The internet is an incandescent sludge of information and toxicity, a vessel for boundless exploration and a minefield of odious rabbit holes. But despite what some may preach, no amount of Tumblr blogs or Twitter threads can turn a person trans.
“Sometimes you get like trolls on your social media and they’re like, ‘oh, the internet made you trans.’ I’m like, what internet? I hit puberty in Cedar Rapids in the ’80s,” said Madeline Trainor, Gen Xer and trans woman. “We’re talking ’85, MTV. So, Annie Lennox made me trans?”
She considered. “Well, that I guess certainly awakened something.”
Sure, Maddy used feminine usernames and avatars online long before embarking on life as an out trans woman in February 2021. But the proverbial trans train left the station long before she joined her first queer chatroom. What the internet provided an adult Madeline Trainor was words to put with long-felt feelings. Those words, in turn, became a 13-page autobiographical essay on gender, presented to her therapist last year to determine if Maddy qualified for gender-affirming care in the University of Iowa’s LGBTQ Clinic.
“My therapist cut me off at page seven. She’s like, ‘OK, well, when are you going to the clinic? This is gender dysphoria,’” Maddy said with a chuckle. “I’d been thinking about this for a long time — 30, 40 years at that point.”
Born on the East Coast, Maddy’s family moved to the Cedar Rapids area when she was 4 after her father, a Navyman who studied nuclear physics, got a job at the nuclear power plant in Palo, Iowa.
Maddy wouldn’t really know she was trans until adulthood, but she’d felt it all her life. Education on LGBTQ identities in middle America was practically nonexistent in the ’80s and ’90s, as was trans, nonbinary and genderfluid representation in mainstream media. There were few, if any, positive trans characters onscreen; you either got a homicidal Angela Baker in Sleepaway Camp, the tragic femme fatale Dil in The Crying Game, or a big joke, like Monty Python’s “The Lumberjack Song.”
Adults seemed to know all these unspoken rules about gender, and young Maddy would consistently find herself brushing up against them. She’d earn odd looks for asking to start the board game Life with a pink peg in her car piece, or wondering why she couldn’t join the Girl Scouts. She can remember seeing a Pepsi commercial when she was in middle school and identifying with its star: a precocious young actress about her age, flirting with a classmate by biting her lip.
“I tried this little lip-bite thing at school the next day and — ‘Don’t do that. Don’t bite your lip.’ I realized that I did a gender-coded thing. And I was told not to because ‘you can’t do that, you’re a boy,’” Maddy recalled. “It sticks with me, 30 years later.”
A fan of rock bands, video games and comic books, Maddy found it easier to don graphic T-shirts — “When the Marvel movies came out, I finally looked cool.” — than face the conundrum of shopping in either the men’s or women’s section. Given the choice, she’d always rather play as Princess Peach than Mario.
She threw herself into community college, theater and teaching. But even in the most queer-friendly spaces, “I was so dissociated from myself,” she said. “I would look in the mirror and not see anything.”
Dating was confusing, especially if a girlfriend expected her to play the traditional role of a cis, straight man — on dates, in the bedroom or as a couple living together. She found she could be more herself in relationships with bisexual or nonbinary partners.
She met her future spouse, Genevieve (Little Village publisher and arts editor), at a poetry slam in Cedar Rapids in the early 2000s. They’ve been together since 2007, raising Genevieve’s two children and welcoming their own daughter in 2017.
Maddy had come to understand over the last five to 10 years that she was, in fact, a trans woman, but worried it was too late to transition. Her body had already grown up steeped in testosterone. More importantly, access to affordable healthcare, gender-affirming treatment and basic protections for trans Iowans is constantly under threat from state Republicans. She worried her family might experience harassment.
But serving as the stay-at-home parent — especially in 2020, when she could no longer spend her weekends teaching classes or directing plays due to the pandemic — gave Maddy time to think. Sitting everyday at home in gym shorts, leaving only rarely to go to the grocery store, she couldn’t imagine reentering the world the way she’d left it.
“Am I gonna buy boy clothes on Amazon? Am I gonna put myself through that again? Or am I just going to pull these skirts out that I already bought on the sly at Goodwill?” she wondered. “Why am I hiding? Like, it’s the end of the world. Why am I going to spend the next half of my life pretending?”
“And so in the sheer exhaustion and depression after just kind of living by the skin of our teeth for 10 months … I was like, OK, alright, I guess I’m doing this. I guess I’m going to Trader Joe’s in a fucking skirt. And it was really kind of awkward and scary, and I felt exposed, but every week it became easier.”
She made an appointment with a therapist, received her diagnosis of gender dysphoria, signed an informed consent form, met with an endocrinologist and other specialists, and began her first year of hormone replacement therapy (HRT). The clinic was able to schedule her appointments for evenings, after Genevieve was home from work to watch their daughter.
The pharmaceutical expert warned her estrogen may increase her risk of blood clots, so she started eating healthier. Her weight slowly began shifting around.
“Definitely the first thing I noticed is my thighs are kind of bigger and less dense. My muscles are softer and sort of curvier,” she said.
“Sex is a physical aspect, right? And gender is a social thing. So there’s like a social connection with the women in the room.” For example, she recently bonded with a cis friend undergoing hormone therapy to treat fertility issues.
“She was like, ‘Do you smell better? You have a better sense of smell with your estrogen.’ I’m like, ‘Now that you think that you mentioned it, yeah, you’re right.’ It’s like, oh, here’s the teenager in the basement. Here’s the baby with the poopy diapers. Here’s the neighbors smoking pot. All the smells are getting to me. It’s an interesting thing.”
The internet didn’t turn Madeline Trainor trans, but a small, safe corner of it has been a welcome resource during her transition. She and other folks around the world formed a transfemme voice-chat room on Twitter, where they can “kick out the transphobes” and discuss healthcare, tech, sex, kink and other issues important to them.
“Just having trans women in the room, it’s a different feel, right? Because you can feel safe to share anything. … There are people who are homeless, there’s sex workers, there’s journalists, there’s autistic [folks], people from all walks of life and different realities who all happened to be trans. And we all kind of understand each other; somebody will say something and it’s like, holy shit. I didn’t know anybody felt like that.”
“This kind of bond, well, I’m going to hold you a little bit more preciously. We all have this sort of bond of marginalization, as cliché and corny as that sounds.”
After decades of dysmorphia, Maddy has savored countless moments of gender euphoria over the last year, from getting a compliment on a selfie to shopping for a cute dress.
“Everything has been a milestone” this first year: Her first Mother’s Day as “Maddy Momma.” Her first Halloween in a sexy costume (she and Genevieve dressed up as Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, respectively). Buying a house in Iowa City just in time to play host and matriarch at Thanksgiving, taking over the cooking reins from her mother for the first time. Finding a stocking with her deadname on it while putting up Christmas decorations, prompting her family to make an impromptu trip to CVS to buy a new one and decorate it with “Madeline.”
Sure, it can be hard to find privacy so she can “learn to girl” when a 4-year-old is running around the house. But “my family has been 100 percent supportive and I know that I’m lucky there,” she said. “Not everybody has that.”
She looks forward to bigger breasts, a rounder butt. Six months into hormone therapy, she decided for certain she wants a vaginoplasty, often referred to as bottom surgery. The medical journey of transitioning that once seemed so intimidating to a former theater major with no primary care doctor now feels like an opportunity — so long as it remains affordable, covered under her health insurance.
“Once the estrogen started changing my body it was like clear what I wanted my body to be,” Maddy said. “Some people will just say, ‘Oh, you have to get surgery. You can’t be in the [women’s] bathroom if you don’t get bottom surgery,’ and that’s like, no. You shouldn’t police other people that way.”
“You have to do a lot of soul searching and be ready to make big decisions about what you want out of this. Don’t let other people pressure you into what they think is right, because there’s no right way to be trans.”
Emma McClatchey is Little Village’s managing editor and queer AF. A shorter version of this article was originally published in Little Village issue 303.