Claire was the big sister I never had. She was there for me in ways I did not realize I needed and now she is gone. I have no idea what happened to her, if she is alive or dead. This was by design.
In 2004 I was spending all my time reading online about Gender Dysphoria. Specifically I found a set of blogs by transwomen who were in various stages of transition and documenting every step. Even more than that, they were documenting their everyday lives while in transition.
I should note that eight years ago the web was a radically different place, an information wasteland compared to today. At the time these blogs felt like shining lighthouses in a dark night, whereas today if you want to read about the experiences of transwomen you barely have to lift a finger.
I cannot remember who I found first, but I have a feeling it was Claire. She had gone through with Facial Feminization Surgery but did not have enough money to get the full Sexual Reassignment Surgery. That can cost as much as $30,000 and most insurance policies do not cover it, so for someone like Claire working two part-time jobs it can seem impossible.
Claire was incredibly candid about her fears and hopes for her transition. She frequently linked to blogs of women she knew, this is how I found the others: Kara who talked about becoming an activist, Amber who documented her SRS in full, gory details, and Amy who was a goofball but described the way her life changed before and after transition in ways that seemed so incredibly dramatic I could hardly believe.
Around this time I developed an interest in writing web software and so in September of 2004, my own blog was born. I started writing in the same style as these women, borrowing their confidence when really I was struggling with my attempts to transition at school.
After leaving enough comments on their blogs, eventually some of them started talking to me too. It was an incredible point of pride that for a while, Kara linked to me in the sidebar of her blog. This was how I met Anne, who was already past transition.
Things accelerated when I got an internship and spent the summer of 2005 in the Bay Area. At this point I was blogging like crazy, way more words than anyone would reasonably read, but Claire and Anne were reading and commenting on everything. Once I was out in California it was Claire who suggested we should meet.
Despite my bad directions she found her way to my hotel and then she was there. She was real. Claire often wrote about brushing off people who told her she was tall enough to be a model, but it was true. Claire could have been a model, she was beautiful.
We spent the next eight hours together, just talking about everything. I told her all my hopes and fears, she told me stories of transition that were too embarrassing to put online. She told me that I could do it, because she did it. She told me she believed in me at a time when I was not sure if I believed in myself. And she confided in me enough to show me the few pictures she had of herself pre-transition which really hammered that point home.
Over the weekend, she invited me to meet Anne, Amber and Kara who all lived in the area and were having a gathering. I could not believe after reading their stories that I was actually there in Amber's car or on Kara's balcony. The memories of that weekend, eating Korean barbecue, drinking and shooting pool are some of the most important ones I will always cherish.
At the same time there was a melancholy air, as this was going to be one of the last, if not final, gathering like this. Amber was going stealth, and Anne already was but she was breaking her rules.
Stealth, to a transgender person, means living without anyone knowing you are transgender. You can pass and you do not voluntarily disclose. Some people will actively deny any casual question about their status (though this was often a point of contention). Going stealth can mean cutting ties with everyone you knew pre-transition, moving to a different city, disowning your friends.
So as I got to know these women, I knew that someday I would no longer know them at all. Because I knew their secret at some point I would be cut out of their lives.
In the fall I went back to Milwaukee and after a final argument with my mother cut off all my hair. I went back into the closet for the next five years. And shortly thereafter Claire went stealth too.
She took down her blog, including the archives, and replaced it with a goodbye letter written in digital crayon. Anne said that Claire was not responding to calls either, I had her number but never tried out of cowardice. Eventually the letter was taken down and she disappeared for good.
So I have no idea where Claire is. I do not know if she changed her name or if she ever had the SRS she so desperately wanted. I do not know if she is happy. I want her to be happy more than anything.
I am still incapable of writing songs, but I know that if I am ever able to figure it out, I want to write a song for Claire. To thank her for everything. To wish her the best. And curse her for never teaching me the secret stealth transwomen hand shake.
I want to tell her that it took me a while but I got here too, or at least I am a lot further than the last time I saw her. That she was right.