Re-visiting the past

22 12 2007

(Originally written about one week post-decision) 

When I think back to my early childhood, I remember looking like a boy. My mother kept my hair short with the idea that it would be thicker later. People would often mistake me for a boy. My dad, who worked as a plumber for a community of Hasidic Jews in downstate New York, even used this to his advantage when he needed to take me to work. It was forbidden for him to take me there alone, without my mother there, since I was a girl. But since he could pass me off as his son, things were fine. I remember beaming when his boss, the grand rabbi, asked him: “Is this your son?” Sometimes, he would let me help him with his work. I got to clean fittings. He would look at me with pride when I said things like: “I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty like my brother!”

During this period, when I was under 8 or so, I often visualised myself as a boy or emulated male role models. I would dream of being Robin Hood. Or I would tell my family to call me by a male name, like “Bernie.” Bernie was a friend of the family who had a son named after him. I thought the son was cute (he was a teen at the time) and decided I wanted to be like him. My family thought it was odd but they humoured me.

I didn’t like to play with dolls, except for one that had a phone, and it was more about the phone than the doll. I had stuffed animals though. But mostly, I loved to play with trucks, tractors and matchbox cars.

When I was 8 or 9 or thereabouts, I was sitting in the middle of a shopping mall with my dad. We were waiting for my mom, who was in some store trying on bras or something. I saw a girl about my age or a little older walk by with her parents. She was wearing a cutesie little purple dress. I turned to my dad and said: “Look at that stupid girl!” He gave me a stern look and asked me why I called her that. “She’s wearing a DRESS!” I replied in a disgusted tone. He told me I should wear dresses sometimes. “You’re a girl, ain’t you?” He explained to me that at my age, it was time I started thinking about becoming more feminine. Girls wear dresses and this is natural, he told me. I can’t grow up to be a boy, I have to be a girl. Apparently, he had once broken up with a girl as a teenager because she never wore skirts.

I was shattered. What happened to the dad who proudly looked at me when my hands were covered in soot? What happened to the dad who bragged about his tomboyish sister Charlie (after whom I was named . . .my middle name being Charlotte) who used to pick fights with boys? What had I done to make him want a daughter instead of me? It was on that day that my futile quest to achieve femininity in the name of pleasing a man began. And this day was echoed over and over in all the relationships I proceeded to have with boys and men throughout my teens and 20s.

In spite of my need to feminise myself, there was always a part of me that kept the desire to be a boy, or at least boyish. Throughout elementary school, I was confronted with gender norms that left me frustrated and awkward over and over again. In the first grade, my parents switched me from the local public school to a private catholic school. The school year had already started so I had to wait several weeks for my uniform (a jumper-style dress). Since my mom sent me to school in pants and I still had short hair, people mistook me for a boy constantly. The girls would shoo me out of the girls room.

At first, I played tag with the boys at recess and I was happy. They let me begin to play with them because they thought I was a boy. Then, when I got my uniform, they let me keep playing with them even when they found out I was a girl. One day, I felt overwhelming pressure to go play with the girls. I don’t know if it was repeated comments by the girls or by the playground monitors but I just stopped in the middle of a tag game and told the boys that I had to leave. They gathered around me in a circle and asked me why. I said: “I think I have to go play with the girls now.” They just looked at me silently, confused. To this day, I don’t know if they were genuinely sad to see a playmate go or if they were disappointed at losing the easiest target. “Don’t go!” a few of them said. I turned my back sadly and walked toward a circle of girls who were in my class. I was handed a Barbie doll and it all went downhill from there.

The next day, I decided that I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t stand playing house and playing with Barbies. I tried to go back to the boys but they rejected me. I had betrayed them and they weren’t taking me back. I spent the next few days of recess following them around to no avail. This was my first confrontation with the irrevokable nature of some of the actions we take in life and with the feeling of despair in one’s stomach when one realises that they only have themselves to blame for the suffering they are enduring.

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