The date that wasn’t technically a date was going better than I ever could have hoped. It wasn’t technically a date because he identified as straight — and I hadn’t come out, even to myself, as a trans woman at that time — but it was hard not to perceive our outing as something more than casual. He took me to a cute, outdoor, Narnia-esque restaurant hidden through an Old City alleyway, paid for my food, and sat with me looking out into the water at Penn’s Landing. During our dinner, he opened up about the hardships of his past. He was 6’5”, funny andintelligent, and very handsome.

As we looked out at the horizon, he turned to me, as if sensing the affection I thought was well-hidden, but actually wasn’t, and said softly, “I had a guy friend who fell for me once. It was hard. I wish I could be into men but I’m just not.” I cracked on the inside. But I’m not a man.

Cue the inner unease and sudden burst of biology experts who seemingly emerge from thin air, because it’s time to talk about gender. The gender conversation, in this case, is about my life as a trans woman who is alienated, every day, by the fact that people misread me as a boy. I know what people see and how uncomfortable it makes people see me as I am, but truly, more than anything in the world, I knowthat I’m a woman. I’ve always known. But people don’t see that when you’re in a “cute” boy’s body. In three words, living this way is awkward, tense, and scary.

When I say cute, I don’t mean that I think I’m some kind of supermodel or that I’m more attractive than everyone else in the room. What I mean is that I’ve always been small, skinny, baby-faced, femme, awkward, and shy — a perfect fit for a “twink” in the gay community. As a child my femininity shone through any and all attempts I made to hide it — some of these attempts per the not so subtle encouragement of adults around me. Thus, it came as no surprise to people when I came out as a gay boy years later, though, really, I was just a girl who liked boys but wasn’t ready to accept she was a girl.

Despite my relatively small number of romantic partners, I’ve always been told I was cute and that a lot of people around me were attracted to me. Perhaps it’s people’s belief in this singular perception that empowers an aggression that asks “why would you give up this appearance to be a girl when you’re already cute and living the good life?”

It’s hard enough living in a world that hates trans people so much without people trying to incentivize me staying as I am now, in a body that people tend to read as “cute” and “boy.” In a way, people’s insistence on who they think I am makes me feel like they think I’m making a stupid choice by living as the woman I really am. The implication that I should just embrace the identity of a cute boy makes me feel erased by a global culture that would rather all trans people just disappear. The message I get is that people who just want to live their lives in ways that make them happier, at zero detriment to anyone else, are among the most threatening and pressing issues in the world.

I simply don’t identify with this body I was born in. I don’t want to hurt or trick anyone, I just want to live my life at one hundred percent. Happy. In my current body, with my current gender expression, I would never be truly happy. Regardless of my physical appearance and what others think, I know that I’m a woman.

It’s important to recognize that not all trans people look the same. Not every trans woman wants to shave her body hair and/or wear makeup. Similarly, not all trans men want to be muscular. Trans people don’t necessarily ascribe to traditional femininity and masculinity — much in the same way that feminine gay men and “tomboys” don’t represent their gender in the way society might expect (read: want).

Many people think that trans women dress up every day to best mimic an idyllic appearance of womanhood. However, many, like me, don’t have the time, energy, or resources to dress and look that way all the time. Living in a city like Philadelphia, I simply don’t feel safegoing out as my true gender unless I believe I can convincingly pass for a cis-woman and not a trans one. It’s a sad truth for some of us but one that’s empowered by horrifying statistics of violence against trans women.

And yet, despite the fact that society won’t see me as a trans woman, and that I myself may try to hide this fact to protect my safety, I am a trans woman. I have big dreams and an arsenal of beauty and fashion inspirations. However, that transformation comes at a cost. (Good) wigs are expensive. Makeup is expensive. Beauty products are expensive. Hair removal is expensive. Surgeries, down the line, are incredibly expensive. I struggle these days between bills and food, leaving my wants, no matter how much I want them, by the wayside. I got my first wig not so long ago but still don’t have the makeup or wardrobe to convince me that I don’t just look like a boy in a wig — and so I got out in my “boy” clothes and hide who I really am.

My dream aesthetic is definitely not the hoodies and t-shirts I have in my closet right now, nor is it short hair. Physically, I would like long, gorgeous hair, to get rid of every last piece of body hair that isn’t on top of my head, and to learn how to feminize both my body and my face. My ideal image changes all the time but it’s some combination of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ’90s normcore, Lindsay Weir’s effortless grunge-lite, Tavi Gevinson minus the fur, leather, and fashion knowledge, and a Real Housewife of Somewhere, who enjoys sitting by the pool and having plenty of time to dress effortlessly well.

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My gender identity isn’t the result of past trauma or a poor relationship with my father. I’ve always been this way, since childhood, and lots of other kids are too. However, many trans and gender non-conforming people, like myself, grow up being talked out of expressing their gender identities in ways that are both big and small. It’s adults discouraging boys from playing with Barbies or telling little girls that football isn’t for them. It’s my uncle cornering me as a child, after everyone had left the room, and pointedly asking why I like “girl things,” to which I could only think to reply, “Mommy thought I was a girl at first, so maybe that’s why.”

Whenever people misgender me, I’m taken back to that moment with my uncle. I get called “he” all the time, even after I’ve come out on all my social media platforms and made my gender identity clear to everyone I know. This hurts. It’s painful to identify with something and to have the world question it in both subtle and aggressive ways.

It’s not only tense, however. Living life outside of gender norms is often downright scary. In the years since I was a little boy who swished my hips a little too much (in some people’s opinion), I’ve been jumped — physically assaulted by multiple people all at once. I’ve broken down and even considered not transitioning and living miserably as a boy because I don’t want people to attack or kill me for nothing more than being who I really want to be. Every day, I fear that I will become another dead trans girl on the news.

To some people, transitioning looks like I’m giving up a good life; a life where I’ve been told I’m cute, where other men have pursued me, where I’ve been well-liked and viewed as a strong, confident person. But really, I just want to feel comfortable in my skin. I want to really live life and not just half-heartedly walk through it envying all the women who get to do the things I want to do. I don’t want to be the gay man who hangs out with the girls… I want to be one of the girls. I amone of the girls.

I often wonder why my gender should matter so much to other people. I wonder why I’m viewed, by some, as a pervert or criminal who is trying to sneak into and harm womanhood when statistics easily prove that trans people have never inflicted even a fraction of the amount of sexual violence on women as heterosexual, cisgender men. I wonder why people can’t just let me live.

Unfortunately, I can’t fight or hope to change every single one of these people. I have to just deal with the fact that I have to live in a world that has disgust and anger reserved for me simply for a part of my identity that has no inherent connection to who I actually am as a person — a person who volunteers, a person who fosters animals, a person who went vegan, and a person who goes out at two in the morning after a snowstorm to see if there are any stray cats in need of saving.

Gender isn’t decided by genitalia; it’s decided by heart, mind, and spirit. People might see me as a cute boy, but really I’m a beautiful woman just waiting to burst out of her shell. To people who still won’t see me or recognize me, I will keep you in my thoughts. But I won’t stop. When times get hard, and when I’m feeling scared or dispirited, I remember my favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer quote. “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”

And I will.

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Buffy Flores is a trans, Latinx, vegan writer who is a writer at VegNews and serving as an editor at The Rumpus.

(Illustration by Sarah Tate. Photo via Hulton Archive/Getty)