Out of the Gray

Norm Julian
12 min readSep 7, 2021

I didn’t grow up knowing I was transgender. Biochemically speaking, at first I didn’t have to.

Little Norm — that’s what we’ll call him — was a fortunate child. Despite being raised in the American South, Little Norm lived in a world of his own, with parents too unconcerned themselves by the Socially Gendered World to push him out of his and into that one with any particular force. Nor did they have to. Little Norm took on “she” and “her” without feeling or consequence. No particular feeling that his little mind could grasp, anyway.

Little Norm, with a body still pre-pubescent and androgynous, loved the color purple and gladly wore things made for little girls and found that Barbie worlds created with his sister were unobtrusive and just as fun as his own worlds, the ones without dolls. In those worlds, the worlds of talking sea animals and giant, talking cobras and barely-humanoid robots — he was a boy, but it didn’t feel like anything special or anything worth shouting about, because the real world was likewise unconcerned.

Little Norm could appear as she needed to appear, or say what she needed to say, and — perhaps from a combination of his autistic social naivete and the blessing of parents who didn’t see any potential in his little brother that they didn’t see in him — Little Norm saw ‘girl’ as simply the way things were. He could be that cartoonist or herpetologist or flautist or math teacher, and, aside from attending the nicer work events in a dress, the Adult Norm was unusually nebulous but otherwise nothing to worry about.

At 10 or 11, Norm was still far from puberty, but some of the other kids weren’t, so they were all taught about it in school. Norm didn’t understand why this would be something to look forward to. He had always felt a bit odd, and a bit behind the other girls anyway. And he felt a secret comfort he couldn’t explain when — at 12…13…14…even 15 — the blood never came.

At 15, though, something else arrived.

Though always a quiet and pretty and successful girl, something gray, worrisome, and obsessive began to churn in the depths of her mind as a young teenager, inexplicably turning the blank spaces of imaginative bliss into pulsating, fearsome, and molasses-like spaces that needed to be filled by something, anything else.

Molasses spaces that needed to be perfected — an already-slender teenage body that suddenly needed to be preemptively perfected and avoided, or else -

Or else what?

She had no conscious idea what. But, driven by the unconscious, she starved it away.

Very conveniently, the blood definitely couldn’t come now, when keeping the skeletal frame alive in the first place took priority. And, very conveniently, the laughably little she did eat, painstakingly chosen and cut and autistically arranged at the end of each day, provided a primal ecstasy sufficient enough to make day-to-day living a reasonable thing to keep doing. The Grayness could not take away Norm’s tenacity, after all.

Recovery was still required, if only to defer being sent off to a treatment facility. That was a fear far more acute and crystal-clear than the thing — the particular type of healthy body — that she didn’t realize He was avoiding. So fluoxetine was given, and a recovery was made in weight only. At nearly 18, she started college looking as picture-perfect as her grades somehow still did.

The Gray stuck around, but at this point she thought it was normal, the curious Little Norm and his self-image long missing and presumed dead. She didn’t know quite what she was doing or why, but her grades stayed up while her weight went up and down. By some miracle, she happened across a passion of His that the gray likewise couldn’t take, and by a series of small other ones, she came out of another four years of self-imposed isolation with a university degree.

Her first re-location, on the other side of the country, was a breath of fresh air in the lingering fog. There was something nice about things being walkable and, equally important, about seeing more than just visibly straight-laced, suburban cookie-cutters of people walking about. As it turned out, some folks were queer, some were neurodivergent (like her, and even unashamed of it!), some were poor, some were rich, some were visibly happy, and others visibly sad. She reveled quietly in the color, and informed herself that ‘Autistic White Woman in Tech’ was the particular hue she brought to the picture. The color didn’t seem to seep inside, but she figured that was normal. It still felt good against her skin.

She was a Woman, apparently, doing life on her own terms. She didn’t actually have a picture of this woman in her mind, five years or even five months down the line, but she did know enough about what wouldn’t be a part of it. There was an outrageous urgency to it, and — perhaps equally outrageous to anyone outside — she managed to get electively sterilized at the age of 23. Something clicked into place, and the Grayness turned a shade lighter. The word “genderqueer” was learned and privately tossed around, if only for surgical leverage and insurance letter writing.

At 26, apparently, she co-owned a house.

She was a fantastic logistician, after all, and another piece of him the Gray couldn’t take was love. Assisting in dreams — perfectly agreeable and compatible ones, for the time being, dreams whose realized realities felt like dreams themselves — was one of her specialties. And doing — doing, doing, continuously doing, for the home, the cat, the ego, the loved one — kept the Gray itself from pulsating instead. That sort of stillness — the sludgy, antsy, viscous one that was never still — was never worth slowing down for.

For better or worse, at 27…28, the world slowed down instead.

The virus closed its doors, and the doing, doing, doing was confined to smaller and smaller spaces until she found herself left with the space of her mind. In quarantine, figurative and literal, the Gray was inescapable. It bubbled as usual, but this time, something bubbled up.

Did ya miss me?

He shouldn’t have been as perfectly recognizable as he was.

It was hard to tell if Adult Norm — an image at once natural and indulgent and scandalous and mundane — was crafted from the Gray, or simply covered in it, head to toe. At any rate, he couldn’t harm anyone from in here. The sludge would slow him down.

Did ya miss me?

Go away. You don’t have a home here.

That’s funny, because you can see me. But I can’t see you.

I see something good enough. Go away.

Oh, really? What is it?

She didn’t have an answer.

Did ya miss me?

She didn’t hate him, but she hated that she didn’t, and that she should. She wanted to bury him in the sludge, and suffocate him with the Gray, but where would she hide the body? She wanted someone else to tell her where.

Did ya miss me?

Yes, someone else.

What is that something you see, exactly? What’s it gonna be, five years down the line? Want me to act it out for you?


Yes. Wait — no!

He clearly wasn’t going anywhere, so she indulged him now and then, if only to shut him up. The morning walk, once hers and the gray’s alone, became his playpen. The molasses moved and molded itself as she strode, first around him, but then for him.

She crafted him friends. A home, but this time one he picked himself. A fuzzy robe against a flat chest, and a pair of slippers as he moved from one of his well-kept little rooms to another. A Christmas tree, just like the ones popping up in the neighbors’ windows, and not an ounce of shame about sweet solitude, interspersed, of course, with food and more friends. He was an excellent host, a reasonable chef, and somehow a much better gardener than she ever tried to be. He liked ‘English hunting lodge’ touches and flannel sheets in the winter. He liked sitting still as much as he liked walking.

He was overstaying his welcome, and she took on an unwanted tenderness toward him, cycling with fits of guilt and fear and private rage when he shuffled around too loudly, or tried to brush some of the gray from his body. If he was such a threat, why was he so damn ordinary?

It was time for him to go.

The first task the therapist gave her was a Pinterest board. “Any life you want,” the therapist said. “Think about clothes, places, themes, whatever. It’s a totally open-ended exercise.”

She thought about how a completely arbitrary, happy person might wear clothes, or what color their walls might be. Since there weren’t any rules, and this was a throwaway account, and nobody would know except the therapist, she indulged herself. She chose images of slate-colored condos and bright, motley gardens and Bostonian skylines and grinning young men in slim, stylish jeans. Too many of them. Adult Norm crossed his arms, shook his head, and almost winked before she came to her senses and hurled another load of Gray at his face. This wasn’t for him. Regardless, she titled the board That crazy guy’s stuff.

The only direction the therapist ever nudged her was arbitrarily, universally, and sometimes even tenderly away from shame. The rest was hers alone to suggest.

Like the Gray, it bubbled from inside, but unlike the gray, its movements weren’t random. And it was inconveniently emotional. There were late night drawings, late afternoon tears, and evenings of journaling, a new thing for sure.

Oh, yeah…there was a lot of this sort of thing.
An entry from the writer’s journal pre-transition.

She titled it Norm’s Journal and sometimes wrote about him in the third person, to avoid forming an attachment.

It was about a month and a half in, backed out from another corner of shame and curled tightly knees-to-chest on her office floor when he stuttered into the phone to her therapist, “I’m probably male.”

The rest of that autumn evening was crisp and gold and indulgent, and she let him revel in it.

It was another few months before she let him do anything else. And sometimes, interspersed with walks through the leaves and snow and happy, mundane fantasies of his first spring, she turned on him and was downright cruel. He would inch himself resignedly back into the Gray, until either she reached back in to grab him or he butted his way back out, sometimes with anger or consternation, but more often with a smirk.

Did ya miss me?


She sent a photo of the paper pharmacy bag, the prescription name furtive yet crystal-clear, to her two closest friends. The disclaimer text took up nearly as much as the screen.

Two thumbs up.

The first shot, days later, was just as terrifyingly, comfortingly anticlimactic.

One wouldn’t ruin her, should it be wrong.

Two, three would probably be fine. Nothing irreversible with four. And nobody would know. She still fell asleep feeling like a terrible human being, for doing this to others, but from the depths of her mind she had always deemed selfish, he howled with delight.

He was about three blocks from his house, at the place where the sidewalk curves on 3rd Avenue and Bowen Street, when he felt it. Or, perhaps, when he realized where he was.

He was just-


Wait. Just fine?


The sidewalk moment floated in his headspace, content, alone.

I am here now.


There wasn’t a train for the thought, no rush-hour train destined for the end of the day, no round-trip ticket from one side of the Gray to-


Where was the Gray?

There was no gray. But his arms had a shape, and his legs were suddenly on the ground, and his fingers fit like gloves. He was standing on Earth, apparently.

I am here now. Hum; that’s nice. What shall I do later?

His thoughts occupied a new space, clear and empty. Empty, or filled with something else. Whatever it was, it didn’t crawl or pulsate. Unlike the gray, it was weightless. Unlike the gray, it was kind. Inexplicably nurturing, even, like the invisible, loving embrace of God knows what. The end of the day didn’t matter. He was just…fine.

I am here now.

When he got home, he sat in the living room and did nothing, just to feel it.


He could get used to this, this plane of existence.

He had started to experiment with the graylessness — this podcast or that, this walking trail or another, voices and stories and nature and images that could dampen his eyes in small moments when nothing did before. Whatever pride he (or she) had taken in complete, gray stoicism had evaporated with the gray itself. He smiled at dogs in windows, coaxed the neighbors’ cats to come closer, rubbed his head laughingly against the green-eyed head of his own cat, and took endless, happy, mundane photos of flowers in roadside patches. Worries of work and love and life bubbled up, but without the gray they couldn’t consume him. They had no mush, no fog, no sticky and cumbersome ether to swirl around and entangle themselves with.

March, April, May…

The physical changes brought on by the testosterone were far more steady, ordinary, and natural than she had been coached or warned to expect.

The mental miracle remained fresh, and he described it online to anyone who would listen — or, sometimes, with rage, to anyone who wouldn’t.

Adult Norm had grown to life-size, and we began to meld together, my ever-so-slightly strengthening arm beginning to occupy the space I imagined his would, my eyes and mouth twitching with fear and delight and passion and contentment (it was and remains that banal, stupid, warm, perfect contentment, mostly) in tandem with his.

We could get used to this, this plane of existence.

I felt a bit silly for it, but I named myself Norman when I came out.

I tell people it’s “man of the North” for my adopted Boston home, or “Norman Rockwell” for the thousands of idyllic, perfect little moments — as prolific as the man’s own works — painted on the daily in my now-colorful, now wonderfully ordinary little mind, or just the convenience of keeping the letter “N”, and all of those things are true.

But in the end it was because of him, an original character. Because of me, a character restored.

June, July, August, now…

If I could hazard a guess — one not entirely unfounded in the study and anecdotes of many men, women, and others like myself — the Gray was in large part biochemical.

Though belonging to Norm — a boy, a man — my mind was soaked and nearly drowned at puberty by a hormonal cocktail entirely wrong for its folds and architecture: the estrogen and progesterone cocktail prescribed by mismatched, chromosomal happenstance for a girl, a woman, instead.

For me, a brain formed ‘male’ for whatever reason — and a body always imagined and contoured that way, until it wasn’t — for me, becoming a woman was chiral at best, a physical and chemical maturation that filled the neural spaces all wrong and clouded my teenage mind with a heavy, fuzzy malaise, no matter how pretty or progressive she — or the world around her — was or ever could be.

Little Norm was, but then he wasn’t. Adult Norm wasn’t, but then, in a miraculous, transitional resurgence, he was.

This — this indescribable, even after so many words of trying to do just that — this indescribable feeling of taking back my mind and body (and maybe even soul, since I feel like I have one now) — is why I believe that hearing our stories is so important, and why reducing transgender people to ideologies somehow defined and reparable by social construct alone, is so harmful and dangerous. I don’t ‘identify as’ myself. I quite literally just am.

The grayness of mental and physical incongruence stole and buried a great deal of me, but with luck and circumstance, I found my way back out, as many (but, tragically, not all) transgender people do.

Did ya miss me?

Yes. Oh, god, yes.

And now that I know again what missing feels like, and what feelings feel like, I realize just how much.



Norm Julian

Programmer by trade, Texpat, lover of multicolored things and sunflower seed butter