I have been trying, for several years, to write about friendship—particularly friendship between adult men and the ways that it’s complicated, for me, as a transgender man who didn’t come out until his early twenties. For the same several years, I have failed miserably at writing this essay. I couldn’t figure out why. It felt dishonest, even when everything I wrote was “true.” I’ve put it aside and restarted it dozens of times.

Recently, when trying yet again to approach this subject matter, I remembered something one of my undergrad professors said to me in workshop. I was 21, had just recently started writing essays, and had realized only a few months before that I was queer. My essays were all about this—my newly adopted identity as a “lesbian” (a label that never quite felt right, even during the two years that I proudly claimed it) and about the fears I had about how others would see me. The day we discussed my essay, my professor stopped and looked at me. “You’re just so good,” he said, but I could tell by his tone that he didn’t mean my writing and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. “Stop trying to make me like you. I’m not the admissions office. I’m not your grandmother.”

It took me nearly a decade to figure out what he meant: I was so worried about coming out, so concerned with what everyone else thought of me, that I couldn’t be fully honest in my essays. I struggled to treat the people I wrote about—my parents, my close friends, my aforementioned grandmother—as real characters, and it was even harder when it came to myself. If I said the wrong thing, did the wrong thing, thought the wrong thing…well, I didn’t even want to think about what would happen. It wouldn’t just make me look bad—what if they used my mistake as a reason to dismiss all queer people?

This fear only intensified when I came out a few years later as transgender and started living openly as a man. I have been told, by many well-intentioned acquaintances, that I “make it easy” for them to accept me: I am 5’10, mostly flat-chested even pre-op, bald and bearded. I wear Carhartt, I watch football, I play golf, I drink straight bourbon. They mean that I don’t make them uncomfortable. I don’t challenge them. In some ways, this is just who I am; in some ways, though, it’s a carefully crafted persona, just like who I am on the page.

I am afraid to show anger—in life as well as writing—because I am afraid people will assume it’s testosterone-induced and use it as a reason to believe stereotypes they’ve heard about trans men on hormones. If I write about sex, particularly explicitly queer sex, how will that change the way people see me, see people like me? Will it fuel the “pervert” and “groomer” comments? If I let readers see my messy parts—my depression, my anxiety, my unhealthy coping mechanisms—will people blame it on my transition, use it as an anecdote to argue against gender affirming care? No, I told myself. Better to be good. Better to be easy.

I realize, now, what my professor meant—it was bad for my writing to care so deeply about what other people think of me. Sometimes the part of me that needs to speak in an essay are the parts I don’t like very much, or the parts I’m afraid to let people see. In that essay about friendship, for example, I need to write honestly about the grief I feel about losing the close intimacy I used to have with women, the kind of friendship that I haven’t had post-transition—but I hesitate, worried that people will misread that grief as regret. I need to write about the intense longing I feel for that kind of intimacy with men—not sex, not romance, but intimacy—and I can’t shy away from the complications of wanting that as a queer trans guy who’s talking primarily about straight men.

I’m trying to write this essay yet again, but I’m giving myself permission this time to be honest with my reader—and myself. I’m taking my professor’s critique to heart, though I’m saying it gently: it’s not my job to be a model trans guy, to be easy to like, easy to accept. It’s my job to say the thing I need to say.

Silas Hansen’s essays have appeared in Colorado ReviewThe Normal SchoolHobart, and elsewhere. He lives in Muncie, Indiana, where he teaches creative writing at Ball State University