Certainly in the time & place I grew up — a southern state in the 1960’s and 1970’s. there was no support for transfolk whatsoever. Even the gay and lesbian community was hidden away, in seedy bars subject to police raids, that you could only find by word of mouth. I did find another gay person until age 24. But without an adult understanding of gender identity, the budding queer community was confusing and no friend to transgender persons.
The abuse and the depression were horrific, though often too subtle to pinpoint. The loneliness and confusion. No way to understand what you’re feeling or how to solve your dilemma, so repression became necessary just to survive. Yet, repression is like navigating a mine field, because your differences get thrown back at you all the time. I had a teacher tell me, while walking on my junior high school campus and minding my own business, “You’re not ‘walking like a young’ lady.” The teacher insisted on showing me you how to properly walk in front of other students. You protested weakly and said, “But my legs don’t go that way.” So, then you’re embarrassed about how you walk. You become very self-conscious. Earlier, in grade school, I was told be another teacher, “Little girls sit with their legs together.” My body became my enemy in betraying my transgender status, even as my mind could not comprehend the dynamics. Now way to understand it, no way to hide from it. Even the very best of childhood circumstances can’t help but leave their scars.
Adolescence was so very hard. I was aware of being jealous of the boyfriends my best friends had at the time — not jealous because I wanted a boyfriend — jealous because I wanted to *be* a boyfriend. It was all lost on me, until I developed a very close relationship with my best friend in 8th grade. To the outside world, it looked like lesbianism. We very innocently and joyfully went about holding hands. Nothing more than that ever transpired. But I didn’t even know the word “lesbian.” How surprised I was to receive my new identity by consensus of those around me! How shocking to be taunted, “Don’t you know that’s not natural?” How bizarre to be “outed” to the entire school — students, teachers, janitors, administrators. And what help did I get? Called into the office of the school psychologist and asked, “Is it true?” Me denying it because I didn’t know what it was, and it was obviously VERY bad. Then being ordered to stay 10 feet away from my best friend at all times — the destruction of a direly needed friendship at a critical time. A trauma so significant that I attempted suicide three times in that painful era, all ignored, all unsuccessful merely because I didn’t know how to “do it right.” If this pure love emanating from a young heart is wrong, then I knew I didn’t belong in *this* world.
Except for the feminist backlash against “being butch,” the simple-minded notion that I was just playing a role as opposed to being true to myself in the world, and the accusations of “joining the enemy,” it was easier to live as a lesbian, easier to repress the truth of gender identity.
But there comes a point when repression as a defense crumbles away, and the truth must be faced nose-to-nose. When one first hears the word transsexual, there is both fear and relief. Now I understand why I always wanted a crew cut and cowboy boots … but oh what a mountain stood before me! My moment of recognition came when I was living in a major metropolitan area with many peer, social, educational, therapeutic, and medical resources available. The sad reality is that I probably would not have transitioned and would not have survived in the southern state where I grew up. I worry about my brothers and sisters who can only grasp straws there.
We need public awareness, greater services, an unbiased support for children who experience non-tradition gender identity. Formative minds cannot grasp the significance of their feelings amidst the onslaught gendered messages from mainstream culture. This is not frivolity. Lives are at stake!!
Copyright 2009 by Terry K. Vanzetti