Guest post by Awkward Turtles
Note: this is part one of a multi-part series documenting my experience of getting top surgery (i.e. a mastectomy). This time around, I’ll be talking about my upbringing and how I got to this point.
I was a pretty happy kid. I was lucky enough to have a loving family, go to a series of fantastic public schools, and grow up in Seattle, which is basically one of the most awesome, beautiful cities in the world. Thanks to its progressive environment, I didn’t have to think too much about gender growing up. My love of dinosaurs, superheroes, and baggy jeans was encouraged from a young age. Apart from a few instances in which dresses were non-negotiable (probably the only times I threw full-blown tantrums as a child) and some very minor teasing from schoolmates (mostly surrounding the fact that most of my friends were boys, interestingly), my tomboyishness was largely a non-issue.
I couldn’t have avoided picking up on cultural messages about what girls were supposed to like and be entirely. In fact, I think my attempt to distance myself from stereotypical femininity was part of the reason I identified so insistently as a tomboy from a young age, despite the fact that I was not particularly masculine either. But I cannot help thinking in retrospect that I would have encountered far more resistance (and, for better or worse, started to grapple with my gender identity far sooner) if I had been male-assigned at birth and similarly gender-nonconforming.
In any event, my rather idyllic experience came to a screeching halt when puberty hit. Perhaps it was not so much screeching as creeping, since the horrifying changes emerged gradually, worsening day by day. But I couldn’t help but think everything was happening way, way too fast. I remember standing in front of the mirror again and again, pulling back the skin from my hips, flattening my chest with my hands, pleading with my body not to do this to me. Eventually I got to a point where I simply couldn’t live with it.
When I was thirteen, I began drastically reducing my food intake and compulsively exercising. I lost dozens of pounds, but hardly noticed; I had developed such a distorted relationship to food and to my own basic ability to gauge what my body looked like. I was taken to the hospital after passing out one hot summer day, and my parents subsequently started taking me to a nutritionist. I ultimately recovered from the eating disorder, but it left me with an overwhelming sense of the futility of trying to modify my body in any way, and, once I realized what a distorted self-image I was capable of developing, a fundamental distrust of my own feelings about my body. I spent the greater part of the next decade attempting to disassociate myself from it as much as possible.
By nature and by training I try to look for reasons for everything, and trying to understand the intense distress puberty caused me was no exception. I came up with all kinds of rationalizations: the fact that pubescence was fairly precocious in my case; my discomfort with being objectified as an adult female; etc., etc. But I never considered the most obvious answer- that I was trans and experiencing gender dysphoria- because, first, I didn’t know such a possibility existed, and second, even if I had, it would not have been an option. This might be a good time to explain that those loving parents who raised me were evangelical Christians.
They weren’t your textbook-case evangelicals, given that they were well-educated and even politically liberal on some issues. But they certainly self-identified as evangelicals, and they believed so fervently that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ that they were incredibly active in our church. My dad even worked for an evangelical student organization. Many of our family trips were to accompany him as he preached at student retreats, and nearly all our family, friends and relatives were Christian.
The thing is, though, I didn’t have a horrible experience growing up in “the church;” the vast majority of the folks I was surrounded by were smart, friendly, and genuinely interested in my growing up happy. Though I had persistent doubts about both the factual and logical consistency of and the moral quality of Christian teachings, these usually seemed like sufficiently abstract and distant issues that I was able to patch them over with rationalizations until a good way through college. That’s another story, but the short version is that in addition to absorbing some underlying homophobic messages, I managed to completely fail to learn of the existence of the trans community until long after I had settled into that aforementioned fatalism.
Both in direct ways and indirectly (because of the confusion about and attempts to ignore my discomfort with my gendered body) my religious upbringing managed to pretty effectively repress my sexuality as well. Thankfully that started changing when I found myself in love with a girl the summer after I graduated college. As refreshingly simple as that was admitting to myself, it definitely wasn’t easy telling my parents; I waited about nine months to come out to them. At least it provided a nice opportunity to come out as an atheist while I was at it! They ended up taking the news much better than I could have hoped. While they weren’t always comfortable discussing the issues, they were very clear on the point that I would always be their child and they would always love me. Meanwhile, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for grad school and started settling into and exploring my queer identity.
As it turns out, though, I hadn’t settled in for too long before new questions emerged. They mostly began arising after I met (ok, went on an OkCupid date with, haha) a transmasculine person who identified as genderqueer but was nevertheless pursuing medical transition (in his case, testosterone therapy and top surgery). I also discovered around this time that a close friend of mine, whom I had assumed identified as female, in fact identified as trans and male. The implications were spinning around in my binary-steeped mind. Could a person desire to appear male without identifying as male? Could a person identify as male without having any interest in medical transition? What do I identify as? What do I want? Who am I? Thus began a yearlong quest to understand gender, in the hopes of understanding my own. Certain conclusions came sooner than others, but eventually I decided there were certain things I could be sure about. I’ll talk more about how I’ve come to identify and what I’ve decided to do in my next post.
Turtles is a young human living in Oakland, California. They enjoy yummy vegetarian food and weightlifting and queer dance parties and falling asleep in the sun. Their weaknesses include eating too many salty things and staying up late reading feminist blogs. They are attracted to many different kinds of people and are trans in the broad sense and are still figuring out the details.
Featured image from user idontdrinktea.