I knew it was going to be there when I arrived home from work, but I still smiled when I saw the box sitting in the entryway of my building. It had arrived on April 13th, my one-year anniversary of starting Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)—or as I like to call it, my one-year “hormoniversary.” A week earlier, my cousin Jeanne had told me that she wanted to send me a “little memento” from my great-grandmother. “So often in our society, gifts are passed down from grandmother to granddaughter,” she said.
Slowly, I unwrapped the double boxes and waded through packing material, and then I finally saw them: six crystal wine glasses, adorned with a delicate leaf pattern. In my cousin’s note accompanying the glasses, she mentioned again that they had belonged to my great-grandmother. Her name instantly caught my eye: Carrie.
My great-grandmother’s first name had been Carrie. Somehow I had never known that before. Seeing her name—that name in particular—meant so much to me, though my cousin probably had no idea why when she sent me the glasses.
Jeanne, my dad’s cousin, had found my new Facebook account through my parents and other relatives not long after my transition last year. She sent me a simple message of support to let me know she stood behind me. As we got reacquainted, she’d send me comments about various articles I’d published or tell me a funny story about a relative I’d never met. Having grown up in a family that lived three thousand miles away from any other relatives, my memories of extended family are fleeting, and I treasured every tale she told me.
Growing up, distance wasn’t the only thing to make me feel alienated from my family. For many people, the most basic bedrock of support is family. And for many trans people, the road to transition is also marked by the fear of losing family.
It was partly this fear that kept me in the closet for decades. I remember sitting across from my mother in a booth at our favorite restaurant, palms sweating, fully cognizant of the stakes as I told the woman who brought me into this world that the doctors at my birth thirty-three years ago had made a mistake about my gender. I told her that I realized I was transgender when I was around eight years old, though at that time I didn’t even know that trans people existed or possess the language to communicate the gender dysphoria I was experiencing.
My mom asked me how I had known at such a young age: How would I know what being a girl “felt” like? The truest answer is that I arrived at the conclusion through a process of elimination. When something feels “off” with your body, you try to figure out what might be wrong. When I became preoccupied with the girls with long hair and dresses in first grade, I wanted to know why. Was it attraction? Eventually I realized it was jealousy. Around the same time, I began obsessing over the question of what happens to your consciousness after you pass away. A sense of relief would always consume me when I asked myself, “What if you could be a girl?”
I didn’t get internet access until I was fourteen. I didn’t know that transition was possible, or that male puberty might be avoidable. I endured the double torture of male puberty and high school, and shoved my gender dysphoria as deep inside as I could. But the thing no one ever tells you about gender dysphoria is that it steadily increases in intensity over time, and only an escalation in cross-gender experiences bring relief. By my early thirties, I was having daily panic attacks, and I knew it was time to do something.
The first thing my mom did when I told her was lean across the table, take both of my hands in hers, and tell me she would always love me. The relief I felt was overwhelming. Still, I could tell that my mom was being careful with her words, and I didn’t blame her. By then I’d had decades to learn about trans people; it would have been unfair to expect her to be an expert right away. I can’t overstate how important my mother’s early support was for my transition. My mom and I grew closer as a result, and eventually we brought my dad into the fold. Like my mother, his initial reaction was one of support.
I had been secretly calling myself Katelyn since I was ten, and I knew I wanted it to be my first name. I asked my parents to give me a new middle name.
“If you had been born a girl, we were going to name you Carrie Anne,” my mother said. “How does Katelyn Anne Burns feel to you?”
I fell in love with the name instantly: It had grace, it fit, it was me. Within any gender transition, there are little moments along the way that become touchstones of your new self, and for me the moment when my new name came together was just such a moment.
One nagging question remained: Why “Carrie”? Why had my parents chosen it in the first place? As far as I was aware, it wasn’t a family name, nor was it a popular baby name in the year I was born. My brother had been named after a family member, but my own deadname had no familial ties at all. I chalked up “Carrie” as a name that my parents had just plain liked.
My parents and I decided not to tell my only remaining grandparent, my father’s mother, about my transition, as her dementia had slipped to a point where we believed that she wouldn’t be able to understand. It did and does hurt to know that none of my grandparents will ever get to know me as their granddaughter. Even though most of my family has embraced me and my new life as Katelyn, in their presence sometimes I still feel a kind of imposter syndrome, the feeling I don’t quite belong.
When I received my cousin Jeanne’s gift, for me it was far more than just a set of crystal wine glasses. It was validation, recognition, a connection I hadn’t even fully realized I was looking for. Discovering I would have been named after one of the matriarchs of my family if my parents had known I was a girl, I felt a true sense of family—a measure of belonging I had never known before.
My cousin wrote that she had chosen the wine glasses to commemorate my transition because I deserved a celebration for daring to live openly as my true self. I had found my place in the world: as a woman, and within my own family.
A few nights later, at the end of a long workday, I picked up some Thai food and then decided to stop at the store for a nice bottle of Riesling. At home, sitting at the table with my dinner steaming in front of me, I uncorked the wine and poured myself a glass. I held it in my hand, running a light finger across the leaf motif. Though I was alone in my apartment thousands of miles from any relatives, I suddenly felt surrounded by family, past and present. I thought about my great-grandmother, my cousin, my mother, and all the other women in my family before me. Cheers , I thought, and drank a toast to all of us.