back.
Other parts of my physiology changed too: my curvy hips disappeared and the fat went to my belly. But the most drastic change was to my libido. Suddenly, my sexual urges became unbelievably distracting. I thought about sex constantly and understood why teenage guys acted like idiots. Only in my case, I was going through puberty while on the cusp of middle age.
I write different music now. When I was female, I played hard rock because it felt masculine. Now that I look male, sound male and am male, I’m writing and performing the music that I’ve always loved the most, soul and R&B.
I’ve opted not to have bottom surgery—I don’t see it as a crucial part of being male. T is doing the job for me, and I’ll have to take the hormones for the rest of my life. The moment I stop, my masculine traits will disappear. Moving backwards is not an option for me. Who I am now, and who I’m becoming, physically and mentally, is who I was always meant to be. This is my normal.
Lucas Silveira is the frontman for The Cliks. The band released its latest album, Black Tie Elevator, in April.
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