How Lucy Sante Became the Person She Feared

How Lucy Sante Became the Person She Feared

In early 2021, the writer Lucy Sante sent an e-mail to her closest friends. Its subject was “A Bombshell,” which Sante later joked was an unintentional pun. In the text she attached, she explained that at the age of sixty-six she was accepting her long-suppressed identity as a transgender woman.

Her transition had been catalyzed by an interaction with artificial intelligence. That February, Sante had downloaded FaceApp, a photo-editing application that uses neural networks to generate realistic transformations of people’s faces. “For a laugh,” she wrote to her friends, she’d uploaded a photograph of herself into the app’s gender-swapping feature. It returned “a full-face Hudson Valley woman in midlife.” Sante was undone. “When I saw her I felt something liquify in the core of my body,” she wrote. Other metaphors follow—the bursting of a dam, the opening of Pandora’s box—for what had been held back for most of a lifetime and could no longer be wished away: a female identity that was “the consuming furnace at the center of my life.”

This e-mail announcement, which runs several pages, opens Sante’s memoir of transition, “I Heard Her Call My Name.” The letter is a raw and still uncertain text, written as she tries to understand the process by which she ignored her own longings for decades. “I wanted with every particle of my being to be a woman, and that thought was pasted to my windshield, and yet I looked through it, having trained myself to do so,” she told her friends. In her memoir, the e-mail marks the fulcrum between the secrecy of her past and her more open future. The book is divided into two parts: one is autobiographical, beginning with her childhood in Belgium and her suppressed girlhood, which began making itself known when she was nine or ten years old; the second follows the logistics of the first year of her transition, both its euphoria and its rough patches.

Sante’s autobiographical story contains another difficult transition, that of her trying to figure out how to become an American as a child. Born a Walloon, the French-speaking ethnic group in Belgium, Sante immigrated to New Jersey with her parents in the nineteen-sixties. In other realms of her life, she successively cast off the social world into which she was born. She was the first member of her family to graduate from high school; she rejected her mother’s strict Catholicism; she was kicked out of her all-boys Jesuit private school, in New York, in part for cutting class. In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, Sante lived in the heart of downtown New York’s creative scene, working at the Strand bookstore, hanging out at CBGB and Mudd Club, going to Patti Smith shows, and having a circle of friends that included writers and artists such as Darryl Pinckney, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Jim Jarmusch. She had shed her background to fit into this free-spirited milieu, only to find that the sense of needing to convincingly perform an identity never quite left her.

The transition into womanhood, once Sante pursues it, is easier than repatriating—it was trying to be a man for most of her life that was exhausting. Once on the other side, almost everything is straightforward: she finds a trans mother more than forty years her junior; she joins chat groups; she visits an endocrinologist; she figures out what clothes she prefers and how to do her hair. Although she has always felt most comfortable around women, she initially finds it a challenge to drop the male act in their company. “I had tried so hard to be a heterosexual man that the need to behave like one took me over like a puppeteer whenever I found myself in the presence of a woman I found attractive,” she says. She is deferential to the cis women around her, anticipating more criticism than she gets, except perhaps in instances where her euphoria causes an oversight, such as when she chooses to announce her identity to her Instagram followers on her partner’s birthday. Their relationship, which at the time of her transition had lasted fourteen years, does not survive the change, which Sante accepts but laments.

The memoir is animated by the question of how Sante kept her identity secret from herself and from others for nearly six decades. In her young adulthood, she writes, her longing to live as a woman was closer to the surface but got buried as she grew older, and suppressed fantasies she told herself were “perversions.” When she was old enough that her parents let her stay home alone, Sante would try on her mother’s clothes. She can recall with specificity chance encounters with women’s clothing—a blouse left behind in a new rental apartment that she tried on and then threw away in shame, a pile of women’s clothes left unclaimed on a dryer in a laundromat that she considered stealing. Sante writes that she was ignorant about trans identity. She was romantically and sexually attracted to women, and thought women would reject her if they knew she was trans.

Even lighthearted brushes with gender play could provoke anxiety—Sante lived near the East Village’s Pyramid Club, which was known for its drag performers, but never went to its drag shows, or to Wigstock. The band the New York Dolls performed in drag; Sante avoided them. She was close for a time with Nan Goldin, famous for her photographs of her trans friends, but never confided in her, and was too envious and frightened of trans people to try to befriend them. The LSD experiments of her youth were precarious: “gender dysphoria regularly came up in my trips and caused me pain and horror,” she writes, recalling the paranoia that her “weird secret” would make itself known. The body she wanted seemed unattainable; the thought of having breasts and a vagina filled her with “existential terror.” Glimpses of possibilities seared themselves into her memory: a two-inch photo of a woman with a penis posted on the door of a porn shop in Malmö, Sweden, in the nineteen-seventies; ads for the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries in the Village Voice; a photo caption from Sante’s school days in which a typo gave her the name she would later choose: Lucy.

She found ways to cope. “I created a male persona that was saturnine, cerebral, a bit remote, a bit owlish, possibly ‘quirky,’ coming close to asexual despite my best intentions,” Sante writes. It was always a performance, one that made social life exhausting. “Maleness did not appeal to me at all, with its acrid musk, its stubble, its needful dangling genitalia, its oafishness and clumsiness, its sense of mission and conquest, its resemblance to the aspects of myself I most despised.” She didn’t identify as being male, but could not fully visualize a social category to which she belonged. Trans representation in media in her youth was rare or merely comedic. She had heard some of the arguments of trans-exclusionary feminism and worried about claiming a gender identity without having undergone certain physical experiences of the female body. Then, there was her writing career, and an intellectual milieu where the cis-male experience was read as the center of human thought. “I wanted to be a significant writer, and I did not want to be stuffed into a category, any category,” Sante writes. “If I were transgender that fact would be the only thing anyone knew about me.”

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