Some Enchanted Evening

Butch dreams

Seabees, from the 2013 revival in Chicago

Some of the worst moments of my mother’s life were the best moments of my life. I didn’t plan it that way.

My sixth grade class at P.S. 40 performed the musical South Pacific. I can still sing some of the songs. It is a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic.  Some Enchanted Evening, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair, You’ve Got to Be Taught, and There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame. The play was considered progressive by New York City public school standards. It touched on war, race, and privilege without referencing Vietnam, the civil rights movement, or white flight. Subjects we did not discuss much at home or in school.

Our class probably performed a sanitized and abridged version of it. When I listened to the original 1949 cast album some of the songs were unfamiliar. My memories of the play are sketchy. It was set on a island, there was a love story, one of the male characters had a scene where he wore a grass skirt and a coconut cup bikini top, and the play had a bittersweet ending. All I remember clearly is that I was a Seabee in the chorus.

I wanted to look like a real sailor, not like Mary Martin.

Original 1949 cast, the Thanksgiving Follies scene. I wanted to look like a real sailor, not like Mary Martin.

Everyone in the class had to be cast in the play. Most of us ended up in the chorus, either as a nurse or as a sailor. Because I was a girl I was originally cast as a nurse, but I objected and requested to serve as a Seabee. I had short hair and already had the costume (blue jeans, a white T-shirt, and white canvas sneakers).

It never hurts to ask for what you want, but you need to be prepared for the consequences. My request was granted. I was issued my Seabee hat, a classic “Dixie Cup“, and went off to practice with the boys. There were a lot of rehearsals for only one performance. I told my parents that I was in the chorus.

The Dixie Cup hat was the prize. I always wanted to dress up as a sailor, and even though I was eleven, and a little old for it, I was game. I knew I was on the cusp of “womanhood”, but I still desperately wanted to be a boy. I practiced getting the tilt of the hat just right, like a real sailor.

The afternoon of the performance I changed into my costume and adjusted my hat. I was the chubby kid in a Seabee outfit proudly and enthusiastically belting out “There ain’t a thing wrong with any man here, that can’t be cured by putting him near, a girly, womanly, female, feminine dame.”

My mother had a meltdown at the party after the performance. “Why did they cast you as a sailor? Why were you the only child who didn’t have a solo line? What is wrong with you? Why didn’t you say something? How could you embarrass me this way?” We left before I got a piece of cake.

It was true that I didn’t get to sing a solo, and it was true that I didn’t have any spoken lines. I wasn’t keeping track of who sang or spoke. All the class misfits were in the chorus. I was happy to be a Seabee and to be singing the truth.

17 thoughts on “Some Enchanted Evening

    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      She was not a barrel of fun. But a description of life with her on an ordinary day would be too depressing. I can almost forgive her, because it must have been horrible for her to have to watch me be happy singing about wanting to have a dame – and knowing that if I hadn’t grown out of it by age eleven, I probably was not going to grow out of it at all.

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  1. Lesboi

    Sounds exactly like many things my mother said to me growing up. Sorry she had to ruin it for you but at least you got to be a Seabee and keep the cap! I probably wouldn’t have been strong enough to fight for what I wanted.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I was always trying to angle my way into boyhood. In some ways I was so successful that I managed to live my life “as if” – including working in non-traditional jobs and environments. I think this allowed me to put off dealing with my trans-ness; I got as close as I could get given that I was still female.

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  2. timethief

    Parenting is challenging – period. Parenting any child, who was different due to gender identity and sexual orientation issues in a time when denial was the status quo was even more challenging. So it`s sad that your childhood memories reflect such a stigma and how far apart your mom and you were as you grew up, but it`s important not to lose perspective as not all heterosexual moms and daughters were close either. Times and attitudes are changing. When you were growing up support groups for you and your parents were not even on the radar.Today coming out result in parental responses ranging from rejection to unity in activism. I`m hoping we will experience a societal shift by becoming the change we want to see.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Things are definitely shifting; I think it is still hard for a lot of parents to accept that “it is not a phase” or that even if it might be a phase, they still need to support their unconventional kid. A lot of it has to do with not having your self esteem all tied up in your child’s success or blending in. My mother was very narcissistic right up until the end, and was ashamed of (what she perceived to be) her failures. Unfortunately she did not take on any engrossing work (paid or volunteer) or hobbies to channel her energies – she could have used another outlet. That is about the most empathy I think I can work up for her.

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  3. Georgeann

    I remember hearing similar statements from my mother, and one of my biggest fears now is to use those same statements on my own children when they are simply following the beat of their own drums. Although they do often embarrass me in public (with great gusto I might add) I really try to only scold them for classic unruly behavior and not merely for being individuals. It’s not always easy, especially when I discover how ingrained some things from childhood truly are!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      There are different levels of embarrassment; all kids are hopefully going to fidget, get loud, ruffle each other’s feathers, and be blissfully inappropriate. I’d bet that even when you scold, your kids know you love them. My mother had primal mortification (sounds vaguely religious) that it would be clear to other people that I was going to be gay when I grew up – and – that I did not fit in with the other girls (or really with the boys either). Anytime I did anything gender inappropriate in public (which was frequently) she’d have a fit, as if I did it on purpose to annoy her. She never really got that I did it to feel better.

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  4. RonaFraser

    Yup. Sometimes parents (people) react without any thought to how their reactions affect those around them, and they look more at how things look as a reflection of their parenting, than at what is making their child happy. I always feel sorry for folks like your mom who are so worried about what others are seeing and thinking, that they cannot simply enjoy the moment. Sad.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I wrote above that sometimes I can almost muster empathy for my mother. She was a smart woman and it was a shame she could not put all of her negativity into something more useful than judging and berating people (not just me). She did not make much of an effort to get involved in anything (she played bridge but that was about it) – if she could have found something to be passionate about it might have taken the edge off of parenting.

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  5. The Little Butch That Could (TLBTC)

    Is it wrong that I’m laughing? Not a you, but at your mother’s response to you singing in the chorus. That is one of the best things about children. . . they are who they are. They don’t worry about what they are supposed to like or dislike according to culture, religion, etc. They are pure.
    Cheers.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I think when she saw me singing she got an accurate picture of what the future was going to be, and she was not amused. But by that point everyone should have been able to figure out the inevitable. There was no way in hell I was going to be singing “I’m gonna wash that man right outa my hair.”

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  6. micah

    This reminded me of something similar I did in first grade – there weren’t enough boys for the pair dancing so of course I volunteered, with a baseball cap and overalls. I always tried to snag the “creature/animal” parts, the narrator was my favorite cause you don’t even act. My mother also had similar reactions, though not as drastic…

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      One of the things that interests me is how we knew as children that we were not cut out to be girls/women, and how we tried to find cracks in the system to squeak through to express our boy-ness. My Mom was incredibly frustrated with my antics, as well as being a depressed, unhappy, and difficult person.

      I really like the throwback photos you’ve posted. You are lucky that your Dad took pictures that captured who you were, and kept them for you to share.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      No, but we are of the same generation, so our mothers probably had similar attitudes towards our “inappropriate” behavior. I’ve often wondered how much of my mother’s abusiveness was new reaction to my butch/transness and how much of it was just her craziness. I’ll never know.

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