In the spring, all first year students are examined by the school doctor. One by one we troop into the first aid room for our turn. A few days later I bring a letter home, saying that the doctor needs to talk to one of my parents. Before long I find myself back in the same room, with Mum and the doctor. There is something about my physical development which is not as expected. I don’t understand his explanation – my parents have never discussed the “facts of life” with me so my awareness of the differences between boys and girls remains fairly tentative. He tells me that I will need an operation to correct the situation. He also suggests taking the opportunity to remove a nevus on my tummy which has grown as I have grown, and is now an unsightly lump of tissue, about the width of an old penny but curved like a chocolate button.
Am I scared? I can’t remember that, but I can remember the effect of being told there is something else “different” about me – something more to be embarrassed and secretive about. Soon enough the details of my hospital admission come through – I will have my operations in June and be off school for a month. At least when talking to classmates I can talk about my birthmark – no need to mention anything else, although in retrospect it must have seemed odd for me to be away from school for so long for such an apparently routine procedure.
Soon enough, my mum takes me to Potters Bar Cottage Hospital. The building has been knocked down now – there’s a huge Tesco on the site. Good bloody riddance to you, and the idiots who worked there. I am in a ward with one other boy around my age, a few middle-aged men having hernia operations, and some older, bedridden patients behind a screen at the far end. I don’t really remember the time leading up to the operation but I remember the recovery period clearly – the kindness of the older patients, the fear of injections, the indifference of the doctors and also the horrible surprise they have in store for me.
After a few immobile days I am eventually able to hobble down to the day room to read or watch television. After a week my original dressing is replaced with a lighter one which allows me, gingerly, to explore the site of my wound. I am horrified by what I discover. It’s clear to me that the operation hasn’t worked. I have stitches, I was definitely operated on, but the “problem” remains uncorrected. One area they intended to operate on hasn’t been touched at all.
None of the doctors has mentioned anything to me. I am confused and terrified, cut up for no good reason and feeling so powerless that I am unable to ask for an explanation. I have another terrible secret, to go with the secret of my transness, and as before I feel that no-one must find out. The trouble with this one is that it will be visible – no-one could see inside my mind, that was reassuring, but this … At the end of two weeks I am sent home, and sometime afterwards I return to have my stitches removed. The doctor remarks that I have healed well, but no-one makes the obvious point that I am recovering well from a pointless, botched operation, and am no better off than the day I went in – worse in fact, as all the surgeon has given me is a greater burden of “difference”. I fail to make any possible connection between my physical situation and my transness, even when, a few months later, my breasts start to develop. Like the medical establishment of the time, I cannot make the connection between what’s going on in my head and my physical development, even though I wish desperately for my body to transform even more radically than it is, for the doctors to shrug their shoulders and say “this isn’t working out, he’d be better off as a girl”. All these years later, those keenly felt thoughts turn out to have been the right ones.
While I have been in hospital, my fellow pupils have been sitting exams to determine which set they should be put in for various subjects including languages. I miss all the exams. Although my academic results have been exemplary, the school sticks to its own stupid rules. Because I have sat no exams, where subjects are taught in “sets” (separating stronger and weaker students) I am to be put into the bottom set. Although I have studied French for four years before Goffs, I am in the bottom French set and not allowed to also study German, as those in the top set would be. Because my academic attainment has not been examined, it doesn’t exist. So just as my unease with myself is getting worse, I am placed arbitrarily in classes where I stick out even further, because I know all the answers. In time, all these factors lead to total disengagement from school, and ultimately the threat of expulsion.
Meanwhile, neither my adolescent body or mind develop as expected. At home, I am about to begin a more serious, secret and worrying exploration of my own gender identity.