A Very Queer History

The second entry in "Why I Think I'm a Transsexual"

June 17th, 2007

[This came after a spectacular semi-public breakdown I had in the staffroom at my school. They stashed me in the nurse's office to get me out of sight and then attempted a variety of tactics to make me calm down, including but not limited to coffee, pats on the back and assurances of 'daijoubu', and the secretary calling her daughter living in China to give me some words of wisdom about culture shock. I ended up missing half my classes and then taking a two-hour nap on the cot in the nurse's office. If only I could do that every day!]

I'm not sure that what I went through last week was culture shock, although it certainly showed all the symptoms. It was more like too many problems converging at once. I was physically sick. I was woefully under-trained for my job. I was short on friends and feeling very isolated and lonely. Stress converted to insomnia which in turn made it even more difficult to recover and to perform well in school. But compounding all of that was a problem causing me equal if not more distress than the job situation, and making that worse was the fact that I couldn't even tell anyone here about it.

I think that the transsexual issue has reached critical mass.

When the Big Revelation hit me that O hay, I really want to be a dude, I began to read everything I could find in an effort to understand what it meant to be transsexual. Books, blogs, articles, psychiatric and medical journals, everything. I even went to IDKE (International Drag King Extravaganza), though it turned out to be mostly cross-dressing lesbians and -- irony of ironies -- remains the only time that I've met with vehemently anti-transsexual sentiment. Through it all, I was searching for common elements with my own experience, trying to compare my feelings with what other people had experienced. Am I right about this? Is transsexuality what I've got on my hands here?

And what I kept seeing again and again was that I am not a textbook transsexual. It has nothing to do with the not being a butch lesbian thing -- I just don't fit the mold. Nearly everyone I'd read talked about how they'd "always felt out of place in their body" or "ever since I could remember, I felt like I wasn't a girl." Little girls who insisted to their parents that they too would grow a penis someday. Little boys who tried to cut theirs off because they felt it didn't belong to them. Both sides, chafing at having to wear the clothes appropriate for their birth gender... meanwhile, the touchstone image that I have of my childhood is long blond hair and frilly pink dresses. "Well," I mused to myself. "If I'd been born a boy, I probably would have been a total nancy growing up. Not so different."

Nevertheless, it was a very striking aberration from the experience of most other transsexuals and it continued to undermine my certainty. I like doing more typically male things now, taking on the male role in various pursuits, but as a child I wasn't even a tomboy. It seemed as though there had just been a change somewhere along the line, that I hadn't been a transsexual then but I was now.

Or hadn't I?

Working in elementary school has stirred memories from my own childhood, and certain things are coming back to me that conflict with the mental image I had of my child self, the image of a pretty girl happy to be wearing a lacy pink dress.

When I was in kindergarten my big obsession was bugs and I wanted to be an entomologist when I grew up. Yes, I liked butterflies, but I also liked them when they were caterpillars and I thought spiders were nifty. (I had this book and my only disappointment was that most of the critters in it couldn't be found in south Texas.)

My best friend in elementary school was a boy named Ben, though it might have been because I thought he was cute. Before Ben I was interested in being friends with a cute boy named Nathan, but I remember deciding that he was a sissy after some incident where he was crying. (And I'm in an excellent position to throw stones, I know.) Ben and I played with Legos and threw rocks and ran amok.

For significant portions of my childhood I didn't have long hair. In first or second grade I got it cut very short, though inexplicably kept a little rat tail in the back. (I don't know whose idea that was, but I did like it.) My friend Sarah, whom I met around that time, told me years and years later that when she first met me she thought I was a boy, and she thought I was pretty cute. Apparently we were both precocious in that regard.

I did baseball and ballet, found both of them excruciatingly boring, but loved football. I remember day-to-day watching the boys playing football at recess and wishing I could join them -- but I didn't have the guts to. I was decent, good enough that if I were a boy it would have been no issue, but as a girl I would have been in the spotlight and would have had to be even better to compensate. I never joined them, but after school sometimes I would take my football out to the field at the nearby middle school and practice kicking. (Not much else you can do without another person.) And I have a memory of standing in front of the mirror before I went out, tucking my hair under a baseball cap so that I would look like a boy.

My parents, UT graduates both, were fans of a very UT-centric comic strip called Eyebeam that ran in the Statesman way back in the day. My dad had several anthologies of the comic strips which I would read even though I was much, much too young for the university experience to resonate at all and I expect that the vast majority of its college humor sailed straight over my head. Eyebeam, main character and law student, and his roommate Ratliff who can't get a date to save his life:

I don't remember how old I was when I read that, but I do remember thinking, "Huh. You can do that? I want to do that." I didn't realize that this was probably supposed to imply that the girl was a butch lesbian (or bullshitting him), and I certainly had no inkling of just how big and how permanent such a decision is. I just assumed that her feelings were about like mine: "Hmm, I think I'd rather be a boy. Better get that operation." Transsexuality wasn't part of my worldview yet and the desire to change gender didn't strike me as momentous. (It's wholly possible that Ratliff and his lack of surprise or censure helped shape my views of transsexuality.)

Middle school -- sexual awakening. This is where it gets muddy because I wore make-up and push-up bras and knee-high boots and short skirts, and it's impossible to tell how much of that was desire to be female or simply the desire to be attractive to the opposite sex. But I never learned how to apply make-up well, or how to make my hair do what I wanted it to. (Hell, I still can't even put lipstick on if it's dark enough to need a distinct line.) As my neighborhood friend, a year younger than me, effortlessly mastered the feminine arts of hair and make-up, I remember watching the popular girls monopolizing the mirrors as they primped after basketball practice each day, wondering why I couldn't figure out how to do what they were doing. It was a steady, low-key frustration, that I sucked at being female. What made me feel it particularly keenly was that absolutely none of the boys I liked were ever interested in me -- though when I got to high school and suddenly found that no longer a problem, I ceased worrying about it.

Different place, different time: I was at home when one of the weekly periodicals on the coffee table caught my eye, Time or Newsweek or somesuch with a cover story about the intersex phenomenon, and I sat down to read it. I had not, at this point, been conscious of any sense of gender incongruity nor was I afterward (this wasn't my moment for a big revelation) but I remember absolutely devouring the article and feeling a powerful affinity with the people it talked about. A lot of intersexed people get surgically assigned female genitals at birth, sometimes with parental knowledge but also sometimes without. The idea that this was what had happened to me lit in my brain. Yes! I thought, eyes riveted to the page. Maybe that's what I am. That lasted until I remembered that I had periods, which meant I had functioning ovaries and thus there was nothing intersexual about me, but it came as a disappointment. (And funny story, I forgot again and a couple years later I posited the theory to Shelley that I might be intersexed, and she had to remind me that I have periods.)

Meanwhile I must have become aware of the existence of transsexuals by then, but I felt no such sense of kinship with them. Maybe it was because they'd already taken the plunge into the unknown, and it was only the people who still thought they were normal until this snuck up on them that I felt for.

This sounds like a sizeable body of evidence, but until now I'd never had it all written down together. Even when talking with my therapist I remembered things haphazardly or didn't connect certain dots. (Like my fascination with the intersex article, or cross-dressing to go play football. Christ, if that's not a red flag then I don't know what is.) As a result, the trannie thing seemed very new and very apropos of nothing -- certainly not a solid foundation for making permanent, life-changing decisions like hormones or surgery. After all, what if my mind changed again and I decided I wanted to be female after all? Testosterone is a one-way street.

So I'll deal with it later, I said. I wasn't at all certain of myself, not convinced that this wasn't a phase I was going through, not ready to make the plunge. And besides, I was going to Japan soon and starting life as a schoolteacher, leaving me no time to transition anyway. Therefore there was no need to worry about making decisions yet; I could just keep it in the back of my mind, keep reading, keep exploring, until I became certain one way or the other.

What I realized a couple weeks ago, inconveniently coinciding with my job stress and my lonely-in-Japan angst, is that that's never going to happen. Subconsciously I think I'd been waiting, expecting that one morning I would wake up and suddenly I would just know what I ought to do. I would know that I was a bonafide transsexual and that I ought to get off my ass and do something about it, or I would know that I was meant to be female and should put a stop to all this nonsense. So I'd been waiting. And waiting. No epiphanies.

What I did realize was that I'd been sitting on this for almost two years and I wasn't one bit more certain than I'd been on the first night of my big revelation. That I could continue sitting on it and living in limbo for the rest of my life and I probably wouldn't become any more certain. Limbo, for the record, is a lousy place to be -- your life is effectively on hold and I have a terrible dread of letting my twenties slip by while I'm not in a position to enjoy them. So what it came down to was that it was time to make a decision -- regardless of my own uncertainty, regardless of the evidence stacked both ways, I needed to do something before I could get on with my life.

And given that choice, there's only one answer -- because if the other was possible, this would never have even been a problem. Like I said, critical mass. I think it's finally become a question of not if, but when.

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