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There was a basic routine in the “therapy” sessions. I walked into the psychiatrist’s office, took off my coat and put it on the hook behind the door. The psychiatrist then asked me if there was anything in particular that I wanted to discuss. I invariably said “no.” Since I did not understand why I was there in the first place, I surely did not trust him enough to talk candidly.
When I was less than forthcoming in our conversations (which was on most occasions), he took from the shelf a model airplane, or a boat, or a truck, and we spent the remainder of the hour assembling the pieces with glue. In private sessions with my parents, he told them that he wanted me to concentrate on behaviors and activities associated with males, while of course avoiding those associated with females.
He instructed my parents to assign me the household chores of taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn (even though we lived in an apartment building and we did not have a lawn), and not washing or drying the dishes. Though I had loved to design and sew clothing for my sister’s dolls, this was now forbidden to me. And as if this all were not enough, he advised my parents to sign me up for a little league baseball team, which, despite my hatred for the sport, I was forced to join for two summers.
I did not tell the psychiatrist when I was about eight or nine years old that I thought I might be – or possibly wished I were – pregnant. The son of my mother’s friend who lived across the street frequently came over to our apartment. On these occasions, he tried to engage me in a wrestling match, but I always refused since feeling I was pregnant, I feared wrestling would harm my fetus. About one year later, I no longer believed I was female.
If I learned anything during my time with the psychiatrist, it was that I should cloak any signs of gender nonconformity from the sun’s exposing rays – to keep it well concealed deep within my consciousness, only to be resurrected during those rare but precious moments of solitude. It wasn’t long into my sessions with the psychiatrist that I began to believe that there was indeed something wrong with me. Why else would my parents be sending me, trying desperately to change me: my “mannerisms,” my interests, my likes, and even my dislikes?
“When you wave,” my father sternly warned one afternoon on the front steps of our apartment building when I was eight years old, “you MUST move your whole hand at the same time. Don’t just move your fingers up and down like you’re doing.”
He grabbed my arm, and despite my free-flowing tears and cheeks pink with shame, he vigorously demonstrated the “proper” hand wave for “a man.” Then, as if anticipating the scene in the film La Cage Aux Folles (and the U.S. remake The Birdcage), my father took me into the backyard and forced me to walk and run “like men are supposed to move.” Obviously, I had previously been doing something wrong. “Of course the other children pick on you,” he blamed. “You do act like a girl.”
For most of my years in school, I was continually beat and attacked by my peers who perceived me as someone who was “different.” Names like “queer,” “little girl,” and “fag” targeted me like the big red dodge ball my classmates furiously hurled at one another on the schoolyard. I would not – and could not – conform to the gender expectations my family and peers so clearly projected onto me, and I regularly paid the price.
This kind of bullying and policing of my gender expression started the very first day I entered kindergarten. It was 1952 and I was attending public school in Bronxville, NY. As my mother dropped me off and kissed me good-bye on the cheek, I felt completely alone and began to cry. My new teacher walked up to me and said, in a somewhat detached tone of voice, “Don’t cry. Only sissies and little girls cry.”
Some of the other boys overheard her, and quickly began mocking me. “The little girl wants his mommy,” one said. “What a sissy,” said another. Without a word, the teacher simply walked away. I went into the coatroom and cried, huddling in a corner by myself, until she found me.