He felt perpetually embarrassed. Sometimes women screamed when they saw him in the bathroom. “This one time on tour this old lady freaked out, ‘There’s a man in the women’s room!’ I was standing there saying, ‘I’m a—I’m a’—I was trying to say, ‘But I’m a girl’ but I couldn’t say [it] … because I don’t feel like a girl.”
The artist who springs to life on stage became terrified of drawing attention to himself while off stage. Even though it’s more dangerous, he preferred to use the men’s room. He withdrew, and started avoiding going into public at all. He says he couldn’t get away from “the eyes.”
“I started to get really paranoid,” he says. “I couldn’t take being in public. It was hard. Everything was hard. Playing shows was hard. Going to work,” he says. “You’re constantly being identified as one gender or another.”
Even here at the Grape Room, he’d leave rather than use the bathroom. Rather than deal with the clerk at the corner store, he’d go without smokes. The gap between the public personality of Steph Hayes the musician and who Hayes was becoming in private was getting wider. But as social anxiety kept increasing, he was feeling more comfortable in his own skin.
Meanwhile, he met Majesta, a teacher. “We had a talk about it the very first night. He was sharing things and we ended up having a very long conversation about it,” says Majesta 34, who accepted Hayes as a man right from the beginning. “It just felt right, which is interesting for me because I was a lesbian.”
Majesta always referred to Hayes with male pronouns, except when talking about music. “I would use ‘she’ because from the music aspect, I knew Steph as a she.”
In early 2010, Hayes got the chance to escape the public scrutiny. Majesta had accepted a teaching position at a school in China. They stayed in touch on Skype and planned for Hayes to visit. Hayes decided to try to pass entirely as a man while in China. “It was really important to me … I wanted to try just being a guy in a place where no one knows me,” says Hayes. “So I got a binding shirt a few months before going to China and I tried out these peeing devices and things that could help you pass as a guy.”
It worked. For a short while, he got to live simply—anonymously—as Stephan, just another guy hanging out with his girlfriend. Hayes says the more masculine he got, the more he “couldn’t imagine ever going back in the other direction.”
But back home, where everyone knows Steph, “the eyes” returned, and on sacred ground, no less: while playing the Stargazer Lily reunion show this past May.
“People think I can’t hear from stage, but I can,” says Hayes. “A bunch of dudes were [saying things like], “She used to have really big tits.”
“I thought about making an announcement, saying ‘Hey you guys have noticed that I look different, well this is what I’m doing.’”
But he didn’t.
Now that he’s a man, he says the paranoia, the anxiety and fear are receding. Deciding to transition has given him back the confidence in public that he had lost for while.
“Before, I was being bounced around like a pinball. Now I feel like I’ve designed my own human,” says Hayes. Whatever anyone might think of him now, he says, he can take it as a man.
“This is a perfect example. I have to tell everyone downstairs that I’m having surgery to become male … I’ve had this conversation with 100 people in this room that I don’t really know, but I need them to know that, so I’ve told them all.”
On his way out the door, Hayes leans over the bar. Dee, the regular Monday night bartender, grabs his hand and gives it a squeeze. Hayes yells goodnight over the din. Then he lets go and spins out the door.
“Oh my God,” sighs Dee, pressing her palms into her cheeks. “That’s like, the last time I’m going to see her, you know?”
Anyone who knows Hayes primarily through his music will be surprised to know the artist suffered with the burden of such a big secret for so long. Honesty is such an integral part of his identity as an artist that he titled his 2008 album “Mostly True Stories” in admission of bending reality to fit the shape of a song here and there.
Sometimes, he thinks the songs and poems he wrote as a kid are even better than what he writes today, because they’re pure.
But for the longest time, Hayes confided only in one friend.
Savage Love: Sondheim is solace