The picture that accompanies this post was taken when I was two. Even then I knew that I was supposed to be a boy. I couldn’t express complex ideas about gender identity, but I knew looking at my parents that I was supposed to be like my father, not like my mother.
I have a hard time explaining to non-transgender people how I knew I was male from the start; I just did. I sometimes ask them, “How do you know you’re male or female?” Often, they go quiet and look stumped, because they can’t answer it either. Most people seem to just know, right? You can’t pinpoint what makes you feel that way or when exactly you realized it, can you? You likely always just knew.
Trying to explain what it feels like to be transgender is like trying to explain what it feels like to have green or brown eyes — it’s an essential part of who we are, but not something we can explain. If you’ve never lived another life, you have nothing to compare it to. The closest short-hand explanation tends to be “trapped in the wrong body,” which, for me, isn’t totally accurate.
I always felt comfortable with my pre-pubescent body even if I did wish that I had the same genitalia as the other men in the family. I enjoyed how strong I was and how fast I could run. When I hit puberty, I didn’t necessarily feel trapped in the wrong body, but rather betrayed by my own. I was intensely uncomfortable with having breasts and hips and the way they made others see me.
Up until then, I was usually seen as a boy and could move about the world with freedom and confidence. When breasts entered the picture, so did constant reminders that no one saw me as I saw myself. There was unwanted attention from boys, and even worse, older men who had no business looking at a child the way they looked at me. Having a period reminded me every month that the whole world no longer saw a boy when they saw me.
I became completely detached from my physical being. I could not take joy in my body anymore and I certainly couldn’t enjoy other people’s interest in my body. When I became an adult, sex held little pleasure for me because I had such an aversion to the female body I occupied.
Being raised in the 1970s and 1980s, no one talked about transgender people; or if they did, it was to make jokes or express disgust. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what I was feeling when I was a child and by the time I did, it had been ingrained in me that my very being was shameful and that I was an abomination.
While my father supports and loves me as his child, he is of a different generation. He does not understand what is going on even though he accepts me. He blames himself and wonders if I would have turned out differently if he had been stricter about not letting me wear boys’ clothes or participate in “boy” activities; he thinks if he had done something differently, I might have grown up to be happy as a woman. I don’t know how to explain to him that that isn’t the case. I can tell him, but I don’t think I can convince him. I was born this way and there is nothing he or anyone else could have done to change it.
When people ask how a child in first grade could possibly know they are transgender and speculate that the parents have done something to make the child feel this way, I boil inside. Not every trans* person knew early on, but the majority do. Many suffer in similar ways as I did. Had I had the knowledge to express what I was going through, had my parents had the understanding of what it means to be transgender and the possible ways of living with it, maybe a lot of that suffering could have been avoided.
My parents never suggested to me that I was a boy. They did the opposite. My mother tried in vain to wrestle me into dresses when I was a toddler and elementary school student. My Aunt Liliane had retired from a swanky department store and part of her retirement package was boxes of cosmetics and perfume samples sent to her each season. When she made her snowbird visit each year, she and my mother ganged up on me and played “makeover.” They delighted in trying to determine if I was an “autumn” and worked evil magic in the form of bobby pins and Dippity Do. It was like some horrible B-movie: Teenybopper Frankenstein.
My sisters kept trying to “normalize” me by suggesting I use Sun-In and try cutting my shorts even shorter or wearing a bikini.
None of it worked.
As a child, I tore off the dresses and dug the jeans and t-shirts out of wherever my mother had hidden them. I insisted on keeping my hair short and on introducing myself with a boy’s name to new people. I played football, made bike ramps and tree forts, and wandered in the woods.
They broke before I did. Everyone eventually left me alone. Sure, they dropped the occasional hint about how I’d look so much better if I would just put on a little makeup or that boys would notice me if I wore tighter tops, etc., but they let me be a “tomboy.”
I pushed my own feelings of masculinity down and ignored them; I pushed my true feelings down until I was totally numb.
Even though I say they broke, I also did. As I grew up, I knew my family wanted me to be more womanly. They wanted me to get married and have children and be like everybody else. I didn’t want to bring them embarrassment or shame. Their feelings became more important than my own.
I pushed my own feelings of masculinity down and ignored them; I pushed my true feelings down until I was totally numb. On the surface, I was what everyone told me I was; I got married, had children, did what I was told. And, except for the children, I was miserable. I had denied myself–the self I had known since before I could speak–my male self–to make everyone else happy and comfortable.
But I knew. I knew I was male even when I was married to another man. I knew I was male when I wrote my honor’s thesis in college. I knew I was male when I was in a garage band in high school. I knew I was male when puberty hit and I had a crush on the girl a couple streets over. I knew I was male when I lugged my Hot Wheels collection around in elementary school. I knew I was male when I told my kindergarten teacher my name was “Gary.” I knew I was male before I knew how to say the word “boy.”
I always knew.