A person smokes a cigarette. The smoke cloud contains gender symbols. Everything is cast in shades of blue.

Smoking Secrets

by Betsy Selvam

Content Note: gender dysphoria

Header Art: “Smoking Secrets” by Betsy Selvam is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0


I muster enough courage

to smoke — a sin I’ve smelled

only on mouths of men

until I left home for college.

I almost want someone I know

to spot my lips wisping white

and trip with shock.

Good girls don’t smoke. But

I am no good, no girl.

This is not rebellion,

or some call for attention.

This is a time-out

to revisit and catch up

with some old ghosts.

This time is nothing

like my first time.

This time I am alone

and I buy myself

two cheap loosies.

This time, I think

I like it.

I take a drag

and wonder

what the hell I am:

I am twenty and stupid.

“Only different, not special,” they say.

“You dress like a lesbian,”

they say,

my wardrobe is a stack

of men’s casual wear,

I own no make-up,

or a proper identity.


No, I don’t like girls like that

It’s called dysphoria

I’m hiding my girlbody

layering myself

with false skins

because I’m

afraid or disgusted, 

I’m not sure which.

Nowadays, I’m closer to ecdysis —

a dawning revelation.

I don’t want to be boy

I know I’m straight

but being alone is better.

Some believe I’m gay

and suggest me girls,

Some shoot daggers at me

Boy or girl? Their eyes search me

like searchlight beams, or both?

sometimes, I am assumed transgender.

Let them think what they want,

I’m tired.

I breathe out gritty smoke

through my nostrils

like a tea kettle

whistling sharp steam —

I’m a fast learner

I don’t even cough this time.

My head swims

in a thin smoke-haze.


I don’t want to end up

a crushed cigarette butt

The man smoking nearby

with red eyes and yellow teeth

is eyeing me up and down

am I boy or girl?

his gaze lowers to my chest

for the swell of breasts—I slouch more

I don’t want to end up

a crushed cigarette butt

My therapist says,

I’m running away

from being girl.

That my boy clothes,

my short hair, my bare face

don’t mean I want to be boy.

Did you know?

Growing up, I punched my chest,


pressed hard objects

 against my breasts

to flatten them

before they bulged out.

Pushing back

didn’t really work.

I didn’t know

what disgusted me more:

The blood staining my innerwear

every month

Or, that I stole my first bra

and kept it all a secret.

I don’t want to end up

a crushed cigarette butt


I wait for the smoke to cleanse me.

Let my sin be my redemption.

I hold my breath in,

my mouth is a globe of smoke

before I sigh it free to take flight

“I am not her/ him or they.

Call me it,” I told my parents,

as if I’m unliving

Like air—

Air is no he or she

Air is just free to be

They gave in and gave up,


I am twenty and confused,

heaving prayers of smoke

up to heaven.

I am scared of

becoming woman.

I am scared

because I know

what happens

to girlbodies and womanbodies.

Am I really confused

or just scared?

Sometimes I’m boy

Sometimes I’m girl


Most times I am… I am…


I am twenty and burdened

with teething secrets.

They bite and

sink into my ripe flesh.

I drop my cigarette

and crush the butt

under my shoe.

I plod on,

my head in a swoon.

The weight of everything

dissolves a little

with the stinging smoke.


the cigarette butt hangs

casually onto my sole/soul.






Leave a Reply