CONTRIBUTION BY: A transgender adult woman reflecting on her childhood.
It all began with leg-warmers. At least that’s as far back as I can recall. I was 5 years old, attending kindergarten at a Christian school that required girls to wear skirts and boys to wear dress pants. On the colder days, the girls wore leg-warmers. I guess I didn’t really like the skirts, because I don’t remember ever wanting to wear one. But I LIVED for those cute, cuddly, warm, 1980’s fashionable leg-warmers. So one day I asked my mother if I could wear a pair to school. She laughed, innocently.
The conversation went something like this:
Mom: Only girls wear leg-warmers, because they have to keep their legs warm with their skirts.
Five year-old me: Well, why can’t I wear them anyway?
Mom: Because you’re a boy.
Five year-old me: Why am I a boy?
Mom: Because you have a penis.
Fair enough. The difference between the sexes had been explained to me by that point, and I believed what adults told me: boys have penises and girls have vaginas. I didn’t realize that that was one of the first great lies that I would digest as truth.
Up until kindergarten, I perceived life to be genderless in our household. I had an older brother who was typically masculine, and I was the younger, gentler, more sensitive child. It didn’t seem unusual for me to join my mother in more standard feminine activities while my brother joined my father for the masculine ones. It was how we kept our parents company, I suppose. But I couldn’t get past the division of the sexes in that first year of school. Why did boys line up at the water fountain after the girls? I played with the girls and was accepted as one of them in my mind, so every time the classroom was gendered, I was left feeling alone and left out. Looking back, I’m sure I wasn’t the only gender creative kid to have those feelings, but in my newly forming understanding of the world, it felt very very alone.
As the years went on, the gendering of my childhood became more and more painful. Eventually the girls realized that I wasn’t like them, physically. They began to tease me and forbade me from playing with them at recess because I was a boy to them. I certainly wasn’t going to play with the other boys — they seemed like they were from another planet — so instead, I spent my recess staring at a brick wall — angry, confused, hurt, and very afraid. The care-free world in my head didn’t seem to align with the rules of the world that I was plopped into.
It seemed like my every joy just wasn’t matching up with what I was supposed to desire. I had no idea why purple wasn’t the right choice when I was asked what my favorite color was. I didn’t know why people teased me for my big bubbly letters in my handwriting, or why it wasn’t ok for me to spend so much time in the bathroom styling my hair, coating my lips with layer after layer of chapstick. Oh — I forgot to mention that I grew up in an Amish village of 200 people, and although we weren’t Amish, our lives were nearly as simple. My mother didn’t bother with makeup except for church on Sundays. Practicality was always chosen over femininity on the farm. So, chapstick was the closest thing to lipstick that I could get my hands on.
Finding comfort in my isolation at recess, I began to find patterns in that porous brick wall, like constellations in the sky. I created an entire universe in the tiniest of things — sidewalks, plants, trees. It was more pleasant than facing rejection from my peers, who all seemed fine with the separation of the sexes. But eventually it created neuroses in me that would take years to undo.
Anxiety built as I approached puberty. It was one thing to ignore the fact that I didn’t fit in with either sexes when my body was still that of a child’s, but I knew changes were coming and I was terrified of becoming a man. I needed to find control in my chaotic world, so I began pulling out my hair in clumps, along with my eyelashes and eyebrows. Finding patterns in things became a compulsion, and I developed a debilitating Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I would stand at the water fountain for minutes, counting each sip of water to make sure the number of gulps I took would be in even multiples. I lost my ability to concentrate in school, frozen in terror. The world made no sense to me.
It took me years of therapy to figure out that it wasn’t the world which didn’t make sense to me. It was other people’s perception of my gender that made no sense to me. It was misogyny and sexism that made no sense to me. My neuroses were all survival tools that I developed when facing a world where my sex didn’t line up with other people’s ideas of what my gender should’ve been.
I am grateful that my path eventually led me to New York City, where I would find a community of LGBT artists who would foster my gender identity. I found the reflection that I so desperately desired as a child in my gender non-conforming peers. I was able to form an identity that allowed me to express myself in the ways I wasn’t able to express in a binary-rigid upbringing. Eventually, I brought this new learning back to my family in Pennsylvania. I’m so proud to say that my parents now drive 90 miles to be a part of the nearest PFLAG group, teaching other parents about rearing a gender nonconforming child. My mom said to me recently, “I wish we had a word for it back then. I just wish we knew what you were going through.” Luckily we do have a word for it now. I’m trans. It’s a pretty simple idea, in a complex world.