I have a confession to make. When the 9/11 conspiracy film Loose Change made the rounds online back in 2005, I watched the dang thing alone in the dark— multiple times —tut-tutting to myself and bridging my fingers like Gendo Ikari. I even burned the low-resolution AVI file onto a DVD and gave it one of my best friends.
When he asked me what I thought, I told him that I was pretty sure something fishy happened on September 11th, 2001. Maybe the government knew that an attack was going to happen but were unaware of its scope. Or perhaps Flight 93 was shot down. Or Building 7 was demolished via controlled demolition in order to keep government secrets from being revealed. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly which parts of the consensus narrative bothered me the most, but the overwhelming pull of the evidence seemed to indicate that 9/11 was, at least in part, an inside job.
I no longer believe that 9/11 was a conspiracy, nor do I condone this viewpoint in any way, but I still feel the need to step in and defend my past self a little bit. Back in 2005, we were coming off of a ten year period where internet culture had been waging a decisive war against the old, tired, analog institutions of the monoculture. Being young and on the side of the internet back then felt like having access to the future while everyone was stuck in the past. Their knowledge was delivered slowly, imperfectly, and with varying degrees of obsolescence. For me, a rapidly-updating library of all human knowledge was just a click away.
Plus, who on Earth would make an entire feature-length documentary and release it for free on YouTube if they weren’t speaking truth to power?
Yeah, okay, maybe I was just young and dumb.
In 2015, the television comedy Difficult People premiered on Hulu. It was a dark, witty, sardonic show starring Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner as thirty-something misanthropes snarking their way through the fun parts of New York City. It was kind of a cult hit, but that didn’t stop it from getting cancelled after three solid seasons.
One of the series regulars on Difficult People was a trans woman named Lola, played by trans activist and comedian Shakina Nayfack. I could write an entire essay about Nayfack’s portrayal of Lola, one of the few trans people on TV who has been allowed to have a personality trait aside from her trans-ness. For example, Shakina’s character was a self-described “trans truther,” and the 9/11 conspiracy theories that she espoused became wilder and wilder over the course of the show.
Before I started interrogating my own gender identity, the idea of a “trans truther” seemed wonderfully esoteric. The images I had of trans folk and of 9/11 truthers couldn’t have been farther apart, and the merging of those two disparate identities and aesthetics for comedy seemed like a great way to subvert a lot of tired stereotypes about trans women. I didn’t just want trans truthers, I wanted trans truckers, and trans farmers, and trans record store owners.
But the more I questioned my gender, the more I began to feel a tangible link between these two aspects of Lola’s identity. Specifically, I started to get flashbacks to those weird, lonely nights I spent reading conspiracy boards and watching Loose Change.
It had nothing to do with the US government, or terrorism, or any of the stuff that keeps the real truthers awake at night. Instead, it was a mode of thinking, of viewing the world as a web of interconnected patterns, of feeling shocked over and over again as I made connections between disparate aspects of my personality that I had no idea were related in any respect.
It was like uncovering a brand new conspiracy theory.
A conspiracy theory about myself.
With the possible exception of JFK (61% of Americans believe in some sort of JFK conspiracy), most conspiracy theories are routinely mocked and ridiculed by non-believers. And this is a good thing: moon landing and flat Earth conspiracies help promote a harmful anti-science worldview, most secret society conspiracies are dog-whistles for antisemitism, and the belief of anti-vaxxers has caused death and spread disease.
But even though so many of them are harmful, there is still something alluring about believing in a conspiracy theory. As humans, we are always searching for rational answers to irrational problems, and conspiracy theories are attempts to bring order to a chaotic world. The idea that Kennedy was shot by a lone crackpot with a gun is the sort of thing that can only happen in a world filled with randomness, where cruel things can happen without a good reason. But if he was taken out by a joint Soviet/CIA assassination plot…well, now the entire thing comes together nicely, doesn’t it?
“You are male” is a story that I was told by society over and over again, in interaction after interaction, simply by existing in my body. Due to external reinforcement, my gender felt more concrete than the moon landing or the subtle curve of the Earth. I didn’t question it for the same reason that I don’t question those things: the proof, it seemed, was everywhere.
But what if…?
The first few weeks after I started to really consider the possibility of being transgender felt like discovering the answers to several hundred questions that I’d never expected to answers. I assumed that I was just broken and anxious and frayed in nine dozen different ways; that there was no overarching reason why I did any of the things I did or thought any of the things I thought. There usually isn’t a good reason for most of the things that happen in life. Existence is fairly random and occasionally cruel.
Only now, with one shift in approach, I had answers to all of these questions. In fact, it was the same answer to each of them.
One of my favorite conspiracy theory tropes is The Cork Board. Photos and other scraps of evidence tacked to the soft brown wood, scattered and arranged in a collage, with lines of thin red yarn connecting them. It looks like the sort of story plot that TV writers use to plan their plot arcs, with the cloth strings implying action and causality. Thing A leads to Thing B leads to thing C which blows this whole dang mystery wide open.
I did not build a physical cork board when I began to question my gender, but I did begin to construct one in my mind. Pieces of personal evidence that I hadn’t considered relevant in years, possibly ever, were pinned to the wall and connected with long loops of mental yarn. I tacked them up one after another, like candid photographs taken from a motel parking lot.
Then I began to re-write the story of myself.
I started with the obvious memories. They hadn’t been all that significant before, but they were front and center in my trans conspiracy narrative. The handful of times I tried on women’s clothes and make-up during puberty. My discomfort with my genitals in early childhood. The strong connection I felt with gender transformation stories from a young age. The fact that I wore my hair down past my shoulders and rocked a messenger back in High School. The fact that I liked it when people called me a lesbian in college. The way my heart ached when I thought about female friendship as a social ritual that was always going to be just outside my reach.
Once I had these new touchstones in place, I could begin to re-evaluate other aspects of my past — softer and more internal truths for which I had always lacked a clear explanation. My comfort in queer spaces without an explicitly queer identity. A lifelong struggle with anxiety. A deep and unwavering loneliness, even among friends. A feeling of disembodiment and disconnection from my physical form. The way that I always felt misunderstood, even when I was articulating myself clearly.
And then other things came bubbling up — thoughts and memories that I’d never even considered in a gender context before. The fact that my visceral discomfort and anxiety when driving large cars and trucks stems from the same pool of discomfort that I feel whenever I become aware of how large my body is and how much space I take up. Or remembering just how long I tried to keep my voice high when singing during puberty and how I gave up trying to sing at all once my larynx had fully descended. Or the fact that seeing my face on video playback causes me a huge amount of emotional distress despite the fact that I record and edit myself every week as part of my work.
None of these memories necessarily mean anything by themselves. Most people have a tough time in puberty. Many of us want to be something that we aren’t. I’m not sure I have a friend who hasn’t tried cross-dressing at least once, and we’ve all got varying amounts of social anxiety and body image issues. But taken together, with pieces of bright red yarn stringing them together? They’re a lot harder to ignore.
Before I built my mental cork board, I had a pile of confusing memories and a scattered collection of mental illness symptoms that lacked a clear source. After I began to buy into my conspiracy theory, I had a narrative that made sense. While “you’re trans!” always seemed like an overreaction to any one of these data points, the fact that it explained literally all of them (and dozens more) made things a lot harder to deny. Either I’m trans, or there are a hell of a lot of unexplained coincidences haunting my past.
This is obviously not conclusive, but the DSM criteria for diagnosing gender dysphoria really just boils down to, “do you like being your assigned gender, or do you wish you were the opposite gender?” I already knew the answers to those questions, but it wasn’t enough to push me over the edge and fully begin to start living my truth. I needed a new narrative for my life — a story I could tell myself, from birth to now, that made sense. And thinking about my past like a conspiracy theory provided me with that sense of comfort.
And even still, I go through periods where I wonder if I’m just fooling myself. After all, there are people out there who have fooled themselves into believing that the US Government has been overrun by shape-shifting lizards. I can never be truly certain that I’m not doing the same thing to myself. The divorce rate in Maine from 2000–2009 has a 99% correlation to margarine consumption, and only a true wingnut would believe that those two things are actually related.
But that’s the other thing about conspiracy theories: most of them can never be proven. I don’t think I’m making the same mistake I did when I first saw Loose Change — being on the opposite side of the issue from Alex Jones this time feels good, at least — but I’ll never really know. At the end of the day, you just have to look at all the available evidence and made a decision.
But there is one important difference between this and other conspiracy theories: ultimately, the past doesn’t really matter when it comes to figuring out my gender.
I needed to think about all this stuff to get to the place where I told myself that I wanted to begin transitioning. Now I am, and it’s already making me a happier and more complete person. If my conspiracy theory isn’t true, then at some point I assume I’ll stop feeling euphoric at being called she/her and slowly taking on a more femme gender presentation. Until then, I’ll choose to believe.
Check out my other trans writing at: https://medium.com/@CassieLaBelle