(WOMENSENEWS)–Bec moved to North Carolina with this girlfriend, and a year and a half later, when their breakup became imminent, Bec planned a return to San Francisco.

This major life transition presented the perfect time for a major physical change. What had always been in the background of Bec’s mind leapt to the forefront. She searched online, using words like breast reduction, gay and queer, until she acquired the terminology, words like top surgery, bilateral mastectomy, female-to-male, transgender–the latter a word she hadn’t considered applying to herself at the time.

Bec found a Web site that housed a repository of before-and-after surgery pictures from a variety of doctors. Nothing she saw on those pages was worse than the baggage she carried on her own chest. Bec repeatedly concluded the best results came from the San Francisco–based Dr. Brownstein, a talented and well-respected surgeon, and one of only a few who performed the procedure.

I’d learned from my readings that the "top surgery" everyone around me threw out so casually was considered by the medical community to be gender reassignment surgery–a step in the transition from woman to man. Doctors, regarding this surgery as a treatment for Gender Identity Disorder, followed a set of recommended ethical guidelines, which included a psychological permission slip. But Bec didn’t appear to be sick, and as far as I could tell, she wasn’t transitioning from woman to man.

"How’d you get around the therapist’s note?" I asked Bec.

"Brownstein asked me how long I’d been living as a man," Bec explained. "I said a year and a half. That’s how long I’d been in North Carolina where everyone thought I was a guy. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then maybe it’s a . . ." she trailed off.

Male Claims Missing

I cocked my head, waiting for her to finish the phrase, but she shrugged her shoulders. She wouldn’t claim herself as a man, or male, being one or becoming one either. That she’d bypassed medical community guidelines left me unfazed, but I was astonished

that she’d trusted her top-surgery desire without any intention of "being a man"–that was the only accepted reason I’d ever heard to pursue a flat, streamlined chest.

There had to be something Bec wasn’t telling me. Like a prosecuting attorney, I tried to trick her into stating her manhood. I asked why she always "packed" a huge noticeable bulge in her briefs and she said it was because she liked her reflection, not because

men had bulges. Every aspect of her physicality, from her natural height to her flat chest and large package, screamed man and yet Bec, sitting across from me in her pink-and-black T-shirt, her women’s flag-football uniform, didn’t consider herself one.

She lived as a seahorse, an identifying animal she threw out, and not for the reason I expected–the anomalous male "pregnancy" or brood pouch–but rather for the fact that seahorses change coloration in adaptation to their surroundings.

"Some people would call me genderqueer," Bec said. "I don’t use that term, but I do think of myself as occupying the middle ground."

I loved the way that sounded, like the best of both genders, a compromise. I wished our culture, language and public bathroom situation allowed a person to hold elements of man and woman at the same time.

Pronoun Preferences

"The middle ground must pose problems for you," I said, emboldened by Bec’s frankness. "I notice people refer to you with both pronouns. Do you have a preference?"

"I do prefer ‘he,’ " Bec said. "But ‘she’ is easier and makes the most sense to a lot of people. So, really, either is fine."

I was one of those people for whom it was easier. It had taken me so many months to pose such a simple question, but underneath my inclination to ask was the willingness to let go of the rules and reconfigure a training so ingrained it felt hardwired. And this was not simple. Allowing a person to make a choice, especially a confusing choice like linking "Rebecca" with "he," threatened the entire foundation of gender as permanent, given and obvious. This might’ve still been scary had I not felt so free.

I wanted to refer to Bec as "he," his clear preference, and to uncover terms like genderqueer and middle ground that articulated what I thought I could see but not explain–that there were more identities and people under the category of transgender than just transsexuals, those who transition from female to male or from male to female, making those other terms real. Making them possibilities for me.

"Were you always this comfortable with yourself?" I sputtered with incredulous reverence. "Or was it a process for you?"

A smile opened on Bec’s porcelain face and he crossed his legs effeminately.

"Oh, it was a process," he said. "A metamorphosis. Although I don’t know what I’m metamorphing into."

Excerpt from "Nina Here Nor There" by Nick Krieger. Copyright 2011 by Nick Krieger. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.

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A native of New York, Nick Krieger realized at the age of 21 that he’d been born on the wrong coast, a malady he corrected by transitioning to San Francisco. His writing has earned several travel-writing awards and has been published in multiple travel guides.

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Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender