One of my earliest memories is one of being secure in my gender. Now, over a decade and a half later, I am finally returning to that place.
I was three, maybe four—young enough to still be sure I could be anything when I grew up (e.g. a firefighter or a tree), and old enough to have internalized societal gender limits. I was in a department store with my mom, and I looked up at a picture on the wall, in the men’s section. A man in a leather jacket and sunglasses was straddling a motorcycle, and I knew that was what I wanted. That machismo, that presence, other things implicated by life as a dude; I would have those. I didn’t want to be him, exactly. But I wanted to have his gender when I grew up, right along with staples like a dog and an adventurous career. Of course, to four-year-old me, that translated into a long-lived desire for leather and denim jackets.
Preschool and kindergarten were where my faith in my ability to be that person started to slip. All the regular culprits pointed out “reality”: lining up by gender, being told I couldn’t change my shirt on the playground like the boys, constant comments when I was the only “girl” on an all-boys sports team. I was lucky, though. My mom never told me I couldn’t do things, and very rarely did my friends bring up my gendered differences. Or maybe it was just that if they did, they knew I’d give ‘em hell.
This freedom boosted my confidence and gave me space to think. It also hindered me in a way. I constantly felt that I had to make the two worlds fit, my assigned label, and all of my traits and instincts that pointed me to my gender. It was as daunting and strange as trapping an enormous storm cloud inside a hat. I had been told that gender and sex were fixed. I accepted that—I had been pre-classified, as human, as a girl, as white, etc. But society didn’t see it that way, as a meaningless word. For the longest time, that felt like my problem—I needed to be myself, my full, male self, without being a boy.
At first, this manifested in indignation at even the slightest mention of any distinction between genders. Once I hit seventh grade, that passionate rebellion curdled and became a taciturn detachment. Not only did the storm cloud prove much too vaporous and large for the hat, but my body was cementing the changes I believed wouldn’t happen. I had bargained for years; if I forgot about them, if I could prove my worthiness, I would be allowed to have my future. There is a certain ambivalence, socially and physically, about gender, before a certain age, and I had clung to that (in both categories) as my last hope. When that was torn from me, so was my future.
I kept trying (at school, extracurriculars, socializing) to put gender aside, but it was getting harder. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I couldn’t find anything concrete or real about what I was doing, where I was going. Looking back, I realize that in the back of my mind, I couldn’t see myself in even two or three years, and, so, had subconsciously conjectured that I just wouldn’t be around then.
Two things kept me going: my belief in change, and a memory. When I was in seventh grade, I was cast as a boy in a community theater play. Contrary to typical practice, for some reason, cast members referred to me by male pronouns and by my character’s name, backstage. I loved it. Each night briefly rekindled a hope in me that I might be able to ask people to do that someday. I could choose a name, could have the right pronouns. With clothes and some uncertain, futuristic science, I could make it work. I barely believed in that myself—my closest plan was to tell people to call me by a male name, but I didn’t know anyone who would actually do it .But I was inspired enough to fight with my mother one night on the way to rehearsal, over a comment someone had made about gender separation in school. I told her I could think of many good things about me being a guy, but no reason I would want to be a woman—only reasons I would hate it. It ended in her yelling, “Do you really want to be like that—to get surgery?” I got very quiet, and said, “No,” in shock, as my mind reeled at the information that such an option existed.
As I began research, at the end of my rope, at 16, I remembered that play and that night. As I wrote my mother a letter affirming my identity, as clearly as I could, still grappling with the convolutions of society, gender, and sex, I remembered the times she let me do masculine things, along with the times she cried when I insisted on buying boy’s clothes. I remembered her pleas for me to be open-minded, and to try different things. I recalled my internal screaming that I was open. I had fought to not give up; it was the world that was closed to my gender, my body, my life. And when she responded to my letter (slowly at first, then more often), upset and often not understanding, I tried to remember how hard it was for me to explain my own feelings, and to keep in mind how hard it must be for someone else, who hadn’t felt them, to conceive them, in this culture and time. I kept going, because I had to.
Now, entering my final year of college, no one questions me. I hold my breath at airport screenings, decline swimming invitations, and my heart races when a kid knocks on my door in the middle of the night at my summer camp job, scared they might burst in before I have time to put on a binder. But, for the most part, I am beginning to resume a full life. One I began to be tugged away from before I could spell my middle name, and a future I’m trying to reconstruct from the pieces I clung to along the way. My own concepts of gender are opening up, now that I see just how many facets it has. And so are my mom’s. She didn’t understand much about what I was going through, and I had no idea how to tell her the way gender had affected important components of my life. But she decided to stay in my life and watch me come into my own, and keep an open mind. And, for a trans* child, or a cisgender parent, believing in the possibility in the unknown, in the cloudy and often scary future, is what makes a world, a whole life, of difference.
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