By the time I turned six I knew I was a boy; I did not want to be a girl. I also thought about it the other way around. I wanted to be a boy, and I knew I wasn’t a girl. I knew what felt right and what felt wrong. No one could convince me otherwise. I was a boy. I wanted to be a boy.
I knew I only felt comfortable in boys clothing. I was ecstatic when people called me young man or son or buddy. I knew that not all boy’s bodies were the same. I knew that some boy’s bodies looked like mine. It was frustrating that no one believed me.
In 1964 I could see that the world was split into two separate spheres; girls and boys. So much of what I wanted was off-limits. I did not understand why I had to look and act like a girl. Why couldn’t I choose between the two? Why couldn’t I be an exception to the rules?
I refused to believe that how you peed or what was in your underpants determined anything other than how you peed and what was in your underpants. I believed in what you wore, and how you acted, and who you said you were. If I wore boys clothing, acted like a boy, and said I was I boy, then that should prove it. It made sense to me but not to anyone else. I wasn’t pretending to be anything. Continue reading →
My elementary school graduation in 1970. I might have been happier in a jacket and tie, but pointy collars were in style.
It was a simple question, an ice-breaker at a meeting. If you could invite anyone over for dinner, dead or alive, who would you choose? We were going around the circle, and I wished I was more imaginative. My immediate reaction was “I’d like to talk to my dad.”
Gracie gets in the way during the photo shoot of my camp mementos.
The summer I was seven was a perfect summer. I went to sleep away camp. My grandmother paid for it so that my mother could have the summer off; I was getting on my mother’s nerves. Saint George’s Camp for Girls was a traditional camp, run by the church that housed my brother’s Cub Scout troop.
My brother was going to the boy’s camp and I insisted that if he went I went. I didn’t want to be stuck at home with my mother. She did not know what to do with me.
Sending us to camp was a lot of trouble for my mother. She had to buy trunks, sheets and blankets, sleeping bags, and camp uniforms. Labels had to be sewn into everything, including our socks and underwear.
I’d never spent a night away from my parents. I’d never been allowed to pick out my own clothes. The camp uniform was a pair of navy blue shorts topped by a white T-shirt with “Saint George’s Camp” in large red letters across the chest. Campers were only required to wear uniforms for prayers and dinner, but I wore my camp uniform all the time. I was proud of it and liked it better than what my mother had packed for me. I also wore my New York Mets cap; I only removed it for meals, prayers, swimming, bathing, and sleeping.Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
I spend a lot of time thinking about how people see me and what I look like. Not because I am vain and stylish, but because my mother was obsessed with making me look like a girl. We were both unhappy with how I looked; we had different ideas on how to solve the problem.
Every day I struggled to get dressed and go to school. I hated wearing skirts and dresses. I hated wearing tights. I hated wearing Mary Janes. I hated wearing pastels, lace, bows, and anything that had elastic in the waist or a zipper in the back. I threw a lot of tantrums. I wanted to look like a boy not a girl. I could not understand why my mother insisted on putting me in clothes I hated.
By the third grade I had acquired a wardrobe of drab unadorned dresses, and dark Oxford shoes. While I despised these clothes, they were the least objectionable of what was available. I wore them like a prison uniform. The clothes were ugly. but innocuous enough that I could numb out in them. I refused to inhabit them. I daydreamed my way out of them. Continue reading →
I was straightening up the papers on my desk when I found the manilla envelope with my elementary school class pictures. Then I recalled the picture of my brother in his Cub Scout uniform. It sat on the piano in our mother’s apartment, opposite a picture of me in a dress.
My brother’s Cub Scout handbook
Some people seem to have complete recall of their childhood, and can flip it on like a television show on reruns. Not me. I can not put together a linear narrative. It is a disorganized jumble of images and half-obscured scenes.
When I was seven I had to face up to being prohibited from joining the Cub Scouts, being barred from trying out for Little League, and being forbidden to study drumming. I was offered alternatives. I refused to become a Brownie. I refused to go to gymnastics. I refused to study dance. I took piano lessons and music theory.
The reasoning was clear to me, but I did not have the vocabulary to explain that I was butch or transgender. The Brownie uniform included a skirt. Gymnastics required wearing a leotard. Dance required wearing a tutu, tights, and ballet slippers. It would have been impossible to pretend that I was a boy in any of those outfits. I wanted to do exactly what my brother did.
My desire to have a dog was based on Timmy and Lassie. If I had a dog I could have an adventure. I could have a trusty companion. I could be loved unconditionally. My mother was quick to point out that dogs were dirty, and that Stuyvesant Town forbid them.
I settled for stuffed animals. My favorite was Lucky the Lion. He was so big that he took up the whole foot of my bed. He was the first prize I ever won. My name was pulled out of the raffle drum at the “father and sons” dinner at Congregation Rodeph Sholom. Daughters were allowed, but I pretended I was a son. I carried Lucky the Lion home on the bus; he took up two seats.
In my elementary school (P.S. 40 Manhattan) there was a clique of girls who stuck together from kindergarten through sixth grade. The two ringleaders were Wendy and Julie. They decided who could be popular, who was tolerated, and who was excluded. I was excluded, which wasn’t all bad, because I didn’t want to play with the girls. But they also decided that I had cooties. Consequently, I could not play with anyone else.
I never learned how to jump rope, play jacks, hula hoop, use a pogo stick, or do those hand clapping games (Miss Mary Mack). I wasn’t allowed to play with the boys either. I endured seven years of line-ups and recess being teased and called names.
Gracie asks for what she wants. When she wants to come up on the bed or couch, she grunts a little low “urg” to get my attention, and waits for an invitation. When she wants her belly rubbed, she rolls over and taps her tail. When I have ignored chow time she lies down in my sight line and stares at me. When she is ready to go out she goes to the door. When she is bored she goes to her toy box and throws everything that is in it onto the floor. When there is an “urgency” she noses me and dances around. There is no confusing or mistaking any of these signals. Gracie is confident. Gracie is a good girl.
I find it difficult to ask for anything. I learned to suppress my desires. I learned to stop saying what I wanted because I wanted to be a boy. What game do you want to play? What do you want to dress up as for Halloween? What do you want to do when you grow up? Do you want to play house? What do you want for your birthday?
The message was clear. If I told the truth, I got in trouble. If I lied, I betrayed myself and ended up with a Barbie Dreamhouse. Either way, I was not getting the hockey skates. The safest thing was to say nothing, but you can’t stay silent forever. I know, I tried, it doesn’t work.
Donna wonders why, after all of our time together, am I still so secretive? Why can’t I just tell her what I am thinking? Why is it so difficult for me to talk about my feelings? Why can’t I tell her what I want? Why do I hesitate? Why don’t I trust her?
I still feel like the eight year old who yearns for hockey skates but is afraid to ask for them. I hope that refusing to suppress my trans*-ness, my boy-ness, and my more than vanilla butch-ness, will eventually let me loosen my tongue. I would like to answer Donna’s questions honestly, without fear, and without squirming in my seat. I would like to be as confident as Gracie. I would like to be a good boy.