To celebrate IDAHO(T) 2013, Polari Magazine is publishing stories from its writers about their experiences of homophobia and transphobia. Some tales are funny, some are shocking and some are sad.
In this story Phoenix Berliner writes about learning to identify as trans, and the school kids who asked, “is she even a girl?”.
Every time I come out with my full gender identity and sexuality, I have to explain it, whether I am among my fellow LGBT community members or with heteronormative, cisgender folks. I can count the number of times it hasn’t felt necessary on one hand, and still have at least one or two fingers to spare. So, first let me get my disclaimer out of the way. I was born female-bodied, but never felt like a girl on the inside and knew this from a pre-Kindergarten age. I was always pretty rebellious in my thinking and started rejecting all gender stereotypes from an early age. I’ve never really believed in a gender binary, as I have always known good people who didn’t fit into the societally-constructed lists of traits that made someone a man or a woman. So, I am pretty near the middle of the gender spectrum. I was seen as acting masculine when I still didn’t know any different than presenting as a girl, and now I am seen as being pretty feminine for someone presenting as male. I am still ma’amed every time I leave the house, despite introducing myself with an androgynous name and no matter what hairstyle I try or clothes I wear or whether or not I bind my chest. Depending on what mindset I’m in at the time, this is both a highly frustrating and emotionally triggering occurrence, and a point of amusement for me. I suppose this is because I spent so much time and effort learning to accept and love myself before discovering the word “transgender”, and learning that there are other folks like me out there in the world. I identify as a genderqueer trans guy. Basically, what this means is that I like being near the middle of the spectrum, but I feel I should have been born in a male body and thus should be coming toward the middle from the “man” side of the scale, rather than the “woman” side. To make matters more fun, I’m also pansexual! I’ll let you google that one yourself, if you haven’t heard it before, and get on with the storytelling.
Seventh grade was one of the worst years for me. My parents had just divorced. After moving around and settling into a new school and group of friends, I was forced to move yet again. My mom, younger sister and I (with a second younger sister to be born a month or so later) had to leave behind the neighborhood and friends I loved, to move into a two bedroom apartment, with my grandma and three uncles. I was just hitting puberty, had not been schooled well at all as to what that would entail, and was extremely unhappy about my body’s betrayal of me and sudden, unpleasant “surprises”.
Thankfully, I only had to stay at that new school for half a school year, because, boy, did I hate it there! I don’t remember much, other than a dreary nightmare of depression, sneaking to the nurse’s office in shock and terror when I found blood in my underpants, not having a soul to talk to and being made fun of by both students and teachers. It was suddenly made abundantly clear to me that I did not fit in with anyone. The street I’d just moved from was the first place I’d had more than two friends at a time, so I was used to being a loner, but people displaying hatred and outright unacceptance of me was new. Entire novels have been written about how humorously horrible it is for girls to go through adolescence, so imagine how much worse it can be when you feel like your body is wrong and foreign to you.
There were two things I looked forward to that year: English class, where I always excelled, and Shop, where I imagined we would learn to build things with hammers and nails, thus improving my vacant lot fort construction skills.
I arrived at my English classroom, with all my supplies perfectly organized in my cool new pencil box, looking forward to a new writing assignment. Instead, I found myself being lectured to from a teacher the other students called “the dragon lady” in whispers. She slapped yardsticks on the desks, read even the most embarrassing notes aloud and focused on grammar, rather than creativity. I quickly realized it was one of many environments I would have to hide in that year.
At the end of a mostly fearful and disappointing day, I walked into Shop, hoping that this would finally be the classroom I’d be able to relax and excel in. Instead, I found myself confronted with big, loud machines I’d never seen before, that could take off your whole finger in a second, and a misogynist teacher, who often left the classroom unsupervised for several minutes at a time, during which the environment instantly descended into chaos.
One afternoon in Shop the teacher was late and the students were bored. I was trying to finish a drafting project, when I found myself surrounded by girls, analyzing me in the way I would later learn soon led to a big makeover project. Unfortunately, these girls weren’t the “helpful” type and burst into laughter.
“Oh my gawd! She doesn’t shave her legs! Look!” one of them exclaimed.
I was confused, but tried to ignore them and catch up with my work, while her followers cracked up like I was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. This drew a bigger crowd, including the boys, who these girls were very obviously trying to impress. Their tone quickly shifted from judgment to a bad impression of concern.
“Doesn’t your mom let you wear makeup? How come you never wear your hair down? Why don’t you shave your legs? That’s gross! Do you even have a dress? Don’t you want a boyfriend?” they all began asking at once.
High pitched laughter and questions were raining down on me from all sides, now, and I was even more confused. Of course, I’d like a boyfriend, but the love I’d read about came about from shared adventures, friendship and helping each other out. What did that have to do with makeup and hairstyles and clothes that made it harder to participate in said adventures? That was when the boys chimed in. They glanced at each other with secretive looks on their faces.
“Is she even a girl?” one guy asked, as the first girl grinned admiringly up at him.
“I dunno…” chuckled his buddy.
“Ha ha ha! We better check!” someone decided.
Before I realized what was going on, someone had me pinned to the table, from behind, and there were hands tugging at my shorts.
The teacher finally walked in.
“Boys, just because I step out of the class for a minute, doesn’t mean you can goof off! Back in your seats!” the teacher barked at the class, rolling his eyes.
I think that was the first day I asked for a bathroom pass and hid in a stall until class was over. I don’t remember anything being done about this incident, except for maybe a few of the students having to scrape gum off the walls for a few minutes, after school. My Shop teacher wrote it off as boys being boys and didn’t concern himself.
Luckily, what the girls had said during that traumatic experience supplied me with the clues needed to assemble my costume for the next few years. The next day, I showed up in my pinkest outfit (I don’t think I did own a dress, at that time), with newly and painfully shaven legs and my hair down and found my own little corner of “the closet” to hide in. Thankfully, my rebellious nature wouldn’t let me stay in there for long and we soon moved back near my previous home, where I could go back to my previous school and my best friend, who is still by my side to this day.