I’m Coming, or, I Am on My Way

Lío Mehiel, star of Mutt and Sundance winner In the Summers, on testosterone, transition and finding their true voice.

My partner and I are on her couch having sex. It’s November. She’s going down on me, and both being air signs, we’re quite … verbal. As my body starts to clench up and contort, a moan erupts through my mouth: I’m coming. I’m coming. And when I say this, I sound like a man.

Her head pops up with the sincerity of a meerkat — and we both squeal. Oh my god, did you hear that?? That was crazy!! we say in unison. Suddenly we’re two high school girls screaming into each other’s mouths with high-pitched excitement. Can you do it again?? I use the words “I’m coming,” specifically the “uuuhh-ming,” to try and recreate the baritone voice that came through with perfect clarity moments before.

I was about two-and-a-half months on testosterone (T), and we had been talking for the past little while about whether my voice was actually changing yet or not. It was raspy, and my throat was often sore, all signs of my vocal chords thickening and expanding, but because we spend so much time together, she couldn’t quite tell if it was getting deeper, and I didn’t yet know if I would be able to hear the difference.

In the complete relaxation of orgasm, when I wasn’t posturing, or self-editing, or even listening to myself, my voice resonated with a depth and clarity I had never heard. Hearing this voice come out of me, I traveled through time to a future where I sound unrecognizable, but thrillingly confident. So I continued to repeat, I’m coming, I’m coming, until I got back there. The sound was resonating in my chin, which felt fleshy and massive and throbbing and square. I felt like George fucking Clooney. And then I tried switching to my old voice, which I found resonates off the back of my hard palate. As I went back and forth, I felt the sound sliding like an object on my tongue, creating these two different versions of me — one telling the other, I am on my way to you, and then going there through relaxation.

In medical transition, as in a play I perform in, my mouth and the voice it shapes have become a kind of portal — a mechanism formulated by a mysterious mix of genetics, socialization and being-ness.

Crooked teeth, thumb sucking, assigned gender, regionality and even class all contribute to the way we shape sound in our mouths. And then there are the particulars of childhood and puberty — when we were first learning to make sounds, and then form words, and eventually express our ideas, was there someone willing to listen? Could we be messy, silly, wrong, quiet or loud in our articulation? And what about the physical spaces we were in … how tall were the ceilings in the rooms our voices were resonating in? What about the windows? Were they large or small, and did they let in the broader soundscape of our world that our voices interrupted or added to? All of this contributes to the particularities of how the fleshy interiority of our mouths shape sound, make language and dialect, and most of all, craft a primary beacon of selfhood: our voice.

A few days after I hear my future voice through orgasm, I am at an award ceremony where I am being honored, in part because of the ways I have made myself and my queerness heard through my work. Unfortunately, I cannot project my voice while undergoing what is essentially an adult puberty, and something about my resonance can’t seem to pierce through the noise in the crowd, so ironically, no one can hear me. I can’t even hear my own voice. I haven’t yet figured out how to breathe in a way that can sustain my changing voice through space. I know this is temporary — my body will learn on its own — but like a teenager, I feel the momentary as eternal.

Never mind, I wave off the person in the crowd asking me to repeat myself. As I lean back into myself and listen to the group in front of me talking, the external circumstance starts to create an authentic emotional experience within me of feeling existentially unheard and misunderstood. This is not the case in my life; in addition to the systemic privileges I receive as a white Latine, masculine-of-center person living in America, I also tend to make myself heard. But in this moment, T has created an uncanny emotional distance between me and my life, in which I feel like I am no longer living my life, but standing right next to it, peering over at it, perhaps with a slight grudge. I remember what my first puberty was like and remind myself again, this part is temporary.

In the soup of hormones, transformation and the present inability to be heard, I am left to stare with a soft focus beyond the group of queer changemakers schmoozing in front of me and contemplate, What is real? What is “authentically” me? Meditation has taught me that my thoughts and feelings are not me; I am consciousness and authenticity is “radical presence.” As Joe Dispenza puts it (don’t cringe at me), we believe ourselves to be the particle, but in fact, we are the wave. As in, I thought the mouth that shaped my voice, with its flesh, muscles and bones, was a solid, reliable instrument. But the testosterone I am injecting into my body is not only changing the quality of the sound flowing through my mouth by thickening my vocal chords, but it is also literally changing the structure of my mouth and face that holds and delivers sound.

A trans friend shared with me something they had heard from another trans person: On T, there is a time after you’ve lost your old face, but before you’ve gotten your new one … and, I would add: This is the time of greatest grief and greatest potential. Right now, underneath a layer of water, the bones and muscles across my face and body are shifting and expanding like tectonic plates. Only when the water dissipates will the results be revealed to me. The commitment and surrender it takes to get through the adult puberty chapter of transition makes me tremble.

I am a non-binary trans person, so my aim is not to pass as a cis man in the world. I have to admit that I don’t really have words for what my goals are with T. As an intellectual human being living in a late-capitalist society that requires us to live within what Eloghosa Osunde calls a “finite dictionary,” the fact that I am #acting on intuition alone can feel so abnormal that it morphs into# a kind of shame.

I have this feeling about testosterone and me. That’s it. It’s a nonverbal, energetic attraction that mirrors the indescribable experience of meeting someone and immediately sensing your shared physical chemistry. Is that enough of a reason to take it? Doctors and friends ask what I “hope to achieve,” and this language of “goals” and “achievement” paralyzes me. My insecurity assumes they want some coherent, pragmatic, three-part argument as to why T is right for me, and I just can’t give it. The destination I am heading towards now is unknown, but the practice of surrendering to the unknown feels like the opposite impulse that led me to take T in the first place. It’s hard to reconcile in my overthinking brain. I am used to assessing the situation I have been given, and taking action to pivot towards my desired reality. With top surgery, it was clear — I do not want a female chest; I want to be a boy who runs on the beach shirtless; I want to feel free and top surgery gives me that. With testosterone, I realize that what I desire is contact with this agent of change, without desiring a particular outcome, and this shakes my whole worldview awake.

To soothe me, my partner reminds me of the paradox of meditation: Can you let go of who you have been in the past long enough that you can “become yourself” in the present? Perhaps testosterone is not something I am artificially adding to my body in order to transform what is “naturally” there. Perhaps T is stripping away what was actually inauthentic: my need to perform as a woman in the world. Perhaps T is revealing myself to me and that’s why I don’t know where I’m going. And so when I hear these glimmers of myself during sex, the me that exists underneath the tension in my mouth and despite the knot in my throat, the me that is relaxed and deep and open, I wonder what else there is for me to discover, beyond my own resistance, beyond my own ability to predict. These moments remind me that my “new voice” is already there, and the paradox of transition is to initiate physical change so I can surrender to the unknown outcome of that change. Right now and always, there is a new me with every breath.

All photos of Lío Mehiel by Soni Broman, used here with permission.

Lío Mehiel is an actor, artist, and filmmaker. Lío made their feature film debut starring in Sundance 2023’s Mutt. Their critically acclaimed performance earned them the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award in Acting, making them the first trans actor to ever win the award. The film can currently be streamed on Netflix. Most recently, Lío returned to Sundance 2024, starring opposite Leslie Grace, Sasha Calle and Residente in In the Summers, which won the festival’s top honor of Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. As a filmmaker, Lío is a co-founder of Voyeur Productions. Their most recent short, Entre Amigxs, can now be seen on NOWNESS. Lío is currently the producer and creative director of the transgender sculpture collection, Ancient Futures/Angels. The works most recently showed at GUTS Gallery in London and can now be seen at Charleston in the UK. Their piece Arcade Amerikana was included in the list of 10 Best Immersive Shows in NYC by Time Out and Gothamist. (Photo by Soni Broman.)