I Didn’t Know I Was a Boy

Growing up without gendered pronouns

Meredith Talusan
Apr 17, 2014 · 5 min read

Meredith Talusan is a writer, visual artist, and literary scholar living in New York. Her thoughts on gender can be found at www.aselfmadewoman.com.

I didn’t know I was a boy until my younger brother called me one. I must have been eleven and Tonton was five. In our small Philippine town of Talacsan, my super-Catholic Aunt Rosa was visiting and Tonton showed her a trick I taught him. We found some condoms in my father’s cabinet and I showed him how to blow balloons. The condoms were stashed along with the Penthouse magazines so I knew I shouldn’t be touching them. I forgot to tell Tonton not to show anyone else. Aunt Rita told him he’d get AIDS, and asked him where he got the condoms from.

Kuya showed me, he said in Tagalog, then tried to find me with his voice. Kuya! Kuya! I pretended not to hear.

This was not the last time I betrayed my brother. But it’s my first memory of being a boy.

Tagalog has no gendered pronouns, yet a name for eldest brother: Kuya. And that incident was the first time I clearly remember Tonton calling me by that name, the first time I remember anyone designating me unquestionably as male.

He must have called me Kuya before, but I can’t remember. And I don’t remember confronting the reality of my assigned gender until I perused one of Papa’s Penthouse magazines that night and thought to myself: that’s right, I am a boy.

My extended family circa 1985. I’m wearing glasses and Tonton is in the bottom row, third from the left, sitting on my uncle’s lap.

Maybe I should begin before Tonton was born. I was an only child for six and a half years. My grandmother called me Apo (grandchild), my parents called me Anak (child), my aunts Pamangkin (non-gendered niece or nephew). When people referred to me in the third person, they used “siya” or “niya” or “kanya,” all gender-neutral pronouns.

I suppose I knew that there were two different kinds of people and they behaved in distinct ways. I also knew that my Nanay, the Tagalog word for mother that I used for my grandmother who raised me, wore dresses and she did not buy me dresses. She wore her hair long and I did not wear my hair long.

But she took me to the market and taught me how to haggle. She let me play Chinese garter and jacks with the children in dresses. And sometimes, she cut her hair short. And plenty of times she wore pants. I helped her cook by grating coconut. I didn’t like sitting with my grandfather and drinking, though I did sit on his lap sometimes when he played cards, and I sat on my grandmother’s lap when she played mahjong.

Whenever anyone talked about me, they said kanya, siya, niya, pronouns that did not identify me as belonging to either the longhairs or the shorthairs, the skirtwearers or the pantswearers. I was not a son but a child, not a nephew but a nephew-equivalent whose gender was unspecified.

Judging from the photo spreads I liked in my Papa’s magazines, I desired people who had male genitals. But for the first time, I recognized that I had them, too. At eleven, I was finally a boy.

At 22 years old ca. 1997. Image by Ken Rudolph

I grew up to be a woman, but first I grew up to be a man. An unapologetically feminine man. A man who was often mistaken for a woman. A man who bought clothes in women’s sections of department stores. But a man. Discovering I was a boy so late in life, I saw nothing wrong in being a man who shopped in the women’s section, who wore lipstick when the mood struck, who imagined himself a woman in his fantasies. But I was also a man who could not wear a dress without being stared at, who could not grow my hair long without being seen as a drag queen, and who constantly had to hear himself referred to as himself, he with his hair and his clothes.

So one day, in February of 2001, I told my boss at work on Friday that I wanted to experiment with wearing women’s clothes all the time. I came back on Monday in a fuchsia print top and green velvet skirt, and on Tuesday in a black dress, and so on. And in August, I legally changed my name and gender on my state ID. And in November, I went to a therapist who was part of the team that made the rules that said I needed to go to a therapist, and told him that to assume I was mentally ill for wanting to be a woman is to treat me like gay people were treated in the 1970's. He prescribed me hormones on the spot. In March of 2002, on my second visit, he agreed to write a letter recommending me for a sex change operation. I got one in June of 2002.

These days my siblings refer to me as Ateh, eldest sister. They switched instantly when I asked them to, and the only remnants of my transition for my family is that Tonton is still called Diko, second-eldest brother, when he is now the eldest brother and should be called Kuya. This confuses other Tagalog speakers but no one else would know the difference.

Now that I’m a woman, I can wear a skirt or pants. I can wear my hair long or short. I am perceived as inferior, but I can cry in public. I can be strong or weak. And I am called she, but I don’t mind being called he sometimes. To my ear, they are close though not quite the same.

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    Meredith Talusan

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    Intersectional author and journalist. mtalusan.com

    The Archipelago

    Stories about who we are, together and alone.