The Story of How I Became Tara Birch
For over sixteen years, I’ve used the pseudonym Tara Birch when I posted my poetry and fiction online. I often stated Tara was a pseudonym, but until now I never publicly revealed my true name. Most people accepted that Tara is a female, and when asked, I said I was a female. But that was a lie. Though I now identify my gender as nonbinary, I was born a biological male and my name is Steve Searls. So why did I use the name “Tara Birch” and assume the identity of a woman when posting poems and stories online? My answer is complicated, but for anyone who wishes to understand why I would do such a thing, here is my story.
Since childhood, I’ve had problems with my gender identity. I was a sickly, extremely shy child, who had difficulty fitting in with other boys. I experienced thoughts that maybe I should have been born a girl. The earliest one I can remember occurred around the age of 7 or so, but they’ve persisted throughout my life. However, I was raised as a strict Lutheran, for which such thoughts were considered sinful. So, despite episodes where I dressed up in my mother’s clothes and used her makeup in secret, I suppressed those feelings, which at the time both the popular media and the medical community considered deviant and abnormal. Also, as a teenager, I was attracted to girls, so how could I have any desire to be one myself.
Nonetheless, those thoughts I had that contradicted what was considered normal for males, whether as a boor an adult man, caused me a great deal of guilt and angst. And, though I didn’t date in high school, eventually I dated the youngest daughter of our Church’s pastor, and we married at the age of 20. That made my mother and grandmother very happy, because it ticked off all the boxes for their perfect choice of a wife for their son and grandson.
It should come as no surprise that my first marriage failed for a number of reasons and we divorced after one year. This led to two years where, though I had many close women friends, I had no girlfriends. Socially, I was very awkward and the failure of my first marriage only reinforced my low self esteem. However, my second girlfriend encouraged me to explore aspects of my personality I had long denied. She learned that a male co-worker had a crush on me, brought us together and we engaged in a brief sexual relationship. This was when I was learned I realized I was attracted to men, and even more, that I enjoyed that men were attracted to me.
Unfortunately, my girlfriend had a depressive episode soon afterward where she attempted suicide, and was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital. The day she was admitted, I did something I never expected. She and I had visited a gay bar before this so I could see what they were like. That night, I dressed up in some of her lingerie, put on her makeup and went to the gay bar alone. When my girlfriend was released, I told her what I had done, expecting she would break up with me. She did not. She even arranged sexual encounters with gay men for me – men I did not know, but who she knew. To this day, I’m uncertain why she did this. This continued for for about 18 months, even after we married.
Both of us were abusing drugs, and combined with my continued exploration of my sexuality, our relationship eventually fell apart. I had an accident while driving her car while she was away for a long weekend with her best friend. Beaten unconscious by three men from the other vehicle, I was hospitalized for three days. After I was released from the hospital, she left me and we ultimately were divorced.
[TRIGGER WARNING] During this period of my life, I fell apart emotionally. I continued to go to gay bars until the night I was raped by a man who drove me home one. I’ve written about this experience here: https://medium.com/@stevendsearls/my-rape-story-warning-may-trigger-sexual-assault-victims-b875044ef380
I stopped going to gay bars for a while, and became very depressed. Soon after, I lost my job due to attendance issues and ended up living in my parents’ basement. After my parents discovered my continued substance abuse, they threatened to throw me out unless I turned over all my drugs and got myself sober. I was fortunate that they helped me get off drugs. I drove a taxi to earn money while studying for the LSAT, the law school entrance exam. Accepted to Law School in 1982, I was lucky to receive a merit scholarship based on my high class rank. I had a few sexual encounters with men or women my first year, but, at the start of my second year, I started dating a fellow classmate, and we became a couple. I told her everything about my past, but she still wanted to continue our relationship, and a year after we graduated and passed the bar, we married.
I won’t say our relationship has always been perfect, but we were both committed to making things work. We moved to western New York when she was offered an in-house position at a major corporation. That same year she became pregnant with our son who was born in the late 80s. In the early 90s, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder.
At this time, I thought I had put aside all thoughts regarding gender identity issues, but I was fooling myself. Those issues never really went away. They simply became buried beneath my responsibilities as a father and my career as a lawyer. For a brief time, I entertained the idea of transitioning. I discussed that idea, and my issues related to gender, with a therapist who I saw for depression related to my autoimmune disorder. I chose not to pursue it for a number of reasons. I was married to a woman I loved, and we had children. Transitioning to a female would have made it difficult to keep my family together, even assuming my wife would have accepted and supported my decision. Also, with my autoimmune disorder, I couldn’t see how I could cope with any other significant changes in my life.
In 1998, I could no longer continue my career as a lawyer, and despite the best efforts of my firm, who provided legal representation, I was denied disability benefits and lost my case on appeal, since I could not prove bad faith on the part of the insurer. This was a serious blow to me. My identity was tied to my career, and to my ability to earn money for my family while also being the best father I could to my kids. It put added stress on my relationship with my wife, as well. My self-worth was at an all time low. What saved me was writing.
I began posting to online forums, or bulletin board as they were called back then in 1999. I used an anonymous name, thewhitetree (later shortened to whitetree), after negative experiences with people when I used my real name. Someone suggested I try my hand at poetry. I started posting my poems various poetry forums and websites in 2001. On the one I frequented the most, I soon realized that people believed I was a woman. I do not know what gave that that impression, but at the time, for reasons that are still not clear to me, I did not correct them, and adopted a female persona. I told Didi Menendez, the founder of a prominent poetry website, of my real identity after mistakenly posting a comment that indicated I was male, a post I quickly deleted. Fearing backlash from the only group of people with whom I had any social interactions, I told her I would no longer post there. She, to her credit, said I should not worry, that it didn’t matter to her what I called myself. After that, she published a number of my poems, including the chapbook referred to in my bio.
So, you might ask, how did whitetree or Tree as many called me then, become Tara Birch? In 2002, the publisher of an online literary zine, Tryst, wanted me to be the featured poet for its premiere issue. That came with a $2,000 award as the first recipient of her “MEA Award,” an acronym for the Muse’s Endowment of the Arts. (Link: http://www.tryst3.com/issue1/birchview.html)
By this time, I did not wish to out myself as a man writing as a woman. I chose to assume the name of Tara Birch. Birch because it is a literally a white tree, and Tara because I like the sound of that name. I answered written questions for the interview she published with my poems. An asked her to make out the check for the award in my wife’s name. After that, I was Tara Birch wherever I posted my work. I assumed that persona, and to be honest, I took pleasure writing poetry as Tara. Tara allowed me to express feelings and emotions that I could not do as Steve. In retrospect, I see that adopting Tara as my online persona was related to efforts to come to terms with my gender.
Even in the early years of the 21st century, there were no terms, other than terms found in abnormal psychology texts, for the gender issues I struggled with my entire life. People who did not feel comfortable with traditional gender roles were described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as suffering from “Gender Identity Disorder,” a mental illness, until 2013, when they changed it to “Gender Dysphoria,” which was not much of an improvement. Until very recently, there were no commonly accepted alternatives that did not carry a negative connotation. “Gender fluid” or “nonbinary,” terms which have become popular over the last few years, did not exist for most of my life. The only one I knew about was transsexual, but that was usually reserved for people who transitioned from male to female or female to male, which I did not do.
For a time, I even speculated that I had Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder, because of my desire to write as Tara, and even blogged about that possibility at a website I created for Tara Birch. However, I’ve now come to realize that Tara Birch was not a separate identity that manifested as part of a mental illness, but simply my means of coping with my confused feelings regarding gender.
I joined Facebook as Tara Birch in December 2006. At some point, I stopped posting poems and stories online except on Tara’s Facebook page. I’ve always explained to people Tara was a pseudonym, but I’ve only shared with a few that Tara was Steve. As the years passed, and I focused more on my novel, I posted less to Facebook, but many of Tara’s friends knew she was working on a novel. In November 2019, that novel was finally accepted for publication by the small press, Black Rose Writing. To promote the book, I need to attend public events at bookstores and libraries. I cannot do that as Tara Birch, only as Steve Searls. And that’s when I realized I needed to disclose Steve is Tara, and Tara is Steve.
I could have chosen to stop posting to Tara’s Facebook account to avoid telling the truth my gender identity, but I didn’t want to abandon the persona of Tara that was so important to me. I believe I never would have become a writer, or authored a novel, if I had not created the persona of Tara Birch. Without her, I believe I never would have written any of the poems and stories I wrote, including my novel. To me, Tara represents an important part of my identity. To lose her would be as painful as losing a close friend. And I could see no way forward unless I disclosed to the people who know me as Tara Birch that the individual behind that name is a biological male named Steve Searls.
I understand that many people believe gender is strictly binary, i.e., that one’s gender can only be either male or female. However, I believe gender is not simply a matter of our biology and DNA, but also a social and psychological construct that encompasses many possibilities. There are millions of people around the world who recognize the existence of people who may be biologically male or female but who feel deeply that biology doesn’t reflect their true gender. I doubt I could convince anyone who does not share my belief that gender lies upon a spectrum, that it’s not an either/or proposition, that they are wrong and I am right. But for myself, I’ve chosen to identify my gender as nonbinary. Link: https://www.healthline.com/health/transgender/nonbinary
I know that disclosing this very intimate and personal information about my gender identity to people who only know me as Tara Birch will see this as deceitful on my part, as a lie, and feel betrayed, hurt or angry. I agree I did not tell the truth about Tara and Steve before now. I’m am not asking anyone to forgive me for what I’ve done in the past. If that means that many of them will no longer interact with me online, or express outrage at what misleading them, I accept that as a consequence of this confession, as it were.
But I could no longer go on pretending to be two different people. To continue to do so, I would have to effectively deny my essential nature as a human being. And to keep up that pretense would, in the long run, would have constituted the greater lie, one to myself about who I truly am. I will say Tara and Steve are separate people, not even to avoid the inevitable negative consequences that I expect will come my way as a result of this decision.
My hope is that many of the people I have long interacted with online, on Facebook and on other social media, will accept me for who I choose to be, and will remain my friends, but that is only a hope. But, that is all life ever offers us, isn’t it? Just hope. If you have read this far, perhaps you have already chosen to accept me for who I am, and how I choose to identify as a person, both as Tara and Steve. If that is the case, you have my eternal gratitude.