Who owns gender? Is it the doctors who, when they deliver a baby, determine based on the appearance of genitalia whether a baby is a boy or a girl? Is it the scientists who determine that your chromosomes are XY, XX, or some other, rarer configuration? Is it the parents who, as they raise their child, see their child gravitate towards traditionally boyish or girlish toys and interests? Is it the child him or herself as they enter into puberty and beyond?
Or is gender a commonly recognized good; something that belongs to society at large? Is it something that those around us have a right to impose on us depending on the mores of the era?
When I was a child I did not think of myself in terms of boy or girl. I gravitated naturally towards activities that interested me, regardless of whether they were associated with masculinity or femininity. As it happened, I enjoyed being outdoors. I enjoyed playing soccer, floor hockey, hiking and exploring the city in the snow. I played with Hot Wheel cars, He-Man and Mr T. action figures, and GI Joe figurines. My friends were almost equally male and female and I had crushes on both sexes. This caused me no real conflict.
Feeling socially awkward when I entered into crowds of people, I preferred one on one interactions. They proved less complicated. I knew what the expectations of me were. I knew that the boys were becoming bigger and I wasn’t. And that, as I became older, did cause me growing discomfort. I knew that I was expected to sprout breasts not muscle. That I couldn’t run around shirtless forever. I wasn’t looking forward to it.
As for the traditionally feminine trajectory of dating, getting married and having children, it held absolutely no appeal for me. The possibility of pregnancy terrified me long before I fully understood how babies were formed.
I thought the conversations that women had were boring, based on what I witnessed among my mother’s friends. Discussing recipes, soap operas and hairstyles held no interest. When my parents had friends over, I found myself gravitating to my father’s friendship circle. I would sit on the floor and listen in on their conversations as they discussed the latest news, scientific discoveries, politics or history.
I had no words for what I was experiencing. I thought I was simply a tomboy. I thought maybe certain women felt this way and that I would grow out of it and feel more comfortable in my skin one day. But that never happened. I felt awkward at school in the PE class when we had to change. I didn’t want to strip down in front of the other girls so I would hide in a bathroom cubicle. I stopped eating in the hopes that would delay the sprouting of breasts and the onslaught of menstruation. It worked in terms of the latter. But it only delayed the inevitable.
I was at war with my body. I didn’t understand why. I felt shame and embarrassment and I didn’t trust that I had anyone to talk to about it. I was crazy, I thought. Or maybe even evil. I withdrew from the world around me, spending most of my time alone. I became depressed, even suicidal. Until I made the decision to live my life authentically, to take the taboo step of changing my gender. I have never regretted my decision, despite the high price I have paid (loss of family, friends and opportunity).
Who gets to define my gender? And why does it matter? There used to be a time when people believed that kings were gods and that slaves were meant to be slaves by birth. We used to believe women were inferior to men (some still do), that it was simply the way the world was ordered. Most of us don’t subscribe to those notions anymore – we’ve seen that the way things used to be doesn’t necessarily translate into the way things are. Is gender the next frontier, less a life sentence than a mutable fact, a choice we have to be our authentic selves? What difference does it make to anyone else whether I live my life as a man or a woman? And yet, to me, it makes all the difference in the world.
What right does anyone else have to deny me that? My gender is my own.