By Alex Bertie
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A brave firsthand account of online personality Alex Bertie’s life, struggles, and victories as a transgender teen, as well as a groundbreaking guide for transitioning teens.
Long before he became known for his YouTube videos, Alex Bertie was an isolated, often-afraid transgender teenager looking for answers. In this revolutionary memoir and valuable resource, Alex recounts his life, struggles, and victories as a young trans man. Along the way, he provides readers with accessible, highly researched explanations of gender, sexuality, and transitions. He explores without judgment how complicated all these things can be, and how many equally authentic ways there are to live as yourself and find happiness.
It can be hard for questioning teens to believe in a brighter future, let alone find any sense of community. Here, with clarity and compassion, Alex writes as a supportive older brother for transitioning teens, their allies, their parents, and anyone looking to better understand others — and themselves.
It’s like someone has Frankensteined my head onto a hideous alien body.
I’m not good at first impressions, but screw it: here we go. My name’s Alex Bertie. I like pugs, doughnuts, and retro video games. I have tattoos, I make YouTube videos, and I sleep with my socks on.
I’m also transgender. Yeah, that’s usually the part that throws people. I was categorized as a girl at birth and identified as female until I was fifteen, when I finally realized I was a transgender man. That makes it sound like I suddenly had some light bulb moment, though. In reality, coming to grips with my identity meant years of confusion and self-hate, both before I came out as trans and after. In order to make myself feel more comfortable in my body, I decided to transition from female to male. This was a physical process (such as seeking hormone replacement and having surgery) and also a social one (I told my friends and family, and changed my name, for example).
The center of all my problems as a trans person is body dysphoria. It’s the whole reason I needed to transition. Dysphoria is the feeling that the body I was born with does not match the gender identity in my head. Everyone has different triggers for dysphoria, but the main ones for me were my chest, genitalia, lack of body hair, high voice, face/body shape, and hearing my old name, just to name a few. If you’ve never experienced dysphoria, you might think, “Hey, nobody’s 100 percent happy with their body—can’t you just deal with it? Why are you being so dramatic?” But dysphoria is so much more than disliking a part of my body. It’s this unbearable feeling of self-hate in the back of my brain at all times, which I desperately try to suppress and pacify. Sometimes it’s fine, safely tucked away in a corner of my mind. Then something triggers it and it punches me in the face. Suddenly all I can think about is this thing about myself that isn’t right.
At times, I have felt repulsed by my own skin.
And that’s the problem: it’s my own skin. I can’t get out of it, I’m stuck there.
I realize that may sound depressing and dark, but I assure you my story is also full of some delightful and pretty ridiculous memories. I’d like to show you that while I’ve faced some difficult challenges, I’m now the happiest I’ve ever been. While I can’t get out of my skin, I have been able to make some big changes. Over the last six years, I’ve told my family and friends about my trans identity, changed my name, battled the health care system, started taking male hormones, and had surgery on my chest. It hasn’t been an easy ride, but to wake up now feeling more comfortable with my body is a true blessing. I’d be lying if I said that my transliness (sometimes you just need a noun for being trans; I’ve chosen to use “transliness”) wasn’t a huge deal or that it didn’t matter, because that one segment of my identity has played a huge part in shaping who I am as a person. It’s also become a more public part of me than I ever imagined. Throughout all these years of self-discovery, I’ve been uploading videos about my life to YouTube. My channel has gained a bigger following than I ever imagined, and it’s become my passion to share my transition story. Nothing will ever beat the feeling I get when I’m approached by someone saying my videos have helped them.
But other than the surreal YouTube life I experience once in a while, I’m just a regular dude working a nine-to-five job, trying to live my life as happily as possible.
I’m not really a writer, but I have had some different experiences that I’d really like the world to know about. It’s the information you won’t find on TV shows or in news articles about trans people—it’s the real stuff. The emotions, the practicalities, the self-doubt… the stuff they can’t cram into sixty minutes and that doesn’t create a provocative headline. This is the first time I’ve ever put out my story from start to finish, and I’ve done it because I felt it was really important for there to be a book about a transgender man’s true experiences.
LET’S GET SOME THINGS STRAIGHT
Your gender is how you feel in your head, as opposed to what’s between your legs.
I wanted to explain the difference between sex, identity, and expression right away because I feel like knowing these things brings you a little closer to understanding why not every person born with a penis is a man or why not everyone born with a vagina is a woman. I’m not a professional, so I can’t guarantee that this is going to be 100 percent accurate, but I’ll try to make it short, useful, and understandable!
This is how the doctors categorize you when you pop out of the womb. Based on science and anatomy, it depends on which sex organs (both internal and external) you have at birth. A person born with a penis is labeled male, and a person with a vagina is labeled female.
So male and female: that’s it, right? Nope—intersex is a thing! It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t mention intersex identities here. Intersex describes a person who doesn’t fit into either “male” or “female” definitions of biological sex. An intersex person might be born with sex organs that are more ambiguous, such as an enlarged clitoris, no vaginal opening, or a split scrotum. The list of variations is endless. It’s not all external—some people live their whole lives not knowing they have internal organs that don’t correspond with their outer organs. In most countries, a doctor basically chooses the person’s biological sex based on how “typically male” or “typically female” their sexual organs, hormones, and chromosomes are when this situation arises. However, some countries, such as Germany, have an intersex option on birth certificates so people are not incorrectly categorized as definitively male or female. That matters, because the biological sex you are assigned at birth plays a huge role in how most people are raised.
Gender identity is different than biological sex. Your gender is how you feel in your head, as opposed to what’s between your legs. That means your gender identity can be different from your biological sex. For example, my biological sex is female, whereas my gender identity is that I’m a man. That’s why I’m described as transgender. On the flipside, someone whose biological sex is female and their gender identity is female is known as “cisgender.” That’s easy, right? Good!
Gender is a social construct—that is, the concept is created by humans and defined based on our social and cultural differences. Humans have divided genders by actions, appearances, mannerisms, interests, and so on. In Western culture, we tend to think that men are strong, blunt, and aggressive, whereas women are sensitive, thoughtful, and shy. These rigid, “traditional” stereotypes encourage people to believe that there are only two gender identities: male and female. That is the gender binary. But if you look around today’s society, people are breaking out of those stereotypes all the time. In recent years, people have begun to think of gender as more of a spectrum, with people not just falling on the “male” or “female” ends, but everywhere in between—and sometimes, nowhere on the spectrum at all.
Your gender expression is how you present yourself to other people, regardless of your biological sex or gender identity. It’s the way you act, dress, and so on. For a lot of people, their gender expression goes hand in hand with their gender identity, but I have some friends who dress in a very feminine way but feel their gender is more neutral. That’s totally okay, because they’re just doing what feels right for them. As a society, I think we’re taking big steps toward not caring how people express their genders: maybe one day, hair will just be hair and clothes will just be clothes, without assumptions of gender being attached to them.
My gender expression has always been very stereotypically masculine, but that wasn’t a conscious choice when I was growing up. I didn’t want to “dress like a boy”—they were just the clothes I felt comfortable in. Over time, as I became more aware of my gender identity, I steered clear of feminine clothes because they made me feel dysphoric. Not everyone gets the choice of having a “fuck it” attitude when it comes to what they wear or how they act. But everybody does get the choice to be respectful. If it’s not hurting anybody, what’s the issue?
Dudes wearing makeup or ladies not shaving their legs isn’t going to kill anybody.
This is who you’re attracted to, and it’s completely separate from gender identity. We’ve all heard the words gay, bisexual, and lesbian, but sexual orientations don’t stop there. There are all sorts of terms describing different preferences. For example, I identify as pansexual, which is pretty close to bisexual, but isn’t about being attracted to only men and women. I can be attracted to anybody, regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum. Other sexualities include being asexual (lacking sexual attraction to others) and demisexual (where the person doesn’t feel a sexual attraction unless there’s an emotional attraction there too), just to name a few. Take a look at the glossary at the back of the book for more!
When I first transitioned to male, people would get a little confused about my sexuality and even theirs. Once, my best guy friend (who’s actually straight) looked at me with confusion on his face and said to me completely out of the blue, “So… if we got together… would that be straight or gay?”
A huge belly laugh escaped from me before I could reply. “It would be pretty gay, mate. I’m a guy and you’re a guy.”
He started to respond, “But scientifically, you—”
I cut him off before he could finish, because I knew he was trying to talk about my genitals. I’m a man, and two men getting together is gay—it’s as simple as that. After a lighthearted lecture, my friend eventually got it.
Being trans has definitely tested my temper at times. I’ve had to hone the ability to look past questions that seem offensive to find the genuine curiosity behind them. A lot of the time, people don’t realize what they’re asking is rude, so I’ve had to become an expert at answering difficult questions while keeping my cool—but still letting the questioner know that they’ve hit on a touchy subject.
Okay, so after that primer, the basics are down. Let’s jump in!
As kids, nobody cared about who you were or what you wore.
I guess we should start at the beginning. I was born on November 2,1995 in the south of England. The doctors in the hospital took one look at my genitals and slapped an F on my birth certificate. F for female, not fail—though that would actually have been kind of appropriate given the present circumstances.
My earliest memories are of watching my dad play Nintendo 64 in our small apartment, waiting for my mum to get home from work. My dad introduced me to video games at a really young age with Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, until eventually I graduated to Grand Theft Auto when I was about nine. It’s probably not ideal for a nine-year-old to play games where they murder people, but luckily I don’t think I picked up on the more mature references in the game. Unless it was a scary game that would keep me up at night, I was usually allowed to play it.
At the time I was too young to notice, but the area I lived in until I was five was not a nice place. I can’t imagine the kind of person I’d be today if I had grown up there. Would I ever have had the confidence to transition?
It’s crazy to even think about, but where you grow up and other external influences really do play a role in how you turn out. Luckily, my parents moved us to a little rural village practically in the middle of nowhere. The neighborhood was safer, the house was bigger, and we even had our own garden. The best part was that the village was small, so most of my friends lived on the same street.
The closeness of village life meant that I’d always be on my bike with my friends or getting in trouble with them somewhere. I miss the days spent at the local park with my friends, running up and down the skate ramp, faster and faster until we were high enough to pull ourselves up to the top. We’d spend hours on that rickety old thing, talking about who knows what, thinking we were the shit. Sometimes we might find ourselves on the swings eating strawberry licorice, listening to the greatest hits 2006 had to offer while seeing who could jump off the highest.
Nothing particularly interesting ever happened in my little village, so when it did, you remembered it forever.
Like that one time my friend launched off the swing too high and sprained her ankle, or when a crappy tinfoil barbecue caught fire in the park after being stuffed behind a bench. That was a great day—we ended up in the front seats of a fire engine wearing big yellow helmets. Everything was so easy back then. As kids, nobody cared about who you were or what you wore.
From the moment I had the capacity to make my own decisions, I generally steered clear of anything pink, frilly, or sparkly. This took my grandparents far too long to realize, and I learned all about faking gratitude at Christmas pretty early on! However, picking out clothes was never really a big deal, and as a kid I’d wear stuff from both the boys’ and girls’ sections. I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a dress unless I had to, and I can only remember two occasions when I did: one time at my aunt’s wedding when I was seven… and at a school dance.
The dance was to celebrate graduating middle school when I was thirteen. I spent days searching in shops until I found the most boring long black dress I could. (Even thinking about it makes me cringe.) Trust me, a dress wasn’t my first choice—if I could have, I would have thrown on pants and a shirt. It was no secret that I was a massive tomboy, and the thought of everyone gawking at me because I wasn’t in my typical sweatpants-and-T-shirt ensemble was terrifying. But my parents were sure that if I did turn up in pants, I would get bullied. I felt so defeated knowing that people would have something to say no matter what I wore. At least by wearing the stupid dress, I’d make my parents happy.
On the night of the dance, I was literally pinned against the bathroom wall by my mum, who was desperately trying to put makeup on my face.
At first I let her do it out of curiosity—I’d never put makeup on before, and maybe I’d like it? NOPE. I didn’t even have to look at myself in a mirror to know that it made me feel so wrong. All I could think about was the weight of the makeup on my lips and the dark circles around my eyes. When I did finally look in the mirror, I saw my long hair and its signature part down the middle, but for once instead of a ponytail, it was awkwardly draped over my bony shoulders. In my opinion, most thirteen-year-olds who try to put on makeup look like three-foot-tall middle-aged women, and I was no different. I was a pale, gaunt figure with spiderlike mascara and brown lipstick: hot.
I felt confused and angry. I wasn’t angry at my mum for making me try it, but angry at myself for not enjoying getting dressed up, like I felt I was supposed to. Instead, I felt completely repulsed by my reflection, and I ran downstairs to scrub the mess off my face. I hopped into my dad’s car and was driven to the “dance.” I use the word lightly. In reality it was a dimly lit hall with a crappy DJ, a handful of jelly beans on each table, and teachers serving squash, a sugary fruit juice.
Apart from that night, my parents were really supportive of my fashion choices when I was growing up, as long as I was happy. They didn’t give in without trying, though. The last time we ever clashed on this was when I was picking out an outfit for my last day at school, when I was sixteen. The tradition for anyone on their last day was to not wear their school uniform but still dress formally. By this point, I had come to terms with the fact that I was trans and was beginning to gain confidence at presenting as more masculine, so there was no way I was wearing “girls’ clothes.”
I’m sure my parents didn’t expect me to wear a dress, but I think they were hoping I’d opt for a button-up blouse and some girls’ pants or something. I had other ideas. Most of my wardrobe comprised of guys’ clothes, but I didn’t have anything formal. When shopping with my family one day, I stopped in the men’s aisle and starting browsing for a shirt and tie. My dad didn’t like that idea, but I stood by the fact that I wouldn’t want anything else and that it didn’t matter to anyone but me. We rarely got into arguments, but on that day something just clicked within me that said, This is it. Stop trying to hide who you are. Looking back at the pictures of that final school day is so great because you can see how genuinely happy I was. Everyone wants to be able to look back at their last school pictures, so I love that I have some that I don’t feel uncomfortable looking at.
Sorry, Dad. The argument was worth it.
It wasn’t just clothes; from as young as six, I was referred to as a tomboy by my friends, teachers, and parents. My very best friend was named James, and for years we were inseparable on the playground. People probably thought I had a crush on him, but he was just my best friend. In fact, for most of my childhood I only managed to have one female friend. I don’t think that was a purposeful decision, I just got along better with guys because of our similar interests. This had its downsides, though—some hobbies were gender-specific, like football or Scouts. I wanted to be in Scouts so bad; I remember being green with envy at all my friends coming into school after their camping trips with stories and jokes I couldn’t understand.
I guess to some people that seems like an obvious early sign that I wasn’t happy with my gender, but that’s a huge misconception. I don’t think I was even aware of a divide between “girl” and “boy” stuff when I was young: my parents thankfully let me pick whatever I wanted and didn’t make a big deal out of some things “only being for boys.”
I know some trans guys who grew up in environments where female gender roles were really harshly enforced. They’d be stuck with dresses, dolls, makeup, and pink everything. But guess what? They still ended up transitioning to male. These kinds of stories are hard for a lot of trans guys to admit I think, because they don’t want their childhoods to invalidate their identities, but they show that
gender identity is so deep in our core that no amount of conditioning will change it.
As much as I’d like my childhood to have been less clichéd, I can’t help the fact that I wore “boys’ clothes” and played with “boys’ toys.” I naturally went toward action figures, cars, Lego, and crafty stuff—although if I’m being completely honest, I have to admit that yes, Alex Bertie did have his fair share of Barbie dolls at one point.
The birth of my sister, Hollie, when I was six was a great yet very weird thing for me and everyone else in my family. Weird in the sense that Hollie grew up consistently being a “girly girl.” Seeing her so at ease with femininity and her body was hard to watch because we were brought up in the same way. This proves that it wasn’t how I was raised that led to me transitioning, but at the time it only added to my gender confusion. It was difficult for my mum too, as she’d never had to deal with anyone borrowing her makeup or clothes before—I was more interested in trying on my dad’s vests and shoes! Hollie and I have never really been inseparable like other “sisters” can be, and I’m not sure if that’s because of the large age gap between us or because of how different our interests are. I was never there to give her fashion advice or teach her how to use makeup—instead we wrestled and played video games.
Until I was about eleven, I didn’t have any concept of gender dysphoria and certainly had no idea what being transgender meant. But I think if I had been exposed to these terms earlier, I definitely would have identified with them. At that early stage I wasn’t analyzing my passing thoughts, like the envy I felt toward my male peers or why my interests were so different from those of other girls. Instead, I was just me. My only real concern in life was what I was going to watch on TV when I got home from school.
When I look back at my younger years, I’m pretty sure I was fairly content.
The pictures from when I was two years old are pretty funny, because in some I look like a little boy. There are pictures of me standing in my crib with short blond hair spiking out in every direction, and similar ones at the beach. Pictures of my childhood where I look more androgynous make me happy—not because I’m ashamed of any previous femininity, but because I feel like those images connect with who I am now. It’s easy to look back and feel like I missed out on a “male childhood,” but I’ve come to terms with the fact that it is what it is and at the time, I was happy.
I’ve seen stories online of kids coming to terms with their trans identities at really young ages, with the support of their parents, and I have mixed emotions about it. On one hand, it’s amazing that these kids (A) have support and (B) get to experience more of their lives identifying as their true selves. If I’d realized my identity early on, I could’ve gone on hormone blockers and stopped female puberty before it started, or felt more confident in school, sparing me from getting bullied relentlessly. But on the other hand, figuring it out sooner wouldn’t have made testosterone (T) or surgery happen sooner; those things have age restrictions and I couldn’t have started T until I was seventeen years old.
I don’t know what I would have preferred.
Discovering myself sooner would have meant I’d have been able to experience having a male childhood, as well as not needing chest surgery, thanks to hormone blockers. However, I still would’ve had to wait until I was seventeen to get hormones, so I would have spent way longer dealing with the dysphoria.
So maybe finding myself a little later in life was better for me. Although I missed out on some experiences, like my dad teaching me how to shave or going to Scouts, I was able to focus on being a happy, naive kid. Granted, I went through hell when I finally realized and eventually had to have a pretty invasive surgery to get rid of the “blessings” of female puberty… but still. I don’t think I could’ve dealt with that emotional pain as a child.
It’s actually pretty awkward talking about my childhood to people I meet now, especially if they don’t know I was assigned female at birth. There are certain things I have to leave out or vaguely gloss over, like how I never played rugby in school or that I took swimming classes with girls.
I think that’s one of the reasons I find it easier to come out as trans sooner rather than later to people I know I’m going to be spending a lot of time with. The last thing I want is to feel like I have to watch every word I say in case I out myself by accident, or end up lying about certain elements of my past to keep things a secret.
BECOMING A TEEN
I was an introverted, socially awkward fashion disaster.
Like most people, the beginning of my teenage years was absolutely horrible. I was an introverted, socially awkward fashion disaster. Seriously: if I could go back in time to any moment, I’d go back to the time I bought some boxing shoes and set them on fire. They weren’t a good look, Baby Alex!
"Bertie is an affable, conscientious, and informed guide who writes well and gives his readers an invaluable, potentially life-changing and -saving book. It is highly recommended."—Booklist, starred review
"Blending autobiography and guidebook...Bertie serves as a relatable narrator who encourages his readers to do what they 'need to do to be happy' without ignoring the barriers they may face."—Publishers Weekly
"The writing is lively and personal. The advice given is not preachy but rather practical and down-to-earth."—The School Librarian
"Personal, straightforward, and upbeat.... An accessible, hopeful road map for youth in transition and their friends, families, and communities."
—School Library Journal
"Making both writer and narrator debuts (who else could voice his story so well?), Bertie shares his coming out with unflinching honesty, raw vulnerability, and affectingly gentle humor."
—Booklist, review of audio edition
- On Sale
- May 14, 2019
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers