Being Five and the Other Thing
Let's all say we love Genesis P-Orridge together (or at least this one documentary short that Genesis P-Orridge is in):
The Fiery One and I watched "Southern Comfort" last night, which is a documentary about the love and family that surround a terminally ill man who was born in a female body. Early on in the film, the requisite photographs of Robert as a young girl in dresses and holding dolls came on as stills behind a monologue he delivered about the pain of being forced into what felt like drag for him as a child. I had to stop the DVD, because it made me remember how horrible it was before I hit puberty and was allowed more control of what I chose to wear.
My mother, like most parents of gender dysphoric children, I am sure, had no idea that the dresses and hair curling she imposed on special occasions was anything greater than an annoyance for me. How was she to know? My grimaces and pulling away were taken to be fussing, but in truth, I felt at the time that I, the me that I knew was standing right there, was being wilfully ignored.
One occasion stands out particularly in my mind. It may have been my birthday, or it may have been Easter. I'm not sure what the occasion was, but I do know that my parents wanted it to be special, because I was alone with them in the house. When we were without my multiply handicapped older brother, I knew that our time together as a family-minus-one was considered "special". This always put me on edge before my younger brother came along, because it meant that I would be the focus of my parents' attention. It made me feel squirmy and vulnerable, as though there were different behavioural rules that I should be adhering to as the situationally only child.
I remember my parents standing in our dining room. I must have been five or six years old. They were smiling at me expectantly. They told me that I had a present hidden somewhere in the house, and they wanted me to play Hot Or Cold in order to find it. Games like that made me feel even squirmier, because they meant that I would be watched, and that I would have to willingly allow myself to be lead along like a fool to a prize that everyone else already had access to. I was a serious child, and to me, that sort of game could only be fun for those who held the power.
Being a kid, though, meant that the promise of a present was enough for me to capitulate, and I grudgingly muttered hot or cold, narrowing down my present's location until I reached their bed. I reached underneath and pulled out a plain white box. A plain white box, shallow and rectangular in shape with collapsible corners, could only mean that there was clothing inside. This is a grand disappointment for most children, because pretending things with craft supplies or toys is far more fun than pretending things with a turtleneck.
My problem was that my mother was predictable. It was a special occasion of some sort, and special occasions meant dress-up dresses. Since I had not already been made to wear a dress-up dress, I knew that there was some kind of dress-up dress in that plain white box, and I wanted to cry.
It felt like like they were trying to dress me up as somebody else, and I thought that they loved that somebody else more than they did me.
The dress had an empire waist, the kind that rests just below the chest. The bodice was of a sheer, white material littered with blue and yellow and pink flowers, and the skirt was of a stiff, cranberry velvet that descended to my ankles. It will soften up the more you wear it, my mother said, and then you'll like it more. My displeasure about the ruffles around the neck and arms was obvious. But you look so pretty in that dress, she said.
Later, I cried, because I could not be that other girl, the one who liked being pretty in that way that I did not. I could not be that little girl they were trying to dress up like a little girl who wore dress-up dresses. I could not be the kind of pretty that they waited to see me become with every new dress-up outfit they had me put on. I couldn't, I wouldn't, I wasn't.
I did not have the words or the concepts to cover what I was going through. I just knew that the things that were most essential to who I was kept me separated from the things that were expected of and desired for me by the adults that populated my world. In a very simple way, I knew that even then.
I was not the wanted or the expected thing.
I was driving home when the polar ice caps melted,
leveling first the laundried tenements,
then claiming paneled rec-rooms as water lapped
my bumpers. Pirouetting on one wheel once,
I rode a tin-canned swell above the sharks
that swept in packs upon the sculpted gardens.
I floated on the former continent,
the car aflutter with pigeons bereft of eaves.
— excerpt from "Again by Flood" by Mark Featherstone