A non-binary kid in the 1950s was just a girl
When you grow up in the 1950s, there are only two possible genders and your mother is one and your father is the other. You slide between them. You’re the kid who balks at dressing up for church, who hates ribbons, frills, white ankle socks, the seams inside dresses, and lace most of all; you are the kid who refuses shirts in the summer because boys do. You’re the kid who announces at two that you’re a boy, to horrified response. You keep trying this announcement every couple of years, while your mother explains how wrong you are. Boys, your brother, has a thingy dangling between his legs and you have nothing. You look in the mirror, standing on the toilet seat, to see your nothing, and you pull up the skin where you cleave, and you don’t see nothing there, you see rich redness and a good bump, and if you had the language you would insist this isn’t, anyway, about body parts, this is deeper than dangles.
Your mother walks you down the gravel path and leaves you on the tarmac in the kindergarten child-swirl. A distant bell rings and the teacher says go here, go there, make two lines, girls on the left, boys on the right. You put yourself where you need to be, refusing the girls’ line and the boys’ line, standing resolutely at the head of a new, third line for kids in the middle until Mrs Morris lays her warm kind hands on your shoulders and directs you into place behind the girls.
There are pretend kitchens to make pretend hamburgers — good. There are fire engines to zoom — good. There is practicing your name and address — good. There is an interesting bathroom fountain — good. There are little girls — good. There is learning to tie your shoelaces — good. But there is tomato juice at snack, and there are digestive cookies — bad. There is also putting heads down in arms to sleep sitting up for nap — bad. You are too old for naps. Naps are for babies and you are five.
When your mother comes to fetch you, Mrs Morris keeps you behind, and asks your mother how many dolls you have? There should be many many dollies in your life, even if you decapitate them or draw mustaches on their faces. Keep at it, Mrs Morris advises your mother. She’s a tomboy, your mother says, frustrated. I’m sure she’ll grow out of it when she gets interested in boys. More dolls, repeats Mrs Morris.
They plan to doll this little problem out of you.
Dolls seem to grow like puff balls in the fields. You like Chatty Cathy best because even though she won’t say anything you want her to say, she’s almost like a friend.
You start wetting your bed. You go to school reeking of urine because your mother doesn’t change your sheets. Now you are not very popular. Kids don’t want to play with you. Each night you climb back into your history of pee, and pee on it again. You are wet when you get up, and shiver as if you’ve just come from a swimming pool; you pull down the bathroom towels to get dry. You pull on your clothes over pee-wet skin.
You start wetting your bed. You go to school reeking of urine because your mother doesn’t change your sheets.
In grade one, your hair falls out. Nobody can say why. You understand it’s bad, and that it’s worse that it’s falling out on its own. Look, you say and pull out a clump. It’s not falling out! I’m pulling it out! The round circle of hair with roots attached is a limp squirrel’s tail. Your mother is flitty with alarm. Why? Why do you have to go to the doctor?
But that is naïve. She undresses you for the appt. This is the doctor who sunk a needle in your bum when you had pneumonia. Now you are naked and round-shouldered with shame, trying to hide your privates. He makes you lie down on a high table while he pushes his fingers into your belly.
Does this hurt? Does this hurt? How about this?
I can’t feel any masses.
He makes you roll over and prods your back and kidneys, stabs his fingers into your legs, as if they could possibly have made your hair fall out. He has you bicycle. He has you sit up. He pushes your arms into different positions, feels along them. He slaps the freezing stethoscope onto your chest and back.
The doctor doesn’t know what’s caused your hair to fall out any more than your mother does. All you know is you’re bad. The doctor runs a shaver across your skull; brown hair falls like feathers across your bare knees. Use this ointment, the doctor says, passing a prescription. There are no prescriptions in 1960 to make hair grow back, so who knows what was given to you. Your mother makes you duck down in her car’s wheel well so no one can see the embarrassment of you. The ointment will rub off on everything, so your mother makes you baby bonnets out of corduroy, five that tie under your chin in bows. In bows! Like babies have!
There are no photographs. Your mother refuses photographs. You become the mad-kid hidden in the attic, who smells like urine and pungently like ointment, who looks like a freak, who stays home when the family goes out, lest someone might catch a glimpse of you. Within your family, you become the scapegoat. You are the reason bad things happen. A hundred bad things happen with you at their helm. A foal dies in the barn. The dog digs it up. See! See! Your mother gets a flat tire. See! You are a lightning rod to absorb all their electrical bolts. Just pray nobody asks why the world of your family is blue: Why? It must be your fault, your fault, your fault. Your mother keeps you home sick on school picture day. It doesn’t matter. Everyone at school hates you anyway. For Red Rover, they pick you last. You turn out to be excellent at sports, great at running, a high jump champion, but you are still picked last.
There are no photographs. Your mother refuses photographs. You become the mad-kid hidden in the attic.
You learn to read Dick and Jane and a world of reading opens its doors to you. Your teacher sits you in the smart row and while this is gratifying to you, it sinks you. Now you are targeted. After school, kids trip you and kick you. “Girly boy,” they say, and “Poo head! Baby belongs in kindergarten!” Your field abuts the school property. You beg your father for a gate, but get mocked for not wanting to walk to and from school, a mere “U” strollable in ten minutes. They call you lazy, and you can’t explain it’s not laziness. You can’t tell on the kids who trip you and kick you because tattletales are bad. Tattletales are the worst of the worst. Plus, the kids say if you tell, they’ll hurt you more. Day after day you go home with torn knees, blood slicked down your legs, your knee socks balled at your ankles, crusty with dried blood.
Again? You’re the clumsiest girl I know.
Lazy, ugly, clumsy. Those are your tag words of childhood.
Lazy, ugly, clumsy.
At the bottom of the drive, you and your brother sell corn in the late afternoon. Your mother has said you can keep the money, so, added to your ten cent allowance, you’ll be rich. You’re very happy about this imagining the Wagon Wheels you’ll be able to buy at the bowling alley. You look like your brother, almost exactly — scruffy short hair, no shirt, shorts. You like it this way. You have on red stretchy shorts and the saddle shoes you’d like to wear to bed, actually, and even while swimming, you love them so much. Men stop on their way home from work — your friends’ fathers — and while they peel back corn husks to view the cobs, they pepper you with questions, asking if you’re a boy. “Nooooooo, oooo,” you answer slowly, in a whisper, hesitant to really explain. “No!” barks your brother, embarrassed. You shrink backward. They tell you to put a shirt on. One man asks if you’re a slut like your mother. You look at your brother. You don’t know. What is it? Are you? Is she? Your brother doesn’t know either. Both of you shrug. The man who buys all the last ears of corn reaches over and twists your nipple. “That’s what you get, girlie,” he says. “when you sit there asking for it.”
You never go without a shirt again.
You’re very happy about this imagining the Wagon Wheels you’ll be able to buy at the bowling alley.
You like lots of girl things. You like some boy things, like climbing trees and roof lines. You want to try woodburning balsa kits, but they are reserved for boys. You want to try the microscope, but that belongs to your brother. You want to read Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys series but your mother won’t let you. You want to play hockey on the backyard rink your father poured, the ice bumpy, almost impossible to skate, but you aren’t allowed in boy skates. You have to wear your figure skates with pom-poms on the lowest part of the lace; they might as well pulse like reindeer noses. The boys won’t send the puck your way and finally you go knock-kneed, bent over on your unreasonable ankles, and they jeer. You want to play Kick the Can, but only boys are allowed. You want to play in the fort, but the sign on the door says, No girls.
Patiently, you point out that you are not a girl.
No girls, they shout in unison and slam the door.
You just wait until you’re older, your mother says when you crawl onto her lap. They’ll all want you. You’ll be so sick of them wanting you. She lifts your chin. You’re ugly now, but someday you might be pretty, just like The Ugly Duckling.
Boys get the extra pork chop at dinner because they are growing, even when they aren’t still hungry and you are.
When you grow to teenagers, your brother is paid $2 hour for his work, while you get 25 cents an hour babysitting. When you clean windows for your grandparents, they pay your brother 50 cents an hour, and you 25 cents — because you’re a girl, and your brother, someday, will have a family to support.
(In reality, your brother will never have a family to support. And you, very soon on, will.)
Boys get the extra pork chop.
Your brother and his friend take you up into the attic. They explain they’ve started the Bum Show Club, and girls are allowed. Girls are allowed! How did something so wonderful happen? Girls are allowed!
It turns out girls are necessary for a rape club.
It turns out girls are necessary.
Your mother has an affair with a man in the Bahamas. She needs a foil to get back in his arms. You’re 9; for the first time, you have your mother more or less to yourself, which makes you swoon with happiness. You attend a one-room schoolhouse. School connects to animals, so you swoon there, too — you have lessons outside sometimes, and chicks peep past, some of them stumble-climbing over your hand. All the time you stay there — until your mother’s affair dwindles out — you’re happy. You’ve never been happy before. You try to explain to your mother that you’ve felt exiled in Canada, but now you are home. You have a friend. You have a new curriculum. You learn the word “epidermis.” You fall moronically in love with a girl from some upper grade who wears a yellow dress and who stares back at you. But how can you say you want to kiss her? How can you tell anyone something like that? What would you say?
You say nothing. You say nothing at all. You don’t even meet her. You’ll never stop thinking about her. You wonder all your life if she managed to come out, too.
In the centre of the room, the principal straps wayward boys. The skin on their hands blisters red and tears roll off their cheeks. You want to hug them. You need to hug them. A similar strap exists at your school in Canada, too, and when you are in grade six, which abuts the principal’s office, you’ll hear boys’ screams as they are hit.
Back in Canada, you’re sad and lonely. It is harder knowing where home is than it was not knowing. Every night you have nightmares where you can’t get back to the island — there are huge snakes, swamps, men with machine guns, soldiers.
Back at home, you just don’t know anyone like you. You just don’t. There’s no one.
The principal straps wayward boys.
You are the one who knows apples rotting under the orchard trees are like boobies and when yours come, you cut strips of tensor bandages so old their edges are fluted, winding them around and around and around your chest every night. You tell God you will stop stealing chocolate chips if He only gets rid of the things.
He doesn’t, but a deal’s a deal. You stop believing in religion.
Soon after this, the nothing between your legs turns out to be a very big bloody something indeed, with pads and belts and blood-stained underwear and rubbing out blood — “out damned spot!” — with Dove soap, salt and cold water in the sink. Watching toilet bowl water turn red. Watching sink water turn red.
There is no opt-out clause you can sign. You would sign it. You would rip your breasts off your chest as if they were Velcro attached (Velcro hasn’t been discovered yet) and hand them back in. Here. I don’t need these. Give them to someone who wants them. Plenty of women would lust after them as they are deluxe models.
There is a new list, compliments of the 1960s: Girls can’t: run, swim, cartwheel, stand on their heads, ride bikes, ride horses during that time of month. Or perhaps ever. It is all to guard the mystifying package seal called a hymen. Not something you give two hoots about. But men demand that it not be stretched or broken. The corners of your life snap in at you.
You can still ride your bike, you say. You know you can. You’ve ridden it up and down the driveway during the curse and nothing happened. You have. You can. You have climbed over the barn roof when your cousin was visiting. You have. You can. You can ride your pony, Toby, bareback, holding onto his mane. You have. You can.
You get used to walking everywhere with your arms folded over your chest. One morning when you come down to breakfast your mother gets a sour look on her face and says, You can see everything you own!
You own hair clips. You own books. You own a bald Barbie you’ve scratched pen on. You own a new cardboard-cased portable record player. You don’t own your breasts. She’s wrong.
But now there is a training bra, followed by other, bigger bras. You are not allowed to use tampons, which you don’t even hear about for years (the hymen, the hymen). You salt the goddamned hell out of the blood that somehow crawls up your butt crack off the mattress you’ve attached between your legs and onto the belt itself. Even so, everything is stained — your belts, your underwear, your tights, sometimes your skirts and pants. You get used to clotted blood adhering to your pubic hair like huge red lice. You can’t bathe enough.
Around you, duplicity and malice everywhere. At first you can’t comprehend it. As men toot their horns and holler, you always turn around to discover the commotion. The commotion, though, is you. The commotion is your boobs and the possibility of your perhaps-intact hymen.
Come here, you dirty slut. You know you want it, they hiss.
You’ve seen the blood. You’ve smelled yourself. They’re right: you are dirty. You spray Feminine Deodorant Spray at your twat, desperate to stop stinking. You want romance and maybe kissing. You know they’re right, they’re right, they’re right.
Men and boys alike want you want you want you just as your mother had once predicted. They honk. They whistle. They sling crude commentary. They unfold raincoats to show you. They trip you so they can help you up by grabbing a boob. They pussy rub you on transit, in sports’ stadiums, at concerts, at parties, in any crowded place. They tweak your nipples, even through a winter coat. You don’t count the incidents. They are so commonplace. Hundreds, for certain. You don’t bother telling your friends and lovers about them anymore. You don’t write about them in your journal. Their sheer numbers make them unremarkable.
You are loathesome. You can’t hold your head up. That’s okay, though. Men don’t care about your head.
Quite without your desire, you have become that thing in men’s eyes, that thing that isn’t imbued with full agency, that could be a doll for all they care, what will eventually deemed a Bo Derek *’10.’ This wasn’t your goal. You’re so glad to have hair again, to be able to grow it, that for a few years you do the things: black eyeliner, white go-go boots, black turtlenecks. Your mother thinks your body is your only bargaining chip to your limited future, and reminds you that you are only out there in the “dating market” trying to snare a rich man. You only need education to “fall back on.” This idea of schematic flirting makes you nauseated and you can’t do it. You date recklessly, any guy who is physically similar to the small womxn you’ll come to love, and any bad guys, period.
You end up pregnant and sorry, and have a bad abortion.
And, later, by another guy, raped. And, later, to another guy, married.
Everything is stained.
But also still trans.
You aren’t true to yourself even after you give up the girl-charade and become a hippie just so you can dress in bags and wear no makeup. Even after you come out in your 20s as queer, as a lesbian, as androgynous, you don’t get yourself the whole distance. The whole distance is unimaginable. Every day you fantasize about having a flat chest. Should you say your enormous hooters are wrecking your back and get a reduction? They are and you want one, but you know it’s not enough and won’t quite fix things. In any case, you’re not allowed to have elective surgery because of other health concerns with anesthetics, so it’s all moot. Later, your daughter reminds you that you were at this time transphobic, but you remember yourself being trans-positive — you took a friend who thought no one should be allowed to transition because she hadn’t been able to to task; you told EGALE firmly to fight for trans rights.
When at last, reluctantly, and only because, let’s face it, you decided not to date any longer and only have yourself to answer to instead of endless lovers telling you you aren’t trans, kicking every step, you come out as non-binary, things do shift. You notice your friend group is almost entirely trans — you didn’t even notice that happening. The hoops you have to jump through for top surgery are fewer and more humane now, but it is still a years’-long process, daunting to someone like you who is already ill. Should you even bother? You’ll be dead soon. Should you bother? Is it wasting resources that could tend to someone younger? A trans friend suggests that maybe someone who’s waited decades should also be helped, and you stew on that, you stew on that a lot.
Yes, he’s right.
While you don’t want to be a man, you also understand you can’t do the things a lot of transmen do because you are on feminizing hormones for your heart. Again, it’s moot, whether or not you want to take T (testosterone). You can’t. You can’t grow chest hair, or a beard, or deepen your soft voice. You can’t, so you have to be happy with what you can have — top surgery (the removal of your breasts). You are officially diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder. Woo hoo!
You identify as a non-binary and also kind of as a lesbian — as long as the “lesbian” part doesn’t hate trans people. It’s complicated, but guess what, you don’t have to figure it out. Lesbian you is still attracted to womxn, the way it’s always been since early childhood.
You have top surgery in October of 2018.
first published in Autostraddle, 2018
now a Notable essay in Best American Essays 2019, ed Rebecca Solnit and Robert Atwan
* Film “10” with Bo Derek