I recently commented on a friends Twitter feed that we transgender people sometimes know that we are different long before we know how we are different. What I mean is that we often do not know that we are birth gender non conforming, because we do not understand what that is or what it means. but that we do know that we are not the same as our peers. More of this in later posts. In the meantime I would like to share a few of my early experiences, feelings and thoughts that perhaps should have given me some clues as to who or what I was. Please note all ages are approximate because I was not exactly documenting things carefully at the time.
One of my earliest memories is of me using the toilet to urinate in a manner of a woman (sitting down). I was berated and told that boys stood. I recall my father having to educate me in how to do this properly and he often urinated with me for a while. This did not cure me and as soon as I could I resumed normal service.
Wearing my mothers shoes. From about the age of four I wanted to wear my mother’s high heel shoes, so I did. It was laughed off. For a while. Later I was told to stop. I am not sure if this signifies anything as my daughters wear my shoes, as well as their mother’s shoes.
At about the same age I became very interested in makeup. I would watch my mother intently and study how she did things, why she did them that way and so forth. One day my older sister put makeup on me. That was not well received.
Another very early memory is of me studying my genital area. (Overshare?) I recall seeing the mid-line that is clearly visible on the perineum and the scrotum. I was absolutely convinced that this was evidence that I had had a vagina, it had been sewn up and that this was the scar. I believed that for many years, but I told no one. I figured my parents would tell me one day ‘when I was ready’, a refrain I often heard as a child when asking ‘tricky’ questions. Then one day in my teens I realised that this was probably not the case. I was devastated.
I have always liked horses. Although my relationship with them is complicated (issues pertaining to parents and the significant role horses have played in my life). I had a pony as a child (yes I was that privileged) and went for riding lessons. I have always kissed horses on the nose. It is so soft and lovely. They also smell nice. I thought nothing of it. Later in life I realised I was not typical. Boys are typically less horsey. Fair enough, not a deal breaker. I then saw a meme on Facebook the other day. Apparently girls kiss horses, not boys! Who knew?
When I was about two or three I made really good friends with the kid next door. I would go to play there regularly and we played with her dolls. I was told not to tell my father. We moved away and I lost her as a friend. The only friends I had close by where all boys. Not to fear I managed to get some stealth mode dolls (action figures) and my favourite toys remained doll-like (Playmobil, Lego etc).
Sports were also tricky for me. My parents thought I needed ‘toughening up’. So, off I went to karate. That did not go well. Then I was shipped off to soccer practice one very cold winter morning. I knew nothing. I was told to play ‘left back’ I didn’t know what that meant, so there I was standing around aimlessly wandering around more or less in front of goal when WHAM! Someone had kicked the ball (a shot on goal) straight into my face! I did not want to play after that… Although it seems my interception saved the day for my team. So result!
Funnily enough I never wanted to play a musical instrument as I had a feeling that this was somehow girly and by then I had realised the need for stealth!
When I was about seven, we went on holiday to the seaside. We were staying in some holiday flats and went to the beach everyday. I made friends with a blonde child whose family was staying at the same flats. We met at the beach and formed a bond quite quickly. I was nonplussed when one day my mother informed me that she was a girl and different to me (not sure how or why this came up, but it did; maybe I had asked for a costume like hers, or something). I honestly did not notice. She was wearing a girl’s swimming costume everyday but I did not see her as different to me. I cannot say for sure that I thought she was a boy, but I did not see her as different.
I have always been very slight. Yes, I have ‘small bones’. My wrists and ankles are very ‘refined’. I have arms that are slender. I have never been very good at building muscle. Even when competing at sport at the highest level and training everyday as an adult and eating a high calorie diet, I never managed to gain much muscle and I was always ‘under weight’ for my height. Is this evidence of some sort of genetic predisposition to the feminine? Who knows? Interestingly it was only when I started taking cortisone a few years ago on a regular basis that I started to put on weight. I did not enjoy that.
From the mid to late 1980s I started taking an interest in transgender people. I remember reading a magazine article about Tula at some point and for the very first time I became aware that ‘a man could become a woman’. This was an epiphany for me. I suddenly felt less alone and less weird. On the flip side, from the reactions of the people around me to the article, I knew I could never let them see the real me. So stealth mode became entrenched.
As a young child I was obsessed with shaving. I would stand and pretend to shave my face with my father from the age of two or three. Every morning! I had a an old razor (without a blade) and I would lather my face and ‘shave’ it off. Everyone thought I was being very ‘manly’ imitating my father and maybe I was, but I now wonder if I wasn’t terrified of having a beard and wanting to keep it off in the only way I knew how? I cannot be sure because I cannot access that child’s inner thoughts anymore.
On a related note from the age of about 12 I would often wonder out loud when I was going to get leg hair, arm hair and chest hair like my rather hirstute, much older, brother. At the time my mother interpreted this as anxiety about starting puberty. I suspect it was anxiety about starting puberty, but not in the way she knew or understood. Simply put I didn’t want to look manly. She thought I did. I did not disabuse her of this notion due to the need for stealth.
As a child from a very young age, I loved the company of women. I am much younger than my siblings. My siblings are all a fair bit younger than our cousins. I am therefore considerably younger than all of my cousins. In truth I am closer in age to most of my cousins children than I am to my cousins. Therefore, family gatherings were difficult for me. I could never play with my cousins. My siblings could but I was always too young. I therefore gravitated to the adults and the adults tended to split on gender lines. The men would all sit together either outside or in the bar and drink, play snooker and darts or whatever and talk about what they talked about. The women would go and sit (usually) in the lounge, drink tea, eat cake (it was South Africa in the 19080s, things were that stereotypical, we were a society of archetypes after all) and talk about the things they talked about. Guess where I went? Yes, I would sit on the floor in the lounge and just enjoy being there. It felt comfortable and natural to me. If my sister had friends come and visit I would want to be with them. She would invariably chase me away. But that is big sisters for you. To this day I prefer the company of women to men. Going to an all boys high school was… challenging.
I never had an interest in cars. Boys often decorate their rooms with posters of cars. I had pictures of horses (and a World War One bi-plane). Perhaps this should have been a clue? In 1982 my father came home with a poster of the Soccer World Cup for me. I put it on the wall. But I do not recall being terribly interested. To my eternal shame (and I do not recall why I did this), I remember tearing it up in a fit of rage. I honestly regret that. It must have really hurt my father’s feelings and I also honestly do not know why I did it, but I am sure I had my reasons. Were they related to gender? No idea.
Having said all of the above, I have always had a very strong interest in history, especially military history (see note about the World War One bi-plane). But maybe that just goes to show that we can all be interested and proficient in any thing we want to be good at regardless of sex or indeed gender. Women can be exceptional CEOs, engineers, soldiers, pilots, doctors lawyers or anything else. Men can be great at looking after kids, caring for their homes or indeed anything else. We should perhaps stop putting people into boxes based on what we think their genitals might look like when they are born. Let people freely choose who they want to be, what they want to do and indeed how they want to express themselves.
A note to my readers:
South Africa in the 1980s was a very different place. Homosexuality was illegal. Crossdressing was illegal. The state felt nothing about intruding into people’s bedrooms (sex between the races was illegal). Hell people couldn’t even live where they wanted to live (geographic areas were segregated by race and race was defined by the state and you carried identification that showed whether you were white, black ‘coloured’ or Indian).
We lived in a hyper militarised police state that was patriarchal in the extreme. Masculinity was tightly defined and even more tightly adhered to. Boys played rugby and all (white) males were conscripted for two years on leaving school. And they often went to an actual conventional war being fought in Angola or to a guerilla war being fought within the borders of South Africa.
People had a very strong need to conform. There was a siege mentality at work and the need to stick together was strong. So parents, teachers and society made sure you conformed. If you didn’t things would be hard for you.
I understand why this was happening. I do not condone the system, but I understand why individuals acted as they did under the circumstances. For this reason we birth gender non-conforming people as well as all other ‘queer’ people had to live in stealth. Being openly gay, transgender, a crossdresser etc was if not impossible, very very hard. Parents, teachers etc were acting in our best interests, so do not judge them too harshly.
Thank goodness we have moved on…