Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood sounds fantastic, and yet I've been consciously avoiding going to see it. Two years into social transition, one and a half into medical transition, I still feel that little fishhook of pain in my chest when I contemplate boyhood and my lack thereof.
To comply with the popular trans discourse, I suppose I would have to claim that I “always was” a boy, even when I didn't know it. To be sure, there can be both rhetorical and emotional value in the “always was” narrative, but for me that is a conscious rewriting of my history, which doesn't sit quite right with me.
Not that it's not to some degree true. There is a truth in the suggestion that I always was a boy; there is a truth in the admission that I never had a boyhood. These truths are not contradictory so much as complementary. Each alone only tells a fragment of the story.
For me, the value of the “always was” narrative is very limited. I see its use for trans people who were conscious of their gender from an early age; but what does it really mean for me? For a female-assigned child with two cis brothers, who deeply internalized the “(birth) genitals=gender” message of a cissexist society, who could plainly see that I was not a boy in the precise way that my brothers were boys, who did not know that there was any other way to be a boy and who therefore assumed that my desire to be a boy belonged to the same imaginary realm as my desire to go to wizard school? (And later, on discovering feminism, decided my desire to be a boy must be rooted in internalized misogyny?)
I find more use in a negative framing and a paradox: it's not that I “always was” a boy, but that I never was a girl, and that I was not a girl even as I was a girl.
The logic of Jewish philosopher and theologian Peter Ochs is helpful here. For Ochs, the dyadic logic of binarism – the notion that not-X is the opposite of X – is properly applicable only to situations of suffering. To the sufferer, actions either help alleviate the suffering (X) or they do not help (not-X), and as such the world can be divided into the binary categories of X and not-X. In all other situations, however, binarism is misapplied, and it is an oversimplification and a logical misstep to assume that not-X is necessarily the opposite or absence of X.
This, I think, is the logic of transition, and it helps to explain why trans people, particularly in the earlier stages of transition, can be so sensitive to seemingly small aspects of the gendered world, such as being called “sir” or “ma'am” at the grocery store. A transitioning person experiences gender from a place of suffering, and as such divides the world into two categories: my-gender and not-my-gender. Anything that reinforces my-gender helps to alleviate the suffering; anything that reinforces not-my-gender does not help.
(Clearly, I am referring to a binary-identified trans person. I have not yet thought through the implications of this logic – or even, if I'm to be perfectly honest, the limited temporality inherent to the concept of “transition” – with respect to non-binary genders.)
However, the binary logic of my-gender and not-my-gender only applies once I am consciously aware of my gender. Accordingly, it would be inaccurate to retroject this binarism onto my childhood. My childhood as I lived it at the time was, as far as I knew, a girlhood. My childhood as I view it from my current perspective as a male adult is not-a-girlhood. Both perspectives are true.
Much as I long for boyhood, driven by losstalgia for a past that was never mine, and much as I could psychoanalyze my childhood gender identity, seeking evidence for the sublimation of my own felt maleness into an abundance of carefully nurtured fictional personae – even so, I have had experiences that turn-of-the-twenty-first-century Anglo-American culture categorizes under the heading of “girlhood.” I was given dolls and dresses alongside legos and pants. I was permitted, even encouraged, to embrace masculinity as male-assigned children still tend not, even in liberal households, to be encouraged to embrace femininity. I first embraced feminism as an insider, and I know firsthand fears such as that of walking alone among men as a (perceived) woman at night (though I think I am a better feminist now that I am no longer at war with the feminine in me).
My girlhood, as I understand it now, is not a matter of having “been” a girl, but of having experienced much of what is culturally considered to be part of girlhood. It is not an ontological but an epistemological girlhood. Even as I ache for the boyhood I should have had, I recognize that I have learned a great deal from girlhood and that it has been a major contributor to the man I am becoming.
I don't know if I will ever learn to love my girlhood. But I hope to someday be at peace with it.