My childhood feels distant, far more distant than the number of years that span my lifetime. It belongs to another person, one I tried so hard to be because of the manual I was handed, the rulebook I was prescribed. I hold photos of myself between the tips of my fingers, trying not to smudge the images more than they already are in my mind. Long hair, pink Girl Power shirts, white dresses on Easter. Ballet classes, a sweet sixteen, an overly embellished prom dress. These are the artifacts I struggle to identify. I know they are a part of my past. What else could they be? And yet, they feel stolen. Stolen from me or by me, I’m not quite sure.
I don’t talk about my childhood much because it does not belong to me. It belongs to the society that handed me a personality, a life, because I was born with the body parts that deemed certain traits necessary. Combing doll hair and painting nails. Blushing around boys and growing into heels. I got chastised once for wearing a men’s belt at 21 years old, when I should have known better to choose feminine clothes. I don’t know what that means for me now, my closet is filled with men’s shirts and shoes and belts. It’s not like those labels are correct, either. Just an array of ill-fitting garments that lie lifeless on a body striving to be alive.
When I do afford myself the opportunity to reflect on my childhood, the space between my rib cage swells with longing, the memory of asking for that which I could not have. Can I play football instead of being a cheerleader? Can I take woodshop instead of chorus? Can I have an action figure instead of a doll? Arriving at McDonald’s for a Saturday afternoon lunch, the anticipation of a red cardboard box smiling back at me felt like microdosing Christmas morning. And yet, getting the “girl toy” was the easiest way to take the happy out of the meal, a disappointment I became so familiar with that hope started to taste like cheap wine. The hangover was never worth the buzz.
I remember trying desperately to make up for the sand that was slipping between my fingers by moving into my brother’s room the moment he moved out. I was a junior in high school and considerably tired of the floral curtains that hung alongside purple walls and the menagerie of dolls staring down at me from floating shelves. I left the larger room with the built-in bookshelves and desk, fixtures my adult self pines for, to find solace in the dark blue walls and sports-inspired décor. It felt like trying on a life, hoping the change in scenery would change the hue of my spirit. I cannot say whether I slept better within those walls, but I remember feeling a little more at home. Or, at least, a little less out of place.
When I couldn’t find boyhood on turf fields or in sawdust covered workshops, I searched for it at the bottom of bottles and on the street corner, just shy of school property, where the smokers gathered. In growing up, I burned childhood down to the roach of a joint clip, my sense of self becoming less of a priority the redder my eyes grew. I threw punches to make up for never learning to throw a fastball. I hurled insults because that was what I’d learned boys do. I broke spirits to make up for the fact that I was broken. Today, I stack my regrets next to the books that line my shelves, never forgetting that my own self-hatred made me the antagonist in someone else’s story.
When I do revisit my childhood, I strive to find the constant — the things that have never changed in a life defined by transition. The way my voice speeds up when I get excited, the fullness in my chest when I walk through nature on the first warm day after a harsh winter, the fact that I tear up at the slightest hint of sentimentality. When I think back on that kid, writing in their bedroom or long-boarding down a suburban hill, I know who they are. They are me, albeit a bit lost. The moments I was alone are the moments I look back to with such familiarity, a deep understanding of who that child is and was. I take pride in the ways that I made space for myself, how I carved a place into this world where I could exist beyond external expectations. I try to remember there are more days ahead, ones where I can make my own choices, irrespective of what anyone might say I should do. But my memories are not all in isolation, and the context of my life is shaped by the people who have been a part of it.
When my family and friends revisit my past they trip over the memories, unsure of how to refer to me, aware that the language has changed but, perhaps, the person is the same. I reconnect with former teachers and family friends, those I’ve not seen since long before my transformation, and wonder if we will ever return to familiar ground. I watch them struggle with how to reminisce on simpler times. With just one word, a minority of 26 letters rearranged to form a new pronoun, the meaning of the memory rearranges like the beads of a kaleidoscope. The lens is the same, the image entirely unfamiliar. It shifts from a shared moment to a distant history, as if read from the pages of a textbook. Sterile, removed, lacking the sentimentality that makes one’s heart swell.
It is for these reasons that my heart breaks for the transgender children of Texas, Idaho, red states with red-faced legislators spreading fear of their existence. My experience with transitioning has been alongside the growing conversation, among youth and adults, that trans people exist and have basic needs that small changes could fill. My confidence in the future grows every time I hear of a 12-year-old who feels strong enough to say, “call me they,” or when I hear of children who cannot understand why cutting their hair or painting their nails should be considered brave. For authenticity to be second nature and for the language of their truth to be at arm’s reach is progress of which we cannot fathom the lifetime impacts.
My heart swells for trans youth because I know that they will look back on their photos with pride. Their families will tell childhood stories with the correct pronouns because they have never been wrong, because they roll off the tongue. They will look back at their teenage years and, as they reflect on the inevitable mistakes we all make in our youth, know that their gender does not belong in the pile of regrets. Their prom will feel embarrassing and awkward because they had not grown into their limbs or figured out how to style their hair, not because it forced a smile in clothes that felt like a prison. They will have the chance to hold diplomas bearing the true name of the person who earned it. They will love and be loved and never question whether it didn’t work out because they were looking at the wrong people, or they were the wrong person, all along.
To the people who would take this congruence away, who would rip self-determination from the hands of a child who damn well knows who they are, hear this. While you punish parents for what you call child abuse because they have the audacity to love their kid in all the ways they show up in the world, you are punishing children. You are punishing them for asking for help, for voicing their needs, for telling their parents the hardest truths they will ever have to share. You are punishing them for daring to claim their lives as early as they can, in hopes that more of their memories will feel like their own. You are punishing them for using their own hands to write their stories with the expectation that when they turn the pages, they are not turning away from a chapter they can never revisit.
When you tell trans children they are too young to know who they are, you create a lifetime of loss, the moments compounding until they, inevitably, still pursue the truth they’ve always known. Except the bridge required to connect childhood to adulthood will be longer, less sturdy, cracking in more places than can ever be deemed secure. But our infrastructure need not be crumbling. The potential for a history of heartbreak is entirely preventable. And the lives lost as collateral damage in your vendetta against a youth well spent need never be ended so soon.
And all it costs from you is to let children live, let parents love, and leave us to figure out the rest for ourselves.
Image: photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.
- In Defense of Trans Childhood - September 9, 2022
Beautiful and heartening. My daughter and son are both transgender and I wrestle with memories and the past even while I celebrate their future.