“Boys are gross!” I yelled down the stairwell, my words echoing off the painted brick walls as I slammed the door behind me, shutting the book on the happier chapter of my childhood.
I was nine. At the bottom of the stairs was my best friend Jason, a boy not much different from me—fair skin, slight build, whip-smart. In my mind he is perpetually the age he was that day, his light brown hair cropped short except for a narrow rattail at the back of his head (because the midwest hadn’t gotten the memo that the ’80s was over). I was trying to grow my hair down to my butt—I wanted it to be as long as Ariel’s in my favorite movie, The Little Mermaid—an attempt that was tragically doomed due to how fine my wavy blond hair was. It straggled to a pitiful stop barely past my shoulders, but I wouldn’t let my mama cut the uneven end because I was so determined that it would keep growing.
I will never forget the feeling I had after yelling those words. I was sick to my stomach. I knew with every fiber of my being that what I had just done was wrong, my words the most epic lie I had ever told. It was as though the real me was stuck deep inside, shocked and hurt as some other self created the first layer of an armor that would quickly grow so thick that I’d lose touch with that small nine-year-old self, the self who was Jason’s best friend.In third grade we were inseparable in our mutual nerdiness. Jason and I were at the top of our class, under the friendly eye of our teacher Mrs. Baird, whose classroom was bright and sunny and full of joy and discovery for me. I loved learning. I loved everything about school.
The previous year, Bill Clinton had been elected President, police and prison budgets had begun surpassing education budgets for the first time, and my school had managed to buy enough computers for each classroom. I loved these amazing, enormous machines because they housed my first computer game, Number Munchers—a math game featuring pixelated monsters that ate numbers, progressing in the game as you answered simple math problems correctly. In third grade we got to play a game in which the faster you typed words, the more quickly a little car would move across the screen. Jason and I were in a perpetual, cut-throat competition for first place.
We also competed over who could read our favorite book series fastest—Goosebumps, by R.L. Stine. During recess I would run to the back edges of the baseball field that abutted the school and read about horrible Monster Blood, glowing green goo that made dogs grow to the size of ponies and swallowed bullies alive, a cliff-hanger at the end of every short chapter. That was the year the seven-year cicadas hatched, filling the air with their unmistakable cries, and when we weren’t in a Goosebumps competition Jason and I were looking for cicadas on the trees that lined the baseball field. We never found a live one, just the ghost-like impressions left behind as the creatures who had made them grew and evolved. In the winter, someone arranged for the field to be filled with water, creating a makeshift ice rink that we could skate on during recess, and Jason and I roamed the banks pretending to be dinosaurs.
That spring I had the best, most epic birthday party of my life. It was a costume party, and it was Peter Pan themed. I was Tinkerbell and I flat-out forced Jason to be Peter. My mama hand-sewed my costume out of glittery green fabric and fashioned wings from wire and sheer chiffon. Another good friend, Alex, came as a pirate, and Caroline, a girl from my grade, showed up as Wendy. All of the other classmates I invited dressed as “Indians,” a cringe-worthy memory to be sure, in hindsight. My parents went all out on this one, with my mama setting up an old camping tent in the basement as our lost boys’ hideaway and secreting candy “loot” somewhere for us to hunt for, and my dad dressing up as Captain Hook and chasing us around while roaring in pirate-y fashion, adamantly denying all the while that he was my dad.
I was on top of the world, flitting about, screaming at the top of my lungs whenever “Hook” showed up, ordering “Peter” around (and probably everyone else to boot, except Alex, who kept switching sides due to being a pirate), and generally having the best day of my life. My fairy princess self was in heaven.That party was the end of my life in Neverland. Until I turned nine, I attacked life with unbridled enthusiasm. I ran with the boys but saw everyone—no matter what gender or age—as my friend. I didn’t have words for who I was; I didn’t need them. I was secure in my likes and my dislikes, in my friends, and in being able to accomplish anything I put my mind to.
I feel profoundly lucky to have had those eight carefree years. Unlike so many of my trans siblings, I don’t have any memories of my gender expression being policed by the adults in my life. To them, I was an adorable, feminine, blond-haired and blue-eyed girl. Sure, I was bossy and competitive and all of my primary friendships were with boys, but I was Tinkerbell and Ariel, for crying out loud. I once threw a tantrum that lasted a full day because my mama wouldn’t let me wear a pink tutu out of the house to a doctor’s appointment. When we would go to the second-hand store where we got most of our clothes, my mama would let me pick out dresses as a special treat—I thought of anything fluffy, sparkly, or twirl-worthy as a princess dress—because they were just as cheap as pants or overalls and I loved them so much.
No, I didn’t get any flack from adults, but my peers were another story. They started to notice that I didn’t fit in. The week after my Peter Pan party, I was cornered by one of my classmates in the bathroom, one of the two girls in my grade named Amanda. “Why did you invite Amanda C. to your birthday party but not me?” she demanded, oozing with disdain and annoyance.
I was stunned and bewildered. Beyond Jason and Alex I had pretty much picked the other invitees to my party at random. Everyone was my friend! But I had broken a rule I didn’t know existed—I had invited one of the Amandas and not the other.It was just the beginning of rules I didn’t understand, enforced with viciousness by my classmates. Recess became a living nightmare as Jason and I were taunted mercilessly for our friendship. “E—– and Jason, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” was a soundtrack I couldn’t escape, my peers chasing me while smacking their lips. It became a game to try to plant forceful, exaggerated kisses on the smallest kid in the grade, the one who didn’t follow the rules for being a girl.
It’s no surprise to me that almost eighty percent of trans people who express gender nonconformity in grades K-12 are harassed, and that fifteen percent of trans people drop out of school because of harassment, numbers we know because of the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey. In elementary school my gender nonconformity was subtle enough that adults didn’t pick up on it, but my peers were merciless.
One day, I reached the breaking point. I don’t remember what precipitated it—maybe it was a particularly terrible recess, maybe Jason had gotten fed up first and told me he didn’t want to be friends anymore. I just remember the lie. I remember my words echoing off the walls of the stairwell, the slam of the door, the finality with which I turned my back on my best friend and resolutely turned toward a different life, a life where I would try to learn the rules and fly under the radar. It would be decades before I fully understood what I lost that day.