I had three periods of life that I was more out as a girl, while I spent the in between times hiding. The first of those out times was from birth through early elementary school. I could see gender in others but didn’t feel that any rules about it applied to me. I knew that girls were my people and boys were inexplicable. I didn’t know I was being dressed “as a boy” because I didn’t really notice clothing (except those godforsaken sailor suits which were just effervescing with boy and I still hate them). My parents made assumptions but didn’t force it too much (like, they didn’t make me live in a room with football wallpaper); generally I was allowed to be me.
Then, gradually any female expression was extinguished through a conspiracy of peers and adults. If you wear that again, you will be beaten up. If you walk like that, you will be beaten up. You can’t go there. And so on. So that’s how I learned how to carry books, to cut my nails short, to avoid drawing certain things, and all the hundreds of other ways that I was supposed to show gender. I did it to escape being beaten. It was only fear, and I hated doing it. The problem with that technique is that they extinguished most of me, not just a few isolated girlish traits. If I loved anyone, it was dangerous. Adults thought that my efforts to connect to other girls in first grade was prototype romantic behavior, and they teased me, so I learned to keep feelings hidden. It wasn’t just the other kids doing the damage.
The rest of my school years, I was a stiff person who hardly ever talked and couldn’t make friends. If I was asked what I was (like how when someone has a baby, they tragically ask what is it?) I would close up and not be able to talk at all and I’d eventually squeak out that I was a boy, hoping no one else would hear my lie, not knowing any other escape. I’d come home on hot days and run to change out of conformity clothing into something nice, sometimes dresses until that was teased out of me. The rigidity at school was so oppressive and I was lucky to be able to decompress at home.
Bathrooms. After an accident in first grade, they showed me the bathroom designated for me, which I had not known about before. I was actually observant but had probably dismissed bathroom related information because the teachers likely tied it up with gender which didn’t make sense to me. Then for the next nine years, I didn’t use a bathroom at school, not even once – too dangerous. I didn’t ride a bus or go on the playground after third grade, because I could be beaten and no one would see. I developed a radar for where safe adults were at all times, and what my escape routes were. This took up a big chunk of my mental energy all those years and I never relaxed. There were danger zones though, such as the first 30 feet out the back door of the middle school, which was unpatrolled, and I had to cross that to get to a street to the gas station where I parked my bike.
Although I got the occasional kick or punch, and was harassed a lot, I never was full-out beaten up, and I attribute this to my unerring vigilance, and also to some ironic privileges of being trans. Boys target other boys to establish rank, but I was spared that because – as I guess – that kind of bully tends to have a lot of social intuition and they never took me for a boy. Adolescent boys then start attacking girls for different reasons, but I wasn’t seen as a sex object so I escaped that too.
When it came to checkboxes and other gender binary features of adult life, I had been so crushed that I didn’t feel there was any way out. I didn’t know a single other lesbian, trans, or queer person; I had no words for any of it. So I’d check male and then I got put in an all male dorm at college. That was the closest I came to not surviving.
The thing about having a female kind of sexuality while looking like a boy… well, the result was no action on the dating front. My inclination in high school was to wait and hope someone would ask me out, but I had no clue about making myself pretty or locating anyone like me or being assertive. Everyone I wanted to be with was looking for a boyfriend, so all those attempts got nowhere. My only two relationships that worked didn’t happen until age 33.
The second period of being more out was around ages 20-24. I found places to live with all women and was a little less isolated, and even had friends sometimes and some almost-romantic relationships that failed before they really started. My attempt to be out was really pretty weak compared to the first time, but I got some clothes I liked and was optimistic about the idea of being free outside of institutions.
Then this period ended because people would throw bottles and things out of car windows at me, and yell threats, and I was unwelcome to wear certain clothes at Quaker meeting, and perhaps most importantly, money. Work places did not seem OK with people like me, so I felt I had to act like someone else to survive. So I spent 20 years doing that. The stress of it kept going up and my income kept going down as the economy changed and required more conformity. I only recently realized that the fear of losing income was overpowering everything else in life. People might say just be yourself, saying there are openly gay people who manage to keep jobs, but they account for 10% of the population and we aren’t even on the map.
The third period of being out is now. Being somewhat part of an autistic community has given me vocabulary and the opportunity to meet other queer and trans people. That gives me some basic psychic permission to be out. I’m feeling that showing some surface things outwards (like clothes) could get me over some barrier to also be out in spirit. Finding the way out is still a fight against all those hiding tricks that I adopted when I was little out of the fear of being beaten, and a fight against those who go ballistic about any trans person anywhere because it threatens their gender scheme. Even some autistic-run internet groups for women still don’t allow trans women, so getting support is not always so easy.
One main reason I can even think about this now is that I’m in a program for disabled people to work on contracts for state government, and I think they would not find me guilty of working while trans. Therefore for the first time I have a sense that I would not lose all income by coming out. I might lose some of the other clients though. Also there is a lot more acceptance now than when I was 20 and it has been a really long time to be in hiding.
All this has been just a plot line of what’s happened to me, but now I want to say more about what it means to be a gender.
People say “why can’t you accept being male” or “why do you want to change”, and those questions show a misunderstanding of what it really is. It is not about changing me. I’ve always had a male body and don’t anticipate changing that; there is no denial of how I was made physically. It is true that I am jealous of people who get the privileges that come with a female body and don’t feel I’ve gotten the corresponding male privileges that cisgendered males get, so I have mused about surgery for that reason. But that is not a necessary part of coming out, and that physical change is not a substantial change of me; it would mainly be a change of how people see me. It is more a question of acceptance by others than a question self-acceptance.
People also say “why do you want to be a woman”, and the short answer is that I didn’t sign up for either side; it is not about my preferences. The identification with gender is part of a psychic structure formed early, that probably has a nature side and a nurture side, and may be affected by the rigidity of the society that one is in, but it isn’t a choice. The main choice is whether and how to come out or suppress it. Not coming out would be an option too, but regardles of what choice is made on the surface, the inner me is still the same.
People also wonder what traits make a person identify oppositely to their body type. I have some traits that are traditionally masculine (like an engineering way of thinking, and liking wood tools), and some that are feminine (homemaking type things); and most people have some duality at that level, which is not the significant thing. It is about a deeper level of identity. For example, in my college house, having a man visiting was very different than a woman visiting; our private space would recede so he could be in the house but not in our psychic space, whereas a woman would be more admitted into the fold. There’s a deep way that females and males set up opposite camps and have certain barriers and openings to each other, and that’s the level that I’m talking about. Another way to look at it is on the level of the dream life and developmental stages.
I also have a point to make about intersectionality (the phenomenon of being part of multiple minority groups). I’m autistic, trans, and lesbian (depending on how you look at it). The autistic interaction here is very interesting, because it makes it appear that I don’t fit the more usual trans pattern. Some transwomen seem to get more into the makeup and other feminine trappings than most women do. Some might even believe that gender duality is real in a scientific sense and that they are changing themselves by changing their appearance. As autistic people can more easily avoid that kind of fallacy, I don’t really believe that gender exists in that way, and therefore when I say I’m female, I’m mainly saying I fit certain archetypes, not that I’m a thing that actually exists or that the whole topic is black and white. Since I don’t really care about clothes and make up that much (an autism-related trait, at least for me), being trans is not going to make me pretend to care about it more. I don’t shave my legs or wear make up, which is exactly what I would do with a female body. I could never project much of any intentional appearance about anything; projecting in general just isn’t one of my skills (a lot of people totally misinterpret me as conservative or some other kind of enemy of progress because of that). Therefore it could happen that I will never figure out how to reliably pass as female. But I don’t owe anyone that in the first place. Like I said, it isn’t about change.