Despite growing up with parents who lived the stereotype of housewife/mother and working husband/father, I spent my early years in a relatively non-sexist environment. Among the multiple culture-shocks I experienced when starting school was a rigid enforcement of gender norms, some of which I had been hitherto unaware, through both establishment rules and bullying from peers.
The biggest problem I experienced was the school uniform, which allocated a choice of shorts or trousers to boys and approximately knee-length skirts to girls; all items I’d always thought of more as winter and summer clothing rather than boys’ and girls’ clothing, although I had been vaguely aware that it was (wrongly) taboo for boys and men to wear skirts or dresses. I was a girl then, and as such I was forced to endure any cold weather in inadequate clothing three times daily when we were sent outside for play times, as well as on the walk to and from the school. Wet weather would bring a reprieve from outdoor playtime, but if it were not raining the cold had to be endured, no matter what the temperature or the wind chill factor. I remember the acute discomfort of feeling the wind blow up my skirt and the winter cold bite into my legs and groin. Teachers told me unsympathetically, when I complained, to wear warmer tights. There is only so much warmth a pair of tights can provide. As any fool knows, I remember thinking, tights or leggings can help a person stay warm outside in winter if they’re worn underneath a pair of trousers, but on their own are completely inadequate.
I complained to my mother about the uniform policy, and I remember an expression of grim determination on her face as she promised that she would support me in boycotting the sexist uniform policy. I was duly provided with the regulation grey trousers worn by all the boys in winter. When the headteacher almost reduced me to tears with the sternness of telling-off I received for wearing them, I was encouraged to keep on wearing trousers and next time to say (with a withering look, which I’m proud to remember was an embellishment entirely of my own devising) “I am 6 years old. Do you think I buy my own clothes? If you aren’t happy with them, take it up with my mother.” This worked remarkably well for me in terms of getting the headteacher off my back, and gave my mother a summons to see her and the opportunity to rant at her about feminism, which my mother had obviously been desperate to do since the issue first came up. It was an ongoing battle, but no longer mine. At least ,not with the adults at the school. I endured taunting and the occasional kick from other children because of my gender-deviance, but that was nothing new, just slightly escalated. Sexist bullying had been a part of my life from the first day of school, when I’d arrived proudly bearing the new He-Man and the Masters Of The Universe lunch-box I had chosen. He-Man was a favourite cartoon character and toy of mine at the time, along with the My Little Ponies. Previously oblivious to the deviance inherent in having these two oppositely-gendered toys in the same collection, I would have the former ride around on the latter quite regularly. Other kids could be scary, but rarely so much as adults. Also, I found it easier not to dwell on sexist people who were children like myself. I could simply dismiss them as immature and stupid. However, when I encountered any prejudice, injustice or other fault in adults, it filled me with a burning rage. They should know better, and if they didn’t, how dare they place themselves in a position of authority?
What I first came to realise from these events was that little of my behaviour and none of my toys or clothing were socially unacceptable in themselves. It was judged that way only in the context of my sex. Shortly after this, I considered two more facts: Firstly, most of the people who judged me had never seen my genitals, so it was not my actual sex that mattered, only my apparent sex. What I would now call my gender. Secondly, I would be no freer from sexism if I were always seen as a boy. The My Little Pony collection and most of my summer wardrobe would be equally bad, for a boy, than the trousers and He-Man lunch-box were for me at the present. Therefore, I concluded, life would be best if I could present different genders at different times. I went on to consider that there might be all sorts of assumptions I had about “the way people treat each other” that actually only constituted “the way people treat girls”. Also, I started to have some awareness that my limited range of life experiences -limited, that is, by my sex- might have made me have some prejudices of my own, and/or to perceive limitations in my life and on my behaviour that were actually not compulsory , at least for the brave. I say “started”, since these last two thoughts developed themselves much more as I grew up. I wouldn’t have been able to express those particular ideas, I don’t think, with any coherence at such a young age.
In relation to my feelings about conformism for the purpose of self protection verses non-conformism for the purpose of fighting unjust rules or behaviour, I think it’s fair to say that I quickly formed some basic opinions which I still hold today, although I had much more limited language to express them. One is that there are situations, and indeed just days, when one doesn’t have the strength to endure and challenge prejudice in an effective way, and other times when one feels willing and/or safe to make a stand. Doing a “safe” gender occasionally to get a bit of peace and get on with one’s life is not only a right, but the norm to which most people adhere all of the time. Any non-conformism done solely in the name of protest rather than simply to please oneself is, while laudable, not an ethical imperative. Another belief which I think is crucial, and which came instinctively as a child age even though I was not in a position to actually become transgender and verify that it worked until much later in life, was that being able to switch back and forth between genders convincingly would not only enable me to have a broader range of life experiences which would help me identify sexism more accurately and more often, but that I could do non-conformism-as-protest from twice as many angles. Not only could I be a girl fighting for her right to wear trousers, I could be a boy fighting for his right to wear a dress. Since no other child seemed brave enough to do this, or even to understand why this right would be desirable, I felt that in many ways it was my duty, if I was going to fight sexism, to right it from both sides. In essence, I formed a strong sense of anti-sexism which was distinct from and in some ways contrary to my mother’s feminism.
This clash of ideology was one of many experiences that really solidified my early and long-standing belief that my mother and I had irreconcilable differences of opinion on moral/theoretical matters,. As I child, I nursed a seething resentment of my relative lack of power to exert my own moral standpoints due to the parent/child power imbalance. This in turn paved the way for deep animosity between my mother and I when I got old enough to exert more physical power and social autonomy (in other words, I grew into the archetypal teenager from hell), although this was eventually (well, mostly) overcome when I became a full adult and was finally treated by my mother and society at large as her full equal, with an equal right to my own opinions.
Yes, my mother drew the line at how far she would go to help me. When I expressed a wish to pass as a boy she responded with words I don’t think I will ever forget.
“This is about saying ‘I am a girl with the right to wear trousers.’ This is not about saying ‘I am a boy.’”
Oh mother, you disappoint me. Looking back, I can feel the disappointment as if it were just yesterday. Mother, you miss so much, and you patronise me by thinking you are the only one who knows what this situation “is about”. What it is about is my quality of life, and my right to self-expression as well as my physical comfort, even if the latter issue is more urgent. What this is not so much about, mother, is you.
It was rare that I let my mother go unchallenged, even for the little good it did me, as the one with the least power in our relationship. However, in this case I clearly saw that my position at school -being the only cross-dressed pupil who regularly “got away with it”, at least as far as punishment from teachers was concerned- was far more tenable with her on my side. I swallowed my retorts and decided, for the time being, keep my gender-deviance within the boundaries her feminist outlook would understand and support. I didn’t dwell on the desire to live life in more than one gender again for many years. Not until I’d been able to move away from my parental home and make a home of my own.