On an unusually sunny and crisp autumn afternoon in November 2010, a family gathered in Saints Peter and Paul Church in Manorville, Long Island. There were about 20 of them, cousins and brothers and uncles and aunts, packed into the quaint white chapel, which began its life as a chicken coop before it was renovated to serve the area's booming Catholic population in the mid-20th century. The Centrone clan was there to celebrate a baby girl's christening, but hers was not the only naming the family discussed that day.
Afterward, during lunch at an uncle's house nearby, the baby's 18-year-old cousin, Vanessa Rose Centrone, a college freshman, asked for her mother's permission to change her own name.
Cathy Centrone, a 54-year-old elementary school aid, looked at her daughter, and said, "You can change what I gave you, which is your name. But you can't change how God made you."
Jacob Centrone, now 20, and more than a year into the physical process of reassigning his gender, scoffs at his former name.
"Vanessa Rose," he says, shaking his head. "It was the girliest." Jacob is five-foot-three and has short-cropped brown hair, a chinstrap beard that frames his angular jaw, and big blue eyes that peek through a pair of black rectangular glasses. Though he can be anxious and fidgety, Jacob's confidence grows the longer you're around him.
His bedroom in Middle Village, Queens, where he lives with his mother and stepfather, is an 11-by-10-foot space with a low bed covered by a plush blue comforter. Above the bed hangs a corkboard splashed with quintessential 20-year-old sentimentality: photos of Jacob and his friends, old love notes and concert stubs. On top of his bookshelf, like an afterthought, dangles his high school graduation photo. In cursive gold, it reads: "Vanessa 2010."
Jacob pulls a black zippered case off his dresser and sits down on the bed. He takes out a syringe and attaches an 18-gauge needle, then picks up a vial of testosterone and disinfects the top with an alcohol swab. He pulls back the syringe's plunger, then pushes the needle through the lid of the vial. He hikes up his shorts to reveal a pale thigh dotted with coarse hairs. Jacob takes another swab and disinfects a small circle of skin, and then, with his index finger, he draws an X. To prevent too many scars from developing, Jacob prefers to keep his injections around the same area.
"You see the scars from other ones," he says of previous injections. "I don't like to go too far away."
Jacob hesitates, needle poised over thigh. "The whole thing can be over in five minutes," he explains. "But it's usually a 15-minute process because half the time I'm freaking out about stabbing myself."
"Ready? OK. I got this, I got this."
With a slight shudder, Jacob jams the needle into his skin and forces the plunger down. When he draws out the syringe, it makes a small popping sound. Staring down at the injection, he notices a drop of translucent testosterone alongside the rising red blood. "I've never seen it separate like that," Jacob says, smiling.
Jacob's parents divorced when he was very young, and his biological father lives in Florida.
"He knows, but I don't know how he feels about it," Jacob says, referring to his new gender. "I don't care how he feels about it, to be honest."
The youngest of five siblings — two brothers and two sisters — Jacob (then Vanessa) was always a tomboy growing up. Vanessa was interested in playing dress-up — but only to pretend she was a boy.
"In the third grade, I did my communion and I had to wear a dress," Jacob recalls. "I fought with my mom up until a week before. 'Fine! I'll wear the dress,' I told her. But I didn't like it."
Aside from a few casual flings with boys whom she was more interested in being best buds with than actually dating, the young Vanessa was always interested in girls. She began dating girls in junior high, and in high school chopped off all of her hair and stopped shaving her legs, a move that just seemed natural to her.
"I tried making myself as manly as possible without actually becoming a man," Jacob recalls, "because I didn't think it was possible yet."
Jacob has been "Jacob" since Thanksgiving of 2010, just a few days after he first floated the general idea of a name change to his mother. He began by asking his friends to use the new moniker, then insisted his family follow suit. By the time he had it legally changed on April 13, 2011, it already felt normal.
"This is an embarrassing story," Jacob says, when asked where his adopted name comes from. "So, um, my ex-girlfriend and I — when she got her first dildo, we were thinking of a name and the name Jake popped up. Whenever I wore it I became Jake. I like being called Jake. It was a nice name, and I liked being called this manly name, so I just stuck with it."
In addition to "becoming Jake" during moments of erotic intimacy with his then-girlfriend, Aimee, Jacob also occasionally took to wearing the purple five-inch dildo outside the bedroom.
"We used to have this strap," Jacob remembers. "You could use it for fucking, but you could also just use it to wear. I used to literally put it under my boxers and walk around with it on. You could tell there was a bulge, and when my friends noticed, they'd be like 'Oh my God! Can I touch? Can I feel it?'"
Jacob has since given up "packing," or wearing an appendage to give the impression of having male genitalia.
"It did get uncomfortable after a while," he explains.
Narratively is an online magazine devoted to original, in-depth and untold stories. Each week, Narratively explores a different theme and publishes just one story a day. It was one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2013.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- How Israel's hawks intimidated and silenced the last remnants of the anti-war left
- Why China thinks it could defeat the U.S. in battle
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- The real lesson of Rick Perry's mug shot
- The big policy question libertarians can't answer
- What you need to know before you support the police in Ferguson
- Welcome to the age of ambivalent feminism
- How the West produces jihadi tourists
- What the 'death of the library' means for the future of books
Subscribe to the Week