What Helped in My Struggle With Gender Identity as published in “The Mighty” March 2023

322381649_484017733846672_1950870836055589127_n“Thank you, young man.” I can still hear the sound of the elderly lady’s voice as I held the door open for her at my auntie’s apartment building. I spent countless weekends with my great aunties. I was raised to be seen and not heard, to hold open doors for my elders, and answer with “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am.”

I believe that I was around 9 years old at the moment that I heard “Thank you, young man.” It was a sunny day. The double-door entryway gave way to a hall with metal mailboxes lining the wall and the dreaded “alligator.” (That’s what I called the elevator.) I was genuinely terrified of it and would cry at times when having to use it.

I was dressed in corduroy pants and a basic nondescript short-sleeve shirt. My naturally curly hair was cut short up to my ears, adding to the appearance of what that sweet lady thought was a little boy. If she only knew that I thought that too. I was obviously born wrong. A half-girl, half-boy “freak of nature”. I felt shame at all times and struggled to hide my clunky self that had no grace, no real girly features.

My belief was backed up by what I believed was evidence. I had toys at each relative’s house to go with whatever couch I was sleeping on that weekend. One great auntie’s house had toy cars. I can remember the Hot Wheels, and blue containers with plastic slots for each car to fit into. I had a cousin at that house who rarely came out of the basement. I dared go down the stairs just once. The smoke-filled room seemed outer worldly. He had tattoos and seemed to enjoy terrorizing me when he could. His pet tarantula horrified me. I thought it could jump to my face and just bite me. He would yell at me to get out and threaten to put the spider on me. I ran up the stairs as fast as my short bowlegged legs could carry me. I wasn’t like him. Was he what boys should be like?

I was rejected by the neighborhood kids as a freak, and those friends of my uncles wanted nothing to do with me. I was odd, out of place, and didn’t seem to fit in with any group. They would chant and call me “lesi-gore.” I never understood it at the time. I didn’t know that they were trying to call me a lesbian. I didn’t know what a lesbian was.

There was a day when I saw a men’s magazine. Looking at the beautiful women who seemed to be so smooth-skinned and delicate. Finding what I believed to be definitive proof of my half boy, half girl, born wrong, mistake of nature body. All the ladies didn’t have hairy arms. They looked like they didn’t have any body hair. Realizing that was terrifying. Full of anxiety and fear that the next gym class would put me out in the open, I did the only thing that seemed to make sense, the only way to hide my deformity. I found a razor and shaved all the hair off my arms. Crying as I scraped the black hairs from my body, I wondered if I was turning more into a boy.

There was a place in the city called the Combat Zone. When I first met my birth mother, I was about 9 years old. She worked in the zone, which was an area full of striptease bars, adult shops, and creepy streets. She never took me there at night, but during the day so that she could get her check. She wore heavy makeup, and grandma said that was for “floozies.” Grandma never talked about girly things with me or did my hair in girly ways. She treated and raised me no differently than her boys. I understand that she didn’t spare the rod on them either.

The extremes of my reality created splits in the world. I couch surfed through childhood. In one place I was seen and not heard and was often called “young man” by strangers. Another place was full of whispered conversations, heavy perfumes, and loud drunk men. Sometimes it was better than beatings, other times not so much. I didn’t fit in anywhere, with anyone, and felt like an orphan by the time I was 10.

Gym classes in elementary schools were torture. I was terrified of that stupid plastic shower curtain coming apart and exposing my half-girl, half-boy body. I didn’t believe that any part of me was how a girl was supposed to be. I seemed to grow hair all over. I felt worse than a freak, like a mistake. A baby that shouldn’t have made it out of the womb.

It was so dark in my world, that I thought it best to not be in it. The first instance of this was at age 7, walking down the middle of the street and hoping that a car would hit me. Hoping to end the world’s pain caused by my existence, believing that I wasn’t worthy of love and belonging, driven largely by the things that my relatives would say about me, right in front of me.

My examples of femininity consisted of my great aunties with hair kerchiefs, Oil of Olay, and shuffleboard, as opposed to strippers, red lipstick, and parties with my new mother. Yet, I still couldn’t find anything about me that connected me to either life. There was nothing providing familiar attachment. It further implanted the belief that I was, in fact, born a mix of genders and failing at both.

“Gender dysphoria” is a term that was never a part of my lexicon. Today, these two words provide validation that I’m not a ‘freak’ after all. And the revelation that feeling born wrong isn’t unique to me. I have finally come to the realization that there are thousands of people who have struggled to understand who they are. It never seemed possible that anyone could be like me, not only as a child but in adulthood.

It has taken years of therapy and self-examination to find that there are so many struggling to understand their gender identity. There is comfort in knowing that I am not now, nor have I ever been, truly alone. If this resonates with you, may you find peace in knowing that you are not alone. You are normal, beautiful, and worthy of love and belonging.