Drew Cordes

I Want My Girlhood Back

Filed By Drew Cordes | February 01, 2011 3:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
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In the years I've identified as transgender, I've encountered many of the drawbacks and advantages that I assume many other trans people also face. There are a few benefits I really like (no menstruation!) and some other aspects that are more inconvenient (multiple five-figure surgeries).

tea-party-crw_0003.pngSome of these problems will get better in time. My next surgery will be my last; the medical community is becoming more and more familiar with treating trans people; the march toward social tolerance keeps trudging forward. There's one issue that sticks with me, though, that I'm not sure will ever change: being transgender robbed me of my girlhood.

I don't hear this part of the trans experience discussed as much as other issues. For me, it looms just as large as surgeries, passing, or sex. I know nobody wants to hear someone bitching about their unhappy childhood. As dentists everywhere say, I'll try to make this as quick and painless as possible. My childhood actually wasn't unhappy. I had (and have) two loving parents; I was raised in a healthy environment; I had friends; I was active. In this sense, I had as good a childhood as one can hope for. In retrospect, it just wasn't the one I wanted.

I wanted to be a girl. I never vocalized this. I overcompensated a bit, to be truthful. My parents probably would've handled it well, but I never gave them the chance. I didn't have the courage or self-awareness to speak up. I wasn't aware of the future consequences of this decision. I didn't even know I had made a decision. I knew my feelings were incorrect and that's all there was to it. How could any 4- or 5-year-old begin to comprehend such a choice in the present, let alone its effects decades in the future. I said earlier that being trans robbed me of my girlhood, but perhaps I should say being trans caused me to rob myself of my girlhood.

I've learned to cope with my anger and frustration about this. Early in my transition, with added stress and new hormones whirling, the wound felt more raw. If I saw a young girl in public somewhere I would seethe with anger. She's getting what I didn't get, what I'll never get, and she'll take it for granted. This was a preposterous thing to think, of course. To swell with such hatred at the sight of a little girl is more befitting a cartoon villain. I've long since moved from anger to the acceptance stage, but it will always bother me to some degree.

I want it back. I want my Barbies. I want my ballerina phase. I want the bedroom that's pink and purple everywhere with a canopy bed. I want tea parties with my dad. I want slumber parties and unsuccessful experiments with make-up with my friends. But it's too late for all that now. I often tell friends that I'll always be transgender; that there is no surgery that can make me have been born a girl. Even long after all my surgeries and cosmetic procedures are done, after my birth certificate is changed, after I'm spot-on with my voice 24/7, after I stop receiving junk mail addressed to Mr., after my years spent as female heavily outnumber my years spent as male, the void left by the girlhood I never had will always be there.


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Carmen Wampler-Collins | February 1, 2011 3:43 PM

What a poignant post and a perspective on being transgendered that I have never heard articulated. As someone who sometimes aches for a different childhood because of other issues, I say its never too late. I hope you can find a way to take care of the little girl inside you. Play, get those barbies, decorate your room in pinks and purples, have a slumber party, tea party, makeover party. Just because you are an adult now, doesn't mean you can't feed these desires of the little girl inside. Wishing you pinkness, and glitter, girly glamour, peace, and love.

Oops, let me try this again:

Too bad we can't swap childhoods! I didn't want to be a boy, but I hated the constraints placed on me as a girl. Hated barbies, hated pink, hated the fem clothes my mom wanted me to wear, hated that girl chores were indoor stuff like washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms rather than outdoor stuff like mowing the lawn and trimming hedges, hated the assumption of some teachers that if you did well you were cheating.

Lucky for girls like me there was some little leeway in our culture for tomboys, but only until puberty. Sadly there is no equivalent leeway for fem boys. Rigid gender rules almost always hurt trans kids, but they often hurt non-trans kids too.

It may not be discussed all that often Drew, But I'm betting your piece would resonate with almost all of us. Reading the synopsis of your childhood was like looking back at my own...out of place, most of the time, but not totally miserable, loving folks who would have done anything to understand if they knew, close friends...and like you, what was I going to do about all of this at the age of four? I knew that thinking about it, crying about it, brought me pain. Shutting down was easier. By the time I had the wherewithall and the knowledge to know what I was up against, I also had alot invested in fighting it, unfortunately. And I did, until the bitter end, and a breakdown.
There will always be a sadness there because of what I missed. The first time I watched "Secrets of the YaYa sisterhood", which was mostly predictable and silly, although at times minimally touching, I cried and sobbed and cried some more, uncontrollably, over and over. I never got to do the things those girls did. Never was picked on by boys just for being a girl. Never had a slumber party. Never had the gossip, the makeup, the shopping, and most importantly, the kind of friendships and loyalty with other girls that is part of the socialization process. I never had the bond those years leading up to adulthood bring. I have other women as friends, and I am grateful to be accepted as a woman among women. But there will always be a sadness for most women born transsexual over what was taken from us by the dumb luck of birth. Thank you for the thoughts. It meant alot to read them. -Melissa

What I wrote might seem a bit harsh. I wanted to acknowledge what you said: that there will always be an underlying sadness. Certain books, movies, other works of art will affect us in ways that they won't affect others. It's true, for me anyway. I just have to make sure not to dwell on it but rather to make the present as good as possible.

A picture of two little princesses in pink with tiaras and tea-sets. Is that "girlhood?" Must we conflate girlhood with the kind of consumerist, objectifying, ultra-femininity that Disney routinely shoves down the throats of four-year-olds? There are many kinds of girlhoods. I'm sorry you missed having yours.

It is not meant to symbolize everyone's girlhood. Just an example of something I wish I'd had in my non-existent one.

Actually, I don't think I know a MTF blogger who hasn't written about this at some point, including me. As a woman born transsexual (don't "transgender" me, tyvm), of course I wish I had actually been born a girl, brought up a girl, gone through puberty as a girl, and had a young womanhood. Try being my age looking back rather than yours.

However, no one can change their past. That's not just male-bodied people who wish they'd been girls or female-bodied people who wish they'd been boys. That's kids who grew up in poverty. That's kids who were abused. There are all kinds of childhood robbings much more serious than the fact that we didn't have girlhoods. Besides, I did play with Barbie. I had two sisters, and my parents seemed not to notice.

It's hard not to wish for things we didn't have, but it will rob you of your present joy if you let it. Don't let it. We write about it, and then we live. My current life is such a miracle that even though I might occasionally complain, I really shouldn't.

Crying over non-existent spilled milk. You have to have something in the first place in order to get it "back." Be happy with who you are today. Be surprised on what is in your future and not sad on what you missed in the pass. It goes for every human and not just trans people.

In other words Monica, just ignore your emotions. Got that. Maybe it works for you but kindly don't impose it on everyone else.

Nor do I like the suggestion that she didn't have some aspect of girlhood. Her brain was processing the world as a girl, she just wasn't allowed all the physical connection with it. Perhaps it was an incomplete experience but that doesn't mean the core of it wasn't there. She gets to mourn and rework it in her mind as she wishes. Sorry it's not practical enough for you.

Seems I'm not the only one who thinks this way.

By the way, I was praying to God to turn me into a girl at age 4. It took him 42 years to answer my prayer. For God, that considered "overnight delivery."

I think the emotions in this post and very real, legitimate, and what make it so wonderful.

I grew up trans as well, from about age 4. (Many of us know quite strongly at that age.) And I had loving, but somewhat screwed up, parents and a sort of all-right childhood. My sister, 4 years younger also had a girlhood but filled with normal anxieties and complexities, and I did not envy her most of her girlhood activities. She never had cute clothes, maybe as an infant. However she, by default, shared girl to woman intimacies with our mom and was encouraged to have relationships and activities with our immediate and extended family that I, by being male, was emotionally shut out of. Barriers were strongly drawn out of pure gender stereotyping! How anger making, for years! That is where I envied my sister and her girlfriends as they all seemed to fall naturally into relationship building, some silly and others enduring. However I've seen that many women have had neither the ideal little girl childhood bedrooms and cute clothes nor shared girl to woman intimacies with their moms, etc. So all of us, female, male and all in-between, need to find loving friends and joys in our current lives and not prolong the regret of childhood omissions. It's the best way to build more fulfilling lives into the future.

I hear women talk about that all the time in support meetings. I've even seen women who were very much adults attempt to live a girlhood by collecting Barbies or stuffed animals, or purposely acted "bitchy" because - their words - girls get their periods and act that way. I've even seen one woman, who I guess came of age in the 50's, come to every meeting wearing a poodle skirt. Not a good look.

I've never heard a transwoman not lament never having had a period; and then the transmen jump in and say, trust us; you didn't miss a thing. But the women persist in wanting it.

I heard a line in some movie once: only one youth to a customer. Barbies and poodle skirts aren't going to bring it back. When various FTMs describe themselves as boys, even if they spell it with an i, I can't relate. I'm a man. An extremely middle-aged one, at that. It strains credibility to say otherwise.

Oh, while I'm rambling, there's a sizable element of the community who only refer to themselves and their peers as "girls". As a lesbian from the 70's, that was very jarring to my ears. I guess there wasn't a priority on feminist consciousness-raising when you're making up for lost time.

Rory, I agree with your about grown women in the trans community referring to themselves as girls, it's regressive. But, in fairness, there are many cis-women who do the same, so many of these trans women are just latching onto the same lack of consciousness and oppression as many in the cis-population.

I've never heard a transwoman not lament never having had a period; and then the transmen jump in and say, trust us; you didn't miss a thing. But the women persist in wanting it.

I thinks that's a strong case of selection bias -- trans women who do not lament it are unlikely to talk about it. So for example, when we met, I never discussed periods at all, but given the brevity of our meeting that's hardly conclusive one way or another. Only those who do make a big deal about it are visible.

Similarly, I don't deny the existence of un-feminist trans women (there are plenty of un-feminist cis women out there too), but I must say that a strong majority of the trans women I know and spend time with (perhaps 90%) have some level of feminist analysis and even have what I would see as a modern trans women's version of consciousness-raising circles. There certainly are plenty of us out there.

Moreover, I think specifically pinpointing trans women as somehow being 'less feminist aware' or 'regressive when it comes to performing gender' falls back onto tropes about trans women being locked into classic male socialization, and supporting an oppressive binary and not only do I not buy it, but I would say it's been used by many transphobes to marginalize us within queer and women's movements. There are trans women who fall into the complete spectrum of gender performance and feminist awareness.

Trying to make generalizations about us from who's in your support group tells me you need to meet a lot more trans women Rory.

"Trying to make generalizations about us from who's in your support group tells me you need to meet a lot more trans women Rory."

I don't suppose you find it even slightly ironic that you're making a generalization about me, gina, while chastizing me for making a generalization? Your assumption is completely absurd, and since you have zero facts to have come to your conclusion, perhaps you shouldn't be making definitive statements when you don't know what you're talking about.

No, I'm making a statement about the narrowness of your observations based on the glib generalizations you made.

I would rather you spoke about yourself and your experience rather than 'explaining' trans women to us in a way which is bordering on offensive. If the trans women in your support group are that oblivious and mired in stereotypical gender expressions, perhaps you shouldn't grace them with your presence. I imagine they'll survive that loss.

"No, I'm making a statement about the narrowness of your observations based on the glib generalizations you made."

No, you accused me of not knowing enough transwomen without any knowledge of what my experience with transwomen is. You can spin a line of crap out about glibness, but that isn't a response to what I said.

"I would rather you spoke about yourself and your experience rather than 'explaining' trans women to us in a way which is bordering on offensive."

I didn't explain transwomen, nor characterize them as a group in a way. I relayed a factual story about experiences that I actually had - which was speaking about myself, as you just suggested.

"If the trans women in your support group are that oblivious and mired in stereotypical gender expressions, perhaps you shouldn't grace them with your presence."

Now who's explaining transwomen in an offensive way and painting them with a broad brush? In any case, I don't discriminate. So if there are women who choose a "stereotypical gender expression", that's fine by me. We accept all gender identities and expressions in our organization without judgement. As for those who might be developmentally disabled, I would hope it would go without saying that they are welcomed, too.

"I imagine they'll survive that loss."

Charming. Well, as a rule, I don't speak for transwomen, so I can't generally say whether or not they would "survive that loss". That's for others who know me to say. I will say, however, that at least one transwoman wouldn't have survived without me. Literally.

"I thinks that's a strong case of selection bias -- trans women who do not lament it are unlikely to talk about it."

Perhaps I should have been more specific, Tobi. The context in which I was referring about the aforementioned lamenting was in discussion about what transwomen missed about not growing up in their desired bodies. Menstruation would be brought up by them, and pretty much everyone would then chime in with their own opinions as I've already described. Obviously I wouldn't expect someone to bring up an opinion out of the blue about it. But the people in the conversations had the opportunity to say whatever they wanted.

What is, is.
I arranged a sort of 'girlhood' for myself in private and tandom with my childhood. Not allowed dolls and playing house, I played "village" with my collection of stuffed animals. Things like that. I was also very aware of restraints that were not put on me because I was seen as male. Real advantages that I appreciated as such. It is beyond pointless to lament a lost ideal childhood, believe me, most people can play that game as well.

I had what I called a 'transiehood" as a child. Too feminine to have full access to boyhood, not allowed full access to girlhood.

And Rory, is your last point ever accurate...lacking in most transwomen is any sense of feminist consciousness.

Was I disappointed to not ever get an easy bake oven or Chatty Cathy doll for the holidays? Sure, was it a tragedy that ruined my life, hardly. Get over it.

It's interesting for me to reflect upon my own childhood. My lesbian feminist parents raised me and my brother as "gender neutral" as they could. At my youngest, most of my friends were girls and we always played at girl things (for my era it was rainbow brite, my little ponies, and such rather than barbies).

Closer to puberty, societal pressures overwhelmed my parents' openness, sleepovers with other girls were not allowed, and I do feel I missed some experiences around there, the lack of "unsuccessful experiments with make-up" hit home for me despite some time painting my nails with friends.

In the end though, it's clear that this isn't describing any typical understanding of what a boyhood is. Ultimately, the childhood you and several other trans women commenter here are describing is still girlhood, just a trans girlhood. And it's no less valid of a girlhood than a poor girlhood, a woman of color girlhood, a woman with disabilities girlhood, and so on. Check out the article I wrote on about that:

http://www.bilerico.com/2010/09/language_reality_and_my_trans_girlhood.php

Drew,
Thanks for your excellent post. I too have written some on this topic - just have never posted it.

Below is a piece (1 of 2) from my collection Sufacing

growing up amy

In Moulds I touched on “a second adolescence”. I have gradually been re-thinking that comparison.
In many important ways I had no real adolescence until now. I wasn’t able to experience the growing pains of a true self, the discovery process as it feels when connected in the right way. The discrepancy between my sensibilities and my body prevented me from developing a healthy and deep-rooted self-concept. I wasn’t able then and won’t be able now to feel completely the bond two schoolgirls feel …friends 4ever, the “i” dotted with a heart. People with whom I talk about this give me sideways glances and say “uh-huh” when I tell then that I want to know what it feels like to menstruate.

In grade school the girls didn’t seem to mind and let me jump rope with them but I was never admitted to the club, the club with the secret language that young girls know intuitively how to speak. I could speak it too. I knew it without needing to be tutored. Some of them would allow me on the fringe and seek me out as a confidant. Maybe they knew I was somehow different and wouldn’t make fun of their hearts breaking over Jimmy Taylor and Mark Perry. I could be counted on to tell them it was “Jimmy’s or Mark’s loss anyway.” It was these times that brought me a sense of belonging. I would be allowed, for a short time, to speak in the secret tongue, then, almost without fail, Jimmy or Mark or Paul would beat me up and I would be relegated to status as an outsider again. Not being tough, Tammy’s and Carrie’s hearts didn’t break over me, not being a girl; I didn’t deserve the same consolation they sought. ‘What’s wrong with me?” The girls would understand--if I could just tell them but, puberty broke over us too soon and they began to act as if they could no longer hear when I spoke the secret language. None of the girls consoled me when Kathy Spencer said she didn’t like me anymore. And besides, it was my loss, not Kathy’s anyway.

Early transition sucked but it was a piece of cake compared to puberty. My guess is that best case; confusion reigns for most kids. I understand today that I didn’t have a chance at finding any sense of self on the other side. Too many contradictions and ambiguities get in the way for a trans-person. Sexual and gender confusion are a terrifying mix. I didn’t stand a chance in a million of being able to sort it out. It was one thing to want to touch Lisa Spark’s breasts--that I could tell her, but, how could I possibly tell her that I wanted to know what it felt like to have them. What’s it like to be thirteen-years old, discovering your body and the power it has over boys.

Later, as I became sexually active, I was able to put my mind inside that of my female partner and believe that it was me who had discovered how to make a boy love me. I could turn myself inside out for a few, all too short moments. What a powerful experience. Sadly, it lasted for only as long as the act then would vanish into waves of confused self-loathing. It seems strange that I never tried it with a boy. So yes, I wanted to have sex with boys but, although I wanted to experience it, I was repulsed at the same time by the thought of actual sex with a male as a male. It just wouldn’t be the same. I was secretly disgusted with myself and the others when talk would turn to who got laid and how she had “practically begged for it”. I felt somehow as if I was betraying myself when I didn’t object. How could I? The times I had made a half-hearted attempt; “c’mon you guys, we shouldn’t talk about Carol that way”, were met by volleys of “What are you a faggot…or something”? Already, I knew too much about boys and the lack of any real depth of feeling beyond the need to be powerful. What I wanted was to be touched and held and told I was pretty. I wanted to be loved, not taken. And that was something I could never have—affirmation of my femaleness.

Girls came closer to the real thing. I found I could use my “sensitiveness” as a teenager in much the same way as I had in grade school. Girls thought I was sweet and although they didn’t know why, I was “just different” Most girls didn’t suspect, at least not openly, that I really was different. How could they possibly know that the secret to making them feel loved lay in knowing precisely how I would want to be treated had I been them?

amy

Patricia Harlow Patricia Harlow | February 2, 2011 5:24 PM

Nice article Drew. I especially enjoyed someone's comment that you don't have to let your childhood escape. I am a firm believer that you are as young as you feel, so live it up and do what you need to do! :)

As far as all the generalizations go flying in this forum, I am very, very glad that I am surrounded by people who care about me and who I am. Some of you talk about how a TransWoman should be this or that...which is ridiculous. Maybe it is you who are caught up chasing the image of what people are telling you how to be.

Honestly, lack of feminist consciousness? And why should I have any or care and why is that supposed to be a requisite for being a woman? Does that make me more of a woman if I'm a feminist or of feminist consciousness? Puh-leeze. Makes no sense. Have fun in the herd, I'll be outside being me and loving life. I'm done searching for my identity. ;)

This resonates with me. And, Drew, I like how you've highlighted your own role in this; it is too easy to think only about what society does to us rather than what we do ourselves and the choices we consciously and unconsciously make while growing up. I can think back too to the choices I made, even though at the time I felt I had no choice. Once my mother even asked me point blank, "Do you wish you were a girl?" and I lied.

I don't know what to call my childhood. Maybe that itself is the best word for it rather than something less gender-neutral. I would love to call it a girlhood, but I'm not sure if that's honest. There was that fundamental disconnect between how I saw myself and how the world saw me, although there were many times when bullies called my gender into question. I guess trans childhood is the way I might describe it.

What I would emphasize is NOT the desire for the superficial accoutrements of gender (e.g. Barbies, dresses, whatever stereotypically comes to mind) but the social realities I faced as a child. For me that is the real essence of my trans childhood experience. What I desired was being able to be with my friends (who were usually girls) and not be seen by them as a boy, and to relate as they might relate with each other. To be able to be myself and not get harrassed and bullied by certain boys. To not be an outsider but to belong where I felt I belonged. And running through all of this was deep unhappiness about my body. These are the experiences I wish I didn't have, yet they did shape me as the person I am, for better or for worse.

I get how you're feeling. I know gay people who wanted high school years, adolescence, and young adulthood, even adulthood, to be like what they saw on the TV, what they thought everyone else was getting. All I can say is that everything I went through made me who I am today, so it was worth something.