So, I’d like to start off by saying that it is 100% possible to be trans without spending your childhood despising all that comes with your assigned gender, and not everyone who identifies as transgender has the same “I always knew I was *insert gender here*” narrative. There’s no such thing as being “trans enough,” and you can identify as trans without ticking a single box on the What People Usually Expect Of Trans People list.
With that said, I’m going to be exploring my own younger years for signs of the realizations that were to come, and many of these anecdotes will indeed fall in line with the stereotypical assumptions. I feel like it’s important for me to explore these things, however, particularly as I work through the inevitable feelings of doubt and second-guessing that come with any major realization about one’s identity. I went through the same thing when first realizing I might be something other than straight, and I managed to get through that, so I’m sure I’ll manage to muddle my way through this, as well.
And with that said, on to the anecdotes!
Mary Martin did it, and so can I
While I don’t remember actively rebelling against the fact that I was gendered as female during my childhood, I do remember subscribing to a number of stereotypically “masculine” pursuits (in addition to more stereotypically feminine ones I also enjoyed), and I particularly loved play-acting as male characters when the opportunity arose. I must have received some pushback for this at some point, because I remember a glorious moment when I was watching the VHS tape of Peter Pan (the live-action version rather than the cartoon) and realized that the person playing the title role was Mary Martin, a bonafide female.
“See?” I remember saying to my younger brother, jabbing my finger triumphantly at the screen. “If she can be a boy, so can I.”
Although I’d never felt particularly connected to the character of Peter Pan before, I found myself play-acting as the character more frequently after that, and I watched the VHS so frequently that the quality of the tape eventually degraded from overuse. But it was as if a whole new world of possibilities had suddenly been opened to me, particularly in how effortlessly Mary was accepted by everyone in the film (and by me, the viewer) as being simply and unquestionably male. I referred back to her performance any time my male role in a play session was questioned, and somehow the simple fact of her existence set a precedent that enabled me to be accepted in ways I might otherwise not have been.
So thanks, Mary Martin. I owe you one.
When I liked something as a kid, I tended to like it a lot. In addition to slowly destroying the VHS tape of Peter Pan via frenzied rewatchings, I read the novelization of Return of the Jedi over 100 times as a 12/13-year-old (to the extent that the book eventually lost both covers and split down the middle), and when I was eight or nine, I was so obsessed with The Little Mermaid that there was a period of nearly a year when I watched it at least once every day.
Looking back on it, my obsession with Ariel’s story seems a bit out of character, as the other things I was obsessed with were Peter Pan, Star Wars, Dragonlance, and The Karate Kid. But The Little Mermaid is, at its heart, a story about transformation, and a story about a character who longs to be a part of a world that her body will not allow her to enter.
Somehow this reading of the story never occurred to me until literally today, when I was musing over the strangeness of my Little Mermaid obsession and wondering why I’d loved that movie so much. But looking at it through this lens, it really does make a lot of sense, and the fact that Ariel actually achieves her goal of joining her desired world and finding a life and love in it — and even receiving the acceptance of her judgmental father in the end — marks it as a story of hope that would quite naturally appeal to a trans kid who secretly wished for the same thing.
Of course, at the time, I just thought I wanted to be a mermaid, and I spent several afternoons trying to swim around our little backyard pool with my legs pushed together like a tail. But the less said about that, the better.
I remember the first time I was told that I couldn’t go around the house without a shirt on, and being both puzzled and irritated by this law that applied to me but not my younger brothers. I remember being annoyed at squeezing myself in and out of the stretchy, constraining fabric of my swimsuit while said brothers could go swimming in just a pair of loose-fitting trunks. And I remember very vividly the panic and horror I felt when my chest started to grow.
At the first hint of emergence, I started devoting time to pushing down on my chest with my hands, as if it were possible to convince the unwelcome intruders to deflate if I applied enough pressure. I remember crying in front of the mirror over this several times, and there were many impassioned pleas to the heavens that they “go back in.”
When puberty hit sufficiently that I had to accept that my modest yet clearly present bust was an inescapable fact of my existence, I took to avoiding any glimpse of my naked torso in the mirror. I would avert my eyes when getting dressed, cover my upper body with my arm when changing in view of the bathroom mirror (or even when there was no mirror in sight), and absolutely avoid anyone outside of myself catching a glimpse of my unclothed body. This behavior continued through college and beyond, and somehow it never occurred to me that this might be a sign that something within me was rebelling against my female body. I figured it was just something I had to hate but accept, and life went on.
Traumatized By Hilary Swank
Actually, my time in college was when I came nearest to realizing the truth of who I was, and there was even a time when, safe in the anonymity of a new city, I cut my hair short, stopped wearing makeup, and started dressing only in “men’s” clothes. I watched my male classmates closely and tried to imitate their ways of sitting, standing, walking, and talking. I created a male persona on a popular online diary site and exulted in being read as male by the people I interacted with there. I finally started feeling more comfortable in my identity, but the comfort was short-lived. The people closest to me didn’t react well to this sudden change in my appearance and demeanor, and I was strongly pressured to conform to more feminine standards.
I also made the mistake of purchasing a copy of Boys Don’t Cry, which I remember putting into the VCR with shaking hands because here, finally, was a vision of someone like me and what I might become, and surely watching it would finally make everything I’d been questioning about myself make sense.
For those unfamiliar with Boys Don’t Cry, it’s a fictionalized account of the life and death of Brandon Teena (played by Hilary Swank), a young transgender man who was brutally raped and murdered in a conservative southern town because of his trans identity. The beginning and middle of the film had me euphoric and saying, Yes, this is me, this is me, but the ending left me devastated and completely terrified. I tore the tape out of the VCR and stuffed it into my bottom dresser drawer, covering it with clothes as if to hide both it and the truth I’d briefly embraced while watching it.
I never watched it again, and in the years that followed, while I did finally manage to come out to family and friends about my lack of heterosexuality, I slowly began to transition myself back into the more “feminine” realm of gender expression.
I sometimes wonder how different my life would’ve been if I’d both realized and accepted my trans-ness as a college student, but at the time, I didn’t even really see it as a viable option. I remember considering the fact of maybe being transgender and then saying to myself, No, I don’t want that. I wanted to be male, but I felt like there was no road that could get me there, that the best I could be was someone “pretending” to be a guy while friends and family shook their heads or backed away in disgust.
So I hid it away. I ignored how I felt, but I managed to find some escape by writing fiction with male main characters. I could vanish into their lives and live through them, and it really did help. But every now and then the old feelings would creep up again and I would wish things could be different. I would be miserable for a short time and then go back through the routine of pushing the feelings away, telling myself it was pointless to wish for what I could never have and that all I could do was accept things as they were.
And Then 2020 Happened
And then in 2020, the year that brought us a worldwide pandemic and murder hornets, I got into an argument online with some transphobic individuals and found myself needing to do a bit of research in order to defend my position. My research led me to several transgender YouTubers, most of whom were trans men, and for the first time I saw that it was possible to live and thrive as a trans person. To be happy, to find love, to be successful, to be accepted and liked. To like yourself, even.
I realized that there might actually be a future for me outside of the prison I’d trapped myself in, and what I felt in that moment was relief. And then crippling self-doubt and fear, because that’s how I roll.
Even after all these realizations and a lifetime leading up to this, I still don’t know where this is all going to lead. I don’t know if I’ll be brave enough to be who I am when there’s a risk of losing people I care about who just don’t understand. But I hope that I can stay strong and keep going down this path, because if the mere presence of other trans people can make me feel like it’s okay to be myself, then maybe my presence can do that for someone else. I hope so, anyway.