Cass Daniels stood on the second floor balcony of his family’s Vail vacation home and contemplated ending his life. It was spring break, a perfect time to die in his opinion. Since it wasn’t the middle of the work week, he wouldn’t inconvenience his fiancé, Cammie Hensley, as much as he otherwise would. Besides, he couldn’t take it anymore. He’d spent years feeling suffocated by an incommunicable darkness. He hated nearly everything about himself, and no matter how much therapy he endured, it wasn’t getting better.
Cass waited for Cammie to lie down for a nap. Then he wrote her a note and walked upstairs. He stepped out onto the edge of the balcony and fixed his gaze on the dense patch of trees and brush below him.
Six months earlier, Cass proposed to Cammie using a homemade sign that he stuck in the ground along a hiking trail behind that same Vail vacation home. It was cold for September. The brittle air had already begun to strip the trees of their leaves. Cass hadn’t planned to propose for a few more weeks, but when he felt the chills of winter creeping up, he convinced Cammie to reschedule their trip to Vail. There was a hike behind the house Cass found especially beautiful, and he wanted to get engaged while the leaves were still changing.
There was only one problem with moving up the trip: the sign wasn’t ready. Back at his family’s home, Cass and his mother scrambled to put it together before he and Cammie hit the road. The result was a large white placard affixed to a tall wooden post, the words ‘MARRY ME’ glued on in purple capital letters. Jo-Ann’s craft store had run out of A’s, so Cass placed a heart between the M and the Rs.
The trail was caked in golden red dirt and sprinkled with flattened crimson leaves. Cass, Cammie, and their curly white Labradoodle named Riggins made their way up, surrounded by Aspen trees flaunting leaves that blazed yellow against a turquoise sky.
Cass had lied to Cammie that morning. He said he was grabbing coffee with an old therapist when really, he snuck behind the house, took the hike, and planted the sign. When the two of them reached it, Cammie was too absorbed in their conversation about Pixar films to notice.
“Hey,” Cass interrupted, pointing over to it. “What’s that?” Cammie turned her head and shrieked. “Aw! Someone is getting engaged!”
“Uh, yeah,” Cass said, rolling his eyes and letting out a laugh, “You are.” Cass didn’t get down on one knee. Cammie never thought he would. On that day, September 26, 2014, she did, however, say yes.
The ground wasn’t as far away as Cass thought it’d be, maybe about fifteen feet, and he wasn’t sure the jump would actually kill him. He considered the possibility he’d only end up paralyzed, thereby condemning Cammie to a lifetime of wheeling him around. And what if it worked? What if he died and never got to meet his unborn nephew? He imagined that little baby coming into a world that did not contain his uncle, and he held onto that image as he backed down from the ledge. Choking on sobs, he ran downstairs to wake Cammie.
Back then, Cass was a man, but he was still the only one who knew it. To the rest of the world, he was Cassidy, a curvy young woman who wore lipstick, dresses, and jewelry and had radiant chest-length brown hair. He’d spent 24 years trapped inside a body that did not belong to him, and the older he got, the less he could stand it.
When Cammie jerked awake to Cass’s cries, she instantly guessed he’d come to tell her he was transgender. The signs had been piling up for years. There was the time Cass asked Cammie to draw a beard on his face with makeup, just to see what it would look like. There was the fact that Cass never quite felt comfortable being called a lesbian, no matter how in love with Cammie he said he was or how exclusively into girls he said he felt. There was the way he sometimes preferred to be called Ralph. Then there was his new habit: obsessively scrolling through the pictures under the FTM hashtag on Instagram.
#FTM contains over one million posts celebrating the female to male transgender community. Cass was enchanted by photographs showing off flat, post-top surgery chests, new facial hair, and comparisons between pre- and post-testosterone looks. He can’t recall how he found the hashtag, but the discovery changed his life. It helped him realize how many people out there felt the way he did. As Cammie observed Cass scrolling through the posts for hours each day, she began to accept that a transition could be in their future.
On a warm July evening in 2016, Cass and Cammie settle into the kitchen of their new home and tell me their story. When they speak, they don’t look at me; they look at each other. When they recount memories, they do it together, with one picking up in the middle of the other’s sentence.
At 25 (Cass) and 27 (Cammie), their relationship has already spanned eleven years. They connected at such young ages that they seem to have formed around one another, like a pair of adjacent trees that conjoin as they grow taller. Their friends call them housecats because they are most likely to be found curled up on their couch watching The Bachelorette, Pretty Little Liars, or any of the newest reality shows.
For the first four of their eleven years, Cass and Cammie didn’t know they were in love. They met in high school thanks to a program called Link Leaders in which upperclassmen are given a group of freshmen to mentor. Cass, a freshman, was assigned to Cammie, a junior.
Cass was instantly consumed with desire for Cammie, a tall, skinny blue-eyed blonde. For a while, Cammie paid no attention to him, but he admired from afar. He studied her schedule so he knew when to catch a glimpse of her walking through the school courtyard. “I just wanted to see what she was wearing!” Cass says.
They first bonded when forming an alliance against a boy who tried to date both of them at once. Over Myspace chat, they unraveled his deceit, ditched him, and became friends. They hung out almost every day until Cammie graduated high school, and a great deal after since Cammie didn’t leave town for college.
Both Cammie and Cass recall their relationship feeling different than what they shared with other best friends. They were inseparable to an unusual degree, and they loved to snuggle. Cass’s dad used to joke about opening a savings account for his extra child, and once, Cass went to Cammie’s house just to take a nap with her.
“My mom thought it was so weird,” Cammie remembers.
Still, neither of them thought anything of this unique friendship, flatly denying the presence of any romantic tension every time their mothers asked if something more was going on.
Cass felt especially uncomfortable when his mother broached the topic. He knew something was bubbling beneath the surface of this friendship, but he refused to confront it. He had managed to admit to himself that maybe he was attracted to girls, but his feelings didn’t make sense. “Whenever I pictured myself in a relationship it was a heterosexual relationship,” he says, “But I was the man. It was so confusing and it didn’t feel authentic to even be in a relationship with Cammie. Even though I loved her.”
When Cammie left to study abroad in Italy during her junior year in college, the tension reached its tipping point. Cass, a freshman at the University of Michigan, had been trying his hand at dating men. When he told Cammie about one guy with whom he’d been spending a lot of time, Cammie began to crack. She spent most of her time in Italy feeling isolated and depressed.
When Cammie’s program ended, Cass came to visit. The pair traveled through Venice, Rome, and Monterosso, a village along the Cinque Terre. There, an unexpected rainstorm confined them to their hotel. Alone with Cammie for an entire day, Cass couldn’t take it anymore.
“It was just one of those things where I didn’t want to live without Cammie knowing that I loved her,” he says. He quietly muttered, “So...I’m in love with you.”
Cass and Cammie dated happily for the next four years, or as happily as possible when Cass was still stuck inside Cassidy’s body. Because they didn’t know what else to call themselves, they eventually settled on lesbians. Cammie never quite felt like one since she’d only dated guys until Cass, but she knew friends and family needed a label to latch onto. The term didn’t bother her.
For Cass, “lesbian” didn’t feel right at all. He knew, however, that his relationship with Cammie wasn’t temporary, so if people wanted to call him a lesbian, he figured, what did it matter? If two women in a committed relationship are lesbians, then he must be one.
“I’d rather be called a lesbian than a dyke,” Cass says, “but not anymore.” Now he prefers husband.
After Cass woke Cammie and acknowledged there was “something going on” with his gender, they told his family immediately. It took eight weeks of exhausting conversations for his parents to understand how badly he needed to transition, how it had become a matter of life and death, how this wasn’t just a phase, and how yes, he was sure.
Throughout this period, Cammie did her research so she could be a resource for Cass’s parents. She told them she knew the idea of watching their daughter become their son was scary, but that it’s what Cass needed to get better. She said while transitioning may not be the light switch that instantly turns his despair into contentment, it will be “like a little dimmer switch that’s going to get it a little brighter.”
On November 23, 2015, Cass took his first dose of testosterone, a yellowish clear liquid thickened with cottonseed oil, using a needle the size of a toothbrush. He’d already chopped off his hair, and he couldn’t wait to stop being confused for a manly lesbian and start being seen as a man. He will jam the needle into his thigh like an EpiPen every ten days for the rest of his life, and like an EpiPen, the testosterone will keep him breathing.
It was only a short time before Cass’s family embraced the transition. Cass says his mom is “trans central” now and the de facto leader of her support group, SOFFA— Significant Others, Friends, Family, and Allies of Trans People. His dad has seized the opportunity to take father/son fly-fishing trips, and at his wedding, his two sisters said in their speech how happy they were to have a brother.
A few months before starting testosterone, Cass announced his transition to his 700+ Facebook friends. Using something his therapist called the positive approach, he focused not on how tortured he’d been all his life, but instead on how great this transition would be: “I am doing something amazing and I am aligning my outer appearance with my male gender identity!...My appearance will finally match how I feel on the inside, and I can’t wait!”
Cammie shared his post on her own wall, adding: “For those of you not friends with my love, Cass, let me update you! I couldn't be prouder to continue to walk beside him in this beautiful life we lead!”
Cass also created an Instagram account to document his transition, officially joining the #FTM community. Under the handle, AlignCass, he posts his own before and after pictures, boasts about the new length of his leg hair, and shows off his newly flat chest and driver’s license that recognizes him as male. There is also a video comparing his high-pitched, feminine voice after three days on testosterone to his deep rasp after four months.
Scrolling from the bottom of that profile to the top is like watching someone push that dimmer switch up, up, up. The photographs move from a stone-faced woman glaring into the camera to a beaming man with a wide smile.
Cass has become a stout, round-faced young man with stubble and thick short hair that he often hides beneath a backwards baseball cap. It took about 6 months of testosterone injections before he began passing as a man, and he is still growing accustomed to automatically getting called “he” and “sir.” His voice is certainly masculine now, though it is still on the higher side. When he gets excited, it cracks. Starting testosterone, he says, is kind of like going through puberty.
Cass was at the grocery store the first time he was tormented for being trans. His facial hair grew in quickly, before he could fully pass as a man, and a group of guys began to laugh at him. “What the hell is that?” one said. “Do you see its beard?” responded another. Cass went back to his car and cried.
Cass is lucky in that he fully passes now, so he no longer faces scrutiny every time he leaves the house. Actually, Cass is lucky for many reasons. Not only does he have the support of friends and family, but he also has the financial means both to transition and to attend therapy.
Cass is lucky, yes, but he and Cammie still struggle at times with the transition. Fitting in has been rough for both of them. Cass says some trans men try to prove their manhood by becoming as masculine as possible, but he never felt a need. “I never wanted to change my personality,” he says, “I just wanted to look the way I felt I needed to look.” He maintains several interests and mannerisms typically associated with females, and he often feels like he doesn’t fit in with either cisgender or trans men. During one Tuesday shift at the shoe store where he works, he twists across the floor to the voice of Dolly Parton wailing over the loud speakers, screeches with glee when he sees fanny packs are back in style, and poses in the mirror wearing a variety of backpacks. “I still come off as a different type of male,” he says. “Men treat me differently than they treat each other.”
Being part of the LGBTQ community has always been important to Cammie. Now that she and Cass appear as a heterosexual couple, it’s harder to do that. “We’re invisibly queer,” she says, which has gotten her into trouble. Once, working at a new job, she made a gay joke. Coworkers, who knew she had a husband, thought she was being homophobic. She didn’t know how to explain.
Coming out, they say, is never easy—for either of them. Every time someone in their lives discovers Cass is trans, the pair has to pray for a positive reaction and field what are often inappropriate questions, like whether Cass has had “the surgery.” Both feel they have been handed the responsibility of being 24/7 trans educators, and sometimes it’s exhausting.
Cass and Cammie say the transition has changed almost nothing about their relationship. Cass’s only fear was that Cammie would no longer find him physically attractive. “I knew that our emotional bond was fine,” he says, “It was just like, are you still gonna think I’m hot?”
“That’s not a problem,” says Cammie, whose decision to stay is less rare than one might think. According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, in instances where one member of a couple transitions, 55 percent stay together or else break up for reasons unrelated to gender.
“From my experience as the partner to a trans person,” says Cammie, “The biggest misconception that I get is that it’s really hard to be the partner and that it’s this huge thing, that I’m bearing this weight and I’m such a good person and it’s kind of like, I just love Cass.”
In June, Cammie and Cass got married beneath a chuppah made of birch bark in the center of a sprawling green mountain in Beaver Creek, Colorado. Small patches of snow still checkered the grassy ski runs soaring above the ceremony on all sides. Guests sat on wooden foldout chairs and held white umbrellas to shield their eyes from the sun.
Cammie wore a white, V-neck dress with an embroidered flower lace print, her hair spilling down in soft curls a few inches past her shoulders. Cass wore his first black suit. He laughs remembering the fitter’s confusion for the fact he’d never worn one before.
“Never really needed one!” he jokes. “Been a dress man ‘til now,” adds Cammie, as the two crack up in the kitchen.