Born female, a novelist describes a childhood spent searching in earnest for the word that best described who he really was.
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“She loved her country,” my grandmother used to say. “And she was jealous of all the boys from her town who had gotten to go and fight.”
I heard these words as we watched the red coats of the re-enactors make neat lines across the town green of Lexington.
“So she ran away from home and pretended to be a man.”
The brown and green and gray and blue clad men scrambled to form up.
“She joined the Continental Army and fought as a soldier and no one knew she was a woman.”
The Redcoats leveled their muskets. Sparks and crackling, the motley lines of Minutemen fled or fell. White smoke billowed out and drifted over us. My brother whooped loudly as the Redcoats advanced and fired again.
At the end of the day, we both got tri-corner hats to wear. He got a toy musket, too. I got my grandmother’s story, the tale of our ancestor Deborah Sampson. And though I envied the toy musket, Deborah’s story would turn out to be infinitely more valuable.
I must have been 4 or 5 at that time. But even then I knew: I was not a girl, as everyone seemed to think. I was a boy. At that young age, my understanding of gender was uncomplicated. How did I know I was a boy? Because I knew how I felt, and I felt like a boy. My mother tried to explain about bodies, how boys were this way and girls were that way.
A body is one thing. A mind is another. I knew I was a boy.
As a child, I was happy when I was wearing my brother’s hand-me-down clothes. Happy when I could ramble in the woods behind our house in rural Maine. Happy to be left alone reading.
Panic and tears came on formal occasions: Parties, holidays. Any time when I was required to wear a dress or tights or flats or a necklace or even having my hair brushed out. “You look pretty,” my mother would say. But I felt hideous. Not in the sense of being ugly, but in the sense of being wrong. Worse, I had no words to explain how I felt except to scream, “I hate dresses!” It felt humiliating, shameful, that I would be locked in these clothes that made me look like a girl.
Words have always been the key for me, what has allowed me to unlock myself. And as a child, my words were limited. Boy. Girl. Those were the options. At 4 and 5, I would insist that I was a boy and be told that I was not.
More than being frustrated or angry, I was confused. The truth, even then, was so apparent to me. Words were failing me. So I resorted to syntax. If I’m not a boy now, I will be a boy.
Covers pulled over my head at night, I would pray to God that I would wake up the next morning as a boy. Mornings and mornings and mornings. I prayed to God that at least when I grew up, I would be a boy.
Tomboy. That was the next word for me. The word for my elementary-school years. I was a ferocious tomboy. All my friends were boys. We played with BB guns. We rode our bikes everywhere. We wore flannel shirts or sweatshirts and jeans and disgusting sneakers that my mother would make us remove in the barn. We dared one another to jump into rainwater-filled pits at the old quarries. They called me “Al” and when one of them said he had a crush on me, I punched him in the arm.
We all played in the school band together. Concerts demanded that girls wear skirts and blouses or dresses. I begged the conductor, “Please, please, please! I hate skirts.” He sent me home with a note: I could wear my pants. But my mother had already picked out the skirt I would wear. I remember storming around the house, threatening to quit band. I remember crying and my mother crying, too. The two of us not understanding each other—she, wanting a daughter, me, wanting to be myself. In the end, I wore pants. But I also struck a compromise with my mother: I wore flats and a necklace that her great-aunt had given her.
In seventh grade, I went from tomboy to dyke. Or that’s what people started to call me—I’m not sure that any of my peers knew what it meant. But I’d outgrown tomboy. It felt like it described the fact that I wasn’t a girl, but wasn’t a boy either. Dykes had short hair. Dykes were tough. Dykes weren’t like the other girls, who didn’t much like dykes. But boys didn’t much like dykes either.
I suppose I was lonely—or I ought to have been. But I was still the same kid, with the same degree of self-sufficiency. I was happy when I was reading. Or when I was cross-country skiing in the woods. Or when I was alone and could be myself.
I left rural Maine to go to high school at Phillips Exeter. My mother begged me to get my ears pierced and grow my hair long. I wouldn’t wear earrings, but acquiesced to the hair. It was better to make her at least a little happy. She bought me skirts and dresses. But after scouring the Student Handbook the Academy had sent, there was nothing in the dress code that said anything about girls having to wear skirts or dresses, only that boys had to wear a coat and tie to class. Girls, in fact, could wear jeans and flannel shirts. So that’s what I packed.
As I headed off to Exeter, my father’s told me, “You’re normal. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Within my first few weeks at the Academy, my health teacher attached a flyer to my homework, about an on-campus support group meeting for gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning students.
Lesbian. That was a new word for me. I was still looking for language to describe who I was to the world, that would make people understand who I am. That I always wanted to be a boy, that I always felt like a boy. That the fact that I have a female body doesn’t mean I am not a boy.
It explained one thing correctly, at least. I am attracted to women. And, for other people, it gave an explanation of why I was butch. But it still didn’t quite fit.
I was still the kid I had been in rural Maine. In my dorm room, I would stare into the mirror. My hair pulled back in a ponytail, I would look at my face and wonder: Why couldn’t anyone else see what I saw? Wasn’t it obvious I was a boy? I felt it so strongly that I couldn’t understand why it failed to be apparent to others.
Words continued to let me down, to frustrate me. All these years, I’d said the same thing: I’m a boy. I’d been clear. I’d been consistent. And the world had said back: No, you’re not. You’re a tomboy. It’s a stage. You’re a dyke. You’re butch. You’re a lesbian.
I had no reply except what I’d said all along. Except that I didn’t say it—I thought it. I’m a boy. I know I am. It was my truth, and I held it close. It might not have made me happy, but it kept me centered.
I finally found my word the summer after my junior year in high school. I went to the meeting of a queer youth group in Boston. It was the standard church basement affair. I scoped out the crowd: cute gay boys, nerdy gay boys. Lesbians with shaved heads, lesbians comparing nail polish colors. I picked a chair in a row where no one had sat down.
The topic of the meeting was transgender identity. Five panelists sat in front of the room, and each explained the term. And the story of their lives. Their journey. I was born a boy but I always felt that I was a girl. I was born a girl, but I always knew I was a boy.
In other words, my story.
I cut my hair short. I changed my name from Alice to Alex. I asked people to refer to me as “he.”
When I went home from Exeter, I sat my parents down in the kitchen. I could see them steeling themselves for my announcement. I knew they were bracing themselves for a coming-out conversation, but they were anticipating that I would tell them I was a lesbian. They didn’t know my new word: Transgender.
I’ve always felt like a boy, I explained. Even though I am female, I am going to live as a guy. No more dresses. No more she. I am now a boy. Transgender.
They worried that I was throwing my life away, that I wouldn’t be happy or successful. That no one would love me or want to employ me. I tried to tell them, “This is the only way that I will ever be happy. This is the only way that someone will ever love me, or I will ever love them. This is only way that I can possibly live.”
It took years. Years of pronoun confusion and name swaps. Years when certain topics were never discussed. Gradually, we came to understand each other. I was employed. I was married. I was happy. They were happy for that.
Sometimes I go home and turn the pages of old photo albums with my mother. There I am in a dress, ready to go to a birthday party. I don’t look like I was in pain. I look like a little girl. That’s what my mother thought I was, and I understand why. The next picture, me in jeans and a baseball jacket, climbing up a cedar tree. I look like a little boy. I can’t understand why no one else saw that.
Words. The right terms to explain what I am. I think that knowing the power of words in my own life is what made me want to go back and write the story of Deborah Sampson, that long-ago ancestor who had run away and disguised herself as a man and fought as a soldier. The story my grandmother had told me: A couple hundred years ago, there was a girl who felt very much as I had. Now, I had the words to tell her story.
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