S/he: In The Beginning
At four and five years old, I liked to imagine myself all grown up. In my mind, I pictured my grown up self as a paper doll. I put on a suit and a hat and added a briefcase. My shoes were shiny and wing-tipped. I had sharp creases ironed down the front of my pants. I had a strong but not overbearing chest, and there would be a wife, I was sure. She stood next to me in a dress. I had a man's name, which I thought might be Bob. I was going to be a businessman or a singer on television. There might be a son.
I saw myself everywhere. My father's hockey equipment smelled like I would one day, both musky and sour. Cowboy boots that came to the top of my baby-fat thighs would one day be mine. The bigger boys who lived down the street, the ones that scared me with their vulgar rough-housing, excited me. They were my future, sneaking cigarettes by the fence with pimples and downy mustaches. I admired the faded patches on their jeans where the material squashed their testicles. Men had soft, blue veins that stood out on the backs of their hands, and I thought them beautiful. I was in all these things. My body would grow into his and his and his, I was sure.
I was too short yet to reach the cupboards, and my hands were too small to work the big scissors, but I knew that just as I would eventually grow and learn how to read, my penis would appear. It was just something that came later, like adult teeth. The fact of my vagina was a small but temporary hurdle.
The more time I spent with other children, though, the more a suspicion crept into the back of my mind that I might not grow up to be a man. All of the boys that I knew were already boys, and all of the girls that I knew were already girls, if our exploratory searches under living room forts were any indication. Nobody else seemed to be becoming anything other than bigger versions of what they already were, and it occurred to me that my vagina might be a permanent fixture.
My mother had a hefty, metal mirror from the 1950s with cracked glass that scraped and slid within its frame. I dragged it down from the dresser in her bedroom, nearly crushing my toe when it accidentally thunked against the floor, and took it into my bedroom. Buck naked and shivering at the thought of getting caught, I sat with the rough carpet crushed against my bum and steadied the mirror with my feet. I angled it this way and that until I could see the object of my predicament. My vagina looked liked like a loosely curled fist, a limp lump of soft flesh. When I saw it, I knew that it was not mine. It was like looking at somebody else's elbow.
I could not stop staring at it, though. This thing that was so clearly not mine, with its fat brackets surrounding pink beneath; it seemed so impossible. I held its labia open. I held them closed. It was a temporary physical insanity to me. It had to be. I crossed my legs so that I could not see it. This thing had to be fixed. I cast about for answers and settled on just who would do it. Jesus was the obvious man.
In Sunday school, we had been given stiff paper sheets sporting colour drawings of Jesus with kids of all different races gathered around his legs. I was skeptical that that had really happened, because I had never seen so many races all together anywhere in my mainly suburban life, but I knew what it meant. He loved all children of all different kinds. Armed with the surety only naïvety can float, I saw no reason why Jesus would not grant this different child's request.
That night, I formed my earnest request:
Dear Jesus, I love you. I really, really love you. I am a boy, and I don’t have a penis, I prayed, eyes squeezed tight against my lamplight. and I really, really need one. Thank you. The End.
I wasn't certain that I loved this person whom I had never met, but I felt that I had to be clear about love part, because I needed him to do this for me.
Knowing that I was going to wake up right, I was happy in the dark that night. I pushed my chubby hand with the dimpled knuckles between my legs to feel the small mound of flesh that claimed me every day, the one that made people tell me I was pretty, and wondered what my name would be in the morning. I thought about the smell of shaving cream and those special brushes that men used to lather on the soap. I pulled the blankets up under my chin, pushed my stuffed bear into his position high on my pillow where he could watch the dark for me, and went to sleep.
In the morning after that first prayer, I woke up giddy and pushed my hand into my underwear, eager to feel my new body part, but there was no penis there, not even a beginning nub. My continuing femaleness puzzled me. Did Jesus really love me like they said? He must. Everyone said he did. This would just take some time.
I thought about how we had grown plants from seeds in Sunday school. We stuck a seed between a wad of wet paper towel and the inside of a clear plastic cup, and the next week the seed had sprouted so much that it seemed impossible for all of that green shoot to have been folded inside of that tiny seed. Eventually, we planted them in dirt in styrofoam cups and brought them home. That would be me. I was sure of it.
The next night, I prayed again, and the night after that, too. Every morning I reached down to find nothing there but that stupid bit of soft nothing, the placeholder, the parenthetical absence. After several days of earnest hope, I lost the sureness with which I had begun. God had stuck me with what I had, with a body that was not even mine, and my little heart burned hot with shame. Jesus, God, that tripartite knot of personalities who I had been taught extended his love to all, did not care for me. On that last morning, I climbed out of bed and marched into the kitchen to confront my mother.
"I don't believe in God anymore," I announced.
My mother looked aghast. "Why not?"
"Because if God loved me, he would have made me a boy."
My mother gripped the edge of the stove and looked up at the exhaust vent. "God, please forgive her." I could see that she was crying.
Belief was love. If God did not love me, then I would not love Him back, and, poof, He disappeared like fireworks smoke on a windy night. No more God. Without Him, I could no longer be the despised child.
Read the second entry in this series, S/he: Stuck. Both parts are reworked excerpts from a much longer piece I once wrote for an anthology which was never published.
To be clear, this is about the earliest stages of my conception of my own gender, an understanding that really began to take shape beginning at about age three. It was not long after the events in this story that I realized I was not strictly male or female. To this day, I maintain an outwardly feminine appearance with which I am not entirely comfortable.