After spending two years living somewhat between the identities of “man” and “woman” (I was out to close friends, started coming out socially, but still went by my given name at work, all while expressing myself in a gender-nonconforming fashion), I came out to my family one year ago today. It was long overdue, but at the same time, there couldn’t have been a more perfect moment for it.
Family was visiting from out of town, and on the night everyone happened to be hanging out at my childhood home, I was being recognized for my academic and professional accomplishments as part of my community college’s 30th anniversary. After the recognition ceremony, I joined everyone at home and the night ended up being something of a tribute to me, with everyone celebrating my past successes and reflecting on how much I’ve grown. Having downed a couple of glasses of wine, I was feeling brave, and I remember thinking, right before I said it, It’s now or never… and, sitting at the dining room table in my childhood home, I came out to my immediate family as a trans woman.
Though they didn’t exactly understand the nuances of my identity, and some of them still struggle to use the correct name and pronouns (though, I’ve given some of them permission to), they were, at that moment, more supportive than I could have hoped for.
On the drive home, a song came on the radio that I had never heard before. It was one of those moments where you feel like you’re living in a movie and you’re almost sure god exists because it seems like every detail was planned to play out in that exact way.
As soon as I got to my apartment, I googled the lyrics, bought the song on iTunes, and built a playlist with that song, as well as others that described my feelings about gender, and my journey with gender identity up until that moment. Though it was another six months before I came out completely, those songs helped carry me through some tough times. I decided I’d share them today, in honor of the one-year anniversary of my first major coming-out moment, in hopes that other people might be inspired by them.
“Nobody Knows Me” by Madonna
When I was first coming to terms with my gender and starting to express it more, I was always thrown off and annoyed when people didn’t seem to seem to recognize my identity. Whether it was in my early days of discovering my gender, when I presented and identified as gender-queer, or when I had realized that I’m a trans woman, but still expressed myself in a gender-nonconforming way, when I felt like people were reading me as, say, a gay guy, I felt unseen and misunderstood, something Madonna sings about on this song (“It’s no good when you’re misunderstood”).
With lyrics that reference past lives and self-improvement, describe longing for representation (“It’s so hard to find someone to admire”), and even play with gender (Madonna proclaims that she’s “not that kind of guy” in the first verse), this song connected with me on a deep level when I felt like I understood myself better than ever, but the world — and the people closest to me — didn’t.
“Stronger Woman” by Jewel
Feeling like most people don’t understand you is a difficult experience and in moments like those, sometimes you have to hold your own hand. That’s why this song, from singer-songwriter Jewel’s seventh album, was so impactful for me. The lyrics not only touch on the importance of being kind to yourself (“I’m gonna’ be my own best friend”), but also being true to yourself, and holding onto who you really are even if other people don’t understand. And it’s done in a way that made me feel affirmed in my self-identification — because, as Jewel sings on the country-tinged track — “even if someone can’t see, there’s a stronger woman in me.”
“Interesting” by Maria Mena
This song came out during my last year of university, where I did the majority of self-discovery in regards to gender, surrounded by other LGBTQ friends who shared my experience and validated my identity, even as it began to change. Unfortunately, having such supportive friends was a new experience to me. I had to consciously learn how to not be in a constant state of anxiety, worried whether or not I would be accepted by the people I was interacting with.
That’s why this song couldn’t have come into my life at a more perfect time. In it, Norwegian pop princess Maria Mena sings about how she used to think “that only suffering creates nuance,” but she’s at her “most inspired in the arms of those who love me,” which was a new and “interesting” experience for her. She also sings of “layers of life only we see,” which spoke to the lived experiences my LGBTQ college friends and I shared as queer people.
“Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” by Britney Spears
OK, OK, so I know this is kind of a cheesy choice and I almost didn’t include it in this list for that reason. But it was included in the original playlist I created because, as cheesy as it is, this song really does speak to me on a deep level. Sure, the song’s title served as a punchline when it first came out — Britney herself had to defend her gender identity in a press conference when a journalist asked this awkward question:
But that’s exactly why this song speaks to me. Especially when I was living out my I’m-genderqueer-but-secretly-a-trans-woman phase, I could relate to the feeling of being “caught in the middle” that Britney sings about. And just like her, all I needed was “time, a moment that is mine while I’m in between.” Because, looking back, that in-between stage was vital in allowing me to become confident in who I am.
“Love Me” by Katy Perry
Coming off of her mega-successful “Teenage Dream” era, Katy Perry surprised fans and critics with the release of the confessional, ballad-heavy “Prism.” Around this time, I was getting ready to make a big life change of my own, as I was on the verge of graduating from university, sure of my identity but unsure of what that meant for my future. This song served as the perfect soundtrack for the years that followed, as I navigated my identity, and how it impacted my relationships with family (who weren’t always as supportive as I needed) and my dating life (having a major crush on a gay guy made me, for a short time, convince myself that I could exist as a fem gay man, just so I’d have more of a chance with him).
Whether it was for a boy or for family, trying to deny my identity to appeal to other people was a big learning experience for me — one that’s reflected in this song, right from the opening lines (“I lost myself in fear of losing you”). Themes of body dysphoria (“Sometimes I wish my skin was a costume that I could just unzip”) and self-determination (“I’ll be the one deciding who I’m gonna’ be”) are also reflected in some of the lyrics. But ultimately, the song’s biggest message is self-love — because when other people don’t accept you for who you are, you have to “love yourself the way I wanted you to love me.”
“Moments” by Tove Lo
Most people know Tove Lo for her big hits like “Habits (Stay High)” and “Talking Body,” but this lesser-known single from her debut album — the FLAWLESS “Queen of the Clouds” — struck a chord with me from the moment I first heard it. I relate to it for a number of reasons, but the opening lines of the chorus (“I’m not the prettiest you’ve ever seen, but I have my moments”) capture feelings I was having when, in select “moments,” I was slowly starting to express my gender identity in a way that finally felt right to me.
“Becoming” by Jewel
Though this song came out way back in 2004, I rediscovered it when I was starting to get the confidence to come out. At this point, I knew I had to love myself, and I had my “moments” of embracing my identity, but I wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be yet. And still, with each new experience, I felt myself getting closer and closer to who I was meant to be.
A big reason why it took so long for me to come out, even though I had come to terms with my identity a long time ago, was that I was waiting for the perfect moment to do it. But I was starting to get to a place where I was “tired of waiting, so this time I’m leaping,” as Jewel sings on the first verse of this song.
As with “Stronger Woman,” this song speaks of an internal identity (“My heart knows what is not yet seen”) and in describing the process of externalizing that identity, plays with the duality of gender (“I am the mother and the father of what is not yet known”). The lyrics also describe, to paraphrase queer poet Andrea Gibson, the pain of becoming and the power of surviving that process (“I scratch, I struggle, I breathe”).
“American Life” by Madonna
Most of the songs on this list have been somewhat positive so far and that’s because the internal process of discovering and expressing my gender identity was mostly a positive one. Sure, sometimes I was afraid people wouldn’t be accepting, but deep down, I had faith that things would work out. But as I started seriously considering coming out as a trans woman — at which point I’d been living on my own and working as an openly queer, gender-nonconforming person — it became clear to me that I was in for a lot more struggle than I had realized. In preparing to come out, certain microaggressions started cutting deeper, and the threat of certain struggles became all too real.
I was feeling depressed, dysphoric and disillusioned — all feelings that this song captures perfectly. From my frustrations with the gender binary (“I tried to be a boy, tried to be a girl … I guess I did it wrong”), to the pressure I felt to conform to gender norms (“Do I have to change my name?”), to the uncertainty of whether or not there’s truly a place in this world for girls like me (“This type of modern life, is it for me?”), this song perfectly expresses so many feelings I had (have) about myself and the world.
“Viktoria” by Maria Mena
Despite having feelings of fear and doubt right before I came out, I obviously got over those eventually. In some ways, I think I needed to have those feelings in order to get the strength to come out. It was like a final test, a reminder that, even though coming out would hopefully lead to positive changes, that life wasn’t going to be all sunshine and roses — it’s a process, and sometimes it takes awhile.
That’s why this song, another fave from Maria Mena, connects with me on a deep level. I identified with it in a literal way, because the song references a name change that took place when Maria was just a child (her mother told her, “You’re gonna’ grow into it,” as I hoped to grow into my gender identity) but also in a symbolic way, especially the lines in which she personifies confidence (“She lives in me, she whispers when I sleep,” as I felt my gender identity did) and talks about being more at ease, as I was in my gender (“Have you ever heard me laugh so easily?”), and in the chorus of the song (“I have let go of my demons, they left me when I sang the truth,” which speaks to how healing from other experiences I’ve had has been easier since coming to terms with my gender).
Most of all, like the last depressive episode I had before I came out, the lyrics serve as a reminder that whether it’s gender identity, mental health or just maturing in general, personal growth takes time (“You’re growing up slowly”).
“Stand in the Light” by Jordan Smith
This is the song that was playing on the radio the night I came out to my family. I had never heard the song before and I knew nothing about the artist, but I assumed he was LGBT, because the lyrics to this song do such a great job of describing what it feels like to come out. From taking the first steps of embracing your identity (“This is who I am inside … and I’m not gonna’ hide”), to the reassuring idea that there’s never a bad time to start living your truth openly (“It’s never too late to … climb up, leaving sadness behind you”), to the vulnerability of coming out (“The greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far to stand in the light and be seen as we are”), so much of the song can be viewed from an queer perspective.
I couldn’t imagine a better message to hear after coming out.
“Rebel Heart” by Madonna
Though the demo version of this song leaked back when I was still listening to “Prism” and “Queen of the Clouds,” I’m including it at the end of this list because I feel like this song doesn’t just describe my experience with gender, it describes my entire life. I’m seriously about to quote the entire song, so bear with me, or scroll down if you just want to listen for yourself.
The opening verse of this song perfectly describes what it was like to grow up as a queer, gender-nonconforming child who, despite facing some difficulties as a result, refused to be anything other than themselves:
I lived my life like a masochist
Hearing my father say, “Told you so, told you so”
“Why can’t you be like the other girls?”
I said, “Oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think that it’ll ever be”
The lyrics speak to the importance of community (“I belonged to a different tribe, walking alone never satisfied”), something I first came to appreciate in college, when I found my “tribe” in the form of my LGBTQ friends, and stay connected to now as I try to stay involved with the LGBTQ community at large.
The second verse captures where I was at before I came to terms with my identity. I’ve always had a strong personality (“I lived my life as a narcissist, hearing the others say, ‘Look at you'”), and that’s still a part of me, but before coming out, I was a little more out-there and, looking back, I think it was because I was subconsciously trying to express my identity. Even when I became aware of my identity, in the beginning I was drawn to hyper-feminine looks, because I felt desperate to make sure my identity was communicated (“All the things I did just to be seen”).
When I finally came out, I felt like I was starting over, constructing my identity from the ground up, something Madonna sings about in the verse preceding the second chorus:
Outgrown my past and I’ve shed my skin
Letting it go and I’ll start again, start again
Never look back, it’s a waste of time
I said, “Oh yeah, this is me
“And I’m right here where I wanna be”
Last, the chorus describes struggles I’ve faced — that I’m still facing — due to my identity, and speaks to the rebellious spark inside of me that keeps me going.
So I took the road less travelled by
And I barely made it out alive
Through the darkness somehow I survived
Tough love, I knew it from the start
Deep down in the depths of my rebel heart
It’s probably one of my favorite songs ever. If they ever made a movie about my life, this would be the main theme.
Even though it’s been a year since I first came out and put together this playlist — and I’ve been jamming to some of these songs since long before then — I still turn to a lot of these tracks for inspiration. Because, I mean, it’s only been a year since I’ve completely come out as a trans woman and I’m only twenty-five. I still have a lot of fears and insecurities, a lot of life to live, a lot of lessons to learn — I’m still becoming. But as long as I have songs like these, I know I’ll make it through.