I read something recently, a short description of the lot of the experiences and feelings that a fellow trans woman remembered having as a young kid. Things that eventually lead to her realisation about her gender dissonance and eventual transition.
A lot of the things she spoke about were familiar to me. One or two weren't. A handful of my own experiences which she either didn't have, didn't talk about or didn't remember popped into my head. So, I decided I'd focus for a single post on a lot of my earlier (and not so earlier) experiences with gender dissonance / dysphoria.
As has become increasingly obvious to me over the past six months of talking to far more trans people than before, not everyone who identifies as trans has anything close to the same experience.
These are mine - things which always used to either confuse me, make me ashamed, or something similar. Things which suddenly made perfect sense the moment I accepted that I was trans.
In no order except what comes to my mind...
- When I was little, a common compliment for girls was "pretty", and "smart", for boys. Years later, of course, I realised what a shit form of sexist priming that is. But back then, I was just upset that I "couldn't" be pretty, too. But I was even more embarrassed that I felt that way. Why didn't I get to wear dresses like my girl friends?
- When I had to use the toilet at school or somewhere else with gendered facilities, I would get deeply uncomfortable. Scared, even. I remember once, at my worst, I was so horrified of going into the boy's toilets that I held it in for three hours, eventually running all the way home to use a toilet there.
- An extension of this would happen when we were broken up at school into boys' and girls' groups, for any reason. I couldn't shake this feeling that I was in trouble, or would be, if they "found out". I didn't think in terms of being "found out", but it's the best way I can describe it. In short: I felt out of place when I was grouped with boys, and when it happened (say, for sport) I could never shake this fear that someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and scold me for being in the wrong place.
- On the subject of sport, I was encouraged by my parents to do a wide variety of sports and hobbies. I (however briefly) played soccer, did gymnastics, sung the Australian Youth Choir, played piano and played guitar. Then there were the huge number of random sports we were made to play at primary (and then high) school. I hated sports. Not so much because I wasn't interested in physical stuff (I loved climbing, being strong, riding BMX bikes for hours after school, etc) but because most sports I did were gendered. And that feeling? The "I'm in the wrong place" feeling? That never went away, and so I was never at ease. Gymnastics was one of the few sports where girls and boys were in the same rough groups - and as a result, I was much more comfortable doing that than any other sports.
- When we began to hit puberty, life became an even less subtle form of hell. I hated what was happening to my body. Everything felt wrong. I'd look at girls becoming curvier and prettier, while I was becoming "hairier and uglier", in my mind. Soon the disgust at my body got so bad that the idea of being naked or even not-fully-covered in front of people absolutely took over. Just going out in shorts during summer was usually more than I could manage. And my voice? It felt foreign, once it got deeper.
- As my female friends hit puberty, something else happened: girls and boys treated each other differently. I still had girl friends who were awesome, but I was suddenly aware of being treated differently by most of them, at least some of the time. I was a boy, and they were girls. So sometimes there'd be jokes about boy germs, or jokes about kissing me. Conversations would halt when I turned up, because they were talking about Girl Things. (And oh god how I wished I had girl-germs - which, amusingly, was what the oestrogen gel I had to take for several months during HRT got nick-named by my housemates.)
- As my male friends hit puberty, there'd be the inverse of this. Conversations about girls in a way that I found uncomfortable. Even if they weren't saying things that I found gross or demeaning, I still had this feeling I shouldn't be hearing this. Once again, like I was in the wrong place. That any minute now one of them would say, "Wait, what're they doing here?"
- Conversations about kissing or sex were where things got very confusing for me. Because I wanted to kiss girls. I knew that. I'd daydream about it, even before I finally did. But on some level it still felt... wrong. Hearing about sex in the very bland, cis/het normalised way that you tend to be at school seemed weird. "I have to do THAT?" I couldn't get past the uncomfortable combination of wanting to sleep with girls, but finding almost every part of what I was told sex 'was' bizarre and uncomfortable to hear about. Note: it's this problem (knowing I was attracted to women but not being even close to comfortable with actually having sex with them), that caused me the most problems for many years. It didn't make sense, and caused huge confusion for me regarding my sexuality. I wasn't gay, but if I wasn't gay, then why...?
- Quite young, I remember several times putting on girls' clothes when nobody was around to find me. When I realised that my fantasies about being with girls suddenly "worked" in this context, I got deeply ashamed, confused and began to hide how I felt. For years I thought I had some kind of fetish. Even when I began to explore the idea that maybe - just maybe - I was trans, I still saw the fact that I found wearing women's clothing "sexy" as some kind of sign against it. What I didn't realise was that it wasn't wearing women's clothing per se that I found attractive - it's just that without it, or at least imagining I was a girl, I couldn't escape my own body and couldn't find myself comfortable enough to be excited.
- For years I had a fixation with pregnancy - the ultimate expression, in my mind, of femininity. Again, I put it down to a fetish that I became - yep, you guessed it - deeply ashamed of. Later on, when the internet became a big part of my life, I found that unlike many pregnancy fetishists, I didn't want to sleep with or idealise or even really sexualise pregnant women... I just liked the idea of being one. I also realised that it wasn't anything specific about being pregnant... it was just that this was a female experience that I realised I could never have.
- It was this that drew me to erotica. I had been exposed to porn as a teenager, of course, but it always seemed wrong. A guy and a girl, in a plasticky, contrived situation? Blech. And the guy... oh god no. The moment a guy was involved, I had no ability to enjoy it at all. (It'd take me many, many years to find ANY porn that did much for me, as most porn seems to be very male-centric, so even lesbian porn often seemed contrived or a fantasy show for men.) But erotica... it was different. As long as it was written (and written well), descriptions of love, lust and sex from a female perspective did it for me. (I justified only really liking erotica from a female perspective any number of ways, but mostly because "guys all love lesbians, right?". I mean, my friends love lesbian porn, right? This is just that... but written.) I even wrote quite a few of my own over the years.
- Even well into my late twenties (in fact, I still got this often right up until I started HRT and went public) my fear of being 'found out' any time my gender was a factor in what I was doing kept up. But as an adult, this happened in different contexts. At a bar and having to use the men's room? I had to psyche myself up. Sometimes, if I was in a bad place or feeling unconfident, I couldn't manage it. I remember a few instances of deciding I'd just make an excuse and leave early, rather than brave a particularly busy or gross men's room.
- I could never use a urinal without feeling that I was doing something 'wrong'. I eventually trained myself to do it without feeling too weird on my own in a private bathroom, but in a public bathroom I just couldn't do it. Even at age thirty, I couldn't. I'd sheepishly find a stall, even if it meant waiting for one.
- I generally used to wear what were generally fairly androgynous clothing choices. Things that, had I been in a different body back then, could have worked as a kind of tomboy look. Whenever I was force to wear what I thought of as 'hyper-masculine' things - tuxedos, suits & ties, for instance (but even things like polo shirts felt faaaar too uncomfortable for me to wear) I felt very, very discordant. This made formal things such as weddings tough. Extremely tough.
- Partly due to my (what then seemed strange) feelings of discomfort being gendered as male, I found it harder to make male friends than female friends. Much harder. However, just why this was the case took a while for me to parse. And I think the reason is this: most of the time, women treated me like... a person. Few women I'd meet would seemingly treat me too differently to how I saw them treating their female friends, or other women they'd just met. (Note: I later found out this often wasn't quite true, once women REALLY started treating me as another woman... but back then I still found interactions with women easier.) But men... so often, I felt like I was being caught in some kind of weird game. Ways of greeting men as a man yourself felt awkward. Shaking hands felt strange. If they spoke about women, I got very uncomfortable. Even if they didn't... that feeling came back. "Getting caught". Like I had a dirty secret and that if I kept having to talk to this man-I-just-met, he'd figure it out eventually.
- As a result of this, I taught myself "how to talk about women like men do". At times, during my early twenties, this meant I'd say some pretty sexist, gross things. Because I'd trained myself How To Be A Man. I played up masculine mannerisms based on watching men behave. I deepened my voice an octave or two to seem more masculine (to lessen the fear of being 'found out').
- I hated small-talk with men. Small-talk usually revolved round sport or other things that held little interest for me. By contrast, now, small-talk with people I barely know often revolves around clothing or makeup - two things that I actually do find interesting, and am quite happy to discuss at length, if the other woman also finds it interesting.
- When I discovered that there were video games where I could play as a girl, I was amazed, and I often played them for many hoiurs, even if the game itself wasn't very good. Ultima VII, as I've written before, was a huge deal for me, and future RPGs where you could create custom characters in any way were hugely important to me. I even remember learning that in one of Leisure Suit Larry games you could play as a girl - Passionate Patti! The fact that due to copy protection and puzzle-toughness issues I never got far enough to play as her really bothered me.
- For a long during my '20s I fixated on fiction that focused on unpacking or dissecting masculinity, either intentionally or not. Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk were clear front-runners. I found that I had such difficulty "being a man", that these kinds of stories helped. Both to make me feel better about being a "freak", and so I could figure out more about how I was "supposed" to feel and act.
- In a similar way, I often found war stories fascinating. Not so much because the horrors of war were interesting to me, but most stories revolved round groups of young men interacting with each other - and interacting with men was always tough for me, so on some level these kinds of stories acted a bit like a 'primer' on male interaction... if only as a guide to rather shit behaviours to avoid. These kinds of stories don't interest me so much any more.
- At no point did I ever "think I was a woman". Not consciously. How could I? Every moment of every day I was confronted with the physical fact of having a male body. But despite saying this, sometimes I'd find my subconscious would override what I knew on some level. Without thinking about it, I'd find myself having to stop and consider carefully when confronted with two toilets. "Wait, which one do I go into again?" Once or twice a year I'd even accidentally walk into - or almost walk into - the women's, despite knowing full well I was supposed to be a man.
- When I was about 18, I wrote a novel. It took many years, and it had a male protagonist. He was a total prick. Thing is, he was never the character I cared about. Even though it was told from his perspective (and his perspective existed as a way for me to make sense of the horrible misogyny and power-games I saw amongst some of my extended social circles back then) it was one of the girls in the story that I really cared about. In fact, she was in a sense a variation of this character...
- When I was in my mid-teens, I began to fantasise about a girl who didn't exist. In my mind she lived next-door. She liked similar things to me. Computers. Bike-riding. Playing games. She had long, beautiful hair, but was a bit of a tom-boy. When we were younger, she'd tie it in pig-tails if we were riding bikes. As we got older, it'd just be a pony tail or a braid. She wore pants and t-shirts mostly, and would often want to do stupid things like go out late at night for whatever mischief was going on in the neighbourhood. She didn't really seem to like boys (I'd later on realise I made her a lesbian, without knowing what that meant or why), but she liked me despite this. She was confident, happy, smart and funny in complete contrast to what I saw myself as. I remembered a name which I was was told was a front-runner for if I'd been born female: Elissa. (At least, that's the name I remember being told, though nobody remembers the conversation now.) It took me many, many years to realise that this fantasy girl who I would day-dream about even into my twenties wasn't the girl I wanted to be going out with - it was the girl I wanted to be.