This is the first of a sequence of posts in which I describe my personal experience with concerns and confusion over my gender. This was hard to write and even harder to put out in public. Please be kind. I’ll discuss my earliest childhood memories here up through junior high or around when I was 16 years old.
I cannot remember ever not wishing to be female. My earliest memories involving gender revolve around my interactions in playing with my siblings. I am the oldest of the children and my younger siblings are very close to me in age. Growing up we were best friends, fought rarely, and played together all the time. We’re all very creative and imaginative, so we’d often play pretend. We’d be grown-ups, teenagers, dinosaurs (The Land Before Time influenced us greatly!), or other animals. Almost invariably, I’d pretend to be a female animal, dinosaur, or human. This cross-gender pretending wasn’t done by my brother or sisters, but none of them ever seemed bothered by it.
I played regularly with both ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ toys… I had some Transformers, My Little Ponies (Firefly and Magic Star were my favorites!), Glofriends, but most of all I loved Legos. As I got older, my interests continued to straddle both stereotypes. I was very interested in arts and crafts, computers, music, math and science, painting, video games, and crochet.
In elementary school I was friends with girls and boys. I was well-liked at school, and initially counted among my close friends both boys and girls. In fact, looking back at photos of early birthday parties that I had, there were often more girls than boys in attendance. As I progressed through my elementary grades most of my friendships with girls grew more distant and in the later elementary grades I’d only play with them in group contexts during recess. While I don’t remember very well, I suspect that this was due to my own realization that as a boy I was expected to play with boys coupled with the same pressure that my female peers felt. I think there also may have been some gentle, well-intentioned pressure from my parents or other adults to promote my friendships with boys. Eventually my time playing after school was with one or two close male friends who I enjoyed.
My elementary school years (and earlier) were overall very happy years for me. While I remember becoming gradually aware of the male/female dichotomy, this didn’t cause me too much distress as gender distinctions didn’t really come into play much. I had a good group of boy and girl friends and there was very little gender opposition that sometimes exists in children (i.e. boys have cooties, etc). Especially at home, I was still very authentic in my play and interest choices. The only times I think my gender really caused me great distress were as a cub scout and in sports, both gender segregated activities. I didn’t really enjoy either but was pressured to do them by my parents (primarily my Dad). But aside from those areas, I don’t recall feeling too much stress from being a boy. This was probably due to the fact that I think I was pretty unaware of my gender in most instances and the fact that for most of my elementary school years I had terrible speech and was very hard to understand. I was acutely aware of this and very self-conscious about it. There was really no time to worry about being a boy when I couldn’t even make myself understood.
Junior high was when things really started to be difficult with regards to my body’s gender. I started to become very aware of the differences in boys and girls as we hit puberty. I did not enjoy the changes my body was going through, in fact, I think I chose to deliberately not be aware of it for the most part. I was acutely aware of what wasn’t happening to my body, however. I would pray and wish every night that I’d wake up the next morning as a girl. I’d imagine how it would be. I’d write about it in my journal, but because I was afraid that one of my curious siblings would read it and know my deep, dark secret, I developed a code alphabet based on Norse runes that I used to keep what I considered my ‘terrible sin’ away from prying eyes. I increasingly realized what was expected of me as a boy and became very stressed about much of it.
While I was a very self-confident child who was a natural leader, as a teenager I became very self-conscious, withdrawn, and concerned about what others thought about me. This happens to most teenagers, I think, but for me it was intricately tied into (and possibly amplified by) my own dissatisfaction with my gender and appearance. I still succeeded in school and I still valued my abilities and interests, but I was very afraid to be my funny, quirky self outside of my family. I had friends, still, but aside from confiding to them who I ‘liked’ at school they were not very intimate friendships. I was more comfortable at home among my family, but I still dared not give them any indication of how I truly felt concerning my gender.
School events that were gender segregated were especially troubling. I hated P.E. because it reminded me ever so clearly as to what group I was in. I hated changing in the locker room not because the presence of the other boys troubled me, but because I hated revealing the male characteristics of my body. I felt very uncomfortable and out of place, and never once showered in the junior high locker room. I also disliked scouts for similar reasons. It wasn’t so much that I disliked being around only boys, is just that I felt like I didn’t fit, like it wasn’t the right group. I was able to interact with them and succeed as a scout, but I never felt like I belonged and I rarely enjoyed it.
It was beginning in junior high that I also first experienced sexual drive. One day in my early teens I was outside playing and came across a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition on my dad’s worktable. I didn’t spend any time with it, but I did see the page it was open to of a beautiful, topless model. It was a jarring image and stumbling upon it sort of became the catalyst for some changes in my dealings with my gender. First, the model was attractive and I consciously realized for the first time how attracted I was to women. Second, I realized (not as consciously) what I was lacking – what I wanted to be. Not that I suddenly had aspirations to be a topless model (ha!), more just what my body was missing.
At the time this was all very confusing to me and it was made even worse by the fact that I felt guilty for what I had seen. Wanting to do the right thing, I told my mom what I had found. I wanted to repent, but I couldn’t go back to the ignorant, blissful state I had been in before. I knew I liked girls. I knew I wanted to be a girl. I didn’t understand the concepts of gender identity or sexual orientation, let alone their independence. I felt like since I was a boy it was fine that I was attracted to girls, but since I wasn’t sexually attracted to boys at all, it didn’t make sense to me that I wished to be female. I didn’t want to be a girl and be in love with a boy. I wanted to be a girl in love with a girl, but I never allowed myself to get to that point in my thought process at that time.
I became quite skilled at living a paradox of sorts. I presented to my family, friends, and others what they expected to see – a happy, bright, normal teenager with quirks that were safely ‘in bounds.’ I kept anything that went counter to what I was ‘supposed’ to be deeply sequestered away inside. I remember even telling my mom one day after having seen something on TV about the ‘gays’ my ironic belief that no one could possibly be born gay. I was sure that they were all just pretending to be attracted to the same gender for attention or to be bad. Never once did I allow myself to see that my sexual orientation was essentially homosexual and that I was an actual counterexample to my professed belief.
Like it or not, though, things had changed. My body had a sexual agenda that I didn’t understand, that embarrassed me, and that I didn’t know how to control or manage. I felt incredibly uncomfortable and guilty about it and I started to have a hard time with my body. I was confused and associated my desires to be female with my nascent sexual drive, thinking that all were very problematic and dangerous to my eternal salvation. I was convinced that I needed to overcome all of it very quickly and quietly if I ever hoped to make it to heaven.
But my junior high experience was not all so depressing. While I certainly got off on the wrong foot with regards to my understanding of sexuality and gender, in many other respects I developed some very good habits. I was a very successful student and excelled and enjoyed my academic classes and arts electives. Though I tended to be on the selfish side, I was still a kind, giving kid that worked very hard. I was nice to my friends and very good to my younger siblings at home. I was also deeply concerned for my own salvation. I threw myself into seminary in the 9th grade like I did with all my other studies, read the Book of Mormon for the first time, prayed about it, and believed it was true. I remember well the night I finished it and prayed about it . I’m very grateful for the positive influence that my fantastic seminary teacher and his class was on me during my final year of junior high school.
In the next installment I’ll discuss my high school and mission experiences. Continue on to Part II here.