OK, it’s time for another question from the mental mailbag of Ask Aunt Fran, where you ask me questions about this crazy gender-transition trip and I try to answer them as best I can, sometimes long-windedly.
Anyway, if you have a question, don’t be shy. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (or my personal email if you know it).
And remember: I’m not a doctor. Or even a shrink. I’m just a girl trying to make a go of it in this great big crazy world, and my answers are based on my own experiences.
Here’s a question I get from time to time:
“So when did you know?”
Did you mean when did I know that that the Saints would win the Super Bowl? Or that the business I was in my whole life, newspapers, was going to self-destruct? Or that there weren’t WMDs in Iraq?
Of course, I know what you meant — just because I changed the gender on my driver’s license doesn’t mean I threw away my license to be a smartass …
Ask many of us in the tribe called Trans and you’ll discover that we all knew we were different very early on. Some of us knew exactly what and who we were a lot earlier than others, and thanks to supportive parents and a greater understanding of gender identity disorder, we’re seeing that a lot more now.
Take, for instance, the case of Kim Petras, the teenage German pop singer, who knew she wasn’t Tim at age 4. Her very supportive family backed her 1,000 percent, and because of that — and the battery of psychological tests that backed her up — she was able to have her full sexual-reassignment surgery at 16 when German law said 18. Or Josie Romero of Tucson, who made national headlines and TV last year at age 8 for living as a full-time girl, again with the support of her parents and sister. She knew when she was 5. Or Dyson Kilodavis, a 5-year-old from Seattle who started putting on dresses at daycare at age 2. Her journey, and her family’s, prompted her mom, Cheryl, to write the book “My Princess Boy,” which teaches kids about diversity and against bullying. Or Jazz Jennings, a subject of a Barbara Walters “20/20” show on transgender kids, who told her mom when she was all of a year and a half old and totally embraces her girl life — seemingly without fear and with a confidence and wisdom far beyond her age.
But I wasn’t one of those cases. After all, I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, when the only trans people we heard of were famous women who had the full surgery: Christine Jorgensen, Renee Richards and Jan Morris. And when, I may add, there was very little vocabulary about gender dysphoria (did that term even exist then, for example?), and whatever vocabulary there was has changed considerably with greater understanding of the subject. And I grew up in a goober town in Connecticut, in a strict Catholic household where I was always trying to please my parents, to boot. And I caught my share of “faggot” just for the crime of being slight and blonde and sensitive. (Oh, to at least be slight again …)
Anyway, while I wish I knew what this trans thing was all about 30, 40 years ago, and could’ve transitioned way back when (imagine — platform shoes in the mid-’70s, that cool new wave chick clothing in the ’70s and ’80s), I believe that had I gone through some sort of psychological treatment back then, it might have made me more fucked up than I already was as a teen.
But I did know something was different about me at a young age. And not because my name tag was placed in the envelope for the girls’ bus line my first day of kindergarten.
The first visual cue, when I was about 5 — which would place me in kindergarten — was shoes. I forget whether it was seeing those dancers on TV on those groovy mid-’60s music/dance shows wearing white go-go boots, or whether it was Mary Janes; one of the two. But Mary Janes are eternal and didn’t go away for a while, as go-go boots did. And from time to time, I saw pictures of boys wearing Mary Janes with the girls — say, on the front of my See and Spell toy from first grade — and wondered, “Why can’t I wear them, too?” Of course, boys where I came from didn’t wear those girly things.
And ballet. The first time I saw a picture of a boy taking ballet class with girls, my heart went boom boom boom with ecstasy and heartache. I wanted so much to put on my own pair of slippers and dance with the girls, and occasionally fantasized what it would be like to have a big sister who took ballet, and I could tag along and take classes, too, and I’d be accepted as one of the girls and get dressed up with them and make myself up and go to the mall with them afterward. That wasn’t gonna happen.
But my folks had some of those small ’50s/-60s-vintage ballet art plaques on the wall near the front door, and one had a male dancer in a harlequin costume doing a pas de deux with a ballerina. They also had a pair of fancy pinochle decks; one had a ballerina en pointe, the other in a pas de deux with a male dancer in a very sheer renaissance top, gray tights and gray slippers. And I wished it could have been me in the pictures, frozen in time. I just knew that, in some places in the world — but not my world — boys were allowed to do pretty, girly things that I couldn’t.
Also, I knew that I felt more comfortable around the girls than the boys in school. I might have played keep-away with the boys on the playground after lunch, and football in the backyard or at a nearby field, but I felt more simpatico with the girls. And there was a spell in sixth, seventh grade where a group of five of the girls in class sort of very loosely took me under their wings. It didn’t last, but it did feel like a security blanket.
But the whole gender trip isn’t concrete or black-and-white, or the same for everyone. And as much as I felt like one of the girls, I was one of the boys as well. My love of cars was forged early, between Speed Racer, the advent of Hot Wheels and Johnny Lightning, stray issues of Hot Rod magazine, Mario Andretti and those cool Andy Granatelli/STP Indy cars, my discovery of Richard Petty and NASCAR, and the peak of the muscle car period: the ’70 Boss 302 Mustang, the ’70 ‘Cuda, the ’70 Superbird, the ’70 Challenger.
Even though I was the worst player in the Prospect Little League, I was into baseball from early childhood (those sucky Yankee years between the end of the dynasty and the arrival of Steinbrenner) and started watching football when I was 9 (the Giants as they descended into total suckdom). And I watched with interest, and sometimes tried to help best as I could, as my father built an entire rec room out of a damp, cinderblock cellar bit by bit over seven years.
And as much as I felt girlish, I was never into dolls. Barbies didn’t do it for me, and neither did any other doll, for that matter. But I did wish I was miniature-sized from time to time so I could fit into some of the outfits and shoes Barbie and her pals got to wear. I also fantasized that I was in one of those “Twilight Zone” episodes where I was in a department store or a mall where everyone else was frozen in time, and I got to try on — and take — all the shoes and clothes I could in my size.
But I had to suppress all that in order to just survive. Well, if you call being chronically depressed and thinking of wanting to kill yourself at least once a day, as I did my last three years in high school, survival.
I occasionally ventured out of the box — surreptitiously buying a pair of shoes here and there, especially at Christmastime, when I could pass it off as a buy for a girlfriend, experimenting with some understanding girlfriends at home, but only after building much trust. But I suppressed it pretty well until that night in January of ’08, when the voice of reason jumped at me out of nowhere and asked me, as I sat on the bed: “Can you do this?”
And with those four simple words — which scared the shit out of me because they came out of nowhere, and very loudly and clearly — I knew where I was going. And in an instant moment of clarity, I realized what had been going on my whole life. And what I’d been holding back.
And as I came to understand my gender dysphoria better, I began to understand just how much my holding back had probably wreaked havoc on my health — an extra level of stress atop the day-to-day stress of doing yeoman’s work at my first two newspapers. And how, until I started my hormone replacement therapy in April, I didn’t know I had some sort of hormonal imbalance that had much to do with three decades of chronic, stressful and sometimes-paralyzing depression.
Coincidentally, there was an article a couple days ago, on SFGate, the San Francisco Chronicle’s website, about a study that linked family acceptance of LGBT adolescents to significantly decreased risks of depression, suicidal behavior, substance abuse problems and health problems in adulthood. A little bit of understanding and a lot of self-esteem go a long way.
God, as I’ve told my family and friends, I wish I could’ve done this 30, 40 years ago. But better late than never, I suppose. I hope I live long enough to fully enjoy this next phase of my life.
Tags: Cheryl Kilodavis, Christine Jorgensen, Dyson Kilodavis, Fran Fried, Franoranma World, gender, gender dysphoria, gender transition, Jan Morris, Jazz Jennings, Josie Romero, Kim Petras, My Princess Boy, Renee Richards, transgender