I was not a boy, and you can’t make me into one.
I think it’s really important that people understand that institutionalised violence has an insidious way of getting us to kill off parts of ourselves in order to survive, even though we know that by doing so, we are going to be ostracised for being violent.
When you’re growing up as a trans girl, even before you have the words to express it, you exist in a role where violence is used against you in order to instill violence in you. You are expected to use that violence against others, and paradoxically, to use it in the protection of others, as well, whether those others want you to, or not.
When you are a trans girl, and even you don’t really know how to communicate that to yourself, even though its seeping out of every aspect of who you are, the boys around you will be taught that you deserve violence, and this is not the kind of violence that boys direct at girls, it is the kind of violence that they reserve for those they view as traitors to the cause.
And so, if you wish to survive this kind of vindictive punishment, often the only path open to you is to defend yourself with equal force, to tear out a part of your soul, light it on fucking fire, and shove it down their throats hard enough so that they finally leave you alone, because now they know pain, too, and now they know fear, too.
But none of this ever happens in a vacuum. Others see it, and you are forever marked as Other from those with whom you feel the most affinity, at the very time in your life when understanding the differences between is critical. Girls fear you in a way that you can never, ever repair. And you learn to hide that, because all that you have left is to cling to the knowledge that you’re still alive, that the boys they sent to kill you couldn’t take you down.
I was a strange kid. The smartest kid in town, terrible at sports, great on piano (and spending hours in a basement with only a piano and a dehumidifier and a kitchen timer for company isn’t exactly conducive to your athletic ability, such as it is, nevermind your social skills, let me tell you). I used to play Barbies with the two girls across the street, who were the older sisters of a boy near my age. That boy and my older brother made a practice of ganging up on me, until I would finally explode, usually in tears and frustration. This was the mid 1970’s, and I would become the test subject for what we now call ‘gifted and talented” programs.
At age 6, in 1st Grade, they started sending me to 2nd Grade for certain lessons. I think that was the year I played Little League, the only year I ever participated in sports. At age 7, in 2nd Grade, they started sending me to 3rd Grade and 5th Grade for lessons. Around this time, I started to emulate the girls around me. I spent hours and hours teaching myself to write like the girls I admired, daydreaming about spending more time with them. They started sending me around the school to teach the teachers how to operate the new film projector, and bought me a weather station to predict the weather for the school.
At age 8, in 3rd Grade, they hired me my own teacher, and converted a broom closet into my own little classroom. At age 9, I was taken from the public school I attended with all the other kids in my neighborhood, and sent to a fundamentalist evangelical school, where I found myself in a classroom with one boy and 11 girls, 10 if you don’t count me. Suddenly, I was the butch one, if you can believe it, the first one picked for sports teams.
I stayed there until I was 12, in 1981, when I went back to public school in a new town, now the new kid, but inexplicably shut out of the “gifted and talented” program, because that “Christian” school altered my transcript and gave me lower grades. At least they’d managed to let me skip 5th Grade, the only thing those zealots ever did for me that was positive. Otherwise, they did their best to crush the spirits of every child in the school and turn them into mindless born again drones.
I hadn’t quite hit puberty, yet. I was one of the smallest kids in 8th Grade, and my best friends were all girls. My favorite class was Math, mainly because the desks were arranged in pods of four, and I sat with Karen, Lynn, and Leni (my first real crush). I was visibly brown in a town full of white people, and I lived on the outskirts of town, pretty far away from most of the other kids I knew. The bullying started pretty quickly. I learned to fight back. My older brother wasn’t exactly the gentle type with me, so fighting was something with which I’d already been familiarised.
But the fights in 8th Grade weren’t just kids being kids, anymore. I learned how to be ruthless and dangerous at their hands. By 9th Grade, after one final knock-down-drag-out in the parking lot behind Holy Spirit High School after a school dance, I no longer needed to fight, but the damage was done. Puberty had hit. The girls with whom I’d been so close the year before were now distant from me. Academically, I was still an outsider, since I was denied the honors classes as a result of the fact that I wasn’t in the gifted and talented program the year before, so I was usually the only “smart” kid in my classes.
I started to get involved in theatre, got my first pair of Capezio tap shoes, but that was brought to an abrupt halt when my parents separated in January 1983, and we moved back to New York City, where, once again the new kid, I ended up going to Flushing High School, at that time, one of the worst in the city. I started carrying a makeshift knife to school, because people having guns pulled on them in the halls wasn’t as uncommon as you might think.
I had to get out of there. The last week of school, I found out about Stuyvesant, and I took the SHSAT and was accepted. Once again, I was in a new environment where I knew no one, but I got back into theatre, and discovered makeup and nightclubs. I had my first kiss and my first girlfriend. The next summer, my mother moved back to South Jersey, and I went with her for the summer, while my brother and sister stayed in NYC. My mother worked nights, and slept during the day. Again, I was alone in a town where I knew no one. I started hanging out on the boardwalk, a loner. I started smoking. I filled my days with books about the Vietnam War. I was 15 years old.
In the fall of 1984, I returned to NYC to live with my grandparents to start my junior year at Stuyvesant, while my brother and sister went to Ocean City, NJ, where my mother had chosen to live. Because my commute to school was 1.5 hours from College Point to lower Manhattan, and because I was involved in theatre, I had a lot of excuses to stay out late. My grandparents were fairly lax about it. The drinking age was still only 19, so getting into nightclubs was fairly easy.
My best friends were still all girls, and I started to dress like them, in any way I could without causing suspicion. I started experimenting with makeup outside of the theatre. I started to question who I was. But, as far as everyone else was concerned, I was a boy, and that was that, and all I could see in the mirror was ugliness. Nevertheless, I had a wonderful girlfriend, who was a senior that year (yes! I had a sempai/kohei relationship! :D ). Her girlfriends became my girlfriends, and when they all graduated at the end of that year, I felt a very deep loss. Incidentally, years later, she would become the first person I cared about to whom I came out.
My summer of 1985 was spent in Ocean City, where I still knew no one, but now had to contend with being “Bryant’s little brother”. I swear, no one there even knew my name, or at least, no one ever used it directly. But, having little affinity for the boys of our crowd, and already having a serious relationship, I didn’t involve myself that much with the girls there, either. I was an outsider, something I’d often been in my life.
By my senior year, I’d already decided that I wanted to pursue a career in theatre, and that year, I somehow managed to have three serious relationships with girls. In the fall of 1986, I headed off to Carnegie-Mellon as a Music Theatre major, and had already begun to grow out my hair. It grew like a weed back in those days. By the spring of 1988, it was halfway down my back, and still growing. I didn’t have a meal plan that year; eating sporadically, when I could cadge food from my roommate and friends, and drinking bottomless cups of coffee until my hands shook, I dropped to 130 lbs.
It was a common occurrence for me to be properly gendered in those days, or as you probably would have thought of it at that time, misgendered. As slender as I was, with the long hair, people routinely thought I was a girl, even despite my height of 6’ 1” tall. Whistles and catcalls were a daily bother. I ended up dropping out/getting kicked out, leaving CMU just after spring break of my sophomore year, for reasons.
On December 30, 1989, three weeks after I turned 21, I got spectacularly drunk and told someone else for the first time that I wanted to be a girl. It would be 19 more years before I would finally transition.
All of this only begins to scratch the surface of my childhood. I started writing this because I needed to express something of the facts about what I experienced growing up as a trans girl, and yet, I don’t think I can ever really capture it in words, the trauma that we face, forced into roles which we didn’t choose and wouldn’t have chosen, and not having the resources, the tools, even the knowledge of how to get out of them. As a lesbian, there were things I didn’t have to face that might have been more immediate had I preferred boys. But at the same time, being lesbian meant that there was always the sexual tension to contend with between myself and the girls with whom I felt kinship.
Being ripped from everything that is most like you in the world because the world says you aren’t what you are is not something that cis people can or will ever understand in quite the same way as trans people. And there are huge gaps in my understanding of those years, because of the fact that I moved so often during the most critical years of my development. I have often thought that no having had the experience of growing through those years with the same set of girlfriends caused me to miss out on some things, even if I’m not sure exactly what.
But, it’s not just a matter of being separated from the place you should occupy; it’s also about being shoved into a place from which there is no escape, no alternative, but to embrace your own capacity for violence, or accept bodily harm and possibly death in a very real way. We read a lot in recent years about the emotional violence young girls use as a weapon against each other, but I wonder how much we really understand the emotional violence that boys also employ, and back up with not just the threat of physical violence, but with actual assault, because we keep studying that violence as if it’s employed only against other boys, and not the trans girls hidden among them, as well.
I don’t know how well I’ve expressed this here, but there is a part of me that will always hate myself for what I’ve had to do in order to remain sane and alive. There is a part of me that despises what I became, bit by bit, at various points in my life, and how that made me into something that in the eyes of others was dangerous to the girls around me. It’s too easy to say, “just don’t be like that” with all the perspective of years. In the moment, for a child, we do the best we can.
I will never forget that night, that last fight at Holy Spirit High School in the fall of 1982, with that boy who outweighed me sitting on top of me, his hands full of my hair while he beat the back of my head on the pavement behind the school, with I don’t know how many people looking on with glee. I hit him as hard as I could, but I couldn’t get him off of me. If my brother hadn’t rescued me by kicking him off of me (and that only because the fight was obviously unfair at that point), I don’t know what would have happened. And then, the police showed up, and everyone scattered.
I was 13 years old, just shy of 14. I’d only just hit puberty a few months before. I was a 13 year old girl who didn’t even know how to express that or even really understand it, at the mercy of the world of men. And I certainly didn’t have the possibility of even one parent who could tell me how they handled their own journey in a way that was remotely similar to my own experience.
So, don’t come to me a tell me of the shame of getting your period. I know shame. Maybe not the same kind of shame, but shame nonetheless. The shame of your body letting you know in no uncertain terms that you are at its mercy is something with which I am intimately familiar.
And don’t come to me and presume to tell me what it means for boys and men to harass you in public, to put their hands on your body without your consent, as if I was one of them, because I know what it means to feel that touch, and their punches, and their kicks, too.
Don’t tell me how embarrassed you were to have hips and breasts, unless you’re willing to sit with me and listen to me tell you of the nights I cried into the bathroom mirror silently so my grandparents wouldn’t hear, convinced that I was a hideous creature that no one could ever really find attractive, much less love, and listen to me tell you of what I go through now, with a body that will never quite be enough of one thing or the other for too many people.
Don’t come to me and presume to tell me of my supposed male privilege, unless you want to hear me tell you what boys and men really say about girls and women when they think there are no girls and women around, and how it feels for a young girl to witness that first-hand, and the real fear of knowing that in order to obtain even a basic education, you must first agree to engage in warfare, to be sent to the other side of the world and kill innocent people whether you want to or not.
Don’t come to me, and don’t come to any other trans woman with these things, until and unless you are willing to listen, to really fucking listen without making it about you, to our stories, too, and accept us as sisters.