Life doesn’t stop and wait while transgender signs and symbols in the media weave their spell over me. I have to get up, go to school and try to get through my teens. Although my physical development is troubling, my asthma is increasingly under control and my health is generally improving – apart from a bout of mumps and some rather unpleasant dental extractions, the result of joint parental/child neglect of my teeth.
As well as thinking about being a girl, I am thinking about girls. Which brings up an interesting philosophical point. The estimable Dru Marland has put it well. Gender discomfort, she argues, is always there (at least until you do something about it). But it is not an acute sensation every hour of every day. Alone at home with my mother’s clothes rail my trans feelings are front and centre. At school, while certain incidents can trigger a strong reaction transness is not always uppermost in my mind while getting on with other things. The discomfort is always there, but sometimes it is simply a dull ache, rather than an acute pain.
Living your life with a constant dull ache means you also learn to ignore it sometimes – even, on occasion, to carry on with life as if it were not there. In my case to behave like a boy, and to attempt to engage with the joys of male adolescence. Which brings us to philosophical point #2 – was I ever really a boy or was I always a girl? I’ll have more to say on that another time. For the moment I would just note that childhood and adolescence are a time in which we pay enormous attention to learned behaviour – because of the wish to conform and appear “normal” – and a time at which behavioural norms are often strongly reinforced by the adults in our life, sometimes consciously, sometimes less so. Most parents and teachers want to mould us in ways which are seen as acceptable. As a parent, your child can be exceptional in some ways – highly academic, gifted at playing a musical instrument, a good cricketer for example – but you may be less comfortable if s/he is exceptional in ways which puzzle or worry those whose opinions you respect or even, in the case of neighbours, those whose opinion you maybe don’t respect but need to be aware of.
By the third year of secondary school my friendship with Nigel is solid and I have made another good friend. Michael is not in my form and lives in Cheshunt, which earlier I would have regarded as the wrong side of the tracks. Gradually my snobbery has been eroded by the routine of daily school life. Michael’s family is from South Wales originally, and he lives with his mum, two elder brothers and elder sister. Nigel on the other hand is, like me, an only child, so visiting Michael’s house is usually a learning experience and a challenge to my sheltered upbringing.
By this time I find it slightly easier to talk to girls, although never about anything particularly meaningful. By this stage the more confident boys are starting to ask girls out and both Nigel and myself consider this idea and examine it in a faintly nerdish, philosophical way, trying to consider how we might go about it. I don’t think either of us are in the grip of raw adolescent lust when it comes to girls – and in my case physical change is late in arriving and confusing.
Leaving aside my big secret, our adolescences seem to develop along parallel tracks, and in due course we both fall for the same girl – in fact this is something we do more than once! In retrospect, of course we have fallen for a idealized notion of ‘girl’ – as neither of us ever know very much about the object of our attraction. Janet is blonde, petite (handy as we are not that tall ourselves) and very pretty. While both of us would no doubt like to play it cool, we don’t have a cool bone in our bodies, so it’s not long before our crushes on Janet are completely obvious to her. What is perhaps less typical is that we don’t seem to see each other as a rival. Maybe we are just too nice; maybe we don’t think either of us will succeed; mostly I think we draw comfort from sharing our frankly minimal knowledge of the mysterious species “girl” with each other.
We establish the date of Janet’s birthday. We both decide to get her presents. In my case I buy her a record token, as most girls are making their selection for romantic pop attachment from the same shopping list – Osmond, Jackson, Cassidy. Our parallel tracks of courtly love are rewarded with joint humiliation as we march up some stairs between classes one day – shouting up from the bottom of the stairwell she thanks us jointly and very publicly for our presents.
It all ends in tears (and expense). The quest for romance and acceptance has only just begun, and will not run smooth …