In this guest post, 25-year-old Charlie Rae (a pen name) shares her experiences living as a gender-dysphoric girl with a no-nonsense mother who didn’t for a minute subscribe to the notion that Charlie was really a boy.
Charlie credits her mom, along with her training in martial arts and a peer group full of rough-and-tumble girls, with helping her realize who she really is.
Charlie is available to respond to comments and questions in the comments section below the post (her WordPress screen name is artistarmy).
by Charlie Rae
I suffered from undiagnosed gender dysphoria for the first half of my life. I still often have the feeling that I am trapped in the wrong body, and that there is, somehow, another person living inside of me that my body isn’t represented by. I still try and change who I am all the time, endlessly searching for a way to look that fits who I feel like I am, but to no avail. It’s confusing, and sometimes painful, but I’ve come to see that it has more to do with society than with me as an individual.
It started as young as I can recall, in my family, where any and all activities were sex segregated: boys/men doing one thing, girls/women doing another. The older we got, the less accepting the boys were that a girl wanted to be around them all the time, and the harder it got to live in my own skin. I basically ignored my girlhood; I didn’t speak of it, and when they joked about it, I would ignore them. I didn’t want it to be a topic of conversation. I just wanted to be a boy. I thought something had gone wrong when my mom was pregnant with me.
Girls always talked a lot, about clothes and boys. They would try on outfits and go shopping. I would ask them, “aren’t you bored?” but they always said they weren’t. Once, at the beach, I tried to lie around and tan with them. “This is what you do all day?” “Here,” they said, and drew a little picture on my stomach with sunscreen. “Now you just wait until you’re tan enough to see the picture.” I thought, “I’m definitely not a girl,” and went back to playing pickle, and football, and getting dirty.
When I was in elementary school, the sex-segregated spaces continued. At recess the boys would play soccer, and the girls would be on the jungle gym. Once when I tried to play soccer, the boy who I was told had a crush on me (and that’s why he picked me), close-lined me as I was running for the ball. Everyone laughed. I was already in Tae Kwon Do by then, and I had been told never to use my skills to hurt anyone unless I really had to. So I didn’t. I just left. At recess, I started walking the perimeter of the field alone.
My mom never did entertain my idea of thinking I was a boy. Instead she just put me in martial arts class, which helped me in many ways but also perpetuated my confusion. As inclusive as Tae Kwon Do could be, some parts were still sex-segregated. Girls couldn’t fight or partner with boys. I was way too strong for the girls, and I was told to hold back on them. I would get pulled aside by the instructors and given talkings-to. “I’m a boy,” I thought, and I would ask, “Why can’t I fight a boy?” “It’s against the rules,” I was told.
But that changed as I rose higher and higher in rank. It was a fairly new martial arts school, and I ended up being the first person ever awarded a black belt at 8 years old. Something shifted then because I became such an authority. And my instructor started letting me fight boys. I felt somehow…accepted. That I had proven myself. I acted “like a boy” in mannerisms and speech, I fought “like a boy,” and I trained like the male instructors did, but I was the only girl. And I was only 3 feet tall.
I started to become somewhat of a freak show, the girl who was really good. I was featured in demonstrations, because, “look at that little girl!” I wanted to stop being a girl, though. I wanted to be taken seriously.
When I was 9 or 10 years old, something happened to me that must have deeply impacted me. There was a male-to-female transgender person named Kate who we met when my mother was taking care of a dying old woman named Pat. I only vaguely remember Kate. He sort of looked like a woman but he had man hands, and big feet, and something looked different about him. He was transsexual, and he had gotten all of the surgeries.
According to my mom, Kate went to my mother and said, “your kids are asking me questions, can I tell them?” My mother said, “yeah, tell them whatever you want.” My mother didn’t hide things from us; she didn’t whisper under her breath or spell words to keep things secret. She was flat out. She answered our questions, and she let other adults talk to us candidly.
He evidently told us he regretted transitioning. That after everything he’d done to his body, he said “I don’t know what I am.” He also said he knew he was a man, that it was never his body that was wrong. He called himself a he-she. I don’t remember this story. Maybe it was over my head at the time. I do remember hanging out with Kate, and him laughing when I would ride Pat’s wheelchair around the apartment. I think I block a lot out because I loved the old lady, Pat, and Pat died. But I have no doubt that it had an impact on me.
Now’s as good a time as any to tell you more about my mother. I haven’t mentioned her much in this story so far because being a boy was just not something she entertained. My mom was a full-disclosure kind of mom, and she was also frank, and certain. About everything, it seemed. She would say, “What the hell are you talking about? No. You’re a girl.” She didn’t have an existential crisis, she didn’t send me to therapy, she didn’t sit me down to talk. She answered the question like she answered any other questions: to the point, with conviction, and then went on with her day.
She also blurred the lines of gender for me. I didn’t grow up with a father, and when I would get sad about it, she would tell me, “I am the mommy and the daddy.” She wore suits sometimes. She cut her hair short. She talked like my uncle, sometimes, when she was angry. She used body language that men used. I just remember thinking, “alright.” Because that’s how it was, she’d told me the answer, and I accepted it. Even though it didn’t feel that way, and I still hated it.
When it came to Tae Kwon Do, she’d say, “you’re not a boy, you’re better than the boys.” She was always proud to have two daughters. When everyone would make fun of me for wanting to do stuff with the boys, mom would say, “Rachel can do whatever she wants.” She was strong, and fierce, and when she was around, what she said would go. When people would make fun of me, she would say, “Fuck ‘em.” She never called me a “tomboy,” she mostly called me peanut and babygirl.
She wasn’t afraid of what people thought of her. I started to pick that up from her. People would get on her about how open she was with us, about swearing, about “adult stuff” and burping, and how rude we seemed to other people. “Oh, get over it. They’re kids,” she would tell them, and she would write them off.
When I wanted to cut all my hair off, she just told me how good it looked on me. It wasn’t an ordeal. None of my “boyish” qualities were an ordeal. They were what they were, and I was a girl.
When I got to middle school, and I found other girls who were weird, and wanted to be weird, and get dirty, and be unlady-like, was when I started cherishing the idea of being a girl. I kept my hair short, and everyone called me a dyke. I didn’t know what that meant, but it was okay, because I had all of my weird friends–all girls, 10 of us, and we called ourselves the Golden Mangoes. Four of us were what would be considered “tomboys,” and none would have been considered “girly girls.” We started food fights, got into trouble, loved rock climbing in gym class, and we didn’t talk about clothes and styles. We made sculptures out of garbage and told people off that were picking on us. We weren’t afraid to get dirty when we went outside for science class. We were loud and obnoxious. For the first time in my life, I recall loving being a girl, because it meant I could be in that group.
One of the Golden Mangoes started to transition to male in high school. It caused a huge rift in the whole group. She would get angry with us when we would misgender her, and I mean, really angry. This was when the idea that I was not a boy really sunk in. I saw her desperately trying to convince everyone that she was a boy, and we all knew it wasn’t true.
The group started meeting behind her back, not to be cruel, but to talk about how uncomfortable we were with it, and how mean she was to us about it. We didn’t try to misgender her, we had just known her as a girl for so long that it was hard to change. There were other things as well. She was touchy-feely with us. We had all always been touchy-feely with each other, but, we thought, if she wanted to be a boy, the rules would have to change. We didn’t want her to touch us anymore, we didn’t want her to be at sleepovers. Everything shifted in response to her anger at us. I knew that if I joined her thinking I was a boy, that would happen to me too. I gave up thinking I was born in the wrong body then.
I’m telling you, it’s all about finding your place. That’s what gender dysphoria is all about. I mean it.
It’s literally in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If your daughter or son’s self-actualization depends on having friends, feelings of accomplishment, recognition from society, and they can’t get those things in the body they are in, it makes perfect sense to me that they would think they are born in the wrong one.
I chose to do a speech about hair removal for my public speaking course last summer. I had read about a sociology professor who would get her students to change their shaving rituals for the remainder of the class. She remarked how she was surprised that the women quickly bonded over their behavior of not shaving. Though I’ve only taken intro level sociology courses, this didn’t shock me. We are reflections of our environment, always. When the environments change, we change, if only sometimes marginally.
The energy and attention around the trans issue isn’t just something happening in the home, it’s happening in society at large. See, some radical feminists (I think a little crudely) call liberal feminist ideologies “Special Snowflake Syndrome,” but in a way, they’re right. And it’s a paradox. Everyone does want to be special. That’s absolutely obvious in everyone’s life, even those of us who know that certain things are false because of the knowledge we’ve acquired. The paradox is, we all have a context in which that specialness is able to blossom, and self-actualization doesn’t come until we are accepted somewhere for who we are, for all of our special talents.
My conclusion is this: in society, and in the home, we are giving trans issues too much of our energy. Period. On a social, activist level, everyone seems to be in lockstep, because the trans platform is national and pervasive. It’s a fight that needs to be argued with logic. But in the home, especially in the sense of what’s actually happening around us in real life, we’re all becoming obsessed with a complete lie. Our bodies are our bodies. Period. No one was “born in the wrong body.” Body mutilation is body mutilation.
That’s easier for women, for feminists, to realize when we think about how we react to breast implants, and Botox, and all of these surgeries and medical mutations women are going through because they’re brainwashed by society to think they have to be beautiful and perfect. The trans thing is no different.
But the thing about thoughts is, the more weight you give them, the more important they become. That’s why mass media is so repetitive. It won’t stick the one time. You have to say something so many times to make it important.
The advice I would give to mothers, in all honesty, is stop taking this so seriously. I don’t mean to be callous, or write anyone off, and if it’s a struggle for you, then there certainly needs to be work and research done behind-the-scenes to deal with this.
But as a thought experiment, what if your 13-year-old daughter came to you and told you she wanted breast implants. Would you take her seriously? Or would you say “absolutely not, go do your homework”? Kids are uncomfortable in their bodies. Always. Being alive, growing up, is uncomfortable. To have intense reactions to this, to send kids to therapy, is to make it a big thing. It puts importance on it. Not all of kids’ thoughts are valid. They might mean something to them, but that doesn’t make them reasonable. Kids go through all kinds of phases. This might be one of them.
There’s something my mom used to tell me when I wanted something that she didn’t want for me. “When you’re 18, do whatever the hell you want.” This was how it was. My mom didn’t let me convince her that I knew more about the world than she did. She never let that get into her head. She let me get my ears pierced, but when I was 18, I could do whatever the hell I wanted. She didn’t take me to get my body piercings, she made me wait.
But when I was 18, she didn’t take me to get my piercings, she wouldn’t pay for them, sometimes she would say, “what are you doing to your beautiful body?” But I got some. After a few years, I took them out. They were uncomfortable. I couldn’t really move when I had them. And they were impermanent.
Injecting kids with hormones or giving them puberty stoppers isn’t good for their bodies. You don’t need any other reason not to let your kids have these things. Let them wear what they want, dress how they want, don’t make a big deal out of that.
But find them a place that they fit in. We are social creatures; we need that in order to become ourselves. You and your daughter need to find girls that like to do what she likes to do. And then give that all of the attention.