On Tuesday, September 10th, 1957, I was born, in Wheeling, West Virginia. On Tuesday, September 10th, 1957, the 22nd episode of the Arlene Francis Show aired. On Tuesday, September 10th, 1957, the 32nd episode of The Tonight Show with Jack Paar (Johnny Carson’s predecessor) aired. On September 10th, 1957, well known actress Kate Burton was also born. On September 10th, 1957, the number one song in the US was “Tammy” by Debbie Reynolds.
In short, it was just another ordinary day in 1950’s America. There was nothing really remarkable about that day except perhaps that it was not remarkable in any special way, shape, or form. But it was remarkable to me because that’s when I “arrived” in this world, a world into which I had already been biologically primed for pain, unhappiness, and confusion.
A few years after this my maternal grandmother would stop driving after an auto accident. But until that time she drove her Thunderbird with wild abandon. She and my grandfather traded their cars in every two years and while I don’t know what they owned before that time, from that first generation Thunderbird going forward for almost 20 more years, the Thunderbird was her preferred car.
On the day I was born I was told she was given the news and stormed out of the hospital, bawling her eyes out as her sister, my great aunt Pat, came in, saying “It’s a BOY!” Little did she know that the child within that body was a little girl, a little girl who would be forced to be something she never felt she was.
I speak of my maternal grandmother here because I was never really allowed to get to know my paternal grandparents and once my father left us, when I was nine, I only saw them one more time in the rest of my childhood years. So for reference, unless I say otherwise, I speak of my maternal grandmother.
When I was about five years old, and the exact age escapes me but it must have been close to that, a particularly fateful day happened on one of my outings with my grandmother. You see, despite her initial reaction, she’d taken a fancy to me, and once I was old enough, she took me on her hair trips, which occurred every two weeks. Now perhaps it wasn’t every trip. I don’t remember clearly enough to say, but it was often. Our trips always followed a particular format. We’d drive to Wheeling, West Virginia, to the hair salon where she’d get her hair done. Then we’d go to Elby’s Big Boy Family Restaurant for dinner. I’d try all manner of things but dessert was almost always the Big Boy Strawberry pie.
And then we’d conclude the afternoon out with a visit to LS Good and Co., a department store in Wheeling that had been there for years. I’m unsure how long though I suppose I could look it up. My grandmother told me it had been around when she was a child. How much older than that it might have been, I couldn’t say. Her younger sister was the senior buyer for the store when I was a child, so my grandmother was a well known and figure there.
On this particularly eventful day, as we navigated the store to find her sister, we went through the floor with children’s clothing. She stopped, seeing a little boy’s formal summer “suit” – navy blue shorts, a navy blue jacket, white shirt, and bow tie. She picked that up off the rack and held it in front of me and said, quite approvingly, “You would look cute in this.”
I remember the incident like it was burned into my brain (probably because it is). I stood there looking first at my grandmother, then across the aisle. I pointed across the aisle and said “But I want that!”
My grandmother turned and looked, whereupon a look of sheer abject horror overcame her entire face. I was pointing at a yellow sun dress with flowers. Now I want to emphasize that my grandmother was not trying to be cruel. She spoke to me in the kindest, softest, most loving voice, but the problem was that she couldn’t see her own face and I could. And her face wore a mask of sheer horror. She knelt down and said softly, “Little boys don’t wear dresses. Those are for little girls and you’re a little boy.”
I know she wasn’t trying to convey what she ultimately did convey to me, but it was very clear to me at that moment that I had done something horribly, terribly wrong. I just had no idea what it was that I’d done. Needless to say, the little boy’s suit was forgotten, placed back on the rack, and we hurried onward, my grandmother trying to pretend that nothing had happened.
My grandmother was a matriarchal figure. A powerful businesswoman in the local community, even her husband bowed to her force of will. She was a powerful influence on me, and perhaps in ways she didn’t realize as well.
I mention this because there was another “formative moment” that involved her. I must have been about 12 years old, maybe 11, maybe 13, I don’t really remember the specific year, though I’m fairly certain it was when I was 12.
After my father divorced my mother, he abandoned us. She ended up on welfare and food stamps to make ends meet. To help her out, my grandmother, who owned a rural motel just outside the county seat of the county where we lived, bought a mobile home, had it set up and connected to the electrical, water, and sewer systems of the motel, and that is where I spent the rest of my years before adulthood, except for a short period of a few months that deserves it’s own discussion, perhaps at another time.
In any event, there we lived, at this motel. This motel was a popular one, because it was clean, well kept, and very reasonably priced. So a lot of traveling salesman stayed there. Traveling salesman often carried pornographic magazines, which they also often left in the rooms where they stayed. Our maid staff would throw these magazines away and I would fish them out of the trash, to read.
I never felt particularly lustful towards the women in those magazines, though I often was jealous. Why did my body do this to me instead of that? I felt I was being punished for something, that I was broken, and that there was no one else as “horribly wrong” as myself. I was very introverted, especially at school. I’m well aware there were whispers about that “queer” kid, though I was not what they accused me of. Perhaps, in my mind, I believed I was something far worse.
On a fateful day in the summer, and it had to be summer because it was hot and I wasn’t in school that day, I was reading one of these magazines. Now normally I smuggled these into my grandmother’s house and read them in her guest bedroom, where I could hide them in the bed frame should I hear anyone coming. I always had a book with me as well, so that I could pretend I was reading. And honestly, I frequently did read sitting in that room on the floor, as far from the door as I could muster. I read the entire Lord of the Rings for the first time either in that room or in my own bed late at nights.
But this isn’t about the Lord of the Rings. On that day I was reading one of those magazines and I was enthralled. It was an article about transsexual women and about “sex change” operations. It suddenly had become obvious to me that you could change your sex, that you could be who you were. Or so I thought.
I was so enthralled with that article that on this day I did not hear my grandmother coming until she had already entered the room. And she had already seen what I was reading. She ripped the magazine from my hands, screaming at me, then looked specifically at what I’d been reading and her face flushed an angry red. She began to rant. “Good people don’t do this! This is an abomination! These people are perverts! You’re not a pervert, are you?” She stormed off and that magazine was never seen again.
But that question, coupled with the deep love and respect I held for my grandmother, tormented me for decades afterwards. “You’re not a pervert, are you?” When I wondered about “sex change” operations, that shout would always echo in my mind – “You’re not a pervert, are you?” When I felt compelled to read about the topic of transsexual women, that shout would again echo in my mind – “You’re not a pervert, are you?”
And I concluded that no, I am not a pervert so no, I cannot think about that, consider it, or even allow it to enter my mind. That question helped drive me to block out so much of myself that the last few years have been a complete reawakening unlike any I’ve had since I was a teen.
The above two incidents were not the only ones that affected my confused youthful mind but I recount them today, September 10th, on my 59th birthday as I look back at the mistakes I’ve made in life, and the excessive “respect” I gave to authority figures – respect that nearly killed me with depression and suicidality. And I don’t blame my grandmother either. She was a product of her times. In the 1950s, the “Public Service Announcements” would air, in black and white, on that new fangled device called a “television”. And those PSAs were very strongly worded against homosexuals. (Here’s one such PSA, almost 10 minutes long. Note the similarity with themes and lies used against transgender people today that were used against gays back then.) Though trans people may not be homosexuals, they were even then seen as a subclass or the “perversion” of homosexuality. So even with all her character strengths, my grandmother was also highly flawed and very bigoted.
I wrote this entry today not to criticize, but to illuminate. Powerful cultural forces were working on many of us who transitioned later in life. Those forces screamed at us that we were “wrong”, that what we wanted was “wrong”, that who we were was “wrong”. Cultural forces can be very powerful in shaping our behaviors. I know they shaped mine with regard to my sense of gender identity, such that I treated it as a kind of mistake, error, or fatal flaw.
It is my hope that someday soon no child will be forced to feel that they are “broken”, or “wrong”, or a “pervert” for who they are. And while we are making progress on that front, sadly, today is not that day.